Essay / On the Peripheries of Two Worlds: Hui Muslims of China

by Sabrina Xuan
edited by Gina Fung


In Shadian, China, there are a set of plaques that read ‘ai guo ai jiao’ or ‘love your country, love your religion’ in a plaza facing the local mosque. This sleepy southwestern town is also the site where the People’s Liberation Army ‘quelled’ an ‘Islamic revolt’ by killing more than 1,600 Hui Muslim villagers in one week in July of 1975.[1]This event is known as the Shadian Incident, and during this week,  all mosques were also destroyed and Hui villagers were forced to wear pigs’ heads around their necks. Today, the Hui pray at the rebuilt mosque and read the plaque and its message every day. In fact, Hui all over China often repeat this slogan: ai guo, ai jiao[2], but what does this phrase mean to them? Is this an example of a people who identify first as Chinese, and second as Muslims?

Islam is a religion that transcends racial boundaries. Dietrich Reetz, a researcher of global Muslim identities, particularly in Asia, labels it “a remarkable achievement” in which “relative coherence of the practice and belief systems of Islam” were maintained over such “vast distances.”[3] However, despite Islam’s status as a global phenomena, there is still a distinctly Arab-centered vision of the Muslim world. Lila Abu-Lughod terms this “zones of theory”[4] within the study of Islam, in which the “center” and “core” is congruent to the Arab world. As such, even though  China is a home to a Muslim population that exceeds twenty-one million, Chinese Hui Muslims, with their East Asian physical appearance, lack of Arabic fluency, and perceived ‘Chinese’ traditions are widely depicted as fully assimilated into the Han majority. However, I suggest that this is an erroneous conception borne out of an exclusionary understanding of Islam as defined only by the cultural standards of the Middle East.[5] As such, I aim here to discuss the Hui, who are a group of people who can be identified by their peripheral status and are considered neither fully Chinese nor truly Muslim. Here, I explore the facets of identity for this unique group of people, for whom religion, nationality, and cultural identity closely intertwine.


The Marxist Trajectory of Ethnicity

To understand the status of the Hui in China today, it is first important to understand ethnic classification and definition in the Chinese context. In contemporary China, ethnicity is defined by the four Stalinist criteria: common territory, common language, common economic life, and common ‘psychology’ (which refers to culture). This definition of ethnicity was developed based on evolutionary theory of Lewis Henry Morgan and Friedrich Engels and formally categorized within Stalin’s 1913 publication Marxism and the National Colonial Question. The Chinese nation or Zhonghua minzu is officially composed of the Han majority and fifty-five minority peoples (shaoshu minzu). Officially recognized minorities make up about 8.5 percent of the nation. The Chinese term min refers to “the common people, people at large,” while zu refers to a group of people. Coined around 1895 as a Chinese equivalent of the Japanese neologism minzoku,[6] minzu quickly became a powerful term, even though it did not enter the Chinese vernacular until the beginning of the twentieth century.[7]

This conception of ethnic differentiation originated during the Nationalist period, with Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Republic of China (1912-49), who advocated the idea that there were “Five Peoples of China: Han, Manchu, Meng (Mongolian), Zang (Tibetan) and Hui — a group which at the time indicated all Muslims in China but now has been further divided into the Uygur, Kazakh, and Hui. Dru Gladney suggests that it is relatively unsurprising that Sun, as a Cantonese-speaker who spoke accented Mandarin Chinese, would advocate this newly constructed identity of ‘Han-ness’ which amalgamated multiple groups that formerly neither existed nor shared any form of common linguistic or cultural identity.[8] This was a tactic of mobilization to create strength in numbers, through the formation of one overarching ‘majority’ group within China. During the Communist era, these five minority groups became fifty-six ethnic groups. Similar to during the Nationalist period, this was also a political necessity because it was important to unify the nation against outsiders and thus de-emphasize ethnic differences within the newly posited Chinese nation. Nationhood and ethnicity are thus deeply ingrained and intertwined in the Chinese term minzu. Identification of certain Chinese groups as ‘minorities’ and the Han as ‘majority,’ albeit seemingly rooted in numbers since the Han exceed other ethnic groups by millions, was a constructed separation. It has been instrumental in forging a unified Chinese national identity for political purposes.

