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Hui in imperial and modern day China

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The northwest part of the world’s most populous country, China has earned itself the moniker of ‘the Quran Belt’ for its abundance and variety in Muslim communities. China itself has an official 10 recognised historical Muslim minorities, ranging from the Chinese Tartars in the north, to the more centrally situated Salars (of Turkish origin). The two most recognisable and prominent however are the Uyghur’s and the Hui, the latter representing a massive 48% of the country’s Muslims.

Now 10.5 million is not exactly the type of numbers one would usually associate with the term minority; but for a country with the magnitude and size of China, it represents but a speck amongst a population believed to exceed 1.5 billion people. Although the Hui are found throughout China, they are in fact most populous in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (named after them), and Xinjiang. Communities also reside on the Southern island province of Hainan, Yunnan to the Southwest, near the Mongolian border, and even in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

History and roots in China

The areas where Hui are now most prominent are unsurprisingly situated along the once mighty Silk Road trade route, and their history is fundamentally entwined with that of the central Asians, Arabs and Persians. During the height of the Silk Road many travellers and traders from these areas journeyed to the Far East, opting to settle in the area and often marrying local Han (the majority population of China). This gradual mix with Hans as well as Mongols, allowed them to pick up on Chinese culture and combine it with their own. In the Chinese Islamic hub of Xinjiang, the widespread belief is that the Hui form a mixture of Chinese, Iranian and Turkish natives, brought to China by the Mongols.

The term Hui itself is, and has historically been used as a general term in China to describe people of the Islamic faith. This has been seen as a major contributing factor to the massive numbers the group now holds.

Under the different Chinese dynasties

A fixture of Chinese history since as early as the 10th and 11th century (although some may claim earlier), The Hui have naturally been witness to some of the most turbulent and fruitful periods of Chinese history. Their footprints are first dated back to the Song dynasty that ruled between the mid-900s and the late 1200s. This is when foreign trade with Muslim countries was at its height.

Under the succeeding Yuan dynasty, controlled by the Mongols, they were subject to several ‘discriminatory’ policies against their religion, most evident of which was a ban on Halal foods. According to historic accounts, the Mongol Empire’s infamous leader, Genghis Khan took offense to Hui, and Muslims in general refusing to eat from the same food as his own people. Having seen this as a criticism against the Mongols, he allegedly issued a declaration criminalising the slaughter of cattle in line with Islamic and Jewish customs. In addition circumcision was also forbidden. Overwhelmed by the oppression they were facing, several Muslim generals, aided by the Hans staged a rebellion against the Yuan regime.

The Ming dynasty, which fuelled this rebellion, succeeded the Mongol ruled Yuan. And this period was especially beneficial for the Hui, as the Ming leadership were by far more tolerant of Islamic tradition and culture. Muslims had free reign to practice their religion, however they were forced to intermarry with Han in a policy aimed at racial integration. This was also a fruitful period for the construction of Mosques in the region.

The last of China’s great imperial dynasties, The Qing dynasty, took power around the mid-1600s. This was an extremely difficult time for minorities in general, as racial segregation became the norm. Muslims from different racial backgrounds in China were subsequently kept apart from each other. This led to another uprising where Hui and other minorities attempted, and failed to oust the ‘Manchu rulers’ from power. Although many were massacred during what has been dubbed the ‘Panthay Rebellion’, those who surrendered during the insurgency were spared.

Hui customs and cultures

Whilst younger generations have started to integrate more and more with modern culture, the customs, dress codes and practices of the Hui are still very much alive. These differ somewhat from what is the norm of Islamic tradition, instead including elements of Chinese ancestry. This includes the practice of burning incense, and using it during prayer ceremonies. Hui are also noted for their strong belief in Chinese philosophy, whilst also wearing traditional Chinese attire alongside Islamic headwear.

They are however stringent when it comes to dietary restrictions such as the consumption of pork or alcohol (the latter provides contradictory reports). The tradition of circumcision, forbidden during the Song dynasty, is considered a compulsion amongst Muslim communities across the globe, but amongst the Hui the practise is rarely taken up. This is largely in part to the influence of Chinese tradition, where circumcision is not the norm.

Their marriage ceremonies combine a blend of ethnic Chinese and Islamic customs; however a culture of exclusivity persists and who they are allowed to marry is somewhat limited. In the case of interracial marriage, which may only take place with a Han, the individual is obligated to convert to Islam. Another interesting custom is that unlike cultures where a woman is required to move in to the husband’s family home after marriage, the opposite is sometimes the case when it comes to Hui tradition.

Martial arts has also historically held great significance amongst them, with many having known to have taken up, mastered, and even created several styles themselves. ‘Zhaquan’ and ‘Huihui Shiba Zhou’ are two such ‘Hui-established’ techniques.

Hui and the Utsul

Whilst the Hui are massive as far as ethnic minorities go, there numbers are greatly aided by the fact that the Chinese government has opted to list several other ‘unrecognised’ minorities amongst their population. In Hainan, the Island province situated at the Southern tip of China, their religious compatriots the Utsuls have long been categorised as such.

The Utsul are famed for being descendants of the previously mentioned Cham community. When the Vietnamese took control of the once powerful Champa Kingdom, many Cham fled to neighbouring Cambodia. However a small group of 1000, led by a Cham prince, opted instead to settle in Hainan. Much remains clouded about the Utsul history in China, including the origins of their clan name. Despite being bundle as one and the same, both minorities are distinctly different from each other, bar the fact that they practice the same religion.

Hui and the Uyghur, an ethnic divide

The Uyghur are an ethnic group that have received much media attention in recent years due to a mix of communal unrest, and clashes with the Chinese state. Along with the Hui they represent the two biggest Muslim minorities in China; however they could not live more contrasting lives.

Apart from living and praying separately, the respective groups are treated extremely different by the government in modern day China. Whilst Hui are largely given religious freedom and share positive relations with the current leadership, the same cannot be said about the Uyghur. Human rights reports detail ‘harsh religious restrictions and repression’ including the prohibiting of cultural practices, religious holidays, fasting and even studying of holy texts. Furthermore, the same reports also highlight thousands of detentions annually for ‘illegal religious activity’.

This in turn has led to tensions between Hui and Uyghur, who reside separately to avoid any conflict. Whilst it may seem baffling that two groups of the same faith could be afforded different levels of religious freedom, most attribute this to the fact that the Hui are more closely associated and integrated with the Han majority. The Hui are also aided by the fact that they speak Mandarin, the most widely spoken language in China, whereas the Uyghur are left secluded because they speak in a more Turkish orientated language.

Despite a sometimes turbulent history, the Hui have managed to integrate well into Chinese society. Their treatment under the current regime has been something of a breath of fresh air, as opposed to that of counterparts like the Uyghur and Utsul. China itself remains a country deeply rooted in culture, and this has provided the perfect foundations for Islam to grow exponentially. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)

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