The Hui: A Search for Identity

Paul Jacob Naylor*

Birmingham, September 1, 2014 (Alochonaa): 


The official seal of Du Wenqiu (1823-1872), Sultan of Dali, Yunnan Province, and leader of the Panthay rebellion

I. A trip into the hills

On a bright July day in 2013, not long after I arrived in Taiwan, I decided to go on a cycling trip.  I was told that if I went a little down the busy Chongde Street from the Liuzhangli roundabout, it would quickly become a quiet street, then a lane, then a track rising into the hills and from there on to the massive Liuzhangli Cemetery.  Sure enough the traffic thinned, small grocery stores and shrines replaced the 7-11s and noodle shops and in less than ten minutes I was in what I would call the countryside.

Stopping for some water at a temple on a bend in the road I saw a very familiar but incongruous sight, on black marble and in gold calligraphy:

And those who believed will be admitted to the Gardens of Paradise beneath which rivers flow, abiding eternally therein by permission of their Lord (Qur’an, 14:23)


Not since my time in the Middle East had I seen this phrase, the standard epitaph for a Muslim grave. Amongst the hundreds of shrines and the grand whitewashed red-roofed ossuary was this blast from the past I asked the temple guardian why this was here and kept hearing the same reply: Huizu (回族)

Getting back on my bike I rounded the corner to see a whole hillside of such graves and, at the top of the hill, a vast dome with a crescent moon.  Climbing up the steep steps past rows and rows of these graves and religious epitaphs it seemed to me that compared with the surrounding Daoist and Buddhist graves, these ones were not as well kept.  Some graves had fallen over, the ornamental trees, plants and flowers that had once shaded the headstones had withered and the soil turned to dust.


In the outer sections the forest had begun to claim back its ground, snaking over the graves with roots and tendrils.  The final resting places of dozens of souls had been hidden behind dark brown expanses of bark. Nearing the dome I found that this too showed signs of damage.  The concrete was crumbling in large pieces from the curved roof, the Islamic arabesque designs cracked and broken, reducing the ornate symmetry to only jagged patterns.  By the entrance to the mausoleum was a rusting can of Taiwan Beer, and a pomelo tree long escaped from its circular plot of soil.

An inscription- the bronze letters had fallen off, but I could still read from the indentations on the marble- “General Bai Chongxi, he earned the love and respect of all.”

The heat of the day prevented any further explorations and I climbed down the hill, got on my bike and cycled back towards the city, in a state of confusion about this mysterious, forgotten place I had stumbled across.  Taiwan, I remember feeling, is a country of many secrets, forgotten stories and many ghosts.  A ghost island.  The road turned busy again, and these thoughts were lost in the traffic and noise, and negotiating my way home past scooters and buses and pedestrians.

Back in Taipei I decided to go to the National Chengchi University, the only place in Taiwan that has an Islamic Studies department, the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (CMEIS).  In the courtyard of that building, perhaps built incidentally to match the type of courtyard houses I had seen in the Middle East, surrounded by trees and plants, sat a man who turned out to be the Islamic Studies professor. We began to talk in Arabic about my life in Taiwan and our shared experience in the Middle East and elsewhere- he had spent a lot of time in Jordan, but even longer in Leeds, my hometown.

That evening the Arabic students were hosting a barbeque party by the riverside, and Professor Lin- his name- invited me along.  He told me that I could find out a lot of information about the Hui, meet lots of interesting people, and speak a lot of Arabic.

I could see the smoke even before I crossed the Daonan bridge.  The gathering consisted of 70 or so students and professors.  A group of girls were excitedly roasting squids on a barbeque. Next to them sat another group of students, wearing keffiyehs and smoking nargile, the men with their beards grown long.  Most of the students who were in their third or fourth year of the Arabic program had spent years abroad in Kuwait, Jordan or Syria and we could speak very comfortably together in Arabic.  Most simply wanted an edge in the Taiwanese job market and hoped to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or in international trade, but a few of them had converted to Islam and studied Arabic for religious reasons.  I had a very good time, but discussed absolutely nothing about the cemetery, or the Hui.

