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POPULATION: 9.8 million
LANGUAGE: Chinese dialect of the area in which they live
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities


The Hui are the most widely distributed of all the national minorities of China. Early in the 7th century, a great number of Arabic and Persian merchants came to China through the sea route. Setting down in Guangzhou, Quanzhou, Hangzhou, Yangzhou, and Xi'an (formerly Chang'an), quite a number of them married and multiplied in this land. They built up the first mosques and established the Muslims' graveyard.

In the 13th century, a great number of Muslims from Persia, Arabia, and Central Asia immigrated through the land route and established themselves in various parts of China, in the northwest, the Central Plains, Yunnan and the lower reaches of the Yangzi River. It was at this time that they received the name Huihui.

From the Yuan Dynasty (1271—1368) to the Ming Dynasty (1368—1644), many people of Uighur, Mongolian, and Chinese origin were assimilated to the Huihui due to intermarriage and religious affiliation. In the meantime, there were also many Huihui assimilated to the Chinese for the same reasons. A new Hui nationality gradually came into being from the reunion of Huihui of different origins. The Hui, therefore, are a nationality that took shape in China, but whose history is very different from the aboriginal nationalities living in China from time immemorial.


The Hui are widely distributed throughout the country but are mainly concentrated in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region; one also finds Hui in Gansu, Qinghai, Henan, Hebei, Shandong, and Yunnan provinces. Hui population was estimated at 9.8 million in 2000, representing the third-largest national minority of China after the Zhuang and the Manchus.


The Hui spoke Arabic, Persian, and/or Chinese in the past. They have no specific language of their own. Today, they use the Chinese language and writing. Retaining some words of Arabic and Persian origin, they speak exactly the same Chinese dialects as the peoples among whom they live.


Most of the Hui myths are related to Allah. The story of "Human Ancestor Adang" described how Hanwu married Haowa, who had 72 successive childbirths. Each time she gave birth to a boy and a girl. At the seventy-third childbearing, however, only a boy was born. Since he had no woman, he went to heaven and asked for the decree of Allah. He was kept in heaven, while 144 brothers and sisters were carried by a strong wind to all parts of the world. Human beings thus multiplied.

Another myth narrates how the goddess Duor Tea in remote antiquity was banished from Heaven by Allah because she did not fulfill her duty. She was ordered to do philanthropic works to atone for her crime. So she transformed herself into a tea tree, gave a gold axe to a poor man, and ordered him to cut the tea leaves with the axe and use them to treat various illnesses of the villagers. Finally, she returned to Heaven with her axe but not before the Hui had developed the good habit of drinking tea.

The myth of "Adang and Haowa" relates a story similar to that of "Adam and Eve." There are many other myths dealing with the origin of social and religious customs (for instance, "Adang in search of kindling material," "The Dragon Plate," and "Mohammed," are all connected with Hui belief).


The Hui believe in Islam (also called Hui religion). The word "Islam" means obedience—to be obedient to the orders of Allah and to be the messenger of Allah. The believers are called Muslims. Islam was created by Mohammed, the messenger of Allah in Arabia in the 7th century. The Koran is the scripture of Islam. It stipulates that Muslims should recite the scripture frequently, hold the Corban Festival, fast in the daytime during September (Islamic calendar), hand in dues and go once to the Holy City Mecca to pay respects. In China, the man who takes charge of religious matters and teaches the Islamic scriptures is called Ahung (teacher). He is invited to preside over the ceremonies connected with birth, marriage, and death. The mosque is the place where Muslims recite the scriptures. Because of the shortage of qualified personnel of Hui religion, students have been enrolled in Shanxi and in Shandong provinces to learn the scriptures. Now, there are special universities for students learning Islamic scriptures and doing research in Islamic theology.


In addition to the Spring Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival of China, the Hui have three important holidays: the Fast-Breaking Festival (Lesser Bairam), the Corban Festival, and the Shengji Festival. All adult Muslims should fast during September, abstaining from food and drink from daybreak to sunset. During this period, smoking is also prohibited. Everybody restrains one's selfish desires and sincerely believes in Allah. The beginning and the end of the month of fast (Ramadan) depend on the visibility of the new moon. If the moon is not visible, the Fast-Breaking Festival should be postponed until the next day. At the end of the one-month fast, the celebration among the Hui is at its peak.

December 10 (Islamic calendar) is the Corban (sacrifice offering) Festival. Every family must clean the house, kill oxen and/or sheep, pay visits to relatives and friends, and entertain guests for dinner. The Shenji Festival is on March 12 (Islamic calendar), a memorial to Mohammed. The Hui will go to the mosque to greet each other and to participate in religious activities. There will be food and drink in the mosque for the Muslims.


