Like many facets of their culture, the traditional dress of the Hui people has been heavily influenced by their Islamic faith. The key to their outfits is to look clean, bright, and sombre, although some embellishment is allowed. The men wear small black or white caps without brims, and these hats can be pentagonal, hexagonal, or octagonal depending on the branch of Islam that they follow. They have a preference for double-breasted white shirts and, in some cases, white trousers and socks. Both men and women like to wear blue waistcoats and some men will wear an extra waistcoat to create a tidy, crisp contrast. In colder areas or during harsh winters, some men and women will wear fur garments made from sheepskin.
The women’s dress, though not as elaborate as many other ethnic minorities, is rather more decorative than the men’s. They tend to wear headscarves or veils but these vary depending on their age. Young women typically wear green or coloured veils that have a golden trim and have been embroidered with elegant floral patterns. Married women will wear black veils that cover them from head to shoulder, while elderly women will wear white veils that stretch from their head all the way down their backs. They normally wear a dress that fastens at the side over a pair of trousers and, although they are usually muted in colour, younger women’s clothes may be embroidered with decorative patterns. Women of all ages liven up their outfits with gold or silver bracelets, earrings and rings because, after all, diamonds aren’t a girl’s only best friend!
The Hui are a deeply religious people and strictly follow the Islamic faith, meaning they live a puritanical lifestyle. They are forbidden from smoking, drinking alcohol, and gambling, and young people are not permitted to sit alongside elders. They rarely like to joke and their dress code is reasonably strict, since it is considered inappropriate to bare your arms or any part of your chest in public. The Hui people may not be the ethnic minority you’d want to party with, but their fascinating mixture of Eastern and Central Asian culture is a wonder to observe.
They strictly follow Islamic dietary laws and are forbidden to eat the meat of pigs, dogs, horses, donkeys, and mules as well as the blood of any animal. They have a particular aversion to pork as, according to the Quran, pigs are the only animals that can never be properly cleaned. That being said, I don’t think the pigs are going to complain about this arrangement! They are not permitted to eat the meat of any animal that has died naturally or has been slaughtered by anyone other than an imam or approved butcher. It is also unacceptable to make jokes about food or use the forbidden foods in a metaphor. For example, the terms “blood red” or “as filthy as a pig” would be considered highly inappropriate.
Cleanliness is one of their main concerns and so they always wash their hands before and after any meal. Before attending religious services, they will take part in either a “minor cleaning” or a “major cleaning”. A minor cleaning simply involves washing the face, mouth, nose, hands, and feet, while a major cleaning entails a thorough bathing of the whole body. So, if you thought your sister took a long time in the shower, be thankful you aren’t sharing your bathroom with a Hui family!
They are very particular about their drinking water so people should never water their livestock or wash themselves or their clothes near a water source. Before heading to a well or spring to collect water, one must wash their hands thoroughly and any remaining water in a container must never be poured back into the source.
When a person dies, their body must be thoroughly cleaned with water and then wrapped in a white cloth. They are then buried promptly and without a coffin in the presence of an imam, who acts as the presider. The Hui people do not wail during funerals, as this is seen to be a sign of hatred for the deceased.
When a Hui family receives visitors, they will always welcome them with tea, fruits, and homemade cakes. They have a rich tea drinking culture and use a three-part tea cup made up of a saucer, a cup with no handle, and a cover, so be careful how you hold it or you may end up with a three-part mess! The host will always prepare the tea and, if there are several guests, they will serve it according to age and status. For example, the most honourable or eldest guest should be served first.
Traditionally, when longans are in season, they will add three fresh longans to the cup with their skins still on. The tea leaves are placed on top of the longans and then boiling water is added. Out of season, they will use dried longans or longan paste. The cup can be refilled with boiling water many times and so many cups of tea can be had from just a few ingredients! The tea leaves used can vary, as each family will have a preference for which type of tea they like.
When drinking the tea, you must skim the cover across the surface of the water, as this helps any added sugar to melt and supposedly makes the tea more fragrant. The tea is drank while holding the cover at an angle so the cover acts as a strainer and keeps the tea leaves out of the mouth. It is considered impolite to remove the cover, blow the tea leaves away with your mouth, swallow the tea in one go, or gasp while drinking the tea.
