Huis are often called ‘Chinese Muslims’ to differentiate them from other Muslim ethnic groups in China, such as the Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. They are, in fact, descended in part from Persian- and Turkic-speaking traders, artisans and soldiers from Central Asia, of whom many were conscripted during the reign of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in the thirteenth century. Over time the Hui have intermarried with Han Chinese (hence the designation ‘Chinese Muslims’), yet they have vigorously maintained their own religion, culture and identity.
Since the Manchu emperors’ occupation of the western regions, the Hui have twice risen successfully in revolt against their Han masters – first in the mid-nineteenth century and again in the 1930s; on each occasion they were supported by the Turkic Muslim minorities of Xinjiang.
Yet the Hui are generally considered closer to the Han than to their Muslim compatriots, and are therefore often perceived as untrustworthy and sometimes as insufficiently observant in their Muslim practice. Uighurs, for example – who will not eat in Han Chinese restaurants on principle – are sometimes reluctant to eat even in Hui restaurants, in case correct halal food preparation rituals have not been observed.
The Hui are spread widely over the western areas of China, but under Communist rule were given their own ‘autonomous’ province, Ningxia, on the Yellow River. There they enjoy generally greater religious freedom than do the other Muslims of western China. The Hui population of Xinjiang numbers less than 1 million, and consists of roughly five percent of the province’s population.
Although decorated with Islamic ornamentation, Hui mosques tend to Han Chinese styles on their exteriors and are thus easily differentiated from the mosques of the Turkic-speaking people of Xinjiang.