The Islamic Heritage in China: A General Survey

by Anthony Garnaut Published on: 4th September 2008

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In this article, Anthony Garnaut, an expert of the Muslim Chinese culture, focuses on the Islamic heritage in China and its relevance to understanding both the evolution of Chinese history and culture, and to appreciating the complex, multi-ethnic influences on modern China. Beginning with the Mongol conquest of the greater part of Eurasia in the 13th century, that brought the extensive cultural traditions of China and Persia into a single empire, he describes the great impact the Muslim Chinese communities exerted in the Chinese civilisation in technology, sciences, philosophy and the arts.


Anthony Garnaut*

This article by Anthony Garnaut was published originally as the editorial of China Heritage Newsletter No. 5 (March 2006) on China’s Islamic Heritage. We thank the author and the publisher for permission to republish the article. Changes have been made to the captions and formatting of the original. (The Chief Editor).

Table contents

Defining the Chinese Muslims
The Distinctive Traditions of Chinese Muslims
The Etymology of Huihui
Muslims under the Mongols
The Stone Inscriptions of Quanzhou
Shifting Loyalties from Mongol to Ming



In this article, we focus on the Islamic heritage in China and its relevance to understanding both the evolution of Chinese history and culture, and to appreciating the complex, multi-ethnic influences on modern China.

The Mongol conquest of the greater part of Eurasia in the 13th century brought the extensive cultural traditions of China and Persia into a single empire, albeit one of separate khanates, for the first time in history. The intimate interaction that resulted is evident in the legacy of both traditions. In China, Islam influenced technology, sciences, philosophy and the arts. In terms of material culture, one finds decorative motives from central Asian Islamic architecture and calligraphy, the marked halal impact on northern Chinese cuisine and the varied influences of Islamic medical science on Chinese medicine.

Taking the Mongol Eurasian empire as a point of departure, the ethnogenesis of the Hui, or Sinophone Muslims, can also be charted through the emergence of distinctly Chinese Muslim traditions in architecture, food, epigraphy and Islamic written culture. This multifaceted cultural heritage continues to the present day.

Figure 1: Muezzin’s tower, Yining, Xinjiang. This building is in the architectural style of Islamic buildings typical of the Hui heartlands of Shaanxi and Gansu in the mid-Qing period. This mosque was designed by a Chinese Muslim from Gansu and built in two main stages, in 1760 and 1781. From Zhang Shengyi, Xinjiang chuantong jianzhu yishu.

Defining the Chinese Muslims

Ironically, it was under the aegis of the Communist Party in the 1930s that the term Hui was defined to indicate only Sinophone Muslims. At the end of the Long March in 1936, Mao Zedong’s revolutionary government created a Soviet in a small, barren base area at Yan’an in northern Shaanxi. To the west lived large Chinese-speaking Muslim communities closely allied to the Nationalist government, while the Japanese were attempting to form alliances with the Mongol and Muslim communities that lived to the north of the base area. In an attempt to win the support, or at least the neutrality, of its Muslim neighbours, the Chinese Soviet government released a document entitled “Manifesto of the Chinese Central Soviet to the Hui people” that promised the Hui people (Huizu renmin) political autonomy, religious freedom and the right to bear arms. It was a strategy that was in keeping with the spirit of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front policy [1] (Fig. 2). This manifesto did not, however, specify exactly what was meant by the ethnonym Hui.

Figure 2: Great mosque, Tongxin, Ningxia.

In 1941, this was clarified by a Communist Party committee comprising ethnic policy researchers in a treatise entitled On the question of Huihui Ethnicity (Huihui minzu wenti). This treatise defined the characteristics of the Hui nationality as follows: the Hui or Huihui constitute an ethnic group associated with, but not defined by, the Islamic religion and they are descended primarily from Muslims who migrated to China during the Mongol-Yuan dynasty (1206-1368), as distinct from the Uyghur and other Turkish-speaking ethnic groups in Xinjiang [2]. The Nationalist government had recognised all Muslims as one of “the five peoples”—alongside the Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Han Chinese—that constituted the Republic of China. The new Communist interpretation of Chinese Muslim ethnicity marked a clear departure from the ethno-religious policies of the Nationalists, and had emerged as a result of the pragmatic application of Stalinist ethnic theory to the conditions of the Chinese revolution.