At birth, the infant receives from the Ahung an Arabic name usually corresponding to the name of a sage or saint of the Koran. This name is called the "scripture name." To conform to the brevity of Chinese names (one or two syllables), the polysyllabic Arabic name is usually simplified, adding the Chinese suffix zi to the name. This custom is most prevalent in northwest China. Again following the Chinese naming system, the given Arabic name is preceded by the Chinese surname. When the child has gone through the name-giving ritual, he becomes a Muslim. The Ahung also presides at the wedding ceremony and at the funeral rites of the Hui.

Funeral rites last no more than three days. The body should be washed and wrapped with white cloth (five layers for the woman and three for the man). The Hui practice burial in the ground without a coffin. They dig a perpendicular hollow, more than 12 ft in depth, then make a pit for the body on the west wall of the hollow. The head of the body points toward the north. The body lies on its side, facing west, the direction of Mecca. The Ahung will be invited to recite scriptures during the burying and on the seventh and fortieth day after the death.

The Hui are fond of cleanliness. They take a bath or at least wash their face, mouth, nose, hands, and feet before each religious service.


When a Hui family entertains guests for dinner, the host will continue pressing more rice into the guests' bowls, even after they have eaten to satiety. The guest should receive the dish or bowl with both hands.

The Hui avoid pork; they also refrain from ox or sheep meat that has not been butchered by the Ahung. Their customs and religious beliefs discourage their young ones from dating and marrying non-Hui people. However, a growing number of young people are becoming indifferent to religious beliefs and customs and tend to adopt the way of life of the Chinese majority. Dating and intermarriage between them are on the increase.


Because of their wide and scattered distribution, the living conditions of the Hui vary a great deal. They are engaged in farming in the rural areas, while in the urban areas, they engage in various trades and professions. Their living standards are similar to those of the majority Chinese. Their housing varies in the different districts.

The Hui have their own traditional prescriptions for illness. They resort both to Chinese traditional medicine and to modern medicine. There are Hui hospitals established in Hui districts and in large cities (modern facilities); these usually take the Hui religious life and customs into consideration.


The Hui family is patrilineal and monogamous. The position of women in the family is usually lower than that of men. In families where both spouses work, the position of the man and the woman is the same. The aged are esteemed. There are many large families in which the parents live with their sons and daughters-in-law.

Women who work as professionals in urban areas have full freedom to choose their mate. Arranged marriage, however, is still prevalent in rural areas. Chinese law stipulates that to be legal, a marriage must be registered with the proper state authorities; however, according to Islamic customary law, a man can take a wife only if the ceremony is witnessed by the Ahung. The Hui must therefore perform a double (civil and religious) marriage ceremony.


The Hui scattered in various parts of China usually wear the same clothes as those of the Chinese. Most of the men wear a white or black hat (or turban) in religious services. Some of them, such as those living in Gansu and Qinghai provinces, wear the hat every day. Hui women wear a special gaitou (head cover), a folded cloth (only partly sewn) covering her hair, neck, and back, leaving only her face uncovered. These kerchiefs are mainly black. Girls prefer them in green and aged women, white. Hui clothes tend to be fashionable.


The Hui take three meals a day. Their staple foods include rice, flour, corn, millet, and yams. Quite a variety of foods are taboo, mainly the flesh of animals, such as pigs, donkeys, and mules. Furthermore, the Hui do not eat the flesh of ox, sheep, or poultry that died of illness, nor flesh of ox and sheep that were not butchered by the Ahung or other Muslims. They are not allowed to eat in ordinary canteens or restaurants. Therefore, almost all schools, factories, and organizations have established particular canteens for the Hui. Also, cities have a number of Muslim restaurants. The cooks, waitresses, and ordinary workers of the Hui canteens or restaurants are exclusively Muslims.

The Hui like salted beef. They add salt and spice to fresh beef, massage it vigorously, put it in a large earthen container, cover it with a lid, and seal it. Two weeks later, they take it out and let it sit in the open air. The meat may then be fried, stewed, or cooked with rice. This is considered a high-grade dish with which to entertain guests.

The Hui like tea and usually do not indulge themselves in smoking and drinking. They also like a gruel of sweetened, fried flour. They mix flour of wheat, buckwheat, and rice together and fry, then add butter, fry again, and put the mixture in a pot to cool it down. They serve it by adding boiling water and sugar to two or three spoonfuls of fried flour in a glass.


The educational level of the Hui in northwest China is lower than that of the Hui living in Yunnan Province and in the cities. Quite a number of Hui professors, scientists, writers, artists, medical doctors, and lawyers are doing well. Some of them are known at home and abroad. The parents fully support the education of their children. Hui middle (junior and senior) schools, even for girls, are established in the urban areas. The Scripture College trains specialists of Islamic teachings. As a result, the educational level of the Hui is, by and large, higher than the average of national minorities in China.