Teleology is essential in the Chinese definition of ethnicity. The Han are depicted as being in the most ‘recent’ state of being, within a certain conception of modernity, as articulated around terms of industrialization, rationalism, and technology. This is demonstrated through myriad of Chinese media, as seen in the 1992 film Amazing Marriage Customs, a survey of minority marriage customs across the country. It presents one ethnic group, the Miao, as “romantic” and “carefree,” as well as practicing “free love.”[9] Additionally, the Uyghur Turkic Muslims of Xinjiang are accompanied by the voiceover: “Islam respects patriarchy and husband right. […] Women are subordinate.”[10] In contrast, the Han appear and the narrator suggests that they are characterized by “equality of the sexes” as the result of “evolution of history.”[11] In this video, one can parse the essentializing depiction of minorities in China. Indeed, in China, the popular depiction of minorities alternates between the ‘romantic’ feminized ideal of sensual exoticized eroticity, alongside violent, patriarchal, and ‘masculine.’ Likewise, stereotypes surrounding gender inequality and patriarchy in Islam have clearly been adopted within the Chinese framework. Interestingly, despite the Chinese government’s numerous campaigns against ‘Western values’ (e.g. feminism) that are ‘corrupting’ Chinese youth,[12] when Islam is the topic of discussion, gender equality becomes of particular importance. This film is one of many popular in Chinese anthropology, or minzu xue in Chinese, which means ‘the study of minorities.’ Until very recently, Chinese anthropology was focused only on the study of minority ethnic groups, and it was Chinese sociologists who studied Han. Dru Gladney notes that even when he did his fieldwork in China, many Han Chinese were unhappy and resentful at the possibility of being ‘subjects’ of anthropological study,[13] because that was something that they felt should be limited to more ‘primitive’ peoples like the other fifty-five minorities in China.

Within China’s fifty-five minority groups, ten are predominantly Muslim. There are about 23 million Muslims[14] within China. As such, China has a Muslim population that exceeds many Muslim-majority countries. About half of Chinese Muslims —10.5 million according to a 2011 census[15]—are Hui. While the Hui are the largest Chinese Muslim minority group, the Muslim minority group perhaps discussed most frequently in international media are Uyghurs. This is due to their separatist activities and significant ethnic and political unrest. However, here I particularly focus on Hui Muslims as a response to the lack of scholarship regarding their experience as Muslims in China. This dearth of scholarship is likely because the Hui have a reputation for being ‘sinicized’ within the greater Han majority. Indeed, the Hui cannot be physically differentiated from the Han they often live amongst and they “have no language of their own.”[16] Instead, they speak Mandarin or dialects of neighbouring areas. In recognition of the distinctly Chinese penchant for ethnic classification, the Hui, as supposedly ‘assimilated’ Muslims who speak Mandarin, who look no different from Han Chinese, many of whom live in Chinese urban centres, do not fit neatly into this schema.


Who Are the Hui?

Hui are by definition descendants of Muslims from the Middle East and Central Asia who migrated to China. Islam appeared in China very soon after the founding of Islam in Mecca and Medina by Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century AD.[17] These settlers followed Sunni Hanafi Islam.[18] As such, almost all Hui Muslims consider themselves Sunni Muslims who follow the Hanafi school of law. During the Ming Dynasty, Muslims in China became gradually more isolated from the rest of the Islamic world. This resulted in their adoption of Chinese language and clothing, as well as Chinese surnames that most visibly identify an individual as Hui in contemporary China. Muslims adopted Chinese characters as transliterations for their Arabic names. The most common Hui surname in China is Ma for Muhammad, followed by Mai for Mustafa, Mu for Masoud, Ha for Hasan, Hu for Hussain and Sa’I for Said,[19] as sinified versions of common Arabic surnames.

Interestingly, the Hui, by far the most widely-distributed minority in China, do not meet the Stalinist criteria for ethnicity at all. They do not have a common language, location, profession, or cultural makeup. Like many other Chinese minorities, the Hui have their own administrative zone, Ningxia Autonomous Region, where they only form one-fourth of the population. Instead, they live throughout every region, province, and city of China[20] Even though the Hui are limited in some respects in occupation due to diet restrictions, they are found in virtually every industry in China. From a Western perspective, this ethnicity-occupation relationship may seem odd (especially when religion does not necessarily have much to do with career choice) but in China, with its Stalinist model of ethnicity and the fact that many minorities live in specific autonomous areas, some minority groups are characterized by ‘traditional,’ ethnically-linked jobs. The Uyghurs, for instance, are overwhelmingly involved in animal husbandry and agriculture, yet the Hui are characterized by significant occupational diversity, like any Han Chinese person. A Hui may be a halal beef noodle seller, or a clergyman, or a clerical worker.[21]

The Hui experience during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) is of particular importance in their history. Like all other religions, Islam was significantly stifled during the Cultural Revolution.[22] As part of the destruction of the Four Olds (sì jiù) —Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas—many mosques were destroyed and almost all  mosques were closed. All signs for qingzhen (halal) eateries were torn down. Copies of the Quran were destroyed by the Red Guards.[23] Muslims were accused of “superstitious beliefs” and “anti-socialist trends”[24] and banned from attending the Hajj. Many Hui whom had reputations as businessmen were publicly criticized as capitalists. As mentioned previously, over sixteen-hundred Hui were massacred by the People’s Liberation Army in the town of Shadian in Yunnan Province, due to fears of a militarized separatist movement. Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, was quoted saying, “If you follow Socialism, why worry about ethnicity (minzu)?” The government began to relax its policies towards Muslims in 1978.