II. A professor’s study

I agreed to meet Professor Nabil C K Lin the following week for a more in-depth discussion.  I went to his office at NCCU. Professor Lin completed his thesis on the Islamic movement in Fujian province that took place at the end of the Qing dynasty. He has written several book chapters and articles in academic publications related to Islam in Taiwan. He is also a member of the Muslim Taiwanese Study Group. His small room was a warren of books on every conceivable subject concerning Islam.


According to the Professor there have been three major waves of Chinese Muslim migration to Taiwan.  The first was at the end of the Ming dynasty (around 1661-2), when Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) came to Taiwan with his troops- a number of them certainly Chinese Muslims- expelled the Dutch and Spanish settlers, and set up his own loyalist government in Taiwan.  The second was in 1949, when as many as 70,000 Muslims who were in the ranks of the KMT retreated to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek from the mainland.  The third was in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when KMT loyalists who had retreated from China to Burma and Thailand began to come to Taiwan, many of them Chinese Muslim.

China’s Muslim population has a long history of service in the military, and it was no surprise that Muslims played a major role in both Sun Yatsen’s rebellion, and the Chinese civil war.  Indeed, Sun Yatsen was a vocal supporter of the Hui in China, and it was his successor Chiang Kai-shek who, in 1938, approved the foundation of the Chinese Muslim Association, which moved to Taiwan in 1951 following the retreating KMT troops.  Many Hui had taken the KMT side in the conflict because it would not have been acceptable in religious terms to be governed by the Communists, who were atheists. Others retreated to Taiwan because they feared religious persecution in China if they stayed.    In Taiwan, the KMT continued to give generous support to the Chinese Muslim Association and under the government of Chiang Kai-shek,  a disproportionate number of Hui Muslims held important political and military positions.

Hui from the first migration have, explains the Professor, lost their hui-ness.  A few do not eat pork, and often Qur’ans and other Islamic artefacts have been incorporated into their family shrines, but essentially they have completely adopted Han folk culture.  This same amalgamation is happening now with the second and third waves of Hui into mainstream Taiwanese culture. What is more, this is in complete contrast to their families in Fujian, Xinjiang and other places in Mainland China where despite the fears of repression, communities have actually recaptured and expanded their sense of Islamic identity.

To understand why this is, we have to look at the concept of Hui that arose in the Mainland, one that is distinctly different from that in Taiwan.  From the beginning the Communist authorities treated the Huizu as an ethnicity (minzu) rather than a religious minority.  Whereas there was some of the feared political repression, the Huizu were given greater economic and cultural independence through the establishment of Hui autonomous zones and accorded privileges based on their minzu status.  In Taiwan however, the Hui remain a religious, not ethnic minority, thus they are treated like any ordinary Taiwanese citizens. The result is that the Hui in China feel a stronger bond as they are tied by a sense of shared ethnicity, as well as religion.

“The problem (in Taiwan) is that the younger generation has no concept of Islamic identity” says Professor Lin.  In Taiwan the Hui are a tiny minority. Because of their military background they are spread thinly all over Taiwan. In some ways it is inevitable that the community structure they had in the Mainland would be compromised.  However, Professor Lin also argues that more could be done internally to provide a cohesive framework, especially for the younger generation. “There is no basic Islamic education for them and as a result they don’t think Islam is important for them at all.”