Above all else, you must never set aside a cup of tea that has been offered to you without trying it first. If you start to eat the fruit, this signifies to your host that you do not want any more tea. It also lets them know you’re hungry, so you may get a cheeky piece of cake out of it too!
Though the Hui people are not defined by their Islamic faith, the vast majority of them are Muslim. This means they worship at mosques, follow priests known as imams, and worship the holy book called the Quran. Although throughout history many of their mosques have been destroyed due to religious persecution, since 1949 they have been allowed to build them and worship freely.
All Hui communities will surround a mosque and the older mosques tend to be a mixture of Han Chinese and Central Asian architecture, while the newer ones are purely Central Asian in design. One of the finest examples is the Great Mosque in the city of Xi’an, which perfectly amalgamates elements of Chinese and Central Asian architecture.
Some Hui people claim that Islam is the only religion through which Confucianism should be practised and thus accuse Buddhists and Taoists of heresy. However, other Hui people, particularly those who follow the Sunni Gedimu and Yihewani branches of Islam, burn incense during worship, which is thought to be the result of Taoist and Buddhist influences. Many of the other Islamic ethnic minorities, such as the Salar, regard this as a heathen ritual and denounce it.
The Hui are the only Muslims in the world who are known to have female imams and, while male imams as known as ahung, female imams are known as nu ahung. They guide other women in prayer but are not allowed to lead prayers like regular imams.
The high altitude and rugged terrain in Qinghai province means that agriculturally the land can only sustain a limited array of vegetables and fruit. However, it’s the ideal place for growing barley and raising yaks, both of which thrive in the cold climate. This means that signature Qinghai dishes tend to be hearty and full of yak-based products, from yak meat to yak butter. In short, Qinghai locals are always yakking on about something! Qinghai itself is populated by a wide variety of China’s ethnic minorities, but is dominated by the Han, Hui, and Tibetan people. Thus Qinghai cuisine is characterised by its simplicity and sustenance, with a unique blend of Tibetan and Hui Muslim influences adding a touch of flavour to each dish.
Hui-style Dumpings (回式饺子)
Hui-style Dumplings are so delectably plump, they appear to have been filled to the point of bursting! Unlike other types of dumpling, these tasty treats are filled with unusual, hearty ingredients such as carrot shreds or tiny cubes of potato. The meat filling is heavily seasoned with mustard seeds, cumin, cassia bark, cardamom, pepper, and sugar to give it an added burst of flavour. Different vendors will shape their dumplings in unique and captivating ways. Sometimes these shapes even provide clues as to what the dumplings contain. So, if you see a little fish-shaped ball of dough, you know just what to expect! They may look small but these dumplings are very rich, so two or three is normally enough for a decent meal.
Grabbing Mutton (手抓羊肉)
This dish is popular with several of China’s Muslim ethnic minorities throughout the regions of Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai. Its name derives from the fact that historically it was sold on the street and, in order to eat it on the go, people would simply “grab” a piece of the mutton with their hands. That being said, be sure to pay for it first! To make the dish, a joint of mutton is first stewed for a long time, until it becomes so tender that the chops can be easily separated and the meat melts off the bone.
The mutton is then chopped into small pieces and arranged on a plate, where people are free to grab a piece and dip it into their condiment of choice. It is often served simply with a sauce made from salt, crushed garlic, parsley, soy sauce, vinegar, chilli oil, and sesame paste. Variations on the sauce depend on who’s serving it, but the juicy mutton alone is enough to sate most people’s hunger.
Blood Sausage (血肠)
Blood Sausage may not sound like the most appetising of snacks, but its rich and mildly spicy flavour is surprisingly pleasant. Like Black Pudding in England, Blood Sausage is made using a mixture of spiced sheep’s blood and roasted barley. Another variation, known as White Sausage, contains all of the same ingredients except for the sheep’s blood. Travel to one of Qinghai’s city markets and you’re sure to come across tables full of Blood Sausage, coiled into large piles like shimmering black snakes. In restaurants, it is normally sliced into small pieces and fried on a griddle, to be served as a side dish. With its full-bodied texture and umami flavour, fried Blood Sausage makes the perfect accompaniment to any meal.
