Legal documents and identity construction – University of Copenhagen

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10th Annual International ADI Conference
Asian Dynamics Initiative, University of Copenhagen
18-20 June 2018    


Legal documents and identity construction in Muslim Central Asia

Conveners: Aysima Mirsultan and Ildikó Bellér-Hann, Dept. of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen

In recent years, a number of excellent studies based on legal documents have set new standards and inspired further research on Islamic Central Asia. The panel aims to bring together well-established and young researchers working on legal documents produced in this region in the 19th and 20th centuries. These documents enable exploration of the self-positioning of Muslim communities under foreign rule and raise important questions pertaining to colonialism and imperial history. The conflicts for which plaintiffs seek legal settlement can also be read as testimonies of communal values and identities. In some instances, judgments reflect contestation between Islamic law and local (customary) practices. The textual strategies of legal experts are also illuminating. We are particularly interested in cases concerning family law:  inheritance, mortgage, bestowal, lease, agreement, sale etc. Philological, historical, anthropological, legal and interdisciplinary perspectives are all welcome.

The panel is intended to serve as a platform upon which a network of scholars interested in legal documents from Muslim Central Asia (broadly defined to include both Russian and Chines spheres of influence) can be built.

19 June 2018

Panel session 1:
Legal documents and identity construction in Muslim Central Asia

Room: 35.3.20


Eric T. Schluessel, University of Montana

Reconstructing Patterns of Landholding in Turn-of-the-Century Xinjiang (Eastern Turkestan)
Rune Steenberg, University of Copenhagen
Reality and Representation. Uyghur weddings in the 2000s
Aysima Mirsultan, University of Copenhagen
Divorce settlement among the Uyghurs during the Republican era in Xinjiang
12:45-13:45 Lunch

Panel session 2:
Legal documents and identity construction in Muslim Central Asia

Room: 35.3.20


Jun Sugawara, Lanzhou University

Debt Contracts and the Penalty clause in Pre-Modern Muslim Society in Xinjiang

Martin Lavicka, Palacký University Olomouc
Beijing’s Xinjiang Policy in Light of the PRC Government White Papers
Anisa Bhutia, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
In-Between Tibet and Kashmir: Trails and Tales of Belonging through Documents


Anisa Bhutia,
PhD Research Scholar, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
In-Between Tibet and Kashmir: Trails and Tales of Belonging through Documents

The Kashmiri Muslims of Lhasa had to relocate to India after the Chinese annexation and are now referred to as Tibetan Muslims in their present-day home of Kashmir.

Their belonging has come to be shaped by diplomatic documents, specifically the ‘White Paper’ and Kashmiri ‘State Subject’. The White Paper refers to the Notes,Memoranda and Letters Exchanged and Agreements signed between the Governments of India and China from September to November 1959. ‘State Subject’ refers to political identity in the special-status Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, where only those in possession of this document can gain employment and possess land in the state.

Before 1950s, political identity in Tibet was not rigid; if trade and travel were undisturbed, it did not matter which region one came from – Tibet, Kashmir, Nepal or anywhere else. Post 1959, however, groups began to be categorized into national identities. We shall see, by studying the documents constituting the White Papers, how newly emerging state powers India and China were constructing, contesting and negotiating identities for this group of Muslim traders, possibly to validate territorial integrity and geopolitical interests. Once relocated to Kashmir, state agencies formally and informally referred to them in various documents as “Tibetan refugees”, the ambiguous identity being further heightened by associations with the global image of the “Tibetan.” Thus, this paper explores the works of a messy modernity in the everyday life of these people, through the idiom of state-issued documents. This study is the result of an ethnographic fieldwork of 6 months on Kashmir during the year 2015.

Eric T. Schluessel, Assistant Professor, University of Montana
Reconstructing Patterns of Landholding in Turn-of-the-Century Xinjiang (Eastern Turkestan)

Collections of Chaghatay-language documents relating to land from Xinjiang (Eastern Turkestan) are increasingly readily available to scholars, thanks to their collection and publication in China. However, the disordered nature of the sources, which have almost universally been removed from their original context, means it can be difficult to use them to reconstruct socioeconomic change beyond the document. Moreover, the philological approach to these sources has its limitations in illuminating their significance for a broader social history.

This paper presents a method of reconstructing changes in landholding on the village level from both Chaghatay- and Chinese-language documents while understanding how the imposition of a provincial Chinese regimes of assessing land and tax in the late nineteenth century changed the ways people managed their land. It uses sources from Turpan, including Chinese-language tax registers smallpox vaccination registers and Chaghatay-language deeds of endowment, contracts, and probate records. The paper shows how to resolve the apparent incommensurability of Chinese and local units of measurement, as well as the politics of translation between Chaghatay and Chinese, in which process significant information was often hidden or represented in strategic ways. Ultimately, addressing these considerations permits us to reconstruct patterns in the division and distribution of land by looking at the local geographies encoded in seemingly tedious lists of people and parcels.