This pastoral role was fulfilled in the past by the Chinese Muslim Association.  Under the leadership of General Bai Chongxi, who was Director General of the Association from its inception in 1939 until 1959, it continued to receive generous government funding.  In 1960 the Association finished the rebuilding and extension of the mosque in Taipei to become the Taipei Grand Mosque.  The Association was also given land by the Taipei City government in Liuzhangli to use as a cemetery.  With the help of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the association also funded over 200 of its members to study abroad in the Muslim world, in order to impart their learning to Taiwanese Muslims, but with the implicit assumption that a certain number would also help the government of Chiang Kai-shek to gain legitimacy for the ROC in the Islamic world.  However, by the early 1970’s most Muslim countries had accepted the legitimacy of the PRC and the Hui were no longer needed.  “He (Chiang) just used them, basically” says the Professor.  After that, the influence-and funding- of the Association was reduced, and the cohesion it provided for the Hui community in Taiwan was lost.


The clearest evidence of this decline is the Hui cemetery in Liuzhangli.  “For the past five decades the Chinese Muslim Association never gave proper attention to the cemetery” says the Professor. “And now Taipei City Government is threatening to take back the land.”  Part of the problem is that many of the cemetery’s graves are those of KMT soldiers that came from the Mainland alone.  The ones who did not marry a benshengren (local Taiwanese) wife had no family in Taiwan to upkeep their grave.  A lot of the graves have now become unknown graves, and so the rights to the land and the responsibility for their upkeep is unclear.

As for the grave of General Bai, it has simply been forgotten.  General Bai is known as a key strategist and confidante of Chiang Kai-shek in the war with Japan.  However, his role in the Hui community and promotion of Islamic education has been completely overlooked.  Even General Bai’s son, the novelist Bai (or Pai) Hsein-yung,  like many of Bai’s children, turned away from Islam. “The young generation (of Hui) have no idea about General Bai” says the professor, as we flick through family photos of the Bai family.  “Even back then, see how secular they were, so sinicized.”

It is for this reason, says the professor, that there needs to be a similar collective effort amongst the Hui in Taiwan to re-engage with their Islamic identity, as is happening in the Mainland.  He mentions a list held by the Taipei Grand Mosque of over 100,000 names of Hui who should be contacted and, if they have lost touch with the community, reintegrated.  He talks of oral history projects, a collection of artefacts and an ambitious project to renovate and expand General Bai’s grave to become a tourist spot. But he laments that “there is not the enthusiasm amongst them to do this”.

For Professor Lin, Hui means “Muslim Han Chinese”, and they are a religious rather than an ethnic minority. This separates the Hui from the Uyghurs, the Salars and other Muslim Chinese who are ethnically different as well.  So in Taiwan Hui is a religious and not an ethnic term.  However, due to the ethnicization of the Hui by the PRC there are some younger generation Hui in China who are starting to say “I am Huizu but not Muslim”, an assertion the Professor strongly disagrees with.  Indeed, as a Muslim, he distances himself from the Hui label altogether.  “My view of Islam is rather more universal and global.  I do not confine myself to the Hui identity.  The Hui identity and the global Islamic identity are very different.” he says. Through his work in the Muslim Taiwanese Islamic Studies society Professor Lin is trying to qualify these concepts through research, and a series of public lectures.

Over lunch in a local speciality rice noodle restaurant he also mentions that he is helping to organise an exhibition of Islamic life and Culture at the National Taiwan Museum, in order to make Hui culture more familiar to Taiwanese people.  As we part ways I am left thinking about the contrasts and contradictions in the figure of the Professor himself.  Dressed in a traditional 唐件 (tang jian) jacket, with his love of green tea and rice noodles, and his belief in a global Islamic revival.


III. A meeting at an exhibition

hui6The opening ceremony of the Exhibition of Islamic Life and Culture at the National Taiwan Museum took place on the 13th of January 2014.  It was a grand affair and, apart from the press area, everyone was in formal dress.  Aside from the main organisers- the Taiwan Association of Islamic Studies, and the Department of Arabic Language and Culture at National Chengchi University- there was official help and support from trade organisations representing the Sultanate of Oman, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia, and the list of invitees included ambassadors, trade representatives and cultural figures.  The audience was treated to a darbouka drumming performance and a Qur’anic recitation from Chinese Muslim children, followed by a headline speech by the Minister of Culture Dr. Lung Ying-Tai.

