The Hui are one of the most important and peculiar of China’s minorities because of their unique place inside China’s socio-historical space.
Unlike some other mainly peripheral minorities, the Hui’s identity is inseparable from Chinese culture and Islam is but one of many elements that define this identity. In fact, the Hui represent only about half of all Muslims in China, while being the only minority group that does not have its own language, is externally almost indissociable from the Han and is geographically distributed over the whole of Chinese territory.
The origins of Islam in China
The first Muslims arrived in China during the Tang dynasty in the 7th or 8th century, both by the Silk Road and by the South China Sea. The Hui are largely descendants form those Arab, Persian or Turkic merchants. However, the Muslim presence remained rather limited and irregular before the Mongol conquest and the founding of the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century.
Under the Yuan cast system, Muslims were given a higher social rank than the Han majority and came into China in great numbers to serve in administrative and military positions. Hui identity consolidated itself during the succeeding Ming dynasty, during which the most famous Hui of all, Admiral Zheng He, sailed through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. By the time the Manchu founded the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, the Hui had become an integral part of China.
After more than a thousand years in China, the Hui were recognized by the Nationalist regime has one of the “Five People” of China (along with the Han, Manchu, Mongols and Tibetans) and where then given their own autonomous region (Ningxia) by the Communists.
The contradictory place of the Hui
Historically, while the place of the Hui in the larger Chinese identity was recognized, there has been a persistence to define them as “strangers”, even for the most sinisized among them. Chinese or not Chinese has been a question asked throughout the years.
This could be explained by the doctrinal incompatibility between Islam and Confucianism that has kept the two communities apart. There has also been a historical resentment that came from the perceived opportunism that led Muslims to establish themselves in China during Mongol domination. Finally, there has been a perception from succeeding dynasties that Muslims were fondamentally rebellious. This “Muslim dissension” was illustrated by two Hui-led rebellions in the 19th century – The Dungan Revolt in the Northwest and the Panthay Rebellion in Yunnan.
Since then however, the Hui have proved their loyalty to the Chinese State and their opposition to any form of separatism, notably coming from the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, who are Muslims as well. (See Andrew Forbes’s CPAMedia article “The Hui: China’s most loyal Muslims”) This shows that it may not be a contradiction to be both Chinese and Muslim after all.