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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Buddhism and Islam > Historical Sketch of the Hui Muslims of China

Historical Sketch of the Hui Muslims
of China

Alexander Berzin
April 1995

The Muslim National Minorities in China

According to the 1990 census, the Muslim population of the People's Republic of China is 17.6 million, out of which there were 8.6 million Hui, 7.2 million Uighur, 1.1 million Kazakh, 375,000 Kyrgyz, 33,500 Tajik, and 14,500 Uzbek. The Hui primarily speak Chinese, the Tajik an Indo-European language related to Persian, and all the others Turkic dialects. The Hui are unique among the fifty-six officially recognized nationalities of China in that religion (Islam) is their only unifying category of identity. They have no common unique national tongue, have had much intermarriage with Han Chinese, and live in almost every city and town across China. They have one autonomous region – Ningxia, between southern Gansu and Inner Mongolia – two autonomous prefectures and nine autonomous counties. The Chinese word "Hui" is also used to refer to all Muslims, both inside and outside China.

Origin of the Hui

Although the Hui are one of the national minorities of China, they do not constitute an ethnically homogeneous group. They come from Arab, Persian, Central Asian, and Mongol origins, and arrived in China in several waves. The first Arab Islamic delegation came to Tang Dynasty China in 651 CE, nineteen years after the death of the Prophet Muhammed and one year after the Arab conquest of Persia. From this time onward, mostly Arab, but also a smaller number of Persian merchants settled along the southeast coast of China. In 758, the Tang Chinese emperor requested the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad to send an army of 20,000 soldiers to help put down the An Lushan rebellion. The Arab and Persian soldiers remained in China afterward, settling in the northwest areas of Ningxia and Gansu. Further, in 801 the Tibetans engaged 20,000 Arab and Sogdian mercenaries to help in their war against the Nanzhao kingdom in Yunnan, southwestern China. Although the Tibetans suffered defeat, the Muslim soldiers remained in the region. A further wave of 15,000 Arab soldiers came in 1070 and 1080 at the invitation of the Northern Song Chinese emperor to establish a buffer zone in northeastern China between his diminished kingdom and the expanding Khitan Empire.

The largest portion of Hui, however, descends from the two to three million Central Asian Muslims that the Mongol ruler Khubilai (Kublai) Khan brought to China in the 1270s as a military reserve. They helped with his conquest of southern China in 1279 and, in peace, settled throughout China as merchants, agricultural laborers, and craftsmen.

One of Khubilai Khan's grandsons, Ananda, was raised by Persian Muslim foster parents. In 1285, he became Prince of Anxi, an area that spanned the conquered Tangut kingdom in Gansu, Ningxia, and Sichuan. The Tanguts followed a combined form of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism. Together with his cousin, Ghazan Khan of the Ilkhanate in Persia, Prince Ananda converted to Islam in 1295. Consequently, the 150,000 strong Mongol army in Anxi and most of the Tanguts also adopted the Islamic faith. Thus, by the end of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in 1368, the Hui were the largest minority in China.

Protection of the Hui during the Ming Dynasty

According to many scholars, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, the native Han Chinese dynasty that ruled China after the Mongols, was actually of Hui descent, although this fact was kept well hidden. After defeating the Mongols, he gave religious, political, and economic freedom to the Hui. As a way to protect them from Han Chinese prejudice, however, he decreed that the Hui must marry, speak, and dress Chinese. From this time onward, the Hui lost their varied cultural roots.

Manchu Persecution during the Qing Dynasty

As a backlash against Ming protection of the Hui, the next dynasty to rule China, the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912), began a persecution of Muslims in China. This persecution extended to the Muslim Uighurs in East Turkistan as well. Between 1648 and 1878, more than twelve million Hui and Uighur Muslims were killed in ten unsuccessful uprisings against Qing oppression. The Tibetans, however, who were also persecuted by the Manchu and Han Chinese Qing forces, maintained good relations with the Hui. The Fifth Dalai Lama, for example, visited Hui Islamic leaders in Yinchuan, the capital of present-day Ningxia, in 1652 on his way to the Manchu Imperial Court in Beijing. They discussed philosophical and religious issues.

Migration to Kyrgyzstan – The Dungans

Two waves of Hui migrated to West Turkistan under Russian rule in the late nineteenth century. The first group came in 1878 from Gansu and Shanxi, after an unsuccessful uprising against Manchu rule. The second wave came in 1881 from the Ili River valley in far western East Turkistan. The Russians had occupied the region in 1871, but after its return to China with the Treaty of St. Petersburg in 1881, the local people were given the choice of Russian or Chinese citizenship. These two waves of Hui immigrants settled mostly in the Chu River valley of Kyrgyzstan, near Bishkek. They called themselves Dungans.

Western and Eastern Hui

At present, the Hui in China divide into two major groups. The Western Hui, centered in Ningxia, live also in Gansu (both within and outside the Amdo portions), Qinghai, the western half of Inner Mongolia, and the northern Chinese provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, and Hebei. These are the Muslims who are moving in large numbers into Central Tibet and who now own one-third of the stores in Lhasa. Their spiritual and cultural center is Lingxia, situated between Labrang Monastery and Lanzhou in Gansu. The Eastern Hui live primarily in the eastern half of Inner Mongolia.