Hui Muslims: China's middle people

Travel | by Charlie Cooper
Posted: October 25th, 2011 | Updated: June 13th, 2014 | Comments

Hui Muslims in Gansu

With a population of 1.3 billion and counting, China constitutes just under 20% of the world's inhabitants. Making up the vast majority of residents (91.59%) are the ubiquitous Han, leaving just a little over 8% to the 56 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the People's Republic. In Minority Report, we explore the colorful characters, customs and cultures of these fascinating peripheral groups.


The Hui (Huí Zú, 回族) are a fascinating minority that enrich the lives of all Chinese around them. In fact, it might be helpful to think of the Hui as droplets of Middle Eastern and Central Asian love dropped into the middle of China and allowed to slowly spread out, amoeba-like, changing and being changed in turn. The first such droplets arrived during that Age of Glory and Truth known as the Tang Dynasty. During those halcyon days of mutual benefit and pan-Asian lovefesting, Persian mystics and romantics latched onto Silk Road caravans of spice and gold run by shiny-eyed Arab ascetics in search of the most exotic beauty in the world.

They arrived in Chang'An (Xi'an) and beheld the greatest city of its time. Silk swathed sirens peeked out from beneath jet black bangs, and verse spilled forth from Persian lips. Fiery Arab emotions were quelled like red hot blades in the pools of  East Asian beauty. A new race was begot, learned Islam and calligraphy, rode the Silk Road to all the provinces of the vast Empire and became another thread in the diverse tapestry of Chinese history. Over centuries, the Muslims of the world poured in to and out of China. They settled in Guangdong and traded into fabulous wealth. Communities sprang up along the Hexi Corridor that ran from Chang'An north into the wild deserts of the northwest. The Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties all employed, suppressed, encouraged or ignored the Muslims as they slowly integrated themselves into the society. For years and years, all of these foreigners—with their beards and weird eating habits—were called Huihui, a bastardization of some half-slur that wiggled its way into the language.

Only recently, during the Great Categorization of the last century, did the Hui as we know them receive the moniker that will most likely stick with them until the world ends or we all leave Earth for a new solar system. Huizu. A non-name. A collective shrug to get the matter done with so the committee can adjourn to lunch. The Hui: everyone slightly Muslim enough to be different, but otherwise indistinguishable from the Han. A little more facial hair perhaps... and a strange distaste for pigfat.... The Number 3 minority in China. Population 10 million and counting.

Clearly Different

Although the Han majority might feel that the Hui are just religious Han, the Hui themselves are proud of and doggedly cultivate and nurture their Otherness. One has to, really, if one is to maintain any sense of self in China. The Otherness stems first and foremost from blood and ancestors. Hui, no matter what they might look, dress or act like, are descendants of Arabs, Turks, Persians and other races from the far side of the  Pamirs. Some Hui have distinct physical characteristics that distinguish them from the East Asian norm—beards, long noses, bejeweled  turbans—but over centuries of intermarriage, the original luster of the first Muslims has faded into an almost imperceptible twinkle in a slightly hazel eye. The clear difference then, is religion. Islam. The most rigid of the world's major religions and also the youngest. Islam is currently going through what Christians and Catholics and Protestants like to call a Reformation and what the rest of us call the Dark Ages. Consider Catholicism in the 1400s and you will have an idea of where Islam finds itself: the Prophet Muhammad received the Word of God in the 7th century... roughly 1400 years ago. I am no religious scholar, but the difference between Islam and the other religions today is basically one of exclusiveness and discipline. Islam requires intense discipline and relentless community re-enforcement of Muslim values, whereas the older religions seem relatively lax in comparison—save perhaps Judaism, which requires a blood link through the mother and is therefore tied to race. Of all of the religions in China, only Islam seems to be "real" in that the practitioners abide by the laws inasmuch as they can without devolving into barbarity and horror. And this is what has kept the Hui a solid community over centuries of assimilation into the surrounding society. Have you ever seen a Hui family taking a walk through the streets? Have you seen the women trailing behind a large bearded man, white cap and long shirt, chattering through their scarves with children in tow? Hui are almost always recognizable by the white caps the men wear, the scarves and the ubiquitous beef and lamb noodle shops nearby.  There is no Hui language, only a slight northwest accent. While other minorities might claim to be a separate ethnicity altogether, the Hui must rely on Islam to differentiate themselves from the rest of China's peoples.

The Middle People

As China's "most Chinese" Muslims, the Hui have faced several reversals in fortune over the centuries. In the Tang Dynasty, the Emperor himself ordained the Great Mosque in Xi'an to solidify the role of Muslims within society and to distinguish between corporal and temporal authority on earth.

The repeated willingness of the Hui people to resort to violence to maintain the integrity of their way of life protected and solidified the community, but also led to massacres and martial law. In the end, it was the willingness to resort to violence to support the state in conflicts with other minorities, most notably the Tibetans around Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces, that allowed the Hui to build and nurture their communities in the face of often hostile governments. This give and take led to periods of suffering, such as the early Ming and early Communist periods, but also to periods of wide power and influence, most notably during the Yuan, late Ming and Qing periods. The famous Muslim Admiral Zheng He led the great expeditions of the Ming fleet across the Indian Ocean and into the Middle East during the Ming Dynasty.

For Zheng He, it was a return to his roots more than 800 years later as well as a state-financed delegation to the barbarian lands outside of the pale—a prime example of the middle ground Muslim Hui people occupied in Imperial China. More recently, with the troubles in northwestern China and the racially charged tensions between mostly Muslim Uigher and non-religious Han have highlighted the difference between Hui Muslims and other Muslims in China.

Uigher are clearly a different people, most of whom practice Islam; Hui are clearly Muslim, most of whom differ in little else from the surrounding Han majority. In Xinjiang I heard Uighers call Hui "donkeys" because although they were Muslim, they were still Han Chinese, i.e., a hybrid breed, neither this nor that, only swinging with fortune in order to survive.

Homogeneity is an Illusion

What fascinates me the most about the Hui is the fact that they are everywhere. There is not a single good-sized city in China without a small Hui population serving up la mian (lā miàn, 拉面) and sneering at fly-covered pork on a hook. The term Hui and all it conjures up to those with a bit of experience (dusty brown Gansu, the smell of beef and lamb, no-lip beards and white caps, stumpy little ladies with freckles and scarves—but that's just me) is all illusion. The Hui are Yunnanese Muslims who followed the Ancient Tea Horse Road, found Dali and said, "This spot is dope."

The Hui are Cantonese-speaking Muslims with a smidgin of Persian in their names and interests in shipping companies and porcelain factories. The Hui are northwest desert oasis dwellers who gave up the camel and tent for the plow and the hut. Some speak Arabic, some are hajji, some drink baijiu with their boss some have the stern stare of an ayatollah and all are mixtures of the hundreds of different ethnicities who have tramped across Asia only to get stuck in the rich heartlands of China.

Chinese across this country sell themselves short when they say "I am pure Han." What in the hell does that even mean? Who or what is Han and what distinguishes Han from any other race or minority in the country? In the case of the Hui, it's naught but the memory of Persia and faith in Allah... such a tenuous barrier indeed.

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