Guangtian Ha – On the Hui Muslims of China

We were thrilled to speak to Guangtian Ha of Haverford College on the Hui Muslims of China.

We discuss the history of Hui Muslims and how the Hui have (so far) avoided the State violence inflicted on Uighurs, Kazakhs and Inner Mongolians.

Dr. Ha was game for all my questions, and with a cheeky sense of humor throughout our interview – chiding me for some of my own misconceptions – provides a great introduction to Hui Muslims. I hope you enjoy our interview below! 

Asia Art Tours: Could you introduce yourself briefly? What is your academic background and why did you choose to focus on the Hui?

Guangtian Ha: I am an assistant professor of religion at Haverford College. Prior to coming to Haverford I was a postdoctoral research fellow and research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. I received my PhD in cultural anthropology from Columbia University.

My own academic background is a bit of a mix: my undergraduate degree was in sociology; my PhD was in anthropology; I worked on the music (ethnomusicology) department at SOAS in London; and now I teach in a cosy religion department.

Why did I choose to focus on the Hui? I didn’t choose it; it chose me. I wanted to study anthropology, which requires its students to carry out extensive fieldwork as the definitive training. I am a Hui myself, and knowing that food sharing and religious rituals are essential for creating and sustaining social relations practically everywhere, I knew what I could do for fieldwork was naturally limited by my own faith (Islam). So I picked the easy way out: I chose to study the Hui.

The easy way turned out to be considerably more difficult than I anticipated. I needed to learn Arabic and Persian just to reconnect with a legacy all but forgotten by many Hui. The outcome is somewhat surprisingly anthropological in that the history and the identity that supposedly made me became increasingly unfamiliar to me as my research advanced. Which is why I still find the topic fascinating, though I am now moving beyond the Hui.

(For Hui food, there are regional variations, though some common food is shared across all Hui groups. There is youxiang a sort of deep-fried dough often consumed after communal rituals. Photo/Caption Credit: Guangtian Ha

Asia Art Tours: Broadly speaking, what is the historical legacy of the Hui? How did they come to China? Where are they located in the present day? How are the understood in terms of their identity (ethnically Han but practicing Muslims)?

Guangtian Ha: I really have to be *very* broad. It is almost as if you were being asked ‘what is the historical legacy of the white Americans’? You know instantly that this is a question that makes little sense because that would include practically all the continents and most civilisations in the world, plus institutions of slavery, different forms of patriarchy, wars and political battles, and so on. In other words, ‘historical legacy’ should include as much political and economic factors — which, more often than not, are global in making — as it does so-called cultural ones.

So how did the Hui come to China? The Hui did not come to China. There were no Hui in China back in the days — back in, say, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) when we had the first record of Muslim Arab convoys to China. Some scholars — Hui historians in particular — dated the first arrival of Islam in China to these early convoys, which, frankly, is absurd.

(Video of Yunnan zansheng. Pious Hui Muslims practice melodic prophetic panegyrics and the melodies they adopt may be influenced by local musical traditions they share with non-Muslims. Video Credit- Guangtian Ha)

The history of the Hui can be told differently, following different historical paths, none of which is unassailable historically or logically. This is where the last question (how are the Hui understood/how do they understand themselves in terms of identity, i.e., ethnically Han but religious Muslim, or ethnically different altogether) can be answered, too. For if you follow religion as the main criterion to draw the line, you could say the ancestors of the Hui are Arab, Persian, Turkic, and other Muslims who came to China and settled down and married local women and the current Hui are their descendants. This is almost the canonical narrative on Hui’s ethnic origin. Islam is the core, while ethnically the Hui have a mixed origin. You can immediately spot the problem with this story: Persians did not convert to Islam all on one go and Turkic peoples were even later-comers to Islam.

This means not all Persians and Turks who came to China can be considered the ancestors of the Hui; the same applies to Arabs, if perhaps to a lesser degree. Then you have the androcentric side of the story, too: we have records of Muslim or at least possibly Arab, Persian, Turkic, and Mongolian women in China who might also have been Muslims and who married non-Muslim husbands. These women must also be excluded: Muslims can only take women in, we cannot marry them out. So you must make all these assumptions — clearly ideological in nature — to tell a seemingly coherent story about the origin of the Hui. Therefore, the question ‘how did they come to China’ is almost unanswerable because who ‘they’ are is not clear and perhaps can never be quite as clear as we wish it to be.

Where are they located in the present day? They can be found in almost every city, county, or town of China. We are everywhere and we are the green peril? (colour green often considered a Muslim colour; whether this indicates a historical Shi’i influence I am not sure. However, it is a fact that Hui Islam exhibits traces of Persian Sufism — by which I mean Sufi ideas conveyed in Islamic works composed in Farsi.)

