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From the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom (6)

From Warlords to Communists (1913–1949 and Beyond)

From the series From the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom

This article belongs to the series “From the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom”—which is drawn from the leading ethnographic course helping Christians better understand China’s Hui Muslims.

If the Hui story ended with the fall of the Qing, we would be looking at a very different China. Hui and Han Chinese still don’t intermarry very often, but they have stopped killing each other. They share neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces in relative harmony. Today’s Hui are less introverted. Some even engage in missions (宣教, xuanjiao), inviting the Han to become Muslims. So, what changed?

The Ma family warlords were among those Hui leaders who initially opposed Qing rule, then switched sides and took posts as governors. Their power only increased after the Qing’s collapse. The second-generation Ma warlord, Ma Bufang (pictured above), governed vast swathes of the Northwest through the republican era and became a key figure in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).1 He is praised for his ethnic and religious tolerance: his army comprised Hui, Han, Mongols, and Tibetans; he patronized Buddhist festivals and permitted Christian mission stations in his jurisdiction.

Yet, Ma Bufang’s remarkable permissiveness toward non-Muslims did not apply within Islam. His warlord family embraced the Wahhabi-inspired “New Teaching” brought back from Mecca by Ma Wanfu (no relation) after a Hajj (Muslim pilgrimage). The Islam which Ma Wanfu encountered in Mecca was very different from Islam in China. On his return, he set out to reform and unify Chinese Islam under this New Teaching, dubbed Yihewani (伊赫瓦尼, from Arabic Ikhwan, meaning “brotherhood”). It emphasized the scriptures, minimizing the need for local saints (老人家, laorenjia) to act as mediators. Naturally, the New Teaching put its founder in conflict with established sects. After fleeing several cities, he eventually found refuge on condition of compromise. The Ma warlords offered to adapt his “brotherhood” ideology as a unifying ideological tool. Yihewani teachings were softened to facilitate their acceptance. Then, they were forced onto the population. The ideological unification of Northwest China’s localized Muslim communities through conversion to the New Teaching necessitated that Yihewani teachers become “missional.”

The early republican era was not just a bunch of warlords vying for power. It was also a time of grasping at the concept of nationhood and brave attempts to unify the Chinese people.

Seeing neighboring Japan’s successful unification of tribes and clans under a national banner, the Nationalist Party (KMT) borrowed the innovative concept of “nationalities,” which the Japanese had adopted from Western sociology and translated as minzu (民族, Japanese pronunciation minzoku). The Republic of China’s leader, Sun Yat-sen (孙中山, Sun Zhongshan) recognized five minzu in China: Han, Mongol, Manchu, Tibetan, and Hui (which included all Muslims). His attempts to further unify these five groups under one “pan-Chinese Nationality” (中华民族, Zhonghua minzu) were met with much resistance, especially in Southwest China where isolated and ethnolinguistically diverse groups resented being forced into boxes with strangers and even enemies.

What seemed to work in Japan did not transfer easily to China. The Communists (CCP) exploited this resentment by promising ethnic recognition and degrees of autonomy to diverse groups who joined the Communist cause.

After winning the civil war, the CCP set about finalizing their list of minzu in China. When it came to defining the Hui, they inherited a compromise between three positions.2 Were the Hui simply Han Muslims? Was it logical to list a purely religious group as an ethnicity? One school of thought said so. Their opponents sarcastically proposed that, in that case, Han Christians should also form their own “Jesus Nationality” (耶族, yezu, abbreviating 耶稣民族, yesu minzu). Had either opinion prevailed, the Hui would have been absorbed into either the Han or a proposed pan-Islamic minzu. But eventually, a third position won the case for a separate Hui minzu, based on cultural distinctives and genealogical evidence that at least some Hui had foreign ancestry.

The CCP settled on 56 minzu, ten of which are predominantly Muslim, and only one is Hui. The CCP never clearly defined the criteria for being Hui. Some groups define their Hui identity through bloodlines (as in the Ding clan of Fujian); for others, it is their religion (as in much of the Northwest); still others see it as a culture (as in many urban, Central, and Southern areas).3 To the average Hui person, their identity is a mixture of all three.

Outside the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese word “Hui” is still synonymous with “Muslim.” In Taiwan, where many KMT members settled after the civil war, the sense of a Hui ethnolinguistic identity is all but lost. It is not uncommon for young adults to approach the Mosque requesting a Muslim funeral for a grandfather, saying, “He was a Hui (囘教徒, huijiaotu, Muslim), but I’m not. I don’t believe in any of that.”

But inside the PRC, the Hui identity is irremovably printed on ID cards. As an ethnic minority (少數民族, shaoshu minzu), they are bound together by a force that transcends religion, culture, or bloodlines.

The strength of the Hui minzu identity makes coming to faith in Christ inconceivable to most Hui minds. Even Hui who no longer practice Islam find the idea of Christian conversion impossible. For one thing, the idea that “all Hui are Muslims” still applies to non-practicing Muslims, even those who profess atheism. They are still Muslims insofar as they have not actively left Islam to join another faith. Christian faith belongs to non-Hui “other” people. And which non-Hui do the Hui see every day at work, at school, and in their neighborhoods? The Han. In their eyes, to become Christian is to desert their own and become one with their historical arch-nemesis—the Han. Yet, we have been entrusted with the gospel of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:19) Do we believe in its power as a unifying ideology? Do we call on Christ to heal our old wounds? (Isaiah 53:5) Do we embrace “the other” as “brother” in Christ? (Galatians 3:28)


  1. For further reading on the other Ma warlords, Muslim leaders, and reforms within Islam in the early Republican era, see chapter 5 in: Lipman, Jonathan N. Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China. University of Washington Press, 1997.
  2. Wlodzimierz Cieciura, “Ethnicity or Religion?” in Islamic thought in China: Sino-Muslim Intellectual Evolution from the 17th to the 21st Century, Jonathan Lipman (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 109.
  3. For further reading on genetic, religious, and ethnic interpretations of “Hui,” see chapter 2 (especially pp. 31, 54) in: Gladney, Dru C. Ethnic Identity in China: The Making of a Muslim Minority Nationality.  Harcourt Brace College Publishers,  1998.
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Julie Ma

Julie Ma

Julie Ma (pseudonym) is a graduate of Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC) and a member of the Angelina Noble Centre for women in cross-cultural missions research. She left her home in Australia over a decade ago to serve Hui Chinese Muslims alongside her Chinese husband. After all these years overseas, …View Full Bio

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