Walking through the Muslim quarter of Xi’an is a fascinating venture into a hodge-podge of cultures. The smell of lamb skewers and hot spices wafts through the crowded streets. Chinese-looking women in headscarfs stretch noodles, while an old man with a white prayer hat stands in front of a mosque with a distinctly Chinese arched roof.  

This is the home of the Xi’an Hui Muslim people, where Islam was introduced to China for the first time in the 7th century. China’s Muslim population now numbers 23 million, of which over 10 million are estimated to be Hui, and a little under 10 million Uighur.  

While their fellow Muslim Uighurs in the Xingjiang Uighur Autonomous Region are experiencing severe restrictions on their religious freedoms, the Hui mostly practice their faith openly, and in certain areas are enjoying a resurgence in their religious participation. The reason for their success has to do with centuries of remarkable assimilation, while also maintaining their identity. 

A history of assimilation

Historically, the Hui people are descendants of Persian, Arab and Mongol merchants on the Silk Road, who came to China over 1,200 years ago. Since then, intermarriages with the Han Chinese have meant that the Hui became ethnically mixed and spread across the country.

Over the centuries, the Han and Hui have lived relatively peacefully next to and with each other. The Hui took the path of assimilation, speak Mandarin and adapted their religious traditions to the local customs.

One of the most visual examples of this is the great mosque of Xi’an, said to be one of the largest and oldest in China. The place of worship is built up of multiple courtyards and sports arches and tiled roofs that clearly show influences of traditional Chinese architecture.

While some Hui now live a life culturally and religiously indistinguishable from Han Chinese in first-tier cities such as Shanghai or Beijing, many cities in China have a significant Hui Muslim minority population with close-knit communities, especially in the northern provinces of Ningxia, Gangsu or Quinghai. Traditionally traders, many Hui people are also economically successful today, and according to estimates, their religious participation is growing.

Increasing religiosity

Dru Gladney, professor at Pomona College in California and leading scholar on the Hui people, estimates that today there are twice as many mosques in China as there were in 1950, of which a majority were built by Hui Muslims. “The amount of practising Muslims among the Hui is rising,” Gladney told DW. “For example, there is a dramatic increase in the number of Hui women wearing the Hijab.”  Gladley adds that “the numbers of Hui going on the Haj are going up constantly.”

One of the reasons for this is the increased communication with other Muslim groups and the ensuing influence of outside Islam – either through Hui scholars returning from the Haj or from increased business relationships with the Middle East.

Trade between China and the Middle East is growing ever more important for the communist country. As a measure to attract Arab business, Yinchuan, the capital city of Ningxia and one of the Hui hubs, has gotten a makeover. Construction of a new $3.7 billion Islamic theme park called World Muslim City is underway, and Arabic lettering has been added to the city’s street signs. 

Haiyun Ma, a Hui scholar at Frostberg University takes a critical position with regard to the Chinese government’s perceived friendliness toward the Hui. She told DW that it is more of a sign of “business interest, not of religious tolerance.”

On the business side, Hui Muslims do play a role as middlemen in trade between the Middle East and China. Because of their knowledge of Arabic, numerous Hui people are working in Dubai, and for Middle Eastern businesses in China.


From the article “The Hui – China’s preferred Muslims?” (DW, 09.12.2016)

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