Asia Art Tours: How did their religious practice co-evolve with the state in a way that led them become both openly pious yet broadly accepted by the state and fellow citizens?

Guangtian Ha: Throughout history the Hui were ‘openly pious’ only in select periods, and even in those periods being ‘open’ could mean a variety of things. For instance, Hui Muslims are still allowed to pray in their homes and in mosques (Some mosques have reopened while others still remain closed due to the pandemic; some fear the pandemic could be an excuse for the government to shut down these mosques permanently.). Yet most minarets and the domes often considered to mark the architectural style of a mosque have been demolished across the country. Can the Hui be ‘openly pious’?

Of course they can: some Muslim women are still wearing their hijabs (This also depends on where you live; if you live in the Uyghur region the veil is banned. Since your readers should by now already know what is taking place in the Uyghur homeland, I will not repeat it here.), and men can still wear their little white skull caps. Halal food is still being sold, though all Arabic signage need be covered or scraped. Between ‘openly pious’ and ‘secretly pious’ are ever so many shades of being open that any simple answer may be misleading.

As of now, I do not think there is broad acceptance, even tolerance of Islam among the general non-Muslim population in China. Islamophobia is widespread and being stoked by the state.

Mutton is essential for Eid al-Adha, or Qurbān, as it is more commonly referred to by the Hui. Mutton is not consumed nearly as much by non-Muslims in China, so to some extent it constitutes a quintessentially Muslim food (Photo 1 – youxiang and boiled mutton). And almost all stalls that sell stews of lamb entrails are owned by the Hui (Photo 2). Photo/Caption Credit: Guangtian Ha)

Asia Art Tours: Could you touch briefly on what are strong examples of Hui-specific music, food, art or architecture? What would be strong specific examples of these areas traditionally?

Guangtian Ha: I once joked with a Uyghur friend. I said ‘you people have music, food, architecture, civilisation, genuine commitment to your faith, while we don’t have sh**’. She laughed her head off. I cannot blame her!

The Hui of different areas could be so different what binds us together is merely a vaguely shared sense of us all being Hui. There is no music belonging properly to the Hui. Some may claim hua’er to be one. But it is specific to northwestern China, and non-Muslims sing it, too. Same applies to kouxian, a Chinese variation of the jaw harp. It is practiced by some Hui in northwestern China, but it is neither popular among all Hui nor played only by the Hui. Pious Hui Muslims practice melodic prophetic panegyrics, and the melodies they adopt may be influenced by local musical traditions they share with non-Muslims. However, such musical performances are often not considered ‘music’ — they are music-al, and their categorisation as music will invariably spark controversy.

Food-wise it is a bit more complicated. Again, there are regional variations, though some common food is shared across all Hui groups. There is youxiang, a sort of deep-fried dough often consumed after communal rituals. Mutton is essential for Eid al-Adha, or Qurbān, as it is more commonly referred to by the Hui. Mutton is not consumed nearly as much by non-Muslims in China, so to some extent it constitutes a quintessentially Muslim food. And almost all stalls that sell stews of lamb entrails are owned by the Hui. Not particularly something to be proud of but there we have it.

In terms of artefacts and architecture I would recommend two books: Chinese-Islamic Works of Art, 1644-1912: a study of some Qing dynasty examples and Nancy Steinhardt’s China’s Early Mosques. Not much is available in English and what is available in Chinese is often dry and dreary.

Asia Art Tours: For the Hui practice of Islam, what is unique to the Hui and what would share similarities with Islam as its practiced elsewhere? Broadly speaking have the Hui historically seen themselves as part of the Ummah?

Guangtian Ha: I think the first misconception is there is an ‘Islam elsewhere’ to which Hui Islam can be compared. Such an Islam does not exist because everywhere Islam is different. Are we comparing Hui Islam to Islam in Egypt? Or Iran? Or Pakistan? Or Saudi Arabia? The notion that there is an Islam — a presumably ‘canonical’ one — to which Hui Islam can be compared is an ideological construct. We can equally ask, what is unique to Muslims in Cairo and what similarities do they share with Islam as it is practiced elsewhere — which, again, is a problematic question.

For instance, I can say what is unique to Hui is the way they pronounce Arabic and the melody of their prophetic panegyric. You may hear this view from some Hui themselves. Yet if you listen to the recitation of a traditionally trained Muslim in Java or in Nigeria, you may find that their Arabic pronunciation and their melody for recitation are also unique. In other words, Islam everywhere is unique so it makes no sense to ask what is unique about the Hui that distinguishes them from other Islam-s that are equally unique.

