A Short History of Hui in China

Sayı 27- Eğitimde Değerler (Ağustos 2010)

There are two major Muslim groups in China: “Turkic and Indo-European Muslims” (Uygur, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Tajik, Tatar and Uzbek) who mainly reside in Xinjiang and the Muslims who are especially concentrated in the Gansu-Qinghai-Ningxia borderland areas (Hui, Salar, Bonan and Dongxiang). Among these, the Hui are the largest in population and labelled as “Chinese Muslims” since they are hardly distinguishable from the Han majority of China. All Muslim minorities –especially the GQN bloc since they all speak Chinese (Yi, 2008)– were called Hui in China until the socialist takeover in 1949 which granted official ethnic minority status to specific Muslim groups such as Uygurs and Kazakhs (Hillman, 2004). Today, the name Hui is only used for a group of Chinese Muslims which are one of the 55 minorities in China of which ten are Muslim (McCarthy, 2005).

The Hui are highly heterogeneous and dispersed in different areas of China from north to south and from east to west. Also, both historically and in contemporary China, the Hui experience is widely diversified due to the fact that there are Hui groups that are practising and non-practising, the rural and the urban, rich and poor, endogamous and exogamous, etc. Even the scholars are not congruent with each other about the Hui being an ethnic group in themselves such as Gladney (Dillon, 1999). All these make it impossible to generalize about Hui. In this short essay, I will present a short history of Hui people, with special focus on Hui revival after the death of Mao.

It is important to note that during the Marxist era, the name Hui was no longer used to mean Muslim but a culturally distinct ethnic minority; because, Islam was also being discounted by the socialist regime as the ‘opium of the masses’ (Li and Luckert, 1994). Also, the Hui were granted the right of minority after they were fully institutionalized by the state (Gladney, 1991). This is a result of considering economic and social organizations as well as religious activities as the indicators of Hui identity where these three elements often overlap (Dillon, 1999).

During the Mao era, Hui people gave in to the pressures and led a more secular lifestyle. They abandoned public worship and ceased attending mosques which were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (Hillman, 2004). Some people even stated that they were forced to reject religion and even raise pigs, which is unacceptable for Muslims (ibid.: 56). The Hui who live in small and isolated rural settlements were isolated from other Muslims around China until the late 1990s (ibid.). One of the interviewees of Hillman (2004: 56), a young mother, perfectly summarized the impact of Maoist regime: “Until the current Islamic revival all we knew about being a Muslim was that we shouldn’t eat pork”.

Evidently, the Hui identity was assigned by the state on this group, at least partially, since there was no homogeneity involved. However, the Chinese Muslims started to revise their partly self-assigned ethnicity and form a Hui identity over time. An important aspect of Hui identity is openness to outer influences since the Chinese Muslims usually are not closed in themselves. They did not refuse to mix with other ethnic groups through intermarriages and centuries of living together as in the case of the small group of Hui in Balong (Hillman, 2004). They also adopted and adapted to various economic, social and cultural practices of the ethnic groups whom they lived among (McCarthy, 2005). As Dillon (1999: 7) argues, traditions “require constant attention, readjustment, reinforcement, and reinvention”. Thus, the inheritors of Hui tradition became as much a part of (re)creation of that tradition as those from whom they inherited it (ibid.). A revision of Hui tradition occurred after the Hui Revival.

During this revival period, mosques were rebuilt, religious holidays reorganized, religious schools opened and Quran instructions began as a part of Hui identity formation (Hillman, 2004). On the other hand, some Hui groups started to avoid non-Muslim groups and became more closed in themselves and reject intermarriages with non-Muslims (ibid.). For example, the Hui who give away food or drinks to their non-Muslim neighbours, could not accept the same offerings from their neighbours in fear of contamination and losing their purity in religious sense. Fundamentalist revivalism and religious conservatism began to increase in certain Hui groups (Gladney, 1991). This may as well be a consequence of Hui people not to be considered as Chinese unless they sinicize themselves (Yi, 2008). All these cause the Hui to have lower education levels (ibid.) and more isolation from the Han population.

The Hui people are not the only minority that experienced religious and cultural revival after the death of Mao in 1976. Although the religious activities were still restricted, peoples started to raise their voices gradually. However, the encounters between various Hui people that were concentrated in different areas, caused the emergence of dissension between the followers of various sects, teachings and leaders, let alone the disputes between religious and secular Hui (McCarthy, 2005). Since the Hui also speak Chinese and are somewhat close to the Han culture compared to other ethno-religious minorities, it is difficult to pinpoint all Hui descents in China. As the number of people who want to be counted as Hui continues to grow (Li and Luckert, 1994), there are some people of Hui descent who chose not to identify themselves as Hui even though they are entitled to do so (Dillon, 1999).

Although there were certain incidents and even uprisings in the past, Hui people were never collectively separatist. For example, Panthay Rebellion, one of the biggest uprisings led by the Hui, did not aim against the Han majority but the ruling Qing dynasty (Atwill, 2003). Today, the Hui are regarded as one of the most integrated ethno-religious minority in China, except a certain degree of avoidance of the non-Muslims.


Atwill, David G. “Blinkered Visions: Islamic Identity, Hui Ethnicity, and the Panthay Rebellion in Southwest China, 1856-1873”. The Journal of Asian Studies, Cilt:62, Sayı:4. 2003. ss. 1079–1108.

Dillon, Michael. “Ethnicity and Hui History”. China’s Muslim Hui community: migration, settlement and sects. London: Routledge. 1999. ss. 1–10.

Gladney, Dru C. Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1991.

Hillman, Ben. “The Rise of the Community in Rural China: Village Politics, Cultural Identity and Religious: Revival in a Hui Hamlet”. The China Journal, Sayı:51. 2004. ss. 53–73.

Li, Shujiang and Karl W. Luckert. “Introduction”. Mythology and Folklore of the Hui, A Muslim Chinese People. New York: SUNY Press. 1994. ss. 3–33.

McCarthy, Susan. “If Allah Wills It: Integration, Isolation and Muslim Authenticity in Yunnan Province in  China”. Religion, State & Society, Cilt:33, Sayı:2. 2005. ss. 121–136.

Yi, Lin. Cultural Exclusion in China: State education, social mobility and cultural difference. London: Routledge. 2008.

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