Again, due to the broad regional dissemination of the Hui, their traditional culture has been integrated with that of the local nationalities. On the other hand, some of the Hui cultural traits have been adopted by the nationalities that share a common territory with the Hui. For example, the Huar folk songs, loud and clear, bold and restrained, are nowadays a common favorite of many nationalities of northwest regions. The Hui writers have produced a number of fine works, which, however, failed to attain national prominence on account of their particular features.


Hui production is very similar to that of the local people with whom they share a common territory. A number of daily necessities of Hui tradition have been produced by enamel factories managed by Hui people in Ningxia Province. Also, a variety of light refreshments for Muslims appears in the markets of many cities. Muslim cooks and butchers serve their own constituencies, but are sought after by other nationalities because of their professional competence.


The Hui generally practice the same sports as the Chinese. However, the "Wooden Ball" game is a tradition specific to the Hui of Ningxia. The ball is round or elliptic. The length of the stick is 2 ft, shaped like an ice hockey stick. The court, provided with a center line and two goals, is about 33 yds long and 22 yds wide. Each team has five players. The game lasts half an hour, divided into two periods.


Movies and television are rapidly becoming very popular. The adults like to sing Huar songs to express their dreams about the future and their romantic feelings. The lyrics are mostly impromptu. Some are solos and some are sung in antiphonal style. The Hui often sing while dancing. There used to be gatherings of thousands of Huar fans every year in the northwest region. In recent years, the number of such gatherings has increased, other nationalities joining in for large musical and singsong events.


The mosque buildings have different styles, usually consisting of a main hall, a hall for scriptures, and one for bathrooms, sometimes with subsidiary buildings. The roof ridge of the main hall is usually high. The interior walls are decorated with Arabic writings of artistic quality. There is a shallow cave on the central portion of the west wall, indicating the direction of their religious homage (toward Mecca).


The living conditions of the Hui are very diverse and depend essentially on their specific environment. Those who live in the underdeveloped northwest (Gansu, Xinjiang, Qinghai) share with their immediate neighbors the same need to catch up with the economic development of the coastal areas and areas along the Yangzi River.


The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. The gap in educational level between women and men is narrowing with women making up 47.1% of college students in 2005, but only 32.6% of doctoral students.

China has strict family planning laws, and it is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age, 22 for men, and it is illegal for single women to give birth. Though minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban minority couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.


Chiao, Chien, Nicholas Tapp, and Kam-yin Ho, ed. "Special Issue on Ethnic Groups in China." New Asia Bulletin no 8 (1989).

Dreyer, June Teufel. China's Forty Millions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Eberhard, Wolfram. China's Minorities: Yesterday and Today. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982.

Gustafsson, Bjorn A., Shi, Li, and Sicular, Terry, eds. Inequality and Public Policy in China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Heberer, Thomas. China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989.

Lebar, Frank, et al. Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1964.

Lemoine, Jacques. "Les Houei." In Ethnologie régionale II (Encyclopédie de la Pléiade). Paris: Gallimard, 1978.

Ma Yin, ed. China's Minority Nationalities. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989.

Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Shin, Leo Kwok-yueh. The Making of the Chinese State: Ethnicity and Expansion on the Ming Borderlands. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Wiens, Harold J. Han Chinese Expansion in South China. New Haven: The Shoestring Press, 1967.

—by C. Le Blanc


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ETHNONYMS: Chinese Muslims, Dungan, Hanhui, Huihui, Khojem, Mumin, Musilin, Panthay

With a population of 8,603,000 in 1990, the Hui are the most populous of China's Muslim peoples. They are also the most widespread, living in every city, province, and region of China, as well as in 2,308 of China's 2,372 counties. In China, Islam is most often known as "the Hui religion." The Hui are most populous in the following provinces, in declining order: Ningxia, Gansu, Henan, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Hebei; in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, they make up 31.6 percent of the population. Although the Hui may constitute a very small percentage of the population of any one region, they are often by far the largest minority group in the region in which they live. Some 6,000 Hui live in Lhasa, speak Tibetan, and are known as Tibetan Hui. There are also Hui who live in Taiwan.

The Hui differ from the other Muslim peoples of China in that they do not have a language of their own and speak the Chinese dialect of their locality. They are also unlike the other Muslims in that they do not have their own identifying literature or music. They do have a number of visible ethnic markers, which include caps or turbans and beards in some areas for the men and head scarves for the women. Nonconsumption of pork and mosque attendance also serve as ethnic identifiers, as does circumcision where it occurs. The Hui are often called "Chinese Muslims," even though they are regarded as a national minority rather than a religious community. One can be Han Chinese and Christian but not Han Chinese and Muslim.