Flag Flower Noodles (旗花汤面)
This sumptuous dish is so-named for the unusual shape of its wheat noodles, which are rolled thin and then cut into tiny, diamond flag-shaped pieces before being added to a clear broth. This broth is usually flavoured using tomatoes, squash, carrots, celery, white radishes, spinach, and small pieces of mutton. The result is a light soup with a clean and refreshing taste that is perfect as a palate cleanser or to simply cool you down during the summer months!
With a current population of approximately 10 million, the Hui are the 2nd most populous of China’s 55 ethnic minorities. Although following Islam is not necessarily a criterion for being Hui, this ethnic group is largely made up of Muslims and this is part of what makes them so unique. They are spread throughout China, with the largest concentration in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and several sizeable communities in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Yunnan, Shandong, and Shaanxi. While all of them speak Chinese, some of them have retained the ability to speak Arabic and use it predominantly during religious activities. After all, being fluent in two of the world’s most notoriously difficult languages has to have its advantages!
Unlike several of China’s other ethnic minorities, the Hui bear great resemblance to the Han majority. In fact, very little separates the two ethnic groups besides the Hui’s religious beliefs. For example, Hui people conform to Islamic dietary laws and will not eat pork, which is the most popular meat in China. However their appearance and dress does not differ hugely from their Han counterparts, which begs the question; what makes them so different from Chinese Muslims? The answer lies in their illustrious past as traders and military men.
The term “Hui” comes from their original name of “Huihui”, which was used during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. It is thought to originate from the early term “Huihe” or “Huihu”, which was used during the 8th and 9th century to describe anyone from the western Uyghur State. Though these Uyghurs were not exclusively Muslim and are not directly related to modern-day Uyghur or Hui people, the term “Huihui” was applied to any foreigner who came from the west.
Thus the Hui people have a direct link not to China but to Central Asia. They have a varied ancestry that includes Arab, Persian, Mongol, Turkic and other Central Asian ancestors and their origins can be traced back in two ways. Some Hui people descended from Arab and Persian traders, who arrived in China via the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Around the 7th century, some of them eventually settled in cities such as Guangzhou, Quanzhou, Hangzhou, Yangzhou and Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) and were referred to as “fanke” or “guests from outlying regions”. Wherever they settled, they built mosques and public cemeteries. Over time they intermarried with Han people and converted their partners to Islam but largely assimilated with Chinese culture.
Other Hui communities, such as those in Yunnan and northwest China, trace their origins back to Mongol, Turkic and other Central Asian settlers who arrived in China during the 13th century. When the Mongols undertook their western expeditions during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), they drafted in large groups of Islamic peoples from Central Asia. The aim was for these people to settle as scouts in parts of western China and act as livestock breeders until they were needed for military purposes. We don’t know exactly how the ability to raise a cow would benefit their skill as soldiers, but perhaps that’s a moo-t point.
They were also allowed to build mosques and they came to form an aristocratic class directly under the Mongol rulers known as the “Semu”. Thus they had a profound influence on military, political, and social affairs during the Yuan Dynasty. However, in spite of their new found power, many imperial laws prevented these Muslims from practising several Islamic customs, such as the eating of halal meat. This lack of religious freedoms eventually prompted several Hui people to turn on the Mongols and ally with the Ming Dynasty. In fact, it wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty that the Hui people were even recognised as a distinct ethnic group!
Nowadays Hui people live in large, exclusively Muslim communities that usually surround a mosque. This can be anything from villages to streets or whole quarters in major cities. They normally have both a Chinese name and an Arabic name, although they predominantly use their Chinese names. In spite of being religious people in a largely secular country, they have been widely accepted since 1949 and there is even a Hui Culture Museum in Yinchuan City, Ningxia.