An Identity Classified by Hybridity

In the twentieth century, China began experiencing more foreign contact. For Chinese Muslims, this was characterized by contact with the Middle East. Chinese Muslims now attend the Hajj in large numbers, typically in organized groups. Chinese Muslims are experiencing an incredible explosion in new exposure to the wider Muslim world. They now travel to the Middle East (many are even sponsored by the state to go on Hajj), more are learning Arabic and can read foreign publications, listen to Muslim sermons, and can even see some Al-Jazeera news broadcasts on Chinese television.[25]

In their architecture and art, Hui combine “Chinese characteristics on the on the outside and Islamic ones on the inside.” This is demonstrated in the architectural design of Hui mosques that look like Buddhist temples from the outside, yet are embellished with Quranic passages inside.[26] Likewise, Muslims paste colourful Chinese posters outsider their home, but inside, hang scrolls of Arabic script and verses from the Qur’an.[27]  In explanation of their existence, the Hui have multiple origin stories. One is that they are descended from the filial son of Adam, who did not eat pork, while the unfilial son ate pork, and he became the earliest ancestor of the Han.[28] This Hui origin story is a pertinent example of how the Hui have amalgamated Chinese traditions of filial piety with Islamic beliefs of pork abstention. Likewise, there is the example of Hui who have been assimilated into other minority cultures within China. One prominent group is the Bai Hui, who are people registered as part of the Hui ethnic group who follow Bai customs and wear Bai clothing. Their identity, as both Muslim and Chinese, and also part of  another minority culture, demonstrates an incredible multiplicity in identity. Clearly, ethnic classification in China can be very muddled, and many Hui have to balance multiple cultural and religious traditions simultaneously.

It is indeed difficult to make generalizations about the Hui, especially in terms of religiosity and religious practice. For example, in some Hui communities in Northern China, a pig escaping from a Han Chinese yard or a Han carrying pork into a Hui restaurant might incite a riot.[29] Some Hui in the Northeast do not mention the word pig. Instead, they have created various euphemisms, such as “black insect.”[30] On the other hand, in urban centers, pork is unavoidable, due to significant Hui-Han intermingling and close quarters — it may not be uncommon for a Hui to come into close contact with pork — being washed, being butchered, being sold — on a daily basis. Likewise, in small villages, one might see more restriction in mixed-gender interaction, all women covering their heads, and gender-divided schools. Yet, in urban areas, especially major cities like Shanghai and Beijing, some Hui openly identify as secular, non-practicing Muslims.[31] According to Dillon, there are significant differences between the Hui communities in Northwest China, in Gansu and Ningxia[32] where Islam is closely woven into the fabric of everyday life, as opposed to the Hui of Quanzhou and Zhangzhou in the southeast, who have ‘assimilated’ much more deeply within the Han population. Despite this variation in cultural and linguistic identity held by Hui across China, the transition from the now antiquated phrase Hui jiao (Hui religion, which referred to Islam) to Huimin (Hui ethnicity) is palpable. It is a shift in which pan-Hui identity has arose.[33] The Chinese state’s creation and classification of fifty-six ethnic groups in China has denoted Hui not just as a descriptor of religious adherence, but also as a united, genetically-linked people, no matter which corner of of China they reside in. I suggest that this has been instrumental in developing the hybrid identity of the Hui, as a unique group of people within China: Chinese with ‘Muslim characteristics,’ as seen within their mosques, characterised by Chinese exteriors with Muslim interiors.


Margins and Centers: Caught In-Between

The Hui believe that while Han Chinese can convert to Islam and become Hui, a Hui can never become a Han, no matter what they do.[34] As such, I propose that the Hui occupy a very unique subaltern[35] position in both Chinese and Muslim society. Although the notion of the ‘Islam of the periphery’ has gained some prominence in Islamic studies, even within discussion of Islam outside the Arab world, there are still conceptions surrounding which groups are more ‘culturally Islamic’.[36] However, the Hui are almost never addressed even in academic discourse about Muslims. The Uyghurs arguably fit more cleanly into this model as ‘real’ Muslims outside the Muslim world due to their separatist activities, self-identification as ‘Turks,’ and eschewing of the Chinese label. Indeed, the relationships between Muslim groups in China are not necessarily characterized by religious solidarity. There are some tensions between Hui and Uyghurs, due to the perceived Hui assimilation into the greater Han population. Furthermore, Hui are distrusted by many Uyghurs because they are perceived to simply be ‘Chinese’ who practice a diluted form of Islam.[37] Uyghurs have criticized the Hui for speaking Chinese, an “infidel language” and for considering China their home. This is perhaps another reason why the Hui and their status as Muslims is so often neglected.

Yet, the definition of foreignness is particularly narrow for many Han Chinese, and is one in which linguistic ability, appearance, and ancestry all play significant roles in asserting an individual’s ‘Chineseness.’ “Hui in Beijing have complained that, as children, they were often taunted by their playmates, called ‘little Hui-hui,’ ‘big nose,’ foreigner’ and other such derogatory epithets”.[38] Hui, despite their very ‘standard’ Chinese appearance and perfect command of Mandarin, are perceived as foreigners by the Han due to their participation in decidedly ‘non-Chinese’ practices,[39] alongside their belief in a decidedly ‘foreign,’ supposed ‘Arab’ religion.

