Silk Road People: The Dongxiang of China

Mongolian by heritage. Chinese by culture. Islamic by faith.
The Dongxiang live out their unique lifestyle in a quiet corner of China's Silk Road


Dongxiang, also known as Sarta, or Santa

Chinese: 东乡族,撒尔塔

Around 622,000

Dongxiang mostly live in the south west of Gansu province in China.

Communities of Dongxiang also live in many cities in northwest China.

The Dongxiang have their own language (called “Dongxiang”) which is related to Mongolian.

There is no written form in general usage, so Dongxiang tend to write their language informally with Arabic letters or Chinese characters. A written form of Dongxiang that uses Latin letters has been developed, but it is not widely known.

Many Dongxiang can speak the local Chinese dialect. The younger generations increasingly speak Mandarin.

The origins of the Dongxiang are not entirely clear. The most common theory is that they are descended from Mongols and Central Asians who were moved to southern Gansu to manage the local population in the 13th Century AD (during the rule of Genghis Khan).

In the 13th Century, the “king” of southern Gansu converted to Islam, and many of his subjects followed suit. During the infighting and civil wars of the following centuries, a few remote towns in south western Gansu became a refuge for Mongolian-speaking Muslims.

The Chinese name “Dongxiang” means “village in the east”, thought to be because they live to the east of Linxia, the largest city in the region. The Dongxiang people call themselves the “Sarta” or “Santa”.

Dongxiang are farmers, traders and restaurant owners. Their main crops are potatoes, maize and wheat. Dongxiang also have a history of serving as soldiers, especially in uprisings and the resulting suppressions along the Silk Road over the past several centuries.

Many Dongxiang outside southwest Gansu province run 手抓肉饭店, “Shouzhua” meat restaurants, where they serve Mongolian-style lamb, which you eat with your hands.

The Dongxiang celebrate the same Islamic festivals as most Silk Road people, in particular Ramadan, Corban (Eid al-Adha) and the Prophet’s birthday. They are all Sunni Muslims, but belong to various sects.

They have some local myths and legends, and a singing style called 花儿 (hua’er), which translates as “flowers”. This tradition is also shared with the Hui in southern Gansu and Ningxia.

Dongxiang are often seen as more pious in their Islam than other Silk Road groups, and also as more poorly educated. Poverty in Dongxiang areas is some of the most extreme in China.

The Chinese government is trying to improve prospects in the area, but the same extreme geography that has protected the Dongxiang since the 13th Century is now proving an obstacle to development and education.