In December of 1984, Zhang Chengzhi, a thirty-six-year-old ethnologist from Beijing and an important novelist in contemporary Chinese literature, reached a small village on the loess plateaus of northwestern China. An impoverished farmer, Ma Zhiwen, hosted Zhang during his brief stay and introduced him to the local community of Muslims who practiced Sufism, a form of mystical Islam. Night after night, the Muslim villagers sought Zhang out to tell him about events in the history of their Sufi order, the Zheherenye. Zhang learned that Zheherenye Sufis carefully cultivated historical memories reaching back to the mid-eighteenth century when the order was founded by a Chinese Sufi returned from Yemen. Since then, the order had been led by a murshid, the Arabic word for mentor or spiritual guide. During the last dynasty of the Chinese empire, which fell in 1911, the Zheherenye were often outlawed and clashed repeatedly with the imperial army in regional wars that the Sufis always lost. Interpreting their defeats as martyrdom, the Zheherenye narrated the lives of the successive murshid in their transmission of oral histories, but also in handwritten histories that were often written in Persian or Arabic.