Figure 3: Detail of circular calligraphic motif, Tongxin, Ningxia. This is an example of Islamic calligraphic art of the kind found at many Hui mosques. This particular piece is on a free-standing screen-wall (Chinese: zhao bi) in front of the main entrance to the Tongxin Great Mosque. The text reads, “And the places of worship are for God alone: so invoke not anyone along with God.” (Quran 72:18)

The late Muslim scholar Bai Shouyi (1909-2000) elaborated on the initial Communist definition of Hui by more closely focusing on the origins of this group in his book titled The Rejuvenation of the Huihui Nationality (Huihui minzu de xinsheng), published in 1951. Bai argued that the Huihui had roots in the Muslim trading communities active in China between the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, as well as in various Muslim and non-Muslim communities present in the Yuan, arguing that the Hui only coalesced into a distinct ethnic group in the centuries following the Mongol conquests.

In the half century or so since the publication of Bai Shouyi’s influential thesis, the official definition of Hui has been further refined to exclude the “non-Muslim communities” of the Yuan dynasty from the pool of ancestors of the Chinese Muslims.

The Distinctive Traditions of Chinese Muslims

Many of the cultural traditions unique to the Hui can be related to this distilled official narrative that speaks of Tang-Song origins and a post-Yuan maturation. Written and material sources of Chinese Muslim history for the pre-Mongol period are fragmentary: ceramic shards, brief accounts of China in early Muslim travel literature, and the scant allusions to Muslims in the imperial historical record, although the latter are intermingled with references to Zoroastrian, Manichean and other “non-Chinese” religious communities resident in China since the Tang. The fragmented presence of Muslims ends with the Mongol conquest of the 13th century, when large numbers of Muslims, mainly from the Turkish lands of central Asia, settled in the Gansu corridor, Yunnan and the lower Yangtze valley (Figs. 4 and 5).

Figure 4: Earthenware water pot with Arabic motifs, 20.8cm, Yangzhou, 8th or 9th century. This water pot was unearthed in 1980 from a Tang dynasty tomb in Yangzhou. It is described as underglaze purplish-brown glaze pottery ware with green Arabic motifs, indicating it was made at the Changsha kiln. The obverse motif has been interpreted by scholars as an inaccurate rendition of “Allah Akbar” (God is great), suggesting it was written by someone with poor Arabic skills. From Changsha yao, Beijing: Zijincheng Chubanshe, 1996, Plate 87.

Figure 5: Underglaze green glaze pottery shard with Arabic motif, late Tang or Five Dynasties. This piece of pottery was also made at the Changsha kiln, in the 10th or 11th century. The photo is of the inside of a bowl or open-top pot. The Arabic motif is again a calligraphic representation of a human face, here with a mirrored “Allah” for nose and eyes, and perhaps an upside down “Muhammad” for the mouth. The positioning of this motif on the inside of the bowl suggests a discrete blessing of its contents. From Changsha yao, Beijing: Zijincheng Chubanshe, 1996, Plate 170.

Muslims were the largest group of non-Chinese peoples during the Yuan. Referred to as “Semu“, they occupied a privileged position directly below the Mongol nobility in the social structure of that dynasty. Over ten thousand Muslim names can be identified in Yuan historical records. The standard word used to denote Muslims in Chinese language documents of the late Yuan period is “Huihui“, and this has remained the most common Chinese term for Muslims through to the 21st century.

The Etymology of Huihui

Figure 6: Tang dynasty coloured clay figurine of a polo player unearthed in 1972 at Astana, Turfan, Xinjiang.

Figure 7: Detail from a large scroll painting showing a Yuan dynasty procession, in which Mongol troops and their allies ride together 51.4cm high, 1481cm wide. National Museum of China.

The word Huihui evolved from the term used by the Tang court to refer to its Uyghur allies, known in Chinese as the Huihe, but exactly how the name of non-Muslim Uyghurs became that of the Muslim Huihui remains a point of academic debate. One plausible account of this etymological process is provided in a recent article by the Dunhuang scholar Hu Xiaopeng, who traces the word “Huihui” along a complicated path through the shifting web of alliances and tribal antagonisms that preceded the formation of the Mongol empire [3]. Scholars generally agree that the first instance of the use of Huihui as an ethnonym appears in the Song-dynasty text Mengxi bitan (Mengxi jottings). In this collection of short pieces on technological and other topics, the author Shen Kuo records battle verses sung by Song soldiers at Yan’an, a military post adjacent to the southern border of the Buddhist Tangut kingdom of Xixia. One of these verses concludes with the following couplet:

Flag bearers form a sea of polished silk brocade,
Armoured troops charge downhill to battle the Huihui.

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Figure 8: Half-dome recess entrance, Ashab Mosque, Quanzhou. The Ashab Mosque (Qingjing si) is the most significant surviving example of Islamic architecture from the Yuan dynasty found east of Xinjiang. The stone walls, entrance and support pillars of the prayer hall are what remain of the original mosque completed in 1310, which once also included a domed mausoleum.

