China - Land of Diversity

Part 5
Today's Muslim Population in China

It is extremely difficult to ascertain the number of Muslims there are in China today. Thus, at this time, any figure presented should be taken only as a best estimate. Care must be taken to distinguish clearly between facts on the one hand and assertions, possibilities, and hypotheses on the other.

In 1980, in the midst of the liberal mood of the "Four Modernisations" and the post "Gang of Four", post-Mao period, Beijing announced a new set of figures for the fifty-five ethnic groups that it currently identifies as "minority nationalities." Among these fifty-five minorities (whose total population Beijing states to be 55.8 million, or six percent of China's total population), ten are identified, among which Islam has been the prevailing religion. A tallying of the figures for these ten groups produces a total population of slightly more than thirteen million (13,152,200) or about 1.3 percent of the total Chinese population.

Beijing's general practice has been to avoid referring to these minority groups as Muslims per se, the rationale being that many members of the minority in question no longer "believe in religion". Nevertheless, this figure of about thirteen million may be taken as Beijing's present official position as to the total number of Muslims in China (excluding Taiwan province for which Beijing does not give statistics). Even this increase over the figure put forth by Beijing in 1953 is still unrealistically small, however, in view of the nearly one-hundred percent growth of the total Chinese population during the same period. Also, even if it were true that there were only ten million Muslims in 1953, it is highly unlikely that their rate of increase would have failed to keep up with that of the Han Chinese. Instead it is more likely that the Muslims would have surpassed the Han given that the minorities have not been obliged to conform to the rigid population control measures that the Chinese leadership has imposed upon the Han.

Muslim Minorities in the People's Republic of China
Hui All Provinces but especially Ningxia, Gansu, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Henan, Hebei Sino Tibetan 3,559,350 3,550,000 3,934,335 6,490,000 2.3%
Uighur Xinjiang Altaic (Turkic) 3,640,125 3,640,000 3,901,205 5,480,000 1.6%
Kazak Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai Altaic (Turkic) 475,000 500,000 533,160 800,000 1.8%
Dongxiang Gansu Altaic (Mongolian)   150,000 159,345 190,000 0.8%
Kyrgyz Xinjiang Altaic (Turkic) 60,000 70,000 68,862 97,000 1%
Salar Qinghai, Gansu Altaic (Turkic)   30,000 31,923 56,000 2%
Tajik Xinjiang Indo Iranian 80,000 14,000 15,014 22,000 1.4%
Uzbek Xinjiang Altaic (Turkic) 13,000 13,000 11,557 7,500 2.4%
Bonan Gansu Altaic (Mongolian)   4,000 5,516 6,800 1.6%
Tatar Xinjiang Altaic (Turkic)   6,000 4,370 2,900 4.3%
Totals     7,827,475 7,977,000 8,665,287 13,152,200  
Beijing Review Vol 23 #9 (March 3 1980), quoting figures based on 1978 statistics

Government attempts to favor the minorities have included the establishment of "autonomous" minority adminstrative units at three levels: the region (comparable to a province and of which five have been designated), the prefecture (zhou), and the county (xian). The Muslim-inhabited areas that have been designated as autonomous regions, prefectures, and counties are shown in the following table.

Muslim Inhabited Areas
Designated as Autonomous Regions, Districts, and Counties.
Hui Ningxia Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region 1958
Gansu Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture
Zhangjiaquan Hui Autonomous County
Xinjiang Changji Hui Autonomous Coutny
Yenqi Hui Autonomous County
Guizhou Weining Yi-Hui-Miao Autonomous County 1954
Hebei Dachang Hui Autonomous County
Mengcum Hui Autonomous County
Liaoning Fouxian Hui Autonomous County 1957
Qinghai Hualong Hui Autonomous County
Menyuan Hui Autonomous County
Yunan Weishan Yi-Hui Autonomous County 1960
Uighur Xinjiang Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region 1955
Kazak Xinjiang Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture
Barkol Kazak Autonomous County
Mulei Kazak Autonomous County
Gansu Aksai Kazak Autonomous Region 1954
Qinghai Haixa Mongol-Tibetan-Kazak Autonomous Prefecture 1954
Dongxiang Gansu Dongxiang Autonomous Region 1950
Kyrgyz Xinjiang Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture 1954
Salar Qinghai Xunhua Salar Autonomous Region 1954
Tajik Xinjiang Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous Region 1954
Uzbek Xinjiang None  
Bonan Gansu, Qinghai None  
Tatar Xinjiang None  

To a great extent these territories are autonomous in name only. While the minority after which they are named does have considerable representation in local government and party organs, the Han generally retain ultimate control and pursue various colonising strategies designed to sinify the minorities and establish a strong Han presence. In no case is the "autonomous" unit inhabited only by the minority (or minorities) for which it is named and in some cases Han are in fact the majority. (This is even true, for example, of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region whose population is approximately only one-third Hui but two-thirds Han.)