Yet, Hui are not be perceived by Han Chinese as ‘Chinese’ either. This is because their lifestyle diverges from the Han in their religious belief, their eschewing of a fundamental dietary staple of pork, and lastly their classification as a ‘minority’ ethnic group, for many Han who see ‘Chinese’ as synonymous to ‘Han.’ China is the self-titled ‘Middle Kingdom’ with over ‘5000 years of civilization,’ in which all ‘foreigners’ were construed as ‘barbarians.’ Before the advent of national borders, Hui, alongside other comparatively more visible Muslim groups, were considered foreign barbarians. Indeed, the discourse of savagery and barbarism in lieu of modernity is pertinent here. Muslims experience the additional burden of needing to appear modern in contemporary Chinese society. This is a need that is very much rooted in Chinese history and culture. It is emblematic of the adoption of both the teleological ideals surrounding dialectical materialism, alongside the longstanding ‘modernization discourse’ that has been prominent in Chinese social theory since the Qing dynasty[40] in which the prime recourse to emerge from a poor, ‘feudal’ society of peasantry, is full embrace of technological innovation.[41] In modern China, eschewance of the ‘folk’ and ‘country’ beliefs is popular and there is a distinct sense still that religion is one of those most backwards beliefs. As such, the Hui face the additional burden of being perceived as ‘primitive’ due to their status as a minority ethnic group and a religious group.

Hui Muslims fall victim to a myriad of racist discourses where they are particularly ‘othered’ due to their East Asian appearance. Indeed, loose practice of Islam occurs even in posited Islamic ‘centers’ of West Asia, North Africa, and South Asia, as well as in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Therefore, it is not just the Huis’ perceived ‘flexible’ Islam, but their appearance that sets them apart. While many Uyghurs may have relatives abroad[42] and have a physical appearance more similar to other Muslim Central Asians, Hui typically do not have any familial connections outside China since the very Hui ethnogenesis is based on an ancestral connection to the Arab world of antiquity. Therefore, I suggest that the Hui occupy an even further subaltern position in comparison to other Muslims of the ‘periphery’ as both an un-Islamic people who pick and choose religious laws and have embraced many Chinese traditions. They also may be considered by the Han majority as an un-Chinese people, especially as defined by the current widely adopted discourse in China—in which to be Chinese is to embrace modernity and reject ‘feudal’ practices that will limit the growth of the nation.[43]


Islamic Authenticity

The Najiahu mosque near Yinchuan, capital of Ningxia, is covered by banners that read, “ancient and authentic religion” and “cleave to the original path”.[44] A Hui, raised on certain religious traditions since birth, who observes the same practices around him, may not perceive his religious heritage as ‘inauthentic.’ Yet, the ‘Islam of the peripheries’ is often stereotyped as an Islam of flexibility that has been somewhat tainted by ‘culture.’[45] Hui, characterized by their identity of hybridity, may engage in many Chinese cultural practices concurrent to their observance of Muslim ones. These include the burning of incense during worship, mosques similar in appearance to Buddhist temples, and lack of circumcision of male babies. Following this logic, it is perhaps why Muslims such as the Hui, who have been so fully immersed for so long in a decidedly non-Islamic culture, are viewed as being ‘un-Islamic’ and virtually the same as Han Chinese. Frequently indistinguishable in feature and dress from Han Chinese […], it is only their rejection of pork, the common surname Ma (Mohammed), and Arabic inscriptions in mosques built like Buddhist temples that serve to distinguish them from their Han Chinese neighbors.”[46] Since the Hui are often considered distinct from the Han only in their religion, pork abstention is also viewed as their primary distinguishing characteristic.[47] It is by far the tenet that is observed most stringently.

Although pork abstention is a basic tenet of Islam and is easy to write off as a lifestyle practices Muslims can and should adopt, I argue that pork abstention has a special, even more significant place within the Chinese context. It functions as an even deeper form of meaning and a “formation of moral selves”[48] for the Hui because active pork abstention is particularly conspicuous within Chinese society. In Han Chinese culture, pork functions not only as a food or a meat product, but as an exceptionally intrinsic culturally-significant dimension. The flatbreads and noodles that Chinese Muslims prefer to eat do not mark them as foreigners. Diets formed around bread and wheat are standard in Northern China. However, pork is eaten in every corner of the country. Although many Chinese people outside of urban areas still cannot afford meat, it is an ideal staple food and the meat families choose to buy when they have money or when it is the holiday season. Pork is an essential aspect of not only sustenance, but social life for Han Chinese people. Chairman Mao once described pork as a “national treasure”[49] and the majority of Chinese find pork abstention “impossible to understand”.[50]

