Islam in China is not one

Over the past few days I have seen articles in the media which refer to “Chinese Muslims,” and then make such a casual and slight distinction between Muslims in China and the Uyghur ethnic group that I think it’s really misleading to the general public (e.g., Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in China. We found that the Internet fuels — and fights — this).

To review, Muslims in China are multi-ethnic. The two largest groups, the Hui and Uyghurs, comprise nearly 90% of Chinese Muslims. There are marginally more Hui than Uyghurs.

Who are the Hui? The Chinese government defines Hui as an ethnic group, but really they are differentiated by their adherence to Islam. Hui speak a dialect of Chinese specific to their locality. They do not have a “Hui language.” Physically they resemble the Han. Because of their long period of isolation in China after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty, the Hui have gone through several indigenizing phases.In the 18th century in eastern China the Hui intellectual classes synthesized Chinese cultural frameworks with Islam in a fascinating manner. The whole project is recounted in The Dao of Muhammad.

These periods of Sinicization are often followed a reformist globalist revival triggered by missionaries or those who went on pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam with Chinese characterizes recedes for a generation or two, only to come back.

In the 19th century to a great extent the project of social accommodation with the Han by the Hui collapsed in the face of social disorder, anti-Muslim policies by the Manchus, and reformist movements inspired by broader currents in the Islamic world. Though the Hui are a very small minority, unlike the Han a military career was not low status for them, so they “punched above” their weight.

In the 20th and 21st centuries the Hui have been relatively quiescent. Why? There are numerous reasons, but it is important to emphasize that there are many strong contrasts with how the Hui are treated and perceived, and how they perceive China, in relation to  what is meted out to the Uyghurs. The Hui are no less Muslim than Uyghurs, but they are not the political and social problem in China that Uyghurs are.

Though the Chinese state defines Hui as one of the minority “nationalities,” that is really a semantic obfuscation. The Hui are most easily conceptualized as Han Muslims, even though some of their customs separate them very strongly from the Han (e.g., no consumption of pork), and traditionally Han identity has been seen as exclusive from an Islamic identity. That is, a Han who converts to Islam becomes a Hui by definition.

Though in a Chinese context one could never call the Hui “Han Muslims,” from a non-Chinese perspective it is very informative of the relationship and difference of the Hui from the Han, as opposed to the Uyghur from the Han.

Two Uyghur men

Obviously the Uyghur are not Han, they are Turkic. Uyghur nationalists have pan-Turkic associations, and many Uyghurs live in Turkey. As a Turkic people Uyghurs, unlike Hui, do not speak Chinese as their first language. The attempt to educate Uyghur children in Mandarin Chinese to enable them to assimilate and succeed economically has faced resistance because Uyghurs see in this the first steps to assimilation and eventually alienation.

Though Hui are very distinctive in China proper, and live in their own segregated areas in much of the north (in southern China this is less common, and Hui assimilation into Han identity has also been widespread), they are still part of the Chinese landscape. Muslims have lived in China proper since the Tang dynasty, 1,300 years ago. Large numbers of Muslims arrived with the Mongols 800 years ago, and many stayed on. As a minority in a non-Muslim society these people had to navigate how to be both Chinese and Muslim, when much of Chinese identity deviated from world normative Islam in deep ways.

The Uyghurs did not go through any of this because they were not part of China until the 20th century. Though Chinese garrisons and hegemony did exist in Xinjiang during portions of the Han and Tang dynasty, up until the Manchu conquest of these territories in the mid-18th century the Uyghurs had not been part of the same political unit with Han Chinese for over 1,000 years, with the exception of the short Mongol interlude. In fact, the ethnogenesis of modern Uyghurs, as a blending of Turkic migrants from the north and native Indo-Eurpean speaking groups in the Tarim basin, was concurrent with the collapse of Chinese influence in what became the eastern edge of the Turkic world.

Notice I was very specific in saying that they became part of the same political unit with Han Chinese in the middle of the 18th century. This because outside of China proper the Manchu emperors did not necessarily rule as Chinese potentates. Rather, they took on different forms for their different subject peoples, and the conquest of the heart of Eurasia was not a conquest by the state of China, but of the Manchu ruling caste. Any attempts to Sinicize Xinjiang came later, and were halting at best. While Chinese speaking Muslims in Beijing were theorizing how Muhammad actually completed the Confucian vision better than most Chinese, the Uyghurs simply swapped the rule of nearby Tibetan Buddhist Oirat Mongols for a distant Manchu ruler, who was also sympathetic to Tibetan Buddhist religion and claimed a kinship with the Mongols through descent from Genghis Khan’s younger brother.

The problem that the modern Chinese state has is that it rejects the feudal multicultural compromises of the imperial past. Though Communist regimes pay lip service to national self-determination, the reality in Communist regimes has always been that the party has enforced a normative ethnic identity as one that is aspirational for minorities. The Chinese state suppression of the religion of the Uyghurs, the promotion of Mandarin, the encouragement of migration to Xinjiang by Han, and even inducements in some cases for Uyghurs to intermarry with Han, are all part of a general pattern of activity which will result in the assimilation of the Uyghur nation.

It is apparently a fact that while Islamic belief and practice by Uyghurs is sharply frowned upon by Han authorities in Xinjiang, in most of China proper Hui religiosity is relatively tolerated. Hui are even seen as appropriate ambassadors to Muslim nations for purposes of diplomacy and business, because they show how China can accommodate Islam. Unlike the Uyghurs the Hui do not have a geographical region where they are dominant (Muslims are 35% of the population of the small province set aside for Hui). Their national home is China. Additionally, obviously they would not resist Mandarin Chinese instruction, because they are already Chinese speakers. Unlike the Uyghur, who have substantial West Eurasian ancestry, the Hui are also physically no different from Han.