Ningxia is one of five ethnic minority autonomous regions in China and its official name is Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, since over one-third of its population is made up of the Hui ethnic minority. The Hui people follow the religion of Islam and so everything, from their elegant traditional dress to their vibrant architecture, has a particularly Central Asian flair. Mosques such as the Tongxin Great Mosque in the city of Wuzhong, the largest and oldest mosque in Ningxia, can be found dotted throughout the province. These mosques are usually a stunning blend of Han Chinese and Central Asian architectural features, demonstrating the hybrid culture of Ningxia.
The region itself is located in north-central China, sandwiched between Shaanxi province in the east, Gansu province in the east, south, and west, and Inner Mongolia to the north. While most of Ningxia is made up of unforgiving desert, the vast plain of the Yellow River in the north has long been a fertile centre for agriculture. The thought of sandy deserts may conjure up images of sweltering heat, but Ningxia’s weather is far from scorching! Its climate is largely continental, with long chilly winters and short mild summers. While average temperatures in July range from a comfortable 17 to 24 °C (63 to 75 °F), in January it can regularly plummet to between −7 and −15 °C (19 to 5 °F).
In ancient times, modern-day Ningxia almost entirely belonged to the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227), which was ruled by the Tangut people. The Tanguts were eventually conquered by Genghis Khan, and Ningxia was incorporated into China proper during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Very little is known about these ancient people and their mysterious dynasty, although the Western Xia Tombs at the foot of the Helan Mountains have provided historians with a treasure trove of invaluable information. These tombs represent one of the largest imperial burial sites in China and offer a fascinating insight into this lesser-known period of Chinese history. Nowadays several of the tombs have been opened to the public, and are often called the “Oriental Pyramids” thanks to their unusual shape.
Just 35 kilometres (22 mi) east of the tombs, the regional capital of Yinchuan was once the imperial capital of the Western Xia Dynasty and remains Ningxia’s cultural centre. Since Yinchuan and several other cities used to be important trading hubs along the Silk Road, there are numerous Buddhist sites scattered nearby that were constructed by traveling monks. The most magnificent of these is undoubtedly the Xumi Mountain Grottoes. While this grotto complex is relatively unknown outside of China, it is nationally regarded as one of the finest works of Buddhist architecture in the country.
From the Northern Wei Dynasty (368-534) until the Tang Dynasty (618-907), over 130 caves were delicately carved directly into the eastern cliff-face of Mount Xumi and filled with lifelike Buddhist sculptures. The style of these sculptures integrates visible Indian and Central Asian features, acting as a testament to the cultural exchange that took place along the Silk Road. The site’s crowning jewel is a colossal 20-metre-tall (65 ft.) statue of Maitreya(1). Other spectacular Buddhist monuments include the 108 Pagodas near Qingtongxia and the Haibao Pagoda in Yinchuan.
If you’re more of an adventurer than a historian, you may want to sign up for some of Ningxia’s famed desert tourism! The district of Shapotou is regarded as the “Capital of Sand” and is located on the southern rim of the Tengger Desert. It’s home to the Desert Research Centre and one of China’s four celebrated singing sand dunes. The strange shape of the dunes means that, as the wind whips over them, it creates a unique sound that is said to resemble the tolling of a bell or the beating of a drum. It may not sound as pleasant as Pavarotti, but it’s still pretty impressive! Standing atop the dunes, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of the surrounding desert that is both awe-inspiring and humbling in equal measure. The district also provides access to long sections of the Great Wall, which span across northern Ningxia.
Similarly, the Sand Lake Scenic Resort in Pingluo County offers stunning views of both the desert and the resort’s many scenic lakes. Sand Lake itself is one of the best places for bird-watching in China, as it attracts over one million birds from 198 different species every year. Throughout spring and autumn, migratory birds such as white cranes, red-crowned cranes, swans, and mandarin ducks flock to the lake in order to rest their weary wings. The resort is even equipped with a Bird-watching Tower, where hundreds of people gather and use the high quality telescopes provided to spy on the feathery fowls. Standing at the top of the tower, you could almost say you’ll have a bird’s eye view!
1. Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.