As noted above, ten minorities have now been officially identified for which Islam has been the dominant religious tradition. As also noted, not all members of the ten minorities actually practice Islam. But Islam is so much a part of each of the ten ethnic identities that individual members of each group who, for one reason or another, do not practice Islam are still considered Muslim "by birth" or "by blood"; in nearly all cases, if members of any of these ten minorities do not practice Islam, then they do not practice any religion.

Each of China's ten Muslim minorities traces its descent to ancestors who were absorbed into China by Chinese territorial expansion or who migrated to China either for commercial purposes, as refugees from conflicts outside China, or to assist the Chinese court. Islam was not carried to China "by the sword" and, with minor exceptions, Muslims did not engage in proselytisation in China.

Nine of the ten Muslim minorities are of Central Asian derivation; they are the Uighur, Kazak, Dongxiang, Kyrgyz, Salar, Tajik, Uzbek, Bonan, and Tatar. Six of these nine live in what has traditionally been known as Eastern (or Chinese) Turkestan, territory that became a province of China (Xinjiang) only in 1884 but which constitutes one sixth of China's total land area; until only very recently these six Muslim groups made up well over ninety percent of Xinjiang's population.

Each of the nine Central Asian Muslim minorities still speaks its own native languages, all of which belong to the Altaic language family and are thus as different from Chinese as is English. Of the nine minorities, six (the Uighur, Kazak, Kyrgyz, Salar, Uzbek, and Tatar) speak Turkic languages which are similar to that spoken in Turkey and to those used throughout much of the former Soviet Union. Traditionally, when written, Arabic script was used for these peoples' languages although over the years both the former Soviet and Chinese governments have launched numerous campaigns to replace Arabic with other scripts. Four of the Turkic-speaking Muslim minorities represented in China - the Kazak, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tatar - have, in fact, greater numbers of their members living in the former Soviet Union than in China and the first three of them also extend into Afghanistan. Two of China's six Turkic-speaking minorities (the Kazak and Kyrgyz), still maintain a pastoral nomadic herding mode of subsistence while four of the six (the Uighur, Uzbek, Tatar, and Salar), have long been sedentarised and are either agriculturists or urban oasis dwellers. Also in Xinjiang, and farthest away from China proper, are the Persian-speaking Tajik, a minority whose greatest numbers live across the border in Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union.

The two remaining Muslim groups of Central Asian origin are the Dongxiang and Bonan (also spelled Tunghsiang and Paoan respectively) of Gansu province, both of whom speak their own separate Mongolian language. Unlike other Mongols, who are pastoral herders, both the Dongxiang and Bonan have adopted sedentary agricultural patterns characteristic of the Han-influenced areas in which they live. The Dongxiang, like the Turkic Salar who also live in a more Han-influenced area than Xinjiang, have a long-standing reputation among Han for daring, fiercencess, and solidarity and played active parts in the Muslim rebellions that occurred up through the early twentieth century.

By an analysis of the mosque congregations in China we arrive at a higher total for the Chinese Muslim population. On the mainland of China according to the China Islamic Association there are 40,000 mosques. Traditionally a mosque is built by Muslim localities on demand, under the supervision of local Muslims. Conservatively speaking a mosque cannot be built and maintained by less than 500 Muslims in one locality; if we multiply the total number of mosques by 500 persons per mosque we arrive at a total of 20,000,000 Muslims in China in 1955, when this number of mosques are said to have existed. Yet we cannot use the 500 person per mosque as a mean average because in Peking, there are 42 mosques among a population of 80,000 Muslims which averages 2,000 Muslims under the jurisdiction of each mosque. This estimate of mosque do not even include the mosque used primarily by women who in many communities have their own mosques due to Islamic traditions. Taking these estimates into consideration the total Muslim population in China should not be less than 40 million.

© Copyright 1997
Bethany World Prayer Center
This article (which first appeared in "Frontiers Focus" Vol 4 #3 and 5 #2, and is used by permission)
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