Journey to the East/The Hui people are one of the larger of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups

Journey to the East.The Hui people are one of the larger of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups


The Hui people are one of the larger of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups. China’s largest ethnic group are the Han people who make up 91% of the population and the Hui are the 3rd largest ethnic group making up .794% of the population. You might be thinking, “.8% isn’t that much,” but in reality that translates to a population upwards of 10.5 million people (as of about 2010). The Hui people also hold the distinction of being predominately Muslim, so if you ever try to research the spread of Islam in China it’s inevitable that you’ll stumble across the Hui because of the 20 million+ Muslims in China, the Hui make up a good chunk of it along with other ethnic groups descended from the Silk Road travelers.

The Hui people tend to be concentrated around the North and West of China, especially in the cities of Luoyang, Xi’An and Beijing.

The Hui people are one of the larger of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups. China’s largest ethnic group are the Han people who make up 91% of the population and the Hui are the 3rd largest ethnic group making up .794% of the population. You might be thinking, “.8% isn’t that much,” but in reality that translates to a population upwards of 10.5 million people (as of about 2010). The Hui people also hold the distinction of being predominately Muslim, so if you ever try to research the spread of Islam in China it’s inevitable that you’ll stumble across the Hui because of the 20 million+ Muslims in China, the Hui make up a good chunk of it along with other ethnic groups descended from the Silk Road travelers.

The Hui people tend to be concentrated around the North and West of China, especially in the cities of Luoyang, Xi’An and Beijing.

In China, the Hui people are known as Hui Zu (Huízú), 回族, which reads as the “Hui clan(ethnic group)”. The name for the Hui is thought to be because Hui Hui (回回) was the old term for Muslims in the Ming and Qing Dynasties although the term Huihe or Huihu referred to the Uyghur territory in the 8th century.

In terms of ancestry, the Hui are Turkic in origin. Turkic is a fancy way of saying the cultures that were linked or had their origins from Turkey, so when the Silk Road was developed, Constantinople (now Istanbul) was linked to the rest of Persia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, the various -stan countries which were all ruled by the khans at the time, and China. Thus, the Turkic people included the Tibetans, the Tartars, the Mongols, the Xiongnu and the Huns. Today, the Turkic people usually refer to the north of Asia into Siberia or the countries that end with -stan that very few people know much about. In short, Turkic refers to “Eurasia” – that uncomfortable blurry gray line where it’s not exactly how we think of Europe but not exactly what we think of when we picture Asia.

The Hui share some of their Sino-Turkic ancestry with other ethnic groups like the Uyghurs, the Tibetan ethnic group, the Mongols and the Manchu group. Because the Hui people descended from the Eurasian travelers who sold their goods along the Silk Road, their highest population spikes are in the old trade cities of Xi’An (then Chang’An), Luoyang and Beijing.

But it’s important to note that the Hui are not a monolithic body, despite being connected by ancestry. Part of that is because many of the Sino-Turkic people were disparate in and of themselves. There were the Mongols who were highly organized and centralized and made multiple nation-states known as the khanates (a nation-state ruled by a khan; like Genghis Khan or Kublai Khan) but there were also the Xiongnu people who were nomadic tribes. They had no expressed loyalty towards each other; they were sometimes warring tribes or opportunistic tribes – it was only the fact that many of the khans were related to one another that they didn’t jump on each other and raid each other. But along the Silk Road there were robbers and thieves and cutthroats and Turkic tribes that vied for power.

So, while the Hui might be considered one ethnic group, they vary in their overall beliefs widely. Some Hui from Xi’An might have different customs from those in Beijing. Some Hui are Sunni Muslims and others are Sufi and some are not Muslims at all.

The Hui also hold the distinction of being one of the most well-assimilated ethnic groups in China. The Hui, for the most part, speak Chinese (whether it be Mandarin or Cantonese depends on their location). That’s important to note because many of the other ethnic groups have a secondary language like the Vietnamese-Chinese group speaks Vietnamese and Chinese and the Korean-Chinese group speaks Korean and Chinese. Many ethnic groups speak Chinese or learn Chinese because it’s the official language of China and much of the business is conducted in Chinese, but amongst themselves they might use a different language – the Hui don’t.

The reason for that, given by many historians and sociologists, is that it’s partly history and part intention. Historically, the Hui have been a part of Chinese history since the 6th and 7th centuries; this gave them ample time to adopt Chinese customs and the language, despite the majority of China ascribing to Buddhism and not Islam. By intention, I mean that it was in the Hui’s best interest to assimilate because it helped further trade; different from other ethnic groups like the Tibetan, Taiwanese or Korean groups in that they were defined by their location (Tibet, Taiwan and the Chinese-Korean border) rather than purposeful assimilation. If the Hui could act as a go-between between the Chinese (predominately Han) and the more Islamic/Turkic people, it helped boost business.

Historically, the Hui assimilated much more easily than some of the other ethnic groups and because of them, so did Islam. While Christianity, which came in force at the end of the Qing Dynasty (especially between the 1850s-present day), and typically ushered in periods of bloodshed and turmoil, Islam showed up much earlier, giving it time to mingle and part of the reason that Islam was so successful is partly because of the Hui.