The Hui are descended from Muslim (including Persian, Arab, and Turkish) traders, soldiers, and officials who came to China from the seventh century through the fourteenth century and who settled and married local Han women. For this reason, it is not uncommon to find the following physical characteristics in the Hui population: hazel-green eyes, beards, high-bridged noses, and light-colored hair. Most Hui can trace their descent line to a "foreign" ancestor. To retain religious purity and group identity the Hui have always segregated themselves socially from other people, in enclaves. The Hui population has been growing rapidly; in the years between 1953 and 1990, it has grown 2.4 percent annually. Although this growth is largely the result of natural increase, it also has to do with Hui marriage practices. Hui women are nearly always forbidden to marry non-Hui, but Hui men may marry Han or other non-Hui women who are willing to follow Islamic practice. When Hui men marry Han women, those Han women change their registration with the government to "Hui," and the children of the union are raised as Hui. Hui consider it impossible for a Hui person to become Han, whereas the reverse is feasible.

In rural areas the Hui tend to reside in villages separate from Han and other groups, though the Hui are in many cases indistinguishable from their non-Hui neighbors in their employment. In the north they are primarily growers of wheat and dry rice; in the south they raise wet rice. City-dwelling Hui are most often laborers or factory workers. Nevertheless, the Hui are famous as traders, and it was their interest in profitable business ventures that led them to be dispersed all over China and even beyond its borders. Today, 29 percent of the Hui work in service industries, the highest proportion of any ethnic group in China.

Hui marriage practices tend toward endogamy in all respects, especially in the northwestern part of China, where the Hui are culturally and religiously conservative. There one finds pronounced village endogamy, surname endogamy, and religious-order endogamy. The prevalence of these types of endogamy has led to some first-cousin marriages, and marriages between those who share a common ancestor within five generations, which is now illegal under Chinese law.

The words qing zhen (pure and true) are often associated with Hui life, in reference to all Islamic ideals. These words are often placed on the signs of Hui establishments and on products in which Islamic ideals of purity are supposedly maintained: restaurants, food stores, bakeries, ice cream stores, candy wrappers, mosques, incense packages, and Islamic literature. In the case of food, qing zhen means that the food is free of contamination by pork and other unclean foods and is ritually purified.

The majority of Hui are Sunni, Hanafi Muslims; many have never heard of Shiite Muslims. Hui Islam has been greatly influenced by Sufism since the seventeenth century, and currently about 20 percent are in Sufi orders. The Sufi movement caused the Hui to organize themselves into religious orders, each of which adheres to a school of thought established by a Sufi saintly leader. In addition, mosque leaders have allegiance to their shaykhs, Sufi elders who lead the orders and who appoint them. Some orders are concerned with adherents' participation in secular affairs, others with saint veneration or scriptural reform, etc. In turbulent times, Hui adherence to their orders provided networks, centralized command, and a means of transmitting political leadership. There have been many schisms in the various orders, leading to the creation of new orders, as different groups have attempted to make Islam more meaningful to the Hui people. In the late nineteenth century, Hui reformers spread the teachings and practice of the Ikwan Muslim Brotherhood (Wahhabi). This denomination is very strong in Qinghai and Gansu provinces. Despite this religious and social divisiveness, the Hui and other Muslim peoples sometimes function together, as was the case when Muslims publicly protested against Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses and against the publication of a Chinese book, Sexual Customs, which they believed denigrated Muslim peoples.

There is great variability in the religious conservatism of the Hui. In northwest China the Hui are very conservative and are growing more so. There, leaders and parents have placed a great deal of emphasis on religious education, especially the study of the Quran. Many of these parents also question the value of studying Chinese language, history, and other subjects in public schools. Conservatism has also increased in other respects: in some places smoking and the consumption of alcohol are now prohibited where they were once common. In contrast, in northeastern China many Hui smoke, drink, and eat pork when away from home.


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Broomhall, Marshall (1910). Islam in China: A Neglected Problem. New York: Paragon.

Chang, Haji Yusuf (1987) "The Hui (Muslim) Minority in China: An Historical Overview." Journal, Institute for Muslim Minority Affairs 8(l):62-78.

Drake, F. S. (1943). "Mohammedanism in the T'ang Dynasty." Monumenta Serica 8:1-40.

Gladney, Dru C. (1991). Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People's Republic. Cambridge: Harvard University, Council on East Asian Studies.

Israeli, Raphael (1984). "Muslims in China: Islam's Incompatibility with the Chinese Order." In Islam in Asia, edited by Raphael Israeli and Anthony H. Johns. Vol. 2. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Lipman, Jonathan N. (1987). "Hui-Hui: An Ethnohistory of the Chinese-Speaking Muslims." Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 11:112-130.

Pillsbury, Barbara L. K. (1981). "Muslim History in China: A 1300-Year Chronology." Journal, Institute for Muslim Minority Affairs 3 (2): 10-29.



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Hui (brotherhoods): see SECRET SOCIETIES.