Most scholars assume that the Huihui mentioned here are the Buddhist Uyghurs of Gaochang. For his part, Hu Xiaopeng argues that in this particular instance Huihui refers to another of the three Uyghur polities formed after the collapse of the Uyghur empire in the late-Tang dynasty, namely the Muslim Uyghurs of the Karakhanid empire. Another hypothesis, also advanced recently, suggests that the passage quoted has nothing to do with battling nations, but rather simply depicts the players and cheer leaders at an inner Asian polo match [4] (Fig. 6).

Hu’s argument focuses on the status of Xixia political relations at the time Shen Kuo recorded this verse in Yan’an, around 1082. Prior to this time, the Xixia had clashed with each of the three Uyghur polities. By the close of the 11th century, however, the Xixia were allied with the Gaochang Uyghurs against the Muslim Uyghurs of the Karakhanid empire, who had recently conquered the Buddhist state of Khotan, and had launched raids against Gaochang and other Buddhist polities to its east.

The detailed argument of Hu Xiaopeng offers an explanation of how Huihui came to be used in later Mongol-period texts to refer to Muslims in general. These later texts also clearly distinguish the Huihui from the Weiwu’er (Gaochang Uyghurs) whom Rashid al-Din describes in his History of the World Conquerors as “unrivalled in their hatred of Islam.”

Figure 9: Zanqi madrasa, Kashgar, Xinjiang. From Zhang Shengyi.

The Yuan usage of “Huihui”, unlike the pre-Yuan usage in Chinese texts other than Mengxi bitan, signifies the Muslim Uyghurs or, by extension, Muslims from central Asia and Muslims generally. “Huihui” is rarely used to refer to the Buddhist Uyghurs who were called Weiwu’er, another of the many groups of Semu peoples. Hu suggests that the Mongols inherited the semantic distinction beween Huihui and Weiwu’er from the Xixia and other conquered empires of the northern periphery of China, all of whom were able to make such distinctions by virtue of their extensive dealings with the many non-Chinese ethnic groups of inner Asia.

Muslims under the Mongols

In 1215, the Mongols sacked the capital of the Jin dynasty, Zhongdu (located in present-day Beijing) (Fig. 7). Half a century later, Khubilai Khan, upon his succession to the leadership of the eastern half of the Mongol empire, built a new capital called Khanbaliq (“city of the Khan”) a short distance to the northeast of the ruined Jin capital. Many artisans from the conquered Muslim states of central and western Asia were brought to Khanbaliq to help in the construction of the new city. They were overseen by a Huihui named Amir al-Din, who designed Qionghua Island, now the chörten-topped island in the lake of Beihai Park in central Beijing [5].

Figure 10: The earliest of the Arabic tombstones with dates unearthed in Quanzhou, 1171 CE. The inscription reads, “This is the tomb of Hussayn bin Muhammad al-Khalat. May God show mercy upon him. Died on the 13th of the fourth month of the year 567.” Khalat was at this time the capital of Armenia. From Chen Dasheng, Quanzhou zongjiao shike.

The first decade of Khubilai’s reign provided a rare period of relative peace in the Mongol campaigns. Khubilai took this opportunity to consolidate his control over the conquered lands of northern China, creating a fiscal base to support his final assault on the Southern Song. His treasurer was a Huihui from Khwarzm named Ahmad, a man whose success in bringing silver into the state coffers was not matched by his ability to win the hearts of the taxpaying nobles and officials of northern China. He was assassinated in 1282 and posthumously condemned by the Khan for fiscal misconduct [6]. Three generations later, historians during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) awarded him the dubious honour of first place in the list of biographies of “traitorous officials” (jianchen) collected in the official history of the Yuan.

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Figure 11: The latest of the dated Arabic tombstones unearthed in Quanzhou, dating from the late-Yuan to early-Ming period, with embossed cursive Arabic lettering in the shape of a pointed arch. From Quanzhou zongjiao shike.

The prominent position of Muslims at the Mongol court can best be understood in relation to the order in which the Mongol conquests unfolded. The Mongol and eastern Turkic tribes were the first peoples subdued by Chingghis Khan in 1206, and they formed the ranks of the nobility. Next conquered were the peoples of central and western Asia (1220) where Islam was the dominant religion, followed by those of the Jin dynasty (1234), and finally the Southern Song (1279). This order of conquest established the relative rankings of the various ethnic groups of the Yuan empire, with the central and western Asians (Semu), including the Huihui, occupying the second social stratum below that of the Mongol nobility, but above the conquered subjects of the Jin (“Hanren”) and Southern Song (“Nanren”).

