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Chinese Muslims: Hui and Uyghur people

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Chinese Muslims: Hui and Uyghur people

Islam is an officially recognized religion of China. The traders along the Silk Road brought the faith to the country, which spread quickly among its people. Today, about 25 million Muslims live in the country, which represents 1.6 percent of its population.

Islam was first introduced in China by the four companions of prophet Muhammad, who came to trade and possibly to spy in 615 AD. Later, Uthman, the third caliph of Islam, sent envoys to the Chinese imperial court to explain their new faith. The then ruler of China, Emperor Gaozong, favored Islam, which – as far as he was concerned – promoted peaceful relations between the ruler and his subjects. Shortly after this visit, the emperor ordered the construction of the first Chinese mosque in the southern port of Guangzhou, where many Persian and Arabic merchants traded. These merchants eventually settled permanently in China and took Han Chinese wives. Under Yuan Dynasty, the Mongol rulers brought a new generation of Muslims to China in unprecedented numbers. The Mongols promoted them to administrative posts due to their knowledge of math, linguistics, and trade along the Silk Road. The descendants of these Muslims held government positions for nearly 300 years after the fall of the Mongol Empire. The most notable among them was Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch. He led Chinese fleets on diplomatic journeys through the Indian Ocean due to his knowledge of Arabic – the common language in the area.

China's Muslims Mosque

When the Qing Dynasty replaced the Ming in 1644, Muslim Ming-loyalists led a revolt against the new regime. The Qing tried to exert direct control over the Muslim inhabited regions after crashing their rebellion. The Muslims responded by clashing with local authorities and revolting on numerous occasions. Some 250 years later, following the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China emerged in 1911. The new president proclaimed that China belonged equally to the Hans, Muslims, Mongols, and Tibetans, improving the relations between these different ethnic groups. The Muslims once again faced discrimination during the Japanese invasion of China. The Japanese demolished 220 mosques and killed countless Muslims. However, after Mao Zedong founded the People's Republic of China in 1949, things seemed to be improving for the Muslim community. Mao divided the Chinese people into 56 ethnic groups based on language, history, religion, and traditions. Of these groups, ten are Muslim minorities, including the Hui, Uighur, Kazakh, Dongxiang, Kyrgyz, Salar, Tajik, Uzbek, Bonan, and Tatar people.

China's Muslim: Tajik lady

The Hui people are the largest Muslim minority in China, followed by the Uyghurs. While few are descendants of the Han Chinese, who converted to Islam, most of them descended from the Muslim merchants, handicraftsmen, and scholars who came to China from Persia and Central Asia between the 7th and the 13th century. Their ancestors intermarried with the Han Chinese, Mongols, and Uighurs, gradually assimilating their customs. The Hui adopted Mandarin as their mother tongue and altered their Islamic practices to fit into Confucianism. The best example of this is the great mosque of Xian that closely resembles traditional Chinese architecture. Today, most Hui live in Northwestern China, in provinces such as Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai, and Xinjiang, but smaller communities exist in almost every other region. In appearance and blood, the Hui are now more similar to the Chinese than Persians or Central Asians. They rarely experience restrictions on their religious freedom and practice their faith openly. Hui peoples often live in exclusively Muslim communities surrounding a mosque. These communities can be anything from villages, streets to whole quarters in major cities.

China's Muslim population: Kashgar street

The Uyghurs have also emerged in Xinjiang through migration. They first rose to prominence in 744, establishing a kingdom in present-day Mongolia. After the Kyrgyz overran their state in the 9th century, the Uyghurs migrated southwestwards to the Tien Shan Mountains. Initially Buddhists, they adopted the Islam after being conquered Turkish tribes around 1000 AD. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan assimilated the Uyghurs to his empire, who then participated in the Mongol invasions to the West and East. The Qing Dynasty conquered Xinjiang in the 18th century and resettled a large number of Uyghurs in the Tarim Basin, who have been farming there since. Today, the Uyghurs are the largest producer of grapes and green raisin in China. They also produce large quantities of rice, corn, grain, and cotton.

