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Hui People: Chinese Speaking Muslims
Mar 1, 2014

Though most outsiders view Chinese culture as being monolithic, both ethnically and religiously, there are over 20 million Muslims living within China. They've managed to peacefully co-exist with both their Muslim and Chinese identities.

Few people know that the Hui People, who are one of the fifty-five minorities of the People's Republic of China, have been practicing Islam for 14 centuries, ever since Islam first emerged in Arabia. Even fewer people know that of those fifty-five officially recognized minorities of China, ten of them practice Islam. The Hui people particularly stand out from the rest of the Muslim minorities for a number of reasons. For example, as opposed to the other Muslim minorities for whom Chinese is a second language, the Hui People speak Chinese regional dialects. In addition to the language difference, contrary to the other Muslim minorities who are concentrated in the same region, the Hui people are spread out all over China. As a result of this regional diverse, the Hui People share many cultural similarities with the Han Chinese. These are only two distinctions that separate the Hui People from the other Muslim minorities in China, and while these two alone make the Hui People unique, there are even more differences that deserve recognition. The study of the Hui People is important because it will demonstrate how Islam has been practiced in harmony with Chinese culture for centuries. Furthermore, this study will also explain how one becomes loyal to his/her Chinese and Muslim identities simultaneously, because Chinese Muslims don't find any problem in identifying themselves as Chinese and adopting Chinese customs that agree with Islam. Accordingly, the rest of the paper will give an overview about the origins and main characteristics of the Hui People before explaining the adaptation of Islam to the Chinese culture.

Who are the ten Muslim minorities of China?

The main focus of this paper will be an analysis of the particular characteristics of the Hui People. However, before undertaking the analysis, I will give a brief overview of the other nine Muslim minorities in China. The Chinese government has categorized its minorities based by nationality ever since 1949. Furthermore, the ten Muslim minorities of China were categorized by their ethnicity, including the Hui People. Six of the nine Muslim minorities, namely Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars and Tajiks, predominantly live in the XinJiang Autonomous Region, which is also known as Eastern Turkistan to many non-Chinese (Dillon, 1996, p.4). They all speak a form of Turkic language, except the Tajiks who speak Persian (Dillon, 1996, p.4). The remaining three Muslim minorities, who are the Salars, the Boa'an, and the Dongxiang, live in different regions. The Salars are another Turkic speaking Muslim minority in China that live in a region that borders the Gansu and Qinghai provinces (Dillon, 1996, p.4). The Salars trace their ancestry back to people who migrated from the Samarkand region during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The Boa'an live in the southwest of the Gansu province, while the Dongxiang live in the western-edge of Gansu province. Both trace their ancestors back to the Asian troops sent out during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Boa'an and Dongxiang languages also originate from the Mongolian language family, even though they are different from each other (Dillon, 1996, p.12)

The etymology of "Hui"

The Chinese word hui consists of two squares which literally means "return." According to a Chinese Muslim scholar, "[t]he outer square means the universality of Islam, whereas the inner square refers to the Ka'bah" (Cahuh, 2004, p.156). In addition to this definition of hui), some Chinese Muslim scholars describe "the religion of the Hui as the religion that returns us to Allah," the name of God in Islam (Cahuh, 2004, p.156).

The term 'hui' was used to describe all Muslims in China before the People's Republic of China, in 1949, even though there were various nations practicing Islam during imperial China, including various Turkic people, Persians, and Arabs. The identification of Muslims as 'hui' gained a widespread usage starting with the Yuan Dynasty (1368-1644), ruled by the Mongols. After Imperial China, the Communist Government identified the Hui People with those who "do not have a language of their own but speak the dialects of the peoples among whom they live" (Gladney, 1996, p.20). Today the Hui People are famously known as Chinese Muslims.

The Development of Islam in China

Interestingly, the first appearance of Islam in China dates back to the 7th century in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), following the emergence of Islam in Arabia in 610 CE. Arab and Persian traders, soldiers and Sufi saints played a significant role in this transmission of Islam to Asia. Persian and Arab traders first settled in the southeastern coast of China, Canton (Guangzhou,) Xiamen, Quanzhou, Yangzhou, and some of them married local Chinese. However, this was a small amount of the Muslim community, and they were of little interest to local officials during Tang and Song Dynasties (618-1279 CE) (Gladney, 1996, p.17).

The Yuan Dynasty (1368-1644) was a landmark in terms of the spread of Islam in China because the Mongol rulers forced many Muslims living in Central Asia and Western Asia to migrate to China. "[T]he armies of Genghis Khan and his successors sacked major Islamic centers, including Bukhara and Samarkand, and transported sections of the population-skilled armourers, other craftsmen, and enslaved women and children among them-back to China, where they were settled as servants to Mongol aristocrats" (Dillon, 1996, p.17). In addition, the Mongol rulers of China made legal and hierarchical distinctions between the four kinds of people that led the Muslims to have higher status than the Chinese because the Muslims succeeded the Mongols who were at the top level (Gladney, 1996, p18).