Islam arrived in China about 1,400 years ago, spread by the Silk Road and the Mongols. The Mongol khanates tried to foster peace by mixing the cultures, much the way Alexander the Great did to cement his empire. So, Islam was pushed into China as Muslims were forcibly relocated and they intermarried and intermingled; the way that Alexander’s Greek (Macedonian, technically) troops mixed with Mesopotamian and Mediterranean blood. In addition to spreading harmony, it also encouraged business. Much the way of Europeans, those of Eurasia usually spoke more than one language – someone might speak Arabic, Turkish or Greek and also Chinese or the other East Asian languages. It created blending, kind of like how Switzerland has German, French and Italian as its national languages.

Some Turkic people had a bad reputation like the Xiongnu or the Huns who had been regarded as bandits but there were other groups that offset the stereotypes and prejudice. Muslims and the Hui were very patriotic in China. Many of the Hui served in the military of the Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming Dynasties. They brought with them Arabic, various Buddhist deities and bodhisattvas from India and sometimes mixed with Buddhist, Daoist or Confucian schools of thought.

Just as the Chinese embraced the Muslims, the Muslims embraced the Chinese. It is said that the first mosque built in China was by the prophet Mohammad’s uncle. Some of the iconic artwork of the time depicts traders riding on camels through Chinese backgrounds. Islam gained more of a following in Asia and Africa than it ever did in Europe’s Christian society who often feared the Muslims since very early on.

Notable Hui and Chinese Muslims also curbed any anti-Islamic fervor that might have gathered. The most notable people were often warlords or admirals who earned glory for the dynasties or fought against Western intervention. In addition, there were many Hui people who held important positions like Minister of Defense in the modern era.

The most famous person of Hui descent was Admiral Zheng He. In the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He was a famous navigator. As a devout Muslim, part of his faith entails making a pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj. He commanded an impressive fleet and sailed from China along the South China Sea, into Indonesia and Malaysia, then into India, and further to the West, into Africa and the Middle East. Zheng He’s expeditions helped bridge the gap between Arabic culture and Eastern culture, as well as boosting trade. He made 7 voyages total, which generated more trade with Africa and India and his iconic fleet showed off the Chinese navy.

Now, in terms of sociology, the Hui often differ widely from regular Muslims. Some Muslim adherents find the Hui are often more relaxed in their duties. While fundamentally a Muslim prays five times a day and goes to a mosque on Friday, the Hui have not always adhered to this. Muslim tenets also believe that drinking alcohol is a sin. However, Chinese culture embraces wine as a display of intimacy and closeness. Basically, getting to know someone over wine not only shows your endurance to be able to drink a lot but it’s a gesture of friendship where alcohol makes you more honest. Thus, drinking with someone means you’re comfortable enough to have a completely honest conversation with someone. In Chinese celebrations, wine is a way of fostering love and respect and even those who dislike alcohol or are on the wagon are told “just one sip if we be friends”. In Chinese culture if you don’t drink wine at a wedding or an intimate gathering, it’s considered a snub.

And so, the Hui, who assimilated to Chinese culture do drink wine although some are more fundamental than others. Some Hui drink alcohol casually, others only in special situations with their non-Muslim friends. But Hui alcoholics are often more looked down upon than a regular alcoholic.

Another way that makes the Hui different from mainstream Islam is marriage. The Quran makes numerous mention of it being wrong to marry a non-Muslim. Usually, to marry requires a conversion of the other person except in extreme cases. It is considered less bad to marry someone Jewish or Christian, basically anyone of the Abrahamic religions since they share more common beliefs. But because many Chinese tend to be Buddhist, Daoist, Hindu or not ascribe to a religion, it was considered the Hui being much more liberal. In truth, when the khans tried to push the assimilation, less shame was given to those who married non-Muslims.

Muslim traditions also became a bit more lax in terms of other smaller tenets like the opposite sex not being able to touch each other; for those who ran businesses, that wasn’t always an option. But Islam did merge with Chinese culture in other respects, especially regarding Confucianism, most notably in the segregation of the sexes. At its outset, the Muslim Hui were very similar to the Buddhists, in that women were divided to not distract the men and women changed in chambers away from the men. Part of the reason the female bodhisattva Guan Yin was so popular and so necessary was that when women were changing, they had a large male buddha idol watching them and they felt it was disrespectful. In that sense, Buddhist women and Muslim women changed together and Muslim women took off their hijabs (the Muslim headscarf) around other women.

Muslim Hui also mixed with Confucianism in the status of women, often making women lower than men. In traditional Islam, women sit behind the men and sometimes a board separates the sexes. Muslim women were also usually at the mercy of their fathers or husbands, where only a male relative could touch a female Muslim and Confucian women had the three obediences (to their father, husband and sons). While not great for women all around, it did provide a cultural link. Marriage was usually arranged by the father, just like Confucian tradition.