A phrase that is often associated with the Hui is qing zhen (清真). The characters qing zhen are often placed outside restaurants, because they signify their status as Hui restaurants that serve Halal food. Although these two characters put together usually mean ‘Muslim’ or ‘halal’ they also have double meaning a ‘pure’ and ‘true’ or ‘clean’ and ‘authentic.’[51] Qing zhen can thus be conceived as having deeper significance, because it also emphasises the importance of ritual cleanliness, good moral conduct, and importantly, authenticity in religious practice. Pork abstention is very deeply intertwined within this notion of both cleanliness and ‘authenticity’ as a Chinese Muslim. It is often spoken of in a diminishing sense, as though the only difference between a Hui and a Han is that the latter eats pork. However, I suggest that as a practice found among almost all Hui, it is a claim to both ritual purity in the Islamic sense and authenticity, since in such a pork-dominated culinary culture and society, it very clearly identifies an individual as a Muslim. Since Hui cannot be differentiated from Chinese in terms of appearance, pork serves as an identity marker. Indeed, in urban areas, especially among young Hui in the urban workforce, not all men grow beards and most women do not wear headscarves (gai tou); some do not even abstain from cigarettes or alcohol (usually due to the social activities mandatory for success in a Han Chinese workforce). Yet nearly all Hui do not eat pork and this allows them to assert their identity as a distinct cultural, ethnic, and religious group.

Aside from pork abstention, there are other common forms of Hui identity expression, or, as I propose, techniques of religious authenticity. For example, in northern rural Hui communities that are fairly isolated within Han majority areas, one tactic is endogamy: marriage within the limits of the immediate community.[52] This functions as a form of identity-building that maintains the ‘purity’ of the community. In Southeastern Hui communities, genealogical descent is the fundamental aspect of being Hui. Finally Hui residing in urban areas typically express ‘Hui-ness’ by living a lifestyle characterized by the taboo of pork and certain craft specializations, like butchering beef and lamb, tanning leather, shoe cobbling, owning small qing zheng restaurants, and carving stones and jewelry.[53] Gladney suggests that in Northwest China, religious identity and belief is by far the most salient aspect of Hui identity: to be Hui is to be Muslim and the purity, the qing, lies in one’s adherence to religious stipulations.[54] Yet among the comparatively less religious southeastern Hui, to be Hui is to trace one’s ancestry to Arab migrants and as such, authenticity is crafted through genealogy and ancestry.[55]

In some communities, the mosque is no longer the fixture of the community. It has instead been replaced by certain restaurants or businesses[56]: the Hui noodle restaurant; the clothing shop that sells Muslim-style attire. I further suggest that this is not indicative that many Hui have fallen into a Han lifestyle. While some Hui are secular, most Hui identify themselves first and foremost by their ethnic group, which, as has been deemed by the Chinese state, an ethnic group that is intrinsically linked to an Islamic identity. The Hui, although alienated slightly from both Chinese culture and the greater Muslim community, have adopted “techniques of the self” or “reflective and voluntary practices” that allow them to transform their lifestyles[57] and thus assert the dual facets of their identity. These techniques — pork avoidance, belief in genetic ties to the Middle East, perception of ‘foreign’ looks characterized by large noses and beards, the unique cultural and social locus that is the Hui beef noodle restaurant — these are all techniques that allow the Hui to assert both their Muslimness and their Chineseness at once. As such, I propose that despite the challenges Hui face to establish legitimacy as both Muslims and as Chinese, this form of self-cultivation allows them to meld both identities in a way that notably ensures their survival in the highly politically and, at times, culturally restrictive environment of the Chinese state.


Pragmatism and Survival

The Chinese are pragmatic. Chinese people have grown to adapt to their conditions as a result of the extreme political and social upheaval. “Chinese people have been taught slavishness for thousands of years: follow tradition and don’t question authority.”[58] This is an incredibly strongly-worded statement, and is in articulation of a commonly-held view that authoritarianism throughout Chinese history has engendered subjects who do not question authority. Researchers and anthropologists who study Muslims in China often ask for their opinion on events in the Middle East and the greater Muslim world. While Gladney noticed significant anti-American sentiment amongst Uyghurs, Hui would give answers like, “It is not just a war on Iraq, but it could be against Islam”[59] and “Muslims should not fight Muslims.”[60] Due to justified fears of political retaliation, Chinese cautiously do not speak their minds, perhaps especially when Western anthropologists ask them for opinions on sensitive political subjects. Indeed, the Hui, despite their lack of separatist sentiment and relative ‘assimilation,’ are still conspicuous due to their religious beliefs in a largely atheist society.

