An imam walks inside the main Hui mosque in the Xinjiang capital Ürümqi. PHOTO BY COLIN MACKERRAS.
The Hui are among the most populous, as well as the most widely distributed, of China’s fifty-five minority groups. Mostly concentrated in the northwest Chinese autonomous regions of Ningxia Hui (which is named for them) and Xinjiang Uygur, and the provinces of Gansu and Shaanxi, the Hui are mainly Sunni Muslims. Often persecuted during China’s Cultural Revolution, there has been a revival of Hui ethnic consciousness since the 1980s.
Hui is a state-recognized nationality of China characterized by its combination of Muslim religion and Chinese culture. Alternative names include Huihui and Dongan. The Hui are among the most populous of China’s minorities. With 9,816,805 people (2000 census), the Hui are the fourth most populous of China’s fifty-six ethnic groups after the Han majority and the Zhuang and Manchu minorities, and the most populous among those ten ethnic groups classified as Muslim. The Hui are also the most widely distributed of China’s minorities. Although the main concentrations are in the northwest, such as in the Ningxia Hui and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions, and in Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, communities also exist in Yunnan and elsewhere, and even in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese communities. Most are Chinese-speaking, retaining Arabic only to read the Quran.
Islam and Society
Muslims have lived in China since the seventh century, notably in the southeast. But it was not until the Mongol conquest of the thirteenth century that many came, gradually settling and adopting Chinese culture, speaking Chinese, and marrying Chinese women. To this day most Hui maintain a belief in a single god, abstain from pork, practice circumcision, and attend mosques in Hui communities. Intermarriage is becoming more common but remains infrequent. Hui dedication to Islam is much stronger in the northwest than it is elsewhere. In the southeast some people of Muslim descent regard themselves as Hui while following customs and beliefs hardly different from their Han neighbors.
The Hui Muslim tradition is Sunni, but sectarian divisions have been common historically. Relations with the Han Chinese have often been contentious. There has long been a portion of the Hui community that has valued its links with the Islamic peoples west of China more than it has those with their Chinese neighbors. Links with world Islam are still significant, with such Islamic countries as Saudi Arabia funding Islam in China. Although disputes occasionally arise over matters like Hui disgust for pork as opposed to their Han neighbors’ favoring it, these only rarely develop to the point of disrupting society.
Historical Reaction to the Chinese State
The Hui have shown much opposition to the Chinese state for various reasons, including that it is infidel. Despite much violence, there is doubt over whether Hui history is any more conflict ridden than Chinese history as a whole.
The nineteenth century saw a high point in Hui rebellions against Chinese regimes, all fiercely suppressed. Two were particularly devastating. One broke out in western Yunnan in 1855. Its leader, Du Wenxiu, later set up a sultanate based in Dali. Government troops retook Dali at the end of 1872 and executed Du. The other rebellion engulfed Shaanxi and Gansu provinces from 1862 to 1873, with Ma Hualong (executed 1871) among its main leaders. Government accounts depict these Muslim rebels as militant bandits who preached the apocalypse.
Since China became a republic in 1912, the Hui have generally been loyal to the Chinese state and fought for it against foreign enemies and even against non-Hui Muslim rebels. The Hui warlords from the Ma family, notably the brothers Ma Hongbin (1884–1960) and Ma Hongkui (1892–1970), ruled the northwestern provinces of Shaanxi, Gansu, and Ningxia from the 1910s to 1949, mostly supporting Chiang Kai-shek and helping in the war against the Japanese.
Hui in the People’s Republic of China
The government of the People’s Republic of China formally established the Chinese Islamic Association in 1953. The government tolerates and patronizes Islam as long as it does not threaten the state. In October 1958 it set up the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region as a province-level administrative unit with unusually great concentrations of Hui people. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Muslims were persecuted and mosques were desecrated. The Hui suffered serious religious and ethnic persecution and many hid their identity. Repression resulted in the most serious incident in the ethnic areas during the Cultural Revolution: the Shadian Incident of 1975. After local Hui in the Yunnan village Shadian were refused permission to reopen a mosque, they formed a militia group. Government troops moved in and razed the village. A week’s fierce fighting left more than 1,600 Hui dead. In 1979 the government apologized and had seven new mosques built in Shadian and surrounding areas.
Since the early 1980s, Hui ethnic consciousness has revived strongly. The Hui have remained loyal to China, showing little support for and much opposition to Muslim secession from China.
The Hui are traditionally noted for their commercial skills. The Asian studies scholar Dru C. Gladney (1998, 116) wrote: “Hui are known in every small town in China for certain ethnic specializations: butchering beef and lamb, tanning leather, cobbling shoes, running small restaurants, processing wool, and carving stones and jewelry.” An interesting recent change is the rise of consumerism among urban Hui. This has come along with modernization, which urban Hui greatly favor, believing it in line with the Quran.
A tradition of Hui Chinese-language Islamic scholarship developed in China, including in mysticism (Sufism). In addition, the Hui have contributed to such Chinese arts such as the Beijing Opera. The Hui do well socially and educationally, with literacy rates among the highest of the minorities. Many urban Hui, including women, enter the professions. As the scholar Brent Haas wrote when discussing Jonathan Lipman’s 1997 study of Muslims in China, Hui history is one “of becoming and then being Chinese while remaining Muslim” (Haas 2006). Currently few physical or nonreligious cultural characteristics distinguish the Hui from the Han.
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Source: Mackerras, Colin. (2009). Hui. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1105–1107. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
The prayer hall of a Hui mosque in Turpan, Xinjiang. The mosque has been built with traditional Chinese architectural details. PHOTO BY COLIN MACKERRAS.