They began as merchants
Islam has been in China for 1400 years. Twenty years or so after the death of Muhammed, Muslim envoys came overland from the Middle East. Consequently, the majority of Muslims in China are today still predominantly in the northwest and southwest. The introduction of Islam to China occurred relatively peacefully. They were mainly merchants, occupied with aspects of trade, but mosques were built, and conversions took place.
Islam has a long and varied history in China, though they have always been an ethnic minority. Today Muslims account for 1.6% of the population of China, which amounts to about 20,000,000. There are currently 36,000 Islamic places of worship, more than 45,000 imams, and ten Islamic schools. The first mosque built in China was the Memorial Mosque in Canton.
The Mongol period
By the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1270), Muslims had come to play a significant role in the import and export industry. A Muslim consistently held the office of Director General of Shipping in this period. It was during the Mongol-founded Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) that large numbers of Muslims settled in China. The Mongols gave foreign immigrants, such as Muslims, Christians, and Jews an elevated status over the native Han Chinese as part of their governing strategy.
Mongols recruited and forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants from western and central Asia to help them administer their rapidly expanding empire. The Mongols used Persian and Arab administrators to act as officers of taxation and finance. Muslims headed many corporations in the Yuan period. Muslim scholars were brought to work on calendar making and astronomy. The Mongols liked to put foreigners in positions of power to curtail the power of the local peoples, which allowed Islam in China to gain strong roots.
Forbidden Islamic practice
That is not to say that the Mongols were sympathetic to Islam. In fact, it is the one period of Islam in China (excluding the first 30 years of Communist China) where the authorities severely interfered with Islamic practices. Genghis Khan and his successors forbade halal butchering. Muslims had to follow the Mongol diet. Circumcision was also prohibited. Persecution became so severe that Muslim Generals joined the Han Chinese in rebelling against the Mongols. In the Ming dynasty that followed Muslims were respected for the role they’d played in ridding China of the Mongols.
At the start of the Ming Dynasty, six of the most trusted Generals were Muslims. This period, beginning in the 15th century, is sometimes considered as the golden age of Islam in China. The Emperor ordered mosques to be built all over China and personally wrote a eulogy in praise of the prophet’s virtues. Muslims began to assimilate much more by speaking Chinese, by adopting Chinese names and mosque architecture began to follow traditional Chinese architecture. Nanjing became an important center of Islamic study.
Muslims in Ming Dynasty Beijing were given relative freedom by the Chinese, with no restrictions placed on their religious practices or freedom of worship and were treated like regular citizens. In contrast to the freedom granted to Muslims, followers of Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism suffered from restrictions and censure in Beijing. However, the racial policy towards ethnic minorities was of integration through forced marriage. Muslims, like other minorities, were required to intermarry. Consequently, there were more conversions to Islam, as