China's Muslim population

Most Uyghur customs and traditions originated from Islam. However, they differ from other Muslims when it comes to the freedom of women and their love for entertainment. They are famous for their musical ensembles, where women also perform dance and music. Uyghur women rarely cover their faces and heavily accessorize with necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. They keep their hair long and braid. While married women only wear two braids, unmarried women fashions as many braids as they wish. The Uyghurs have traditionally grown cotton, so cotton clothing is their traditional daily wear. However, as they lived along the Silk Road for centuries, their clothes also extensively use satin and silk. Women sport silk scarves and wear silk slippers indoors. Uyghur women typically wear one-piece dresses with colorful vests and baggy sleeves, while men wear gowns and long waist-scarves. Due to their religion, Uyghurs never go out without a cap. Women decorate their hats with colorful embroidery and pictures. Uyghurs also have a distinctive marriage custom where couples undergo interviews before the wedding. A young man who wishes to marry a specific woman goes for an interview first. If parents are arranging a marriage for their son, they are the ones who go through it. The interview ensures that the bride and groom know details about their future spouse, including the age, personality, and family members.

China's Muslim kids

For most of their history, Uighurs inhabited the harsh deserts of the Tarim Basin. Therefore, they needed a stable supply of water more than anything to survive. The Turpan Karez water system, which supplies water to their town and fields, is among the three most famous irrigation projects of ancient China. Turpan Karez starts at the Turpan Depression, the world's second-lowest point. The system consists of a string of vertical wells that channel water from the base of Tien Shan and Flaming Mountains into underground canals that join the irrigation system of Turpan. The water system provides a stable water supply even in the hottest summer as it drains the melted snow that has trickled down from the ice-capped mountains to canals in the Turpan Depression. Astonishingly, this complicated irrigation was dug out by hand, with only buckets, simple tools, and animals that helped transfer the dirt. Today there remain nearly 1100 wells and channels having a total length of 5000 km. The system was the secret behind Turpan's success as a trading hub oasis town along the Silk Road, enabling the city to host thousands of traders, caravans, and horses who need to refill their supplies while traveling along the harsh Taklamakan Desert.

China muslims trading along silk road

The main difference between the Uyghur and the Hui is that the latter managed to adapt to the dominant Han Chinese culture while maintaining their identity. The Uyghurs are firmly attached to their culture and genuinely proud of their long history. They have no desire to assimilate into the majority, which declines their relationship with the Han Chinese. Many Uyghurs can't or won't speak Mandarin. Their traditional language is part of the Turkic language family, and thus, sounds like other regional languages such as Uzbek, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz. Most importantly, unlike the Hui, most Uyghurs reside in Xinjiang province that they wish to claim.

China's Muslim Kasghar market

Meanwhile, the Hui never challenge the territorial authority of the ruling party. They only care whether they can practice their religion or not. Although the Hui experienced considerable discrimination throughout the centuries and fought back, they never desired an independent state. Interestingly, the amount of practicing Muslims among the Hui has been rising in recent years. They are now communicating with other Muslim groups more than ever due to increased trade between China and the Middle East. Three years ago, Emirates Airlines inaugurated direct flights between Dubai and Yinchuan. In response, Beijing is spending considerable sums to renovate Yinchuan, one of the Hui hubs, to attract Arab business. It includes constructing a new airport terminal to accommodate the estimated rush of Muslim tourists from the Middle East and a $3.7 billion Islamic theme park.

China's Muslim minority Hui

Although the Communist Party is an outwardly atheist, from the level of religious and political freedom experienced by Hui Muslims, the motivation behind the difference in treatment brings another explanation on the issue. The mastery of Mandarin has allowed Hui to mingle freely with the Han despite their faith. In contrast, many Uyghurs struggle with Mandarin, which prevents them from finding employment within the government or a state-owned enterprise, the two best paying sectors in Xinjiang. The government has been putting much effort towards addressing this problem with bilingual schooling but to no avail. Media outlets often attribute Beijing's repression in Xinjiang to Islamophobia. However, it may not bias towards Islam, but a response to the fear of territory loss.

Silk Road Adventure | Silk Road Private Tour

Join this Silk Road Adventure private tour to explore the ancient trade routes the old way – overland. Starting from Badain Jaran, by the southern tip of the great Gobi desert, travel to the city of Kashgar, at the edge of China, bordering four Central Asian republics.

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