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Mount Holyoke College

Publication Date

Spring 2011

Program Name

China: Language, Cultures, and Ethnic Minorities


The Hui are a familiar sight in most cities in China; famed for their qingzhen restaurants and their business acumen. Known usually as the “Chinese speaking Muslims,” they are separated from the nine other Muslim xiaoshu minzu by a reputation for assimilation and adaptability that is a matter of pride for Hui in urban areas.

A conversation with Hui women at Nancheng Mosque in Kunming revealed that they believed Hui to be at an advantage compared to other xiaoshu minzu because of their abilities to adapt and assimilate, “we are intelligent; we know what to do in order to survive in any environment.” Yet, the Hui of Yunnan also have a history of dissimilation- the Panthay Rebellion of 1856 took the shape of a Sultanate in Dali as Hui forces led a province-wide revolt against the Qing Empire. Defeated in 1873, the Hui hero Du Wenxiu was executed, and a massacre against the Hui ensued. This history is considered a vital essence to the heritage and identity of Yunnanese Hui, who, despite their greater assimilation within Chinese society compared to the Uighurs or the Salar, maintain that they are “different” from the Han.

Despite being told that the “position of Hui and Han women is exactly the same,” I resolved to explore this delicate interplay of assimilation and dissimilation through the lens of gender; an angle rarely made use of in observations of the Hui. Famous female figures in history, such as Lady Du- Du Wenxiu’s twenty year old daughter- have all but faded from memory. Lady Du was a general in her father’s army, and commanded regiments of men, leading a siege in Kunming in 1869. Stories of her valor and leadership include her tireless efforts to save a village from a flood that wiped away livestock, and she was famed for working without rest. Captured by Ma Rulong in 1870, she was imprisoned and murdered as she led a second invasion to Kunming.

Although she remains largely forgotten, she proves to create a fascinating treatise for the role of women in the creation of Hui history, limited though it may have been. It begs the question, however, of what role women have today in creating ideas of “Huiness” and “Muslimness.” An informant in Kunming, a translator by profession, lamented that “Hui women in the city are too much like the Han- they care only about how much money a man has in his pocket, and not enough about the faith (xinyang) in his heart.” I was told that if I wanted to see a “real Hui woman,” I should go to the rural Hui settlements of Shadian, Najiaying or Dali prefecture. Women there, apparently, were untouched by the corrupting stain of the Han, “prayed five times a day and wear the gaitou.”


Asian Studies | Comparative Methodologies and Theories | Family, Life Course, and Society | History of Religions of Eastern Origins | Women's Studies


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