However, Hui women were exposed to a more radical China than other Muslim areas. The Tang Dynasty gave women more freedom and thus gave more Hui women freedom to educate themselves and to practice art. While the Mao era wasn’t wonderful for religious people in general, it did liberate more women. Although Mao is a highly controversial political figure, he was a hardcore feminist and so women gained more rights than they had, experiencing a liberation that hadn’t been seen since the Tang. Though to be clear, Mao disliked anything anti-socialist so mosques were desecrated just like churches and temples and graveyards, but it was kind of like telling women they could vote but just not practice their religion. In the modern post-Mao era, Hui women lived through this uplifting by Mao which is reflected in Muslim politics. Not just Hui women, but women of other Sino-Turkic ethnic groups that are Muslim have female imams (an imam is the Muslim equivalent to a priest/rabbi/minister). That makes them different from much of the mainstream Islam which is a bit like Christianity with very few female priests or ministers except in certain denominations.

The Hui are more progressive than many Muslim sects, often citing the lack of a board that separates the sexes in the mosque at Mecca and the fact that there were women who spoke at mosques during the time of the Prophet Mohammad. Although it should be noted that both the Hui and the Uyghur adhere to the separation of the sexes in schooling since it limits their interaction and the chance that boys and girls might distract each other from learning and might lead to breaking Muslim tenets about touching members of the opposite sex.

But though the Hui might be seen as extremely progressive, the Hui by and large do not eat pork. Pork is not allowed in Islam and that’s a big thing for China because pork is the most eaten meat in China (beef is not eaten by fundamental Hindus and Buddhists and you have to remember that there are more Buddhists than Muslims in the 90% majority of the Han people).

For the most part, Islam has a peaceful track record in China. The glaring discrepancy is when the Muslims of China fight amongst themselves or with Buddhists. Traditionally, Buddhists and Muslims don’t always get along, especially in countries like India. Now, sometimes it’s fairly trivial disagreements. For instance, the Hui are very iconic for wearing white hijabs and hats, known as “white caps”; not that the Hui don’t wear other color hijabs but white is what they’re known for. That’s directly against what the Salar people do. Salar people are another of the Chinese ethnic groups, who descend from the Oghuz Turks, predominately Muslim who speak Salar more than Chinese. They are known as the “black caps” because they usually wear black; considering white to be wrong. So while the Hui are “white caps” the Salar are “black caps”.

Other arguments are more vocal and more bloody. Although many Muslims gained high favor during the Yuan Dynasty, other times they were restricted. Mongols outlawed circumcision and tried to force the Hui to eat the way Mongols did, usually with wine and pork. There were Muslim uprisings and some of the participants were Hui.

The Hui also fought in various Muslim rebellions during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

Although Islam did better at co-existing than Christianity, fundamentalist Muslims often saw the Buddhists as heretics, but did believe that Confucianism could be used (since Confucianism is a belief system not a religion).

In general, the Hui kind of flip-flop with Chinese customs. Some go for wine, won’t eat pork, marriage isn’t such an issue etc. The Hui did practice foot binding with their women, but that largely fell into disfavor when it was denounced as going against the Quran – marring the body that Allah has given you.

The Hui were some of the people to participate in the Boxer Rebellion, fighting against Western influence.

Hui and Uyghur people tend to disagree a lot, sometimes breaking out into bloody brawls with each other, massacring each other back and forth or simply by praying at different mosques.

Some of the Hui fought against Mao in the Chinese Civil War (Communists vs. Nationalists), since Mao was very anti-religion. When the Nationalists lost to the Communists, there were many Hui who left to Taiwan with the rest of the Nationalist holdouts.

The Hui who stayed in China proper often had to adapt to Maoism. They would sometimes wear hairnets to be covered but not be seen as Muslim and thus would usually avoid the wrath of the Red Guard who went around enforcing Maoist ideals and vandalizing religious property and sometimes assaulting the people by cutting their clothes (narrow clothing was seen as very Western European and wider flowing clothes was more Eastern) or pulling off their hijabs.

For some Hui, it was about finding a way to be seen as Chinese but also balance their faith, if they were Muslim adherents. They did that with the practice of the hairnets but also earlier with their names. In an effort to be more Chinese, they would adopt Asian-style names and transliterations of very well-known Islamic figures like the Prophet Mohammad, Hassan or Fatima. Mohammad became shortened to the name “Ma”, “Mu” or “Han”. Stereotypically, the Hui surname of choice is Ma – written with the character for “horse” but understood to be part of the transliteration of “Mohammad”.

Although the Hui are a very diverse people in terms of belief or ethnics, they are widely accepted into society. Although anti-Islamic feelings come up from time to time, they don’t often garner the same fear the Westerners have of Islam. China isn’t always so accepting of them, but the Hui were considered “descendants of Huangdi” by Chiang Kai-Shek.

The top picture and the other 55 ethnic groups in traditional clothing can be found – HERE

For a list of the 56 ethnic groups and their approximate populations, that can be found –HERE

Further information on the Hui can be found – HERE and HERE

Further information on Islam in China can be found – HERE and HERE

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