However, towards the back of the hall, were a small number of prominent members of the Taiwanese Hui community. Most were elderly men, some with beards and caps, but others, like Ni Kuo-an, wearing a suit and tie. Ni Kuo-an is 86 years old. He came to Taiwan from Henan Province, Mainland China, with the KMT army when he was 19, and was sent to Hualien to work with the ordinance unit.  He worked up the ranks of the military to become a Major General, and after his retirement from the military was Director General of the Chinese Muslim Association from 2002 to 2006.  When he came to Taiwan, he said, there were almost no Hui from the older migrations from Fujian province who had kept their Islamic faith.  “They did not eat pork, that was it.” he said. As there was no mosque (the first was built in Taipei in 1947) he and other Hui officers used to meet in each other’s houses for Friday prayer.

Benefitting from the aforementioned government grants from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, many of his family members and friends went abroad to Libya, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia for study.  As other mosques began to be built across Taiwan (Kaohsiung 1951, Taichung 1951 Taipei-rebuilt- 1960, Taoyuan 1967) they were staffed by these returning Hui, who also gave Islamic instruction to the next generation.  Meanwhile, in his military career Ni Kuo-an’s Hui status put him in contact with senior figures such as Bai Chongxi, who in fact acted as witness at his wedding.

Ni Kuo-an’s pride in his family’s and his wife’s family’s mixed Chinese-Persian heritage demonstrates that Hui is not a completely ethnic-free marker. However, like the Professor, he does not believe that Hui can be an ethnic identity either.

“Actually it was the Communists who gave us the name Huizu” he says.  “They have 10 Muslim (ethnic) minorities and one of them is Huizu. But we look Chinese, whereas the others look different.”

Confusingly the word Hui, he says, actually has its origin in the word Uyghur 維吾爾, now recognised as a completely different-and definitely ethnic- minority.  Before, he says, Islam was called Hui-jiao 回教 or, approximately translated, “Hui teachings” or “Hui religion”, but then, in the mainland, they started to use the more modern term Islam-jiao 伊斯蘭教.”  In Taiwan Huijiao is still used to mean Islam, and for Ni Kuo-an the two terms are interchangeable.   And despite the completely different treatment of the Hui by the governments of the ROC and PRC, Ni Kuo-an asserts that “the Hui in China and the Hui in Taiwan are completely the same.”

For him, a key constituent of Hui identity-whether in the Mainland or in Taiwan- is Professor Lin’s feared amalgamation with Han Chinese Culture.  “I am Muslim, but I am also Chinese, and Chinese people have Chinese traditions.” he says.  So while celebrating Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr may be religious duties, giving red envelopes, eating zongzi on Dragon Boat Festival and sweeping the tombs of his relatives on Qingming Festival are cultural duties he feels are almost as important to his identity as his faith.

Even so, he concedes that the Hui in Taiwan today are facing many problems.  “Now Taiwan is so mixed up. Catholic, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, all are one family!  And young people are not so loyal to their faith anymore.”  For the Hui, marriage between two members of their community was the easiest and simplest way to pass down their faith and traditions.  In the modern age, mixed marriages are very common, even the norm, amongst the Hui.  A mixed marriage thus severs the transference of faith and cultural heritage to the next generation.  However, the age of globalisation also means that many Chinese Muslims he knows have found partners from Pakistan, Morocco, and other Muslim countries and are continuing their Muslim heritage in that way.

IV. To be continued….

The study of Islam in China is a relatively new discipline, and is heavily biased towards contemporary sociological research. This research is itself biased towards areas such as Xinjiang- a Uyghur autonomous zone-, where because of the recent unrest it has become of interest to funding bodies and foreign governments, and something of a trendy topic for PhD students.  Research on the Huizu “ethnic” group has, as far as I know, been almost exclusively focussed on Mainland China.


