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From the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom (Part 10)

The Present

From the series From the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom

Three Christians walk into Hui restaurants. They all introduce themselves as disciples of Isa (尔撒的门徒, Ersa de mentu, a contextualized alternative to the term “Christian”).

The first is in Beijing. The Christian is there to meet a Hui university student, but she changes the subject away from religion at every opportunity. She is secularized and atheistic in every way apart from her halal diet. Come to think of it, she eats pork when no other Hui people are around.

The second restaurant is in the remote Gansu countryside. The owners welcome their guest, offer discounted food, and discuss their shared faith at length. It turns out these Hui villagers belong to a localized Sufi order founded by a man named Isa.

The third restaurant is in Xining. The Christian customer is not even offered a seat. “We know who you are, and we don’t want you in here.”

How did one people group get to be so diverse? By studying their history, we have begun to answer this question. They have mixed ancestry. Their population of millions has spread across a country of over one billion, mixing, fighting, and mixing again with the non-Hui majority. They only became a minzu (officially recognized ethnicity or people group) a century ago. They have been lifted up and beaten down, pushed and pulled by a plethora of local and global ideologies.

What we Christians really want to know is: how can we share the gospel with such a diverse group? If saying the same short phrase gets you free food in one place and the cold shoulder in another, how can we even dream of a Hui church?

Mission history is a good place to start. In part 9 we looked briefly at attempts to reach the Hui in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thanks to Dr. Gene Ng1 and a few missionary biographers,2 the sparse records of Christian missions to the Hui in these years of the Qing and Republican eras have become more accessible. We have much to learn from them.

In Mao’s era of communism, Christianity went underground. Only God knows the extent of gospel proclamation among the Hui. If my prayer to hear from Hui who trusted Christ in those tough times goes unanswered in this life, I will wait with bated breath in eternity.

As soon as China opened up, foreign Christians went in. From the early 1980s, American Christians were teaching English in Hui communities throughout China. Yet because of how recently this gospel work began, very little has been published about it. Gospel workers don’t write books about their service because they are busy serving. Even if they did, such sensitive books are difficult to publish safely. The ongoing work depends on us not drawing unnecessary attention to individual people or organizations. Meanwhile our believing Hui friends are still living under persecution. They rely on us not to expose them to worse hardship.

If you have served among the Hui, your experiences are vital for the work among the Hui to move forward. Find appropriate ways to preserve and share what you have learned so that the next generation does not have to reinvent the wheel. We need to hear these stories, but we must be careful, sensitive, and timely.

The Hui are not a homogenous group, nor a Unimax3 group, nor a linguistic group. They probably don’t fit whichever way of describing a group is in vogue at the time you are reading this. Yet, we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater by abandoning all talk of shared characteristics within Hui identity. In part 8, I included a simple matrix that can be used to help describe a Hui person based on whether they identify more as religious or secular, and whether they have more affinity for local or global issues. Try positioning the three cases I mentioned above on the matrix. How might you engage in conversation in each of these Hui restaurants? What questions might you ask? What truths from God’s Word might resonate in each case?

Ethnography is a big and boring sounding word, but it’s surprisingly fun to do. As you take the posture of a learner, ethnography is like a map or compass showing you what it is you want to learn. We might say it is a modern version of what Paul did in Athens when he “walked around and looked carefully” (Acts 17:23) as well as familiarizing himself with Athenian literature (Acts 17:28). As you assume the role of listener, ethnography helps you sort through what you are hearing and ask better questions. Because ethnography takes time, it lets you wait on God to show you points of connection between his Word and the culture. Ethnography takes the pressure off having to present a perfect gospel outline in a language you’re still learning on your first encounter with a new friend.

This series has outlined, very briefly, some historical events of interest to Christians seeking to understand and love the Hui. There are more stories to be told and more lessons to be learned. The Know Thy Hui Neighbor ethnography course also covers Hui religious sects and practices, festivals, customs, and interactions between Hui and Christians. God willing, it will form the basis of a subsequent blog series.

More needs to be written about persecution, diaspora Hui, recent gospel service, and how God is growing the church among the Hui. History is only one part of ethnographic research. If you love the Hui people, read and listen to their stories. Don’t assume you know who they are, what they believe, or what they need. Ask God, listen to him, but don’t stop there. Ask the people. Listen to them. Take the time to learn how the Good News really is good news to your Hui neighbor.


  1. Ng, Gene K. (吳劍麗)《夾縫中的少數派: 基督新教在甘青地區的穆宣事業(1878-1951)》Alliance Bible Seminary, Hong Kong, 2013. (Chinese edition available for purchase online. A PDF English translation titled “The Minority in the Cracks—the Protestant M2M Cause in the Gansu-Qinghai Area (1878–1951)” is available on request and free of charge.)
  2. For example, George Hunter’s 1948 biography by Mildred Cable and Francesca French has been updated and is available for download from OMF here:

    Part 9 referenced: Bradshaw, Malcolm R. Torch for Islam: A Biography of George K. Harris, Missionary to Muslims. China Inland Mission (Overseas Missionary Fellowship), 1965. (PDF available on request.)

  3. Unimax group is a term popularized through the course Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Read missiologists Ralph Winter’s and Bruce Koch’s article on Unimax groups here:
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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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