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Book Review


Atwill, David. The Chinese Sultanate: Islam, Ethnicity and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006). 280 pp, $60.00.


     This slim volume contains much  information and presents a case study which covers many issues contained in an AP World History course.  Lower level students would have some difficulty reading the text if they didn't have a background in ethnic diversity in China, but upper level students would have no problems, and all students could read the chapter summaries to understand the major ideas.  Atwill tells the story of a little known rebellion in southwestern China which culminated in the establishment of a short-lived independent Islamic state.  His tale includes elements which could be used to draw analogies with other events in history.  The story takes place in a rural province which borders Vietnam, Burma, and Tibet and is a center of trade routes between these lands.  It is also an area rich in minerals which the Qing Dynasty in Beijing does not wish to loose.  Students can discuss trade and the needs of governments to control resources.

     A major factor which also leads to the rebellion is the attitude of the Qing government toward its minorities.  Though the rebellion is far from a religious uprising, the Qing spend seven years trying to characterize the anti-government movement as a Han-Hui conflict (Hui are Chinese of the Muslim faith).  Their attitude toward the Hui eventually leads to massacres of the Hui population which Atwill describes as a holocaust. In one massacre over 8,000 citizens were slaughtered).  The attempt of the Chinese bureaucracy to define the rebellion in black and white terms of religion would be a good starting point from which students can discuss Point of View, and how reports sent by generals and regional officials can influence central government policy and vice versa.  Atwill contends that Qing officials only told the emperor "what he wanted to hear," so the conflict could be easily defined, and a "simple" course of action could be proposed.

     The tale includes other elements which merit discussion: Qing officials who refuse to move to the province even though appointed by the emperor, the attempt of the sultanate to establish a national identity separate from China, the lack of supplies and the impact of disease on the abilities of the rebels to maintain their independence, and the role of leaders whose loyalty vacillated between the Qing government and the rebel movement.   

     Most textbooks include the Taiping Rebellion which occurred at the same time, so a look at the Panthay Rebellion would give a broader context to what is already included.  It will also lead students to discuss issues of religious prejudice, central government policy, and the need to look at all conflicts in complex terms rather than simply "them" and "us."



Gary McKiddy
St. Charles High School
St. Charles Community College


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