Jun Sugawara, Professor, Lanzhou University
Debt Contracts and the Penalty clause in Pre-Modern Muslim Society in Xinjiang

This paper focuses on debt contract, as one of several attempts to clarify the historical situation of the Turki-speaking Muslim society of the Kashghar region in Xinjiang Province (1884-1955). The debt contractual document (madyun khet), like other sorts of contractual documents, followed the style of first-personal statement (iqrār) by creditor, and usually consists of the following four elements: (1) profile of debtor, (2)object (goods or cash), (3)term of repayment and (4)the penalty clause. Through an examination of each of these elements in more than forty debt contractual documents produced in the Kashghar region, some features of local debt-contractual practices may be discerned. I argue that, concerning debt contracts, a clear difference existed between rural and urban areas. In rural areas, debts were mostly produce such as  grain, to be repaid in kind for which the repayment term was the period of harvest. In urban areas the debts generally constituted cash, and the repayment term was usually one year, or as decided by the creditor. In terms of the penalty clause, it is noticeable that the so-called “legal sale” (bai’-i jāʻiz) contract was regarded as one of several options for resolving the defaults. This type of contractual document is relatively rare, its appearance seems to be limited to the penalty clause in Xinjiang documents. It is well-known that “legal sale” documents were drawn up with the intention of getting a forbidden interest (ribā), in the name of rent (ijāre). These are said to make up the largest proportion in Central Asian documents. These findings constitue an important feature of the practice of contract in Xinjiang’s Muslim society prior to the socialist period.

Martin Lavicka, lecturer, Department of Asian Studies, Palacký University Olomouc, Czech Republic
Beijing’s Xinjiang Policy in Light of the PRC Government White Papers

White papers are often seen as authoritative reports on specific topics, issued by governments in order to discuss problems, ways how to solve them, and justify policy decisions in the eyes of the public. In 1991, PRC issued its first white paper, titled Human Rights in China, mostly as a reaction to critical outside voices following the Tiananmen incident in 1989. Since then, PRC has been publishing number of white papers annually, dealing with wide range of topics. This paper focuses predominantly on white papers directly addressing situation in Xinjiang. Up to day, there are five white papers specifically focusing on the territory of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), namely: Development and Progress in Xinjiang (2009), The History and Development of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (2014), Historical Witness to Ethnic Equality, Unity and Development in Xinjiang (2015), Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang (2016) and Human Rights in Xinjiang - Development and Progress (2017). The main objective of this paper is the content analysis of these white papers and identification of key governmental policies and strategies designed for XUAR. The discussion further elaborates on how these policies and their implementation target and influence living conditions of people in the region.

Rune Steenberg, Centre for Cross-Culturan and Regional Studies, Copenhagen University
Reality and Representation. Uyghur weddings in the 2000s

Uyghur Weddings in southern Xinjiang, PRC, are large affairs involving upwards of 500 visitors. They provide central spaces for the crafting of social networks, community and kinship and also for the symbolic negotiations of identity, religion and politics. 

This paper critically examines the classical anthropological distinction of “what people say and what they do” in relation to marriage customs. It compares and interrelates Uyghur language ethnographic or folkloristic publications, touristic brochures, oral narratives and observed practice of weddings in Kashgar and Atush in southwestern Xinjiang. It tells the story of the modernisation, marginalisation, islamisation and government led securitisation of the region in the past decade through the lense of weddings and their representations.

Aysima Mirsultan, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, Copenhagen University
Divorce settlement among the Uyghurs during the Republican era in Xinjiang

Family law is an important constituent of civil law that deals with social relations within the family and the household. It regulates conflicts concerning marriage, divorce, child custody, adoption, inheritance and so on. Family law among the Uyghurs has undergone repeated changes  in the course of political and social upheavals. During the republican era (1911-1949) the settlement of conflicts emerging in the domestic sphere was mostly governed by Islamic law. Based on several text corpora consisting of legal documents originating in southern Xinjiang (Khotan and Kashgar) from the Republican era, in this paper, I will analyze the reasons behind divorce cases and the final decision made by Muslim judges. My analysis will focus on the question to what extent the final decision was influenced by Shari’a and local law. It will also touch upon women’s position in pre-socialist Uyghur society, the role of village elders and fathers-in -law, the influence of the different divorce forms on maintenance (nefeqe) etc., drawing up the parameters for further research on the texts.