(Another example of the prophetic panegyric recitation performed by the Jahriyya Sufis in northwestern ChinaVideo Credit- Guangtian Ha)

As to whether the Hui have historically seen themselves as part of the ummah, it is hard to say. Many Hui might not even have historically seen themselves as belonging to one Hui group in China, let alone the same ummah. The very word ummah was not widely used in daily speech in pre-modern times and its translation in the modern era has undergone some shifts. There have been, for instance, 乌玛 and 稳麦, the latter newer than the first. A new translation, or more accurately, a new transliteration, may represent a new attempt to reconnect with the Muslim world, or to distinguish oneself from previous generations now considered outdated or not Muslim enough.

On the other hand, I have heard people use the word Hui to refer to all Muslims — these people are mostly in their seventies — thus when they talk about Muslims in Egypt, for instance, they would say ‘it’s all Hui living there’. Hui is then used as a purely religious term with no ethnic implication. Does this mean those who so use the term feel they belong to the same ummah with Egyptian Muslims? Perhaps not necessarily.

Asia Art Tours: How has technology impacted the Hui’s connection to a global Muslim community?

Guangtian Ha: The role of technology has been essential for contemporary Hui, just as it must have been for the entire humankind. Again, there is no global Muslim community. Some voices — for instance, those funded by petro-dollars — are amplified while others are structurally excluded or silenced. Many of the Qur’anic recitations available online to the Hui are from Saudi reciters, while Egyptian recitation, not to mention traditional Indonesian or Malaysian recitation, receives considerably less attention.

The whole tajweed tradition for Qur’anic recitation is relatively underdeveloped among the Hui because many older Hui, like many traditional Muslims, have developed a separate system that combines linguistic and musical elements from diverse traditions. The scale of the melody is often pentatonic, which makes it sound distinctly Asian. What is online is only a small fraction of the global Muslim community; whose voices are amplified and rendered audible and whose are silenced is a question that requires critical investigation.

(A performance of the standup/slapstick comedy known as 相声 /xiangsheng. Many of these comedians are Hui, one of my favourite being 马志明 Ma Zhiming – Caption by Guangtian Ha)

Asia Art Tours: Within contemporary history (from Mao onward) could you discuss the tension between China attempting to use the Hui as a business conduit to the Muslim World while also trying to control the cultural influence of this connection?

Guangtian Ha: While the trade between China and Muslim countries may be increasing (good luck with finding the accurate numbers) I am not sure the Hui have played a significant role in this. The idea that Muslims can become a conduit for business with Muslim countries is a misconception. Business is business; merchants and governments want profits and revenues. If anything, religion is something they would probably rather avoid than exploit. It is often Hui officials and Hui merchants, even Hui academics, who want to convince the state that they can act as the conduit, and many of the discourses out there that advocate for this or create the impression that this has become a fact are the work of Hui themselves.

The so-called China-Arab Forum, or 中阿论坛, that was held in Ningxia annually for a couple years resulted in little substantial trade and the economic increase it is thought to have generated is risible. The Chinese have a proverb, the thunder is deafening yet the rain is miniscule (雷声大雨点小), which I think perfectly describes the situation. I do not think the Chinese government has ever seriously considered using the Hui as a business conduit. Again, it is the Hui, especially some rather obsequious and self-deluded Hui, who are trying to persuade the government to treat them as such and they wish to use this as a way to reconnect with the Muslim world. For the government, they have no need of the Hui so their concern is more over containing potential cultural influence or ‘religious infiltration’.

For Muslims elsewhere, why would they care? The Hui cannot help them; the Hui cannot even help themselves. It is the Communist Party they wish to coax. The idea of a global ummah is a pathetic pipe dream.

Asia Art Tours: Has neoliberalism capitalized/financialized elements of the Hui faith or community that historically would have been off-limits to capital/profit-seeking? (Ex; the Gulen Movement?)

Guangtian Ha: Yes absolutely. Many urban mosques are now located at city centres and some have substantial properties they rent out to shops or convert to hotels. Mosques have become battlegrounds for personal profiteering, though, again, this is not the case across the board. I know of cases where Hui in a particular mosque turn on each other for the right to control the property. The brawls occasionally turned violent: I know of one case where one side was chasing the other with a kitchen knife. It was sad and farcical at once. I mean — at least try a machete.

Asia Art Tours: Could you then describe why China’s statecraft recently shifted towards a severe and top-down control of religious groups?  Why were Hui and Uyghurs treated so differently by the State? And For the Hui, how did they view the treatment of the Uyghurs? 