Social status based on ethnicity was established during Khubilai Khan’s reign and these categories may have blurred towards the end of the Yuan dynasty, although they are still very much in evidence in one local gazetteer, that of Zhenjiang, a town on the lower Yangtze River, completed in 1333. A population count in the gazetteer divides the local population into “indigenous” (tuzhu) conquered subjects of the Southern Song and “foreign” (qiaoyu) residents. Yang Zhijiu, a specialist in Yuan history, compiled the following table of foreign resident households in Zhenjiang based on data recorded in the gazetteer:

Households No. Of Members No. of “slaves” (qu)
Mongol 23 163 429
Uyghur (Weiwu’er) 14 93 107
Huihui 59 374 310
Christian (Yelikewen) 23 106 109
Tangut (Hexi) 3 35 19
Khitan (Qidan) 21 116 75
Jurchen (NÜzhen) 25 261 224
Han 3671 9407 1675
Total 3845 10555 2948

Table: Ethnicity of “foreign” households in Zhenjiang, 1333.

Zhenjiang was a major commercial centre during the Yuan dynasty, and for this reason may have had a larger Muslim presence than eastern China taken as a whole. Nevertheless, it can be seen from the table that the Huihui were the most populous of Semu peoples in Zhenjiang, represented by the six middle groups listed, from Uyghur to Jurchen. The table also suggests that the different Semu groups shared a similar social status, each possessing a similar number of “slaves” (qu) per household (six per household). Mongol households had three times as many slaves as Semu households, while the Han, that is the conquered subjects of the Jin dynasty, had only one slave for every two households. The indigenous Southerners are not listed here as such, although they no doubt account for most of the slaves appearing in the far right-hand column of the table.

The Stone Inscriptions of Quanzhou

Figure 12: Detail of a portrait of Zhu Yuanzhang in the collection of the National Museum of China.

Figure 13: Imperial edict to Mir Hajji, during the Yongle reign of the Ming dynasty, 100cm by 72cm. This imperial edict was issued forty years after the end of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. The use of the three main languages of the Yuan court, Mongolian, Persian and Chinese, underlines the continuity between the Yuan and Ming imperial systems. The “Hajji” of the addressee’s title indicates that he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, while “Mir” means someone who has earned merit on the battlefield (in Timurid usage this term indicates a member of the military aristocracy). This edict was issued on the 11th of the fifth month of the fifth year of Yongle [1407]. Facsimile copy in the Chinese Nationalities Cultural Palace. Plate and adapted translation from Quanzhou Yisilanjiao Shike.

Quanzhou was the largest ocean port of the Yuan dynasty, and was extolled as the world’s greatest port in the travel accounts of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. It wrested this position from Guangzhou at the beginning of the Yuan dynasty, when the local trading community headed by the Muslim tycoon Pu Shougeng submitted, with their fleets, to the Mongols. Guangzhou was sacked for failing to produce such farsighted leaders. However, Pu might not have been farsighted enough as, at the beginning of the Ming dynasty, many of his descendents were executed for his betrayal of the Song.

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Figure 14: Detail. Ming imperial seal, with a date according to the Chinese calendar in Chinese, Persian and Mongolian.

A large number of stone monuments and inscriptions left by the Islamic community that lived in Quanzhou during the Yuan dynasty survive today, thanks in part to the efforts of Wu Wenliang and the Quanzhou Foreign Relations Museum. A revised edition of Wu’s Religious Inscriptions of Quanzhou (1st ed. 1957) was published in 2005 [7]. Over 300 stone inscriptions from Islamic tombs, graves and mosques in the Quanzhou district, in Arabic and Chinese, are painstakingly documented in this book, among which are 30 tombstone inscriptions including dates. The earliest date records the death of a certain Hussayn b. Muhammad of Khalat, Armenia, in the year 567 (1171 CE). This is the only inscribed date from before the Mongol period. A further four of the tombstone dates are from the Hongwu reign (1368-1398) of Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty, while the remaining twenty-five correspond to the ninety-year period of Mongol rule over Quanzhou (Figs 8, 9, 10, 11).

Shifting Loyalties from Mongol to Ming

In the early life of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang (Fig. 12), the emperor-to-be was a member of a religious sect known as Mingjiao. Upon ascending the throne, Zhu suppressed this movement and all traces of his earlier association with it. The resulting ambiguity in the historical record has allowed room for the widespread belief amongst Chinese Muslims today that Zhu Yuanzhang was a Muslim, at least in his private life [8]. There is little direct evidence to support such a view, and historians generally agree that the Mingjiao sect was organised around some form of Manicheanism or Maitreyan Buddhist cult. What can be said without straining the historical record is that many of the generals who joined the revolutionary movement led by Zhu Yuanzhang were Muslim, for example Mu Ying and Chang Yuchun, who campaigned in Yunnan and central Shandong, respectively. These two areas later became leading centres of Islamic learning in China (Figs 12 & 13).

