By David Stroup

On a cold, gray day in early December 2015, I sat in a booth in a restaurant in Jinan’s Hui Quarter. Specializing in the famous halal hand-pulled noodles (shou gong la mian), the staff of the restaurant all hailed from the rural suburbs of Xining, in far-away Qinghai Province. Over a heaping plate of piping hot stir-fried cumin and mutton noodles (zi ran yang rou gai jiao mian), I talked with my interviewee, one the restaurants’ cooks, an 18-year-old man recently arrived to Shandong from the west. In between mouthfuls I asked him about his impressions of Jinan after only a month of living in the city. Glumly, he replied “Jinan’s okay.” Pressed for further details he explained, “It’s not as good as back home. The Hui here just aren’t as faithful.”

Later, a lifetime resident of Jinan who worked as a baker in the Hui Quarter echoed these sentiments. He explained “The Hui from the northwest go to pray more often than a lot of locals. For them, Islam is absolutely a part of their daily lives. But, we local Hui are very business-minded (shangye hua). We’re really concerned about work, and don’t have a lot of time to go pray.” Throughout my time in Jinan, responses like these became common. Time and again, respondents in Jinan told me about how the arrival of migrant Hui from outside the city changed the neighborhood’s social landscape.

Jinan’s experiences hardly stand alone in contemporary urban China. Cities across the country currently struggle to incorporate the millions of in-country migrants who leave home in search of economic opportunity. The challenges members of this “floating population” (liu dong ren kou) face are numerous, and well documented (Loyalka 2012; Zhang 2005; Zhang 2001; Zheng et al. 2009). For shaoshu minzu, (ethnic minorities) like the Hui, migration may pose even more acute difficulties in the form of cultural barriers and local prejudices (Iredale and Guo 2003; Côté 2015). Such shifts in cultural landscape may prove especially difficult for the Hui, whose in-group cultural heterogeneity, may cause feelings of alienation even within their own community (See, especially Erie and Carlson, 2014). As they attempt to find a place in their new environs, these Hui migrants often feel forced to decide between maintaining tradition and meeting the demands of the usually marketized, secularized, Han-dominant local culture (Burgjin and Bilik, 2003).

In part, these difficulties stem from the gap in economic status between Hui migrants and locals. As one respondent, a Hui engineer and lifelong Jinan resident explained, “(migrants) are still integrating. They still face some discrimination. They are not as educated or economically well off.” Another Jinan resident, a local member of the clergy, remarked that migrants from rural western China exhibited different priorities in education. He claimed, “some of them, in places like Ningxia, when they’re young can speak and read Arabic but can’t even write their own names in Chinese.” An educator in Xining, himself a transplant from a rural community argued that moving to cities provided a positive opportunity for migrant children to become better educated, claiming “(Migrants’) children also see so much more of the world. At the very least, their putonghua (Mandarin) is standard.”

More frequently, though, respondents argued that gaps in literacy and custom prevented rural migrants from fully integrating into their new communities. These difficulties even trickled down into an inability to access public services, respondents argued. A man in his thirties who worked as a salesman in Jinan argued that, “For People from the northwest (Xibei), religion is the center of their whole life. Not only that, they frequently ask the ahong (imam) to be a mediator for their life’s conflicts. So when conflicts arise in their lives, when they need an intermediary between people, they go find the ahong.” A member of the local clergy echoed these assertions, lamenting that unfamiliarity in dealing with civil services led so many migrants to depend upon the mosque to resolve their problems.

Conversely many of those Hui who move from the rural countryside to cities like Jinan, or Yinchuan (the capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region) express frustration with their urban ethnic and religious counterparts. As one academic in Yinchuan explained “A lot of migrant Muslims who come here find Yinchuan to be very danhua (“watered down,” or secular).” A cab driver in Xining who had spent time living in east China groused, “Muslims from the east like in Shandong don’t know anything about Islam.” Incredulous, he added “They smoke, and drink and everything!” Others made similar remarks. An electronics salesman, originally from Gansu, but living in Beijing listed the ways in which Beijing’s Hui were different from those in his hometown. Citing everything from manner of dress, to diet, and attitudes no marriage, he complained, “Beijing Muslims’ way of thinking is just more kaifang” (used negatively to imply permissiveness or libertine behavior).

Despite these tensions, however, the engagement between different segments of the Hui community that migration causes does stimulate transformations in how Hui communities negotiate boundaries of ethnic identity. Daily practices like those of diet, dress or religious observance are key markers of an ethnic identity (Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008; Goode and Stroup 2015). Continued negotiation and debate over which practices should stand as the “correct” manifestations of identity may trigger shifts in the boundaries of ethnic identity, or subdivide communities along cross-cutting identity cleavages (Wimmer, 2013; Chandra, 2012). In Hui communities, renewed conversations concerning the content of Hui identity stimulate change on many levels.

In some cases, secular Hui rediscover faith after engaging with more pious migrants. A respondent in Xining beamed with pride at the positive example provided by northwestern migrants, boasting “the people who live in East China, they’re very danhua, but when people from Qinghai go to the cities they start to pray more often, and believe more deeply.” A woman who operated a corner shop in Jinan’s Hui quarter also attributed changes in mosque attendance to migrants, stating “I think they’re a big influence on the neighborhood. They go to pray every Friday. Local Muslims aren’t this observant.”

Likewise, experiences in the predominantly secular environments change the outlooks of migrants. The socioeconomic and political consequences of migration are not only evident at the destinations at which migrants arrive, but also in their places of origin (Bastia, 2001; Brubaker, 2010; Redclift, 2016). A Hui scholar in Yinchuan remarked, “​It works both ways; (migrants) adapt to Yinchuan but they also spur locals to think about being more active.” A young woman who worked as a teacher in Xining, herself having grown up as a migrant in Zhejiang, remarked “Because (migrants) go out to work, they also widen their horizons, open up their worldview, meet different people. This will also make changes. Some learn new things, and transform their hometowns.”

The impact of these exchanges is wide ranging. Not only does this re-engagement of disparate parts of the Hui community serve to draw internal boundary lines that cross-cut ethnic identities with competing class, age, gender, sectarian and other identities, it also forges new understandings of what it means to be Hui. Especially for the young people who understand migration first-hand, the experience of living around and with Hui from other backgrounds opens up opportunities for a new, broader negotiation of the cultural markers which denote group membership.

Thus, the changes wrought by shifts in population demographics forge new conceptions of Hui ethnic identity. As one lifelong Hui resident in Yinchuan mused, “Maybe these (migrant) people’s children, the next generation, they can become residents of a New Yinchuan (xin de Yinchuan ren). This includes residents of Old Yinchuan’s children’s children also becoming a part of New Yinchuan. Maybe it could be like that.”


David R. Stroup (@davidstroup) is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) of Chinese Politics at the University of Manchester. His current research focuses on how the renegotiation of ethnic boundaries in ethnic Hui Muslim communities in the context of urbanization interacts with China’s state policies on ethnic and religious identification. He is also developing further research on the everyday foundations of populist Islamophobia in China.



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