Guangtian Ha: Crackdown on Islam has happened before so a more appropriate description, if one looks at history from a distance, would be that the brief lull from the 1980s to the early 2010s was somewhat of an aberration. A short blip of limited liberty that is only now snipped because the current president prefers tighter control and more aggressive sinicisation. You see this with regard to the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, the Hui, and mostly recently, the Mongols.

It is less easy to answer the question why the Hui and the Uyghurs have so far been treated differently. For one thing, the Hui are more experienced at pandering to the government — Chinese being their native language is essential in this regard — and some Hui are just as zealous as some Han in their support of the current regime, despite what is occurring to Islam. I was naively shocked to observe, for instance, that some Hui imams cheer on as the Chinese state assisted the Hong Kong government to violently suppress pro-democracy protests in 2019 while the mosques where these imams led congregational prayers were being shut down by the government, their domes removed and minarets demolished. Some mosques remain closed to this day.

It seems to me that some Hui are incapable of understanding apparent connections: they hope to appease an authoritarian regime in the hope that it will never turn on them, or when it does, it will be more lenient. This in part explains some Hui’s endorsement of what the government is doing to the Uyghurs. However, this is not to say that there are no Hui who in private express dismay and secret support for the Uyghur cause. What often happens is that those who still have some conscience cannot speak, while it is the sycophants whose voices are amplified.

While it is true that by and large the Hui are faring better than the Uyghurs at this moment, it is also a fact that many Hui have been detained in the past couple of years. And in the Uyghur region anyone, regardless of ethnicity, who shows sympathy to the Uyghur cause face the threat of detention.

(The entrance to Donglianhua’s Mosque in northeast Yunnan. Seeing this mosque in person was my first introduction to Hui faith and culture) 

Asia Art Tours: How have Hui Millennial navigated movements and forged new identities via LGBTQI movements, 米兔, or the cultural phenomena of 小鮮肉?

Guangtian Ha: Thank you for posing this question. Gender and sexuality have always been my major concerns in my own research, and it is somewhat disheartening to observe that in the study of Islam in China — which is a field dominated by men with few women academics — gender and sexuality still constitute a marginal topic.

I have been following a few gay Muslim social media groups, and have interviewed a few gay Hui. Some but not all of them are millennials. I know Hui that are in their sixties who have been gay all their lives, and I know some Hui imams who are gay but who conceal their sexual identities — with or without success — for obvious reasons. Many of the gay Hui I follow are pious Muslims, and they quote Qur’an for guidance in daily matters. However, I haven’t seen any systematic efforts to re-interpret the Qur’an to justify gender fluidity or sexual diversity. LGBTQI identities are still widely reviled among the Hui; in this regard the Hui are no different from the mainstream Chinese society.

I haven’t seen a unique Hui version of 米兔, and I presume everyone likes 小鲜肉. There isn’t much of a difference between Hui and Han in this regard, and Hui millennials are as different from each other as Han millennials are.

Asia Art Tours: What contemporary Hui art, music or cultural figures do you feel best represents some of the unresolved questions of the Hui’s place in present-day China?

Guangtian Ha: I was born in Tianjin, a place known for its folk comedians, or 相声 (xiangsheng). Many of these comedians are Hui, one of my favourite being 马志明 . You know comedies and jokes: one has to know the language and the culture involved extremely well to possess the apparently automatic intuition that produces laugh.

Lately my bedtime reading has been Freud’s Joke and their Relation to the Unconscious, which, with its characteristic eccentricity, destroys good jokes and generates laughter in its own unique, and uniquely awkward manner. Tianjin’s Ma’s is a prestigious xiangsheng family; Ma Zhiming’s father Ma Sanli (literally, a three-legged horse; his own explanation of the name is that as frail and pathetic as a three-legged horse, he somewhat still miraculously managed to survive and live a fruitful and dramatic life — pretty apt for the Hui isn’t it.) was a xiangsheng master whose spin of the Chinese language is break-taking .

Xiangsheng is not a Hui art since many comedians are Han, but what is Hui art anyway. I think irresolvable questions are much more interesting and charming than resolvable ones; for nothing is more tedious than easily answerable questions. A joke is by definition irresolvable. Let’s do ourselves a favour: let’s not explain the jokes.

Asia Art Tours: What future predictions do you have for how Chinese statecraft will interact with (or attempt to control) Hui Identity?

I honestly do not know and I challenge anyone who thinks they do. But my bet is whatever happens the Hui will survive — perhaps more ingratiating, more despicable, more hopeless. But we will survive.

(A Hui tourist looks at the historic site of the Ma Brothers Villa in Donglianhua. If I ever return to Yunnan, I hope it is still there. I hope the Hui are still there. I hope that Guangtian is right. I hope that we all survive what is still yet to come.) 

Leave a Reply