Islam in China

Conversion of Chinese peoples to Islam began in the 10th century and by the time of the Mongol invasion of the 13th century was widespread. The faith had originally arrived at China’s southern ports in the 8th century with Arab merchants, but also spread in what is now China’s northwest through land contacts. While the Mongol Yuán dynasty (1276–1368) had no religion (Kubilai Khan asked the Pope for religious teachers who never arrived, and had a Tibetan lama as his main religious adviser), it had Muslim allies who undertook the suppression of parts of China on behalf of the Mongols. The vast borderless area that constituted the Mongol empire allowed Muslims from Central Asia to move more freely into China’s northwest and southwest. Small states of Turkic-speaking Uighur people continued to exist during Mongol rule and educated Uighur became influential at the Mongol court and taught the Mongols how to write using the Uighur script. They eventually abandoned this themselves in favour of the Arabic script of the Koran.

Many stayed on in Běijīng after the restoration of Chinese rule under the Míng, working as court eunuchs, interpreters, bodyguards, and in other official positions, or at a lower level as merchants and butchers of sheep. It was imperially-connected Muslims residents of Běijīng who funded repairs of the Ox Street Mosque in 1496 and 1613. The religion’s estimated six mosques in Běijīng survived the transition to Manchu rule in 1644, and Islam was formally recognised as a domestic religion and guaranteed equal treatment by the Yōngzhèng emperor (reigned 1723–35).

From the beginning of the largely closed and inward-looking Míng period to modern times, Muslims in China have been cut off from the Islamic mainstream and have become Chinese Muslims. In much of China, Muslim intermarriages with the majority Hàn Chinese and their adoption of Chinese names, customs, and language made them almost indistinguishable from other Hàn, and today they are labelled by the government as a separate ‘nationality’, the Huí.

The other Muslim minorities, such as the Uighur, are mostly from northwest China’s Xīnjiāng ‘Autonomous’ Region and of Central Asian stock, closely related to Turks and speaking languages similar to Turkish. Despite their shared faith, they do not always have good relations with the Huí, who, apart from their dietary restrictions and prayer habits, seem little different from the Hàn. The decline of the Qīng in the 19th century saw a re-emergence of Muslim sensibilities and a number of revolts, mostly in Xīnjiāng and Gānsù Province, where Muslims of all kinds were in the majority.

In general, Chinese government policy towards Muslims has tended to fluctuate depending on its sense of threat from the outside, and Muslim occupation of sensitive border areas has informed a history of intolerance by the Hàn. The Muslim response has varied, those Muslims forming visible minorities in the major cities of China proper tending to be quiescent, and those forming majorities in outlying areas, whether Huí or Central Asian, periodically rising up against Hàn oppression. Islam draws no distinction between religious and secular behaviour and thus is bound to try to obtain Islamic government to ensure that the will of Allah is carried out. Muslim minorities therefore suffer strain between loyalty to the countries in which they live and loyalty to Islamic principles. Left to themselves they can submit to the non-Muslim ruler, but when oppression becomes too great, as it has periodically in 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century China, there is a tendency to rise up. This is a lesson that the Hàn have had to learn again and again.

On the other hand, if given a larger voice, Muslims will tend to speak up for secession (as during the 1956–7 ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, the one time when criticism of the Party was invited). However, much play was made of Muslim protests during the Tiān’ān Mén Square demonstrations of 1989, which were directed to the government rather than at it. These were ‘good’ protesters, in contrast to the ‘bad’ students and others who had occupied the square.

The emancipation of Muslim communities in neighbouring states of Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union caused the Chinese government some disquiet. Fearing that the Uighur of the northwest would want to emulate their neighbours, China moved fairly swiftly to set up the Shànghǎi Five mechanism in 1996 to improve cooperation and to settle outstanding border disputes.

There is plentiful talk of emancipation among the Uighur, but except for occasional local outbursts of discontent and isolated acts of terrorism, including bomb attacks in Běijīng in the late ’90s, this is likely to remain just talk. Secessionists seem to be emotional and impractical, especially considering the lack of defensible borders to Xīnjiāng’s east and the maintenance by the Chinese of around two million men under arms. Běijīng moved swiftly to have dissent of any kind in Xīnjiāng labelled terrorist, thus enlisting the so-called ‘War on Terror’ in support of its own repression there.

All but the Indo-European Tajiks of western Xīnjiāng are Sunnis, although the isolation of Chinese Muslims means that there’s less emphasis on the differences between Sunni and Shia (a matter of argument about descent from the Prophet and interpretation of his actions). The Huí at prayer seem considerably more serious about it than people of other persuasions you may see in Běijīng’s temples and churches, except possibly Tibetan visitors to the Lama Temple.

See links below for other sights South of Qián Mén and to other Běijīng stories, or go to the Main Index of A Better Guide to Beijing (home page).

Next in South of Qián Mén: Fǎyuán Sì
Previous: Ox Street Mosque
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For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.