Muslims in China believed that Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, the maternal uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, along with the three companions of the Prophet, were the first Muslims in China. In accordance with this claim, He Qiaoyuan, a seventeenth century Chinese scholar, also stated that "the prophet's four apostles arrived in China to preach during the middle of the reign of Emperor Wude in the Tang Dynasty" (Sen, 2009, p.80). At the same time, many Chinese Muslims pay visit to a tomb which is associated with Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas in Canton (Guangzhou). Today there are even some Chinese Muslims who trace back their ancestry to Abi Waqqas. However, contemporary scholars regarded that this chronicle was a legend due to the lack of evidence. Instead, they argued the beginning of Islam in China started with the envoy sent by Caliph Usthman, in the Tang Dynasty, in 651 (Sen, 2009, p.81).

Han Kitab

The Han Kitab is a collection of treatises, translations and books constructed by different Chinese Muslim scholars between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Wang Daiyu, Ma Zhu, and Liu Zhi are the most well-known authors of the Han Kitab. The authors of the Han Kitab took an unprecedented position in the history of Islam in China by using predominantly Neo-Confucian terms in the introduction and description of fundamental Islamic concepts such as prophethood, God, and ritual. The Han Kitab is the very example of the adaptation of Muslims into Chinese culture. For example, the concept of prophethood in Islam, is explained with the Neo-Confucian concept "shengren" which means "a link in the long chain of sages sent by Heaven to communicate the Way through their worldly teaching" (Frankel, 2011, p.88). In short, the authors of the Han Kitab are mainly concerned about making abstract Islamic terms more understandable by using the existing religious terminology in China.

Practicing Religion in Muslim China

With the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the Chinese government's shift in its attitude towards the practice of religions certainly enabled the revival of religious institutions and the free practice of religions in China. In fact, comparing the other Muslim minorities, the Hui People hold much more freedom in terms of practicing Islam. Political issues mainly lead other Muslim minorities to encounter some restrictions in practicing Islam. For example, the political, cultural and religious activities of Uyghurs are closely monitored and restricted by the government because they are considered as a threat to national unity.

With regard to the Hui's religious traditions, they consider themselves Sunni Muslims who follow the Hanafi School of law. The mainstream Islam is called gedimu in Chinese, which is the transliteration of the Arabic word al qadim, "the ancient." They call their Imams ahong, deriving from the Persian word akhong. As seen, it is possible to encounter the transliteration of both Arabic and Persian terms in the Hui People's religious and daily life expressions. The Hui People also have names in the traditional Chinese forms, along with a religious name. Mahmud Ma Xiao and Sharif Wang Yongliang are examples of Hui names. There are also some common names among the Hui, "like Ma, probably derived from the first syllable of Muhammad" (Dillon, 1996, p.50-53).

In addition, the close interactions between the Hui people with Chinese culture were reflected in the mosques built in the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and early Qing dynasties because they have a similar architectural style with the Buddhist and Daoist pagodas constructed in the same period. However, the recently built mosques have been following the models of "Afghanistan, Iran, the republics of the former Soviet Central Asia, or the Arab world" architectural styles (Dillon, 1996, p.38).

That the Hui People are scattered around the country is a significant sign indicating the integration of the Hui People into all walks of life. It is unexpected that a minority group does not concentrate in a region, but spreads out all over the country. In the case of the Hui, they are all around the country even though most of them live in Ningxia, Gansu, Henan, Hebei, Qinghai, Shandong, Yunnan, Xinjiang, Liaoning and Anhui provinces. As for the population of the Hui, they are one of the most populous minorities in China, following the Zhuang and the Manchu. According to the report on Mapping on the Global Muslim Population conducted by Pew Research Center (2009), there are 22 million Muslims in China (p.7). To another report on International Religious Freedom conducted by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (2006), "there were 20 million Muslims, more than 40,000 Islamic places of worship (more than half of which are in Xinjiang), and more than 45,000 imams nationwide." The same report also announced that the Hui People nearly consisted of the half of the Muslims in China.

Despite the fact that the Hui share many cultural affinities with the Han, it is obvious that their practice of Islam distinguishes them from the Han Chinese. For example, the Hui, like all Muslims, observe some dietary rules, such as not eating pork and any meat not slaughtered according to the Islamic way. Nevertheless, when one says meat in China, the Han first recall pork. Mao Zedong, who is the founding father of the People's Republic of China, also said that pork is "a national treasure" of China (Gladney, 1996, p.13). As for dressing, Hui men wear a white skullcap and Hui women cover their head with a headscarf originating from their Muslim identity. At the same time, as opposed to the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn which are the most common Chinese festivals, the Hui primarily celebrate annual Lesser Bairam (Eid ul-Fitr), and Corban (eid ul-adha) along with all Muslims around the world.


It is a little known fact that over 10 million Chinese speaking people - not including Turkic, Persian and Mongolian speaking Muslims - practice Islam today. This piece touched upon some of striking features of these Chinese Muslims, called the Hui. The earlier sources established that the first presence of Islam in China dated back to not long after the rise of Islam. The example of the Hui people also demonstrates how a Muslim society is well adapted to another culture while also maintaining its Islamic identity. Muslims have been inevitably influenced by Chinese culture and have adopted some parts of it - such as architecture, language, customs, and clothing - that do not disagree with the fundamentals of Islam. It is an undeniable fact that the Hui people's practice of Islam has prevented them from being assimilated and absorbed into Chinese culture. The examples given in the last section, Practicing Religion in Muslim China, show that the Hui people maintain their Islamic identity while also owning their Chinese identity. This ideology was first documented by the Chinese Muslim literati who explicitly stated, three hundred years ago, in the Han Kitab, that Islam is compatible with Chinese culture