In Central Asia the Hui have a different name. They are called Dungans. And traditionally they have been overrepresented among soldiers and merchants from China. Within China the Hui are exotic and somewhat out of place due to their religion. But in Central Asia the Hui are exotic and somewhat out of place due to their Chineseness. Hui were important in keeping Xinjiang in the Manchu fold after the conquest. Many Uyghurs know this history of cooperation between Han and Hui. In the 2009 Urumqi riots the Uyghurs reportedly chanted “Kill the Han, kill the Hui”.

None of this is to deny that Islam presents challenges as a minority religion within a non-Muslim nation. The Hui rebellions of the 19th century, and periodic flare ups between Hui and Han in the Chinese heartland, attest to this. But differences between Uyghurs and Hui illustrate that excessive focus on Islam misses that Uyghur violence in response to Chinese coercion likely has multiple causes. Islam over the last generation has been the most powerful binding ideology for national resistance among Uyghurs. But it would be far less relevant if the Uyghurs were not a nation in the first place, which they are.

Another way to say it is that Tibet and Xinjiang have many of the same underlying parameters as to why they are hotbeds of ethnic tension and separatism. Religion is part of the story.

Related: Islam in China Revisited.

15 thoughts on “Islam in China is not one

  1. Great historical stuff as well Razib.

    If the conditions were right(well paid) could you imagine yourself ever teaching a course/lecture series on global historic meta-ethnic movements and identity? Seems like you have a fairly unique set of skills and could elucidate some very useful models for global history.

      1. I suppose this really goes beyond history and applies to your writing in anthropology as well. I know you probably cherish genomics but am I right in saying that history and other fields of human sciences are close run for your heart?

        I’m frankly surprised you haven’t been solicited by anybody in the historical profession. At the very least as a reviewer. I mean when I was writing my thesis your writings/reviews(Roman to Post-Roman population/identity changes) were considerably better than those within the field that I was drawing on.

        1. the problem with having me as a reviewer is that they might get shit for it. jd vance gets shit for citing me from liberals now because i’m a racist/white supremacist in their eyes.

          basically the only thing i care about in the USA is getting money now. the liberal mainstream is dominated by liars and fools who intimidate everyone (liberal ppl who follow me on twitter can’t even RT me without getting bitched out on DMs now). those who dissent don’t want to speak up for fear of being accused of being white supremacists.

          i am hopeful that i can still do stuff related to truth in china and india in the future as those societies develop. they seem less infested by the same high-toned kommissar culture we’ve got going on here, and are operationally far more open.* the censorship they have is above-board, as opposed through enforcement through back-channel terror networks.

          of course, if we get our own sulla in the near future i won’t shed a tear at the coming proscriptions 😉

          * i’m kind of sick of my liberal friends telling me that not all liberals are like that, since they don’t have to endure the shit i have to endure. most people keep their mouths shut. they’re smart to do that. but they’re gutless cowards too. i guess that’s good if you want to lead the sheeple.

  2. Excellent post. You really ought to think about collecting your posts on Islam (with minor editing) into a short trade non-fiction anthology. It would fill a glaring gap in what is available now on the subject, and would be more readable than a lot of treatments of Islam oriented at outsiders.

    1. i’ve not really wanted to talk about this stuff for a long time, but i don’t see the media covering things with the depth and factual robustness that i think is warranted. so here i am….

      1. Have you ever considered an ebook of collected writings? It is a shame that the fields you have touched on haven’t recognised your insightful contributions. Some of your pieces are scattered(personally didn’t mind going through the Discover archives) so having it all together by topics could be a great introduction and in practice it serves as a businesscard.

        1. yeah. i have.

          this website should have all the archives though now (including discover).

          if you want to find the ‘best of’ and send me an email go ahead. i would want to reedit them. but then i’d ebook them.

          depends on time. i got other stuff going on.

          1. Can totally understand that you don’t want to spend time doing. Marketing wise it might be an investment worth making. In any event I suggested to Sailer that he merely ask his audience to identify the best articles on particular topics. You could do the same. Let them do most of the research and you can stick to the editing.

  3. Qing authorities in fact distinguish Chinese speaking Muslim and Turkic Muslim as Han Hui (Muslim) and Turban-headed Hui (Muslim) respectively in official documents.

    But Hui certainly have cultural practices that set them apart from Han beside religion of Islam.

    Hui practice marrying paternal cousins or your father’s brother’s daughter like Arabs and Arab influenced Muslims.

    Among Han, sexual relations among paternal cousins would violate the incest taboo! (only exception would be marrying your father’s sister’s daughter which is treated in the same category as your maternal cousins. But no-no among people who share the same Clan family surname!

    1. Hui practice marrying paternal cousins or your father’s brother’s daughter like Arabs and Arab influenced Muslims.

      that is not a cultural practice, that is a religious practice. there are hadiths which support this sort of marriage. just an fyi. (as you show the distinction btwn cultural and religious practice is actually kind of specious; the reality is that there are hadiths which justify cousin marriage, though i would argue these are weak hadiths and easy to ignore).

  4. Another caveat is that PRC has effectively defined Hui as an ethnicity. While traditionally if a Han converts into Islam, He/She became Hui. But not so today. Today such person would be known as Han Musilm. Whereas there are plenty of young Hui who self-identify as Hui but do not identify as Muslim.

  5. I imagine that the conception of Uighurs as “Chinese Muslims” must be a challenging one for them to accept. They are only “Chinese” in the political sense. Kind of like “Israeli Arabs”, I suppose.

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