(Photo from the 2013 Asia-pacific Chinese Muslim youth summer camp)

This research shows that here, in the remote western provinces, the Hui population have for a long time lived in their own exclusive communities.  So, irrespective of whether -scientifically speaking- the Hui constitute an ethnicity separate from the Han, the concept of a Hui ethnic identity is accepted both among the Hui themselves, but also among local Party officials.  These officials are ineffective and unreliable in the resources they provide.  Furthermore, they distribute these resources unevenly, giving preferential treatment to Han areas.  Discrimination on perceived ethnic grounds, of course, only serves to strengthen the concept of a Hui identity.

Given these circumstances, the Hui community in Mainland China has had to become self-reliant not only economically but also culturally.   Distinct Hui cultural traditions, whether ancient or modern, are a touchstone to come back to at times of trouble, and Islam is always a rallying call in any instances of division within the community.  The Islamic identity of the Hui has become more outward- most obviously in dress- and more oppositional with regards to the surrounding Han population.   Even though the Hui areas often have their own Muslim ganbu officials and are still integrated into the centralised system of government, the relationship between the Hui and the PRC seems to be developing into one of conflict.

Taiwan, when it is mentioned  in this research, appears only as part of a list of other places with significant Hui populations.  The fact that the Hui in Taiwan have developed in a completely different fashion from their relatives in the Mainland has been overlooked.  Indeed, the search for the Hui in Taiwan has been a frustrating one. As impressive as the Exhibition of Islamic Life and Culture was, hardly any attention was given to the history of Islam in Taiwan, and the term Hui was never used.  It seems that in Taiwan -peaceful, secular, religiously tolerant- there is no impetus for the Hui to form a strong collective counter-identity.  In the absence of any resistance from central authorities, a Hui-or even Muslim- identity struggles to find relevance and has faded almost completely out of significance.

As I have seen from the handful of interviews already completed, concepts of Muslim identity in Taiwan are by no means uniform. There are those such as Professor Lin who seek to transcend or even supercede their domestic cultures to find a connection to the global Islamic identity. Or, like Ni Kuo-an, there are those who feel their Muslim identity and Chinese identity to be constituent parts of their being.  Both of these concepts of identity need to be recognised as forming a part of the greater Taiwanese identity.

Historical study on Islam in China is comparatively sparse, but a few hours of background reading turns up some fascinating details that are essential to understanding modern Chinese and Taiwanese identities.  For example, that in the 1910’s Sun Yat Sen was actively exploring a political and cultural alliance between the ROC and the Islamic world, that factions within the Chinese Muslim Association were planning to use their influence within the KMT to carve out an Islamic future for China, and that for a time Japan and the ROC were locked in a battle to win the hearts and minds of China’s Muslim population.

We are running out of time.  Many of the Hui who came to Taiwan in 1949 have died, and with them died invaluable first-hand information.  But this information would not just be of value to historians.  There are many young Hui today who are searching for an identity that for one reason or another was not passed down to them by their parents.  Many of these individuals are attracted to the idea of a global Islam, while some try to reconnect with their Hui roots in the Mainland, a conflict which in itself would be an interesting topic of study.  Furthermore, there are many new Taiwanese converts to Islam who, given the lack of domestic support, are increasingly looking abroad to countries such as Saudi Arabia to provide funding for Islamic activities. This is a worrying trend given that in countries such as the UK this funding has led to the radicalisation of some Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslim communities.  This younger generation must find a way to balance their Chinese and Islamic identities, as the Hui have been doing for many hundreds of years.

Some contact has been made with the Chinese Muslim Association, but at the time of writing there has been no response to our proposal to conduct comprehensive research on the Hui population of Taiwan.

*Paul graduated in Arabic language from the School of Oriental and African Studies,  London. After working as a researcher, translator and features writer in the Middle East, the UK and Taiwan, he is now starting a PhD on Islamic culture in West Africa at the University of Birmingham.This article is cross posted via Erenlai with author’s permission.

*** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

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