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14 Centuries of Survival: the Hui Muslims of China

On the Footsteps of the Hui People

Alchemiya is proud to present a new documentary telling the little known story of China’s largest Muslim minority group, the Hui. Starting with Islam’s introduction to China in the 7th century, Muslims in China: On the Footsteps of the Hui People is a historical and cross-cultural epic of faith, community and survival.

by Valerie Grove

The remarkable history of Muslims in China begins during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), a period considered the golden age of Chinese arts, poetry and culture. Islam travelled east via traders on the Silk Road, the 4000 mile corridor that linked Europe to Xi’an, the ancient capital of north-west China’s Shaanxi province. A small section of the original Silk Road route still exists in the form of a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uygur Muslim Region of Xinjiang.

The first mosque in China was the Huaisheng Mosque in Canton constructed in AD627, making it one of the first 10 mosques in Muslim history. It is thought that it was founded by one of the companions of the prophet, Mohammed, Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, who led his first diplomatic mission to China in the 620s. After receiving Abi Waqqas and his mission, the Tang emperor ordered the construction of the mosque in memory of the prophet. Although rebuilt and renovated many times over the centuries, the Huaisheng Mosque is still standing and it is still used.

Muslims in China

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Muslims in China: On the Footsteps of the Hui People begins with this amazing piece of Muslim history. The hour-long documentary sets the historical scene for Islam’s introduction into China and then tells the specific story of China’s largest Muslim group, the Hui. There are almost 11 million Hui in China, mostly concentrated in the north-western and central provinces of Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai, Hebei, Shandong and Yunnan and Xinjiang. Only designated a distinct ethnic group in the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), the Hui are an embodiment of historical and cross-cultural integration who not only maintained Islam from its earliest days, but created an entire and separate ethno-religious identity around it.

The documentary intersperses a timeline of the Hui people, and the political upheavals they have overcome, with immersion in the Hui community of the present. We meet people of all generations who provide anecdotes and observations that paint a broad picture of where this community stands now and what its challenges are. Elders give insight from their lived experience of 20th Century Chinese history, while students researching their own roots give a sense of both the present and what may be to come. The eloquent and highly illuminating intergenerational discussion gently raises questions that reflect history, education, faith and identity and also show a younger generation’s search for its own meaning.

Among the interviews and conversations are a few short and often sudden cultural vignettes: a visit to a mosque in the mountains, watching a calligrapher work, a sudden discourse on food, and a sweeping view of Ningxia’s golden domes. Street, shop and family home scenes also help to create and communicate the atmosphere of this community. 

The cultural absorption of the mainstream into the Islamic is very clear in the calligraphy, which has a linguistic duality in both style and content. This duality is also evident in the architectural style of mosques. Some are built in the style of Chinese temples, some are classical with domes and minarets, while others fuse components of both.

It is quite an experience hearing the sound of the Hui adhan for the first time ever.

This is not just a documentary about the history and culture of the Hui people. It is also an education about the trajectory of Chinese political history, and is especially insightful about the horror of the Cultural Revolution told by people who remember it. The Hui chronicle the changes of the past four and a half decades and how things improved, both for them as a minority and economically. They are aware, however, of what has been lost to modernisation, urbanisation and a culture now more focused on wealth and the individual, all of which makes transmission of Hui identity, community and values more important than ever. 

The historical contextualisation is a fascinating but grim reminder about how the shifting dynamics of power have dramatically affected the Hui and their position in Chinese society.  There is an obvious resilience built up over generations, but there is also a sense of the compromises that the Hui, and minority peoples in general, have to make with prevailing rulers in order to survive. Longstanding integration, both ethnically and socially, have traditionally given the Hui a greater degree of protection than the Turkic Uyghur Muslims, especially over the past decade. However, as their history shows, security for the Hui can never be guaranteed. Since this film was made many of the restrictions that preceded the Xinjiang crackdown on Uyghur Muslims have now appeared in Hui-dominated regions. Mosques, including most of those in Ningxia, have been destroyed or forced to symbolically renovate in Chinese architectural style. Schools have been closed and religious community leaders imprisoned while Hui who travelled internationally have been increasingly detained.

The Hui have been surviving the unholy consequences of absolute state power and political violence for centuries. Mash’Allah they will again.

About the filmakers:

This film is part of a unique and ongoing documentary series created by Unexpected Muslims, a team dedicated to recording both the histories and the contemporary lives of minority Muslim communities across the world.  

On the Footsteps of the Hui People was filmed in 2015/16 but given the team all have day jobs, it took a further two years to edit. The first version was released in 2018 and this final re-edit was released last year.

In addition to On the Footsteps of the Hui People, the Unexpected Muslims, team have made two other films about the Muslim communities of Sarajevo and Mexico. They are currently finalising their next film, which tells the story of the Muslim community of Ethiopia.

(To support Unexpected Muslims please see link to their funding page on the Alchemiya website.)

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