Stewart[61] suggests that this conspicuousness is rooted in the Hui’s possession of an alternative form of morality that differs from the moral code prescribed by the Chinese state. A common saying in China is that its official religion was once Marxism but now it is money. As Ci Jiwei[62] claims, “hedonism” has emerged the ethos of contemporary Chinese society. Indeed, other than ancestral worship, filial piety, and Confucianism, religious belief in the sense of monotheistic organized religion has never been particularly prominent among Han Chinese,[63] even historically. In the contemporary era, the Chinese educational system promotes a Marxist view of religion as the fading frontier of feudalism, and active religious practice is associated with the rural, elderly, and uneducated members of ethnic minorities.[64] Many Chinese people contend that the Chinese state and its citizens have gone too far in rejecting both traditional ethical teachings and twentieth-century socialist ideology in the process of embracing neoliberal capitalism and the material fruits of modernity.[65]

Indeed, the ‘Red China’ of McCarthyist days is over. China has transitioned into ‘neoliberal’ capitalist territory, in which capitalism and authoritarianism have melded to create the so-called ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,’ which is currently the official ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, and widely understood by economic theorists and Chinese citizens alike as capitalism with Chinese characteristics. Hui and their religious practice are thus particularly conspicuous, because their religion gives them an alternative form of morality separate from the ideals advocated and promoted by the Chinese Communist Party that lies “beyond the party’s control.”[66]

When Muslims advance the state’s developmental goals by spreading education and alleviating poverty, they are harmless to the Chinese government’s goals.  For example, many Hui families voluntarily limit themselves to one child in China because their Imams will preach the benefits of population control,[67] even though the Chinese family planning policy (1979-2015) explicitly allowed minorities to have two children in urban areas, and three or four children in rural areas. Likewise, when Hui go on state-sponsored Hajj, this is for the purpose of improving Sino-Arab relations. However, when religious groups encroach on areas that are traditionally government responsibility, they become a problem. The fear is when the separate sectors of religion, development, and national identity become muddled. This presents the possibility that alternative ideas contrary to the teachings of the state will emerge and take root. For example, Muslims who develop community organizations are watched due to fears that such activities may “serve as an avenue for the spread of subversive ideas”[68] because such projects “challenge the state’s historical role as sole guarantor and repository of culture, nationalism, and public virtue.”[69] As this “sole guarantor,” the Chinese state uses its authority to promote cultural values that are useful in its own developmental goals.

Again, I mention the Chinese government’s need to eliminate a traditionally ‘feudal’ and ‘backwards’ population, to create global citizens for a global world and the need to “engineer the nation’s rise by transforming China’s backward masses into a scientifically normalized, modern society fitting of a global power.”[70] This is a theme that cannot be emphasized enough because it is exceedingly important in how China has proceeded in terms of its national and cultural trajectory since the late nineteenth century. The Chinese state has implemented various policies that have been specifically developed to modernize its people.[71] The government is particularly interested in ideas of Chinese population quality, improvement, and competitiveness on a global scale. Yet, religion, and Islam in particular, does not fit in within the teleological Chinese discourse of development. Religion is also one of the most instrumental forces in disseminating alternative ideas and alternative moral codes. Organizations such as the “Every Ethnicity Muslim Home, a charitable organization for Muslim converts,”[72] take small-scale organization away from the Confucianist family unit, or the Socialist work unit (danwei). Likewise, when Han Chinese convert to Islam or take Muslim names, not only is this problematic to the state from an administrative perspective, it also belies “the government’s perception of religion as a retrogressive force.”[73] When Chinese people voluntarily choose a different ethical framework to live by — one that is not  necessarily articulated in terms of the modern self as the most moral self. As such, Hui Muslims, as a minority group that was actively constructed on the basis of their religious difference occupy an arguably precarious position within the Chinese state. It is unsurprising that they remain guarded: why they state they have responsibility to cooperate closely with the government — as well as why they must sometimes “ai guo” (love country) before “ai jiao” (love religion).


Conclusion: Islam with Chinese Characteristics

The Hui do not actively voice their opinions on events in the Middle East. It is also common for them to assert their disapproval of Uyghur separatism,[74] and likewise, it unusual for Hui to actively intervene in Uyghur issues.[75] However, I suggest that this is not indicative of uncritical assimilation within the Han fold. Indeed, when Hui define their identity through their abstention of pork or gather at the ‘old Hui noodle house’ rather than the mosque, this does not mean that they are un-Islamic or secular, or Han with a peculiar genealogical mythology and odd surnames. Instead, this is characteristic of the Hui’s existence at the intersection of two identities: where Chinese pragmatism must be balanced with their Muslim visibility. The Hui cannot afford to intervene in situations that do not directly affect them. As less than one percent of the Chinese population, they must lie low, practice religion quietly, and stay conscious of their precarity as people who occupy two distinct, sometimes irreconcilable identities, whether as Chinese-Muslims or Muslim-Chinese, or as practitioners of ‘Islam with Chinese characteristics.’ Israeli labels this an “uneasy coexistence”[76] but I suggest that through their adoption of certain “techniques of the self” that deftly meld Chinese tradition with Islamic practice, Hui have so far managed this reconciliation quite astutely, and perhaps even more importantly, cautiously.

