Tuesday, March 8, 2016

[Friday Seminar Recap] Chinese Muslim Interpreters in Global Trade

Chinese Muslim Interpreters in Global Trade

Speaker: XIANG Biao (Visiting Professor, HKIHSS, The University of Hong Kong, and Professor of Social Anthropology, Institute of Social & Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford)
Time: 1:00 – 2:30 pm, 26 Feb 2016 (Friday)
Venue: Lecture Theatre 2, Mong Man Wai Building, CUHK

Prof. Biao Xiang, a Visiting Professor at the HKIHSS, The University of Hong Kong, and a Professor of Social Anthropology at the Institute of Social & Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford, gave a seminar on “Chinese Muslim Interpreters in Global Trade” on 26 Feb. In the seminar, Prof. Xiang talked about the background of Chinese Muslim interpreters, the challenges they faced, and their sense of hope and identity.

Prof. Xiang

The Chinese Muslim who assisted foreign traders as Arabic-Chinese translators were mostly from North West China, particularly Ningxia Hui. They were generally coming from the countryside or small cities, with an education level of junior high school. Many of them failed or underperformed in schools, or dropped out without certificates. Perceiving outmigration as the best prospect, they became interpreters by learning Arabic from the masjid or madrasas affiliated with Mosques, privately-run Arabic language schools, or state-run madrasas.

Approximately, 60% of these interpreters were male with an average age of 35, while 40% were female with an average age of 25. Male were usually employees of foreign trading companies or owners of companies hiring interpreters; whereas female worked in Chinese trading companies. These interpreters concentrated at places like Yiwu, Guangzhou, and Shishi (Fujian). Trading hubs were set up based on dispersed production capacity, with sophisticated and flexible service system available. Apart from translation, interpreters visited factories and markets, finalized orders, and followed up with delivery, shipping and quality control.

The movement of these interpreters from remote poor places to the prosperous parts of China, as Xiang described, was a shift from one type of precarity to another. The volatile trade brought no formal contracts or stability, and the interpreters, especially the self-employed ones, found it increasingly difficult to settle. The interpreters were stressed by debts, risks, and the need to establish and sustain stable relations with foreign traders. Political instability in the Middle East and the rising price of Chinese goods also rendered them to an unfavorable state.

On the other hand, the situation they faced also led to some kinds of transformation. For instance, they had stronger association with their Muslim identity, and they had a greater emphasis on self-discipline and self-improvement. They also regarded their trade as a kind of social work which repaid the society. To overcome the precarity in their trade, they tried to develop community-based security and adopt stability focused approach.

The audience

Prof. Xiang’s seminar not only gave the audience insights into the role and work of Chinese Muslim interpreters, but also brought our attention to the interplay of ethnicity, religion and business.

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