Figure 15: Quran with Chinese translation recorded in both Arabic and Chinese scripts. The interlinear translation of the Quran shown here was produced by Ma Zhenwu, an octogenarian Hui akhund from Dachang, Hebei.

After the establishment of his dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang commissioned the construction of mosques in the lower Yangtze valley, and issued an edict in praise of the Prophet Muhammad that is recorded on steles found at a number of mosques today (Fig. 14 & 15). The most famous of these, that of the Jingjue Mosque in Nanjing, was appended to the first full Chinese biography of the Prophet written by the Nanjing writer Liu Zhi in the late 1600s. During the Yongle reign (1403-1425), the emperor Chengzu (Zhu Di) issued an edict in support of an Islamic institution in Quanzhou in Chinese, Persian and Mongolian, the three main languages of the Mongol court. This edict is one small reflection of the ambition of early Ming emperors to claim themselves as successors to the Mongol khans, sovereigns over the steppes and the agricultural plains, and patrons of religions of both the West and the East. The story of the Muslim Admiral Zheng He is perhaps another reflection of this ambition, when the Ming attempted to build on the international trade routes opened up by the Mongols. Chinese Muslims prospered under the ecumenical policies of the Mongol and early Ming emperors, and their relative social status declined as the Ming dynasty implemented travel restrictions and became more emphatically Chinese (Fig. 15).


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End Notes

[1] “Zhonghua Suwei’ai Zhongyang Zhengfu dui Huizu renmin de xuanyan” (Manifesto of the Chinese Central Soviet to the Hui people [Huizu renmin]), 1936/8/1.

[2] Bai Shouyi, Zhongguo Huihui minzu shi (A history of the Huihui nationality in China), Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2003, pp.36-44.

[3] Hu Xiaopeng, “Huihui yi ci qiyuan ji hanyi xintan” (A new perspective on the origin and early meaning of the word Huihui), in Xibei minzu wenxian yu lishi yanjiu (Documentary and historical studies on the nationalities of the north-west), Lanzhou: Gansu Renmin Chubanshe, 2004, pp.85-94.

[4] Yang Jun, “Huihui ming yuan bian” (Discussion of the origin of the name Huihui), Huizu yanjiu, Yinchuan, 2005:1, pp.35-41.

[5] Yang Huaizhong, “Yeheidie’erding” (Amir al-Din) in Bai Shouyi, Zhongguo Huihui minzu shi, op. cit., pp.813-818.

[6] Ma Shouqian, “Ahmad” in Bai Shouyi, Zhongguo Huihui minzu shi, op. cit., pp.791-800.

[7] See Book Review: The Stones of Zayton Speak, China Heritage Project, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS), The Australian National University.

[8] Bai Shouyi, in a 1946 work on the history of Islam in China, told of an inherited belief within the Muslim community in Xi’an that Zhu Yuanzhang was born into a Muslim family, that the “usurping” Jianwen emperor went on pilgrimage to Mecca after fleeing from China, and that the 11th Ming emperor, Wuzong (Zhu Houzhao, reign title Zhengde, r.1506-1522), was a practising Muslim. Bai Shouyi did not discuss the historical credibility of these communal beliefs, and a low-level debate has continued since then on whether the first Ming emperor was actually Hui or Han. Evidence cited in favour of claiming him for the Hui side is that Zhu Yuanzhang had an empress called Ma, a common Hui surname; that a domed tomb was built at his burial site in the manner of Muslim dignitaries of the time; and that he wrote a tract in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. Two recent additions to this debate were printed in Zhonghua dushu bao in 2005, Zhou Youguang advancing the case in favour of Zhu Yuanzhang being a Muslim (see “Baisui laoren Zhou Youguang da kewen” (Centenarian Zhou Youguang answers reporter’s questions), Zhonghua dushu bao, 22 January 2005), and Chen Wutong countering against this view (see Chen, “Shei zhengmingle Zhu Yuanzheng shi Huizu” (Who has ever proved that Zhu Yuanzhang was a Hui?), Zhonghua dushu bao, 15 June 2005, at, accessed on 6 Mar 2006).

*Anthony Garnaut is a graduate scholar at the Australian National University in Melbourne and an expert in the interaction between Chinese and Islamic cultures. He has recently completed a biography of an early 20th– century Chinese sheikh named Ma Yuanzhang Siddiq Allah.

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