In many ways, the Hui have combined religious and cultural identity in a way they can both ai guo and ai jiao (love country and religion). Even though I have demonstrated the hardships they face in asserting their identities as an often-neglected group both in discussion about China and the Muslim world, it is precisely this mediation of identity as neither one nor the other that has ensured Hui survival and relative prosperity in the contemporary era.

Hui do not “engender the suspicion of”[77] the state like other Muslim groups, both within China and elsewhere in the contemporary era.  This is because the Hui, having existed in China for thousands of years, have been practicing their ‘hybrid’ lifestyle for a significant amount of time, and they demonstrate significant coherence in their techniques towards ‘purity’ and authenticity. I have discussed their subalternity, but at the same time, an average Hui in a Northeastern Chinese village, would likely not express significant existential worry about religious and ethnic identity. In terms of everyday life, Hui do not feel like “strangers in a strange land” as they were once suggested to be during the early twentieth century[78] and are comfortable in their existence as Chinese Muslims.

The Islam of the peripheries, the Islam of the diaspora, and the ‘lived Islam’[79] that exists embodied in local tradition should not be diminished. As Islam is the most popular religion among young Chinese, it is definitely a force that deserves intense research and study.[80] Yet, the Hui are often rendered invisible, as simply a diminutive branch of the behemoth that is ‘China,’ a country stereotyped for its assimilationist, homogenous population.  I have discussed the construction of minority ethnic status in China, the long-held teleological notions of progress that lie firmly etched within the Chinese discursive framework. I have also noted the ways Hui assert their identity as both Muslim and Chinese in a society characterized by significant restriction, especially in the realm of religious belief. Finally, I have remarked on the precarity and conspicuousness of their position in Chinese society, despite their perceived assimilation. The Hui and their doubly subaltern position, both as non-Han (and thus, non-Chinese), alongside their depiction as practitioners of a flexible form of ‘folk Islam,’ is arguably an example of religious gatekeeping, in which their identities as Muslims are erased because they do not easily fit one image of Islam.

Talal Asad, in his seminal The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, writes: “If the anthropologist seeks to understand religion by placing it conceptually in its social context, then the way in which that social context is described must affect the understanding of religion.”[81] It is wrongheaded to study Islam as a homogenous entity because there exists significant variance across Muslim communities. Instead, it is more fruitful to view Islam conceptually as a tradition within these communities and to then study how people integrate Islamic traditions to fit their specific social context. Indeed, the Hui provide an excellent example of how religion must be studied contextually. The Hui exemplify how people may actively cultivate their own framework of religious authenticity. They have created an entirely new identity, neither as Muslims whose customs derive from Arab culture, nor as Chinese with Han traditions. Rather, they are a united group of people who have integrated Islamic traditions within their specific environment. This is perhaps best demonstrated by a popular Hui saying, which is a Chinese translation of a hadith. The hadith originally referred to all Muslims,[82] but has since been adopted by the Hui to address themselves as well. It is “All Hui under Heaven are one family” (Tianxia Huihui shi yi jia), an elegant commentary of their status as at once citizens of China and as members of a global Muslim community.


Sabrina Xuan is a U4 student in Anthropology and Social Studies of Medicine. With her ‘third culture’ upbringing (born in China, raised in Japan in an American community, while holding Singaporean citizenship), she feels connection with multiple aspects and facets of East Asian heritage. She enjoys listening to ambient music, taking public transit, and going on springtime walks.



[1] Alice Su, “Harmony and Martyrdom Among China’s Hui Muslims,” The New Yorker, June 6, 2016.

[2] Su, “Harmony and Martyrdom”.

[3] Dru C Gladney, Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University, 1991), 23.

[4] Lila, Abu-Lughod, “Zones of Theory in The Anthropology of the Arab World,” Annual Review of Anthropology 18 (1989): 267.

[5] Gladney, Ethnic Nationalism, 23.

[6] Haiyang Zhang, “Wrestling with the Connotation of Chinese ‘Minzu’.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 32, no. 30 (1997): 74.

[7] Thomas S. Mullaney, Coming to Terms with the Nation : Ethnic Classification in Modern China, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 23.

[8] Dru C. Gladney, Dislocating China : Reflections on Muslims, Minorities, and Other Subaltern Subjects, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 15.

[9] Gladney, Dislocating China, 61.

[10] Ibid, 62.

[11] Gladney, Dislocating China, 63.

[12] Eric Fish, “Why’s Beijing So Worried About Western Values Infecting China’s Youth?” ChinaFile, February 11, 2017.

[13] Gladney, Ethnic Nationalism”.

[14] “China’s Other Muslims.” The Economist, October 6, 2016.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Dru C. Gladney, Ethnic Identity in China : The Making of a Muslim Minority Nationality, (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College, 1998), 31.

[17] Michael Dillon, China’s Muslims, (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1996), 41.

[18] Dillon, China’s Muslims, 41.

[19] Raphael Israeli, Islam in China : Religion, Ethnicity, Culture, and Politics, (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2002), 292.

[20] Gladney, Dislocating China, 187.

[21] In fact the current president of the London-based auctioneer Christie’s China branch is a Hui woman.

[22] Michael  Dillon, China’s Muslim Hui Community : Migration, Settlement and Sects, (London: Curzon Press, 1999), 171.

[23] Merle Goldman, “Religion in Post-Mao China,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 483 (1986): 146.

[24] Israeli, Islam in China, 253.

[25] Gladney, Dislocating China, 333.

[26] Ibid,, 188.

[27] Raphael Israeli, Muslims in China : A Study in Cultural Confrontation, (London: Curzon Press, 1980), 30.

[28]  Gladney, Dislocating China, 113

[29] Gladney, Dislocating China, 113.

[30] Gladney, Ethnic Identity in China, 112.

[31] Ibid, 65.

[32] Dillon, China’s Muslims, 6.

[33] Gladney, Dislocating China, 166.

[34] Gladney, Ethnic Nationalism, 324.

[35] As first defined by Gramsci, subalternity here refers to the groups that are excluded from the cultural ‘homeland,’ here referring to the Arab world for Muslim populations, and the Han majority for Chinese citizens.

[36] Dietrich Reetz, Conflicts in Islam on the Asian and African ‘Periphery’: Doctrines, Cultures, and Politics, 2.

[37] Many Uyghurs will not buy meat from Hui due to doubt of how much Hui adhere to Islamic dietary laws.

[38] Gladney, Ethnic Nationalism, 24.

[39] For example, a Hui man wearing a skullcap

[40] Dialectical materialism, or the Marxist theory that political and historical events originate from conflict between social forces, as caused by material needs.

[41] Susan Greenhalgh, Cultivating Global Citizens : Population in the Rise of China, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[42] Gladney, Dislocating China, 24.

[43] Greenhalgh, Cultivating Global Citizens.

[44] Economist, China’s Other Muslims.

[45] For example, practices that are associated with Muslims (usually by those unfamiliar with Islam) such as female genital mutilation or child marriage, are often steadfastly labeled by Muslims as ‘only’ cultural, and as such, unconnected to and uninfluenced by Islam.

[46] Gladney, Ethnic Nationalism, 25.

[47] Gladney, Ethnic Identity in China, 26.

[48] Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular : Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Cultural Memory in the Present, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 10.

[49] Asad, Formations of the Secular, 26.

[50] Michael Dillon, China’s Muslim Hui Community : Migration, Settlement and Sects, (London: Curzon Press, 1999), 116.

[51] Gladney, Ethnic Identity in China, 194.

[52] Gladney, Ethnic Identity in China, 195.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Gladney, Ethnic Nationalism.

[55] Hui often can trace their ancestors to a great extent — all the way to which ancestor was the Muslim who arrived from Persia.

[56] Ibid, 114.

[57] Michel Foucault and Robert Hurley, The Use of Pleasure : Volume 2 of the History of Sexuality, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

[58] Su, Harmony and Martyrdom.

[59] Gladney, Dislocating China, 333.

[60] Ibid, 335.

[61] Alexander Blair Stewart. Chinese Muslims and the Global Ummah : Islamic Revival and Ethnic Identity among the Hui of Qinghai Province. (Routledge Contemporary China Series, 152. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group,) 2017.

[62] Jiwei Ci. Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution : From Utopianism to Hedonism. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press), 1994.

[63] Ibid, 199.

[64] Ibid, 190.

[65] Ibid, 194.

[66] Stewart, Chinese Muslims, 194.

[67] Donata Hardenberg. 2010. “China’s One and Only.” (Aljazeera.Com. Al Jazeera.) May 19, 2010.

[68] Stewart, Chinese Muslims, 198.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Greenhalgh, Cultivating Global Citizens, 37.

[71] The one-child policy, various development goals in Western China that have moved minority populations out of traditional housing into ‘modernized’ buildings, even discursive campaigns like the ‘leftover women’ campaign, which shames and faults ‘highly-educated’ and ‘successful’ Han Chinese women for not getting married, having children, and thus, improving the ‘quality’ of the population.

[72] It provides religious classes for children, donates food, money, and clothing to rural and needy Muslims, and hosts holiday celebrations for converts.

[73] Stewart, Chinese Muslims, 198.

[74] Gladney, Dislocating China, 334.

[75] Su, Harmony and Martyrdom.

[76]Raphael Israeli. 1980. Muslims in China : A Study in Cultural Confrontation. (Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies Monograph Series, No. 29. London: Curzon Press), 30.

[77] Israeli, Muslims in China, 3.

[78] Gladney, Ethnic Nationalism, 337

[79] Reetz, Conflicts in Islam, 5.

[80] 22.4% of Muslims in China are under 30 (Florcruz 2015); most Chinese people do not identify with any religion.

[81] Asad, Formations of the Secular, 11.

[82] Gladney, Muslim Chinese, 313.





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