How a Childhood Memory Opened a Window on Islam in China

A children’s TV show from the 1990s sparked an awareness of the country’s Muslim heritage, ever-present though often ignored

How a Childhood Memory Opened a Window on Islam in China
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

When I was a kid in early and mid-1990s China, one item above all marked a family’s entry into the country’s burgeoning middle class: a color television. My family owned one, which helped initiate me into the ecstatic world of Chinese cartoons and other children’s programs. Back then, the television was merely an enjoyable means of whiling away weekday afternoons and weekend mornings. Decades later, when memories of this childhood were at their haziest, lightning would strike in my life to trigger a reinterpretation of those days — a reinterpretation that would reverberate beyond my past and into the present, and beyond my life and into today’s world of migration, faith and ethnic rivalry.

Like many other children of my generation in China, I was delighted by a few well-known television programs. “Black Cat Detective” starred a feline police officer who used surprisingly violent tactics to apprehend thieves and robbers, usually depicted as mice. The “Calabash Brothers” featured seven siblings born out of magical gourds in the Calabash Mountains, each endowed with a supernatural trait and locked in an epic battle against the evil Scorpion King and Snake Queen. And the mythical Chinese warrior deity Nezha featured in old, animated films defeating the Dragon King while riding on wheels of flame and growing three arms and six legs when the occasion called for it. Once in a while, usually on weekends, I could catch cartoons from overseas, like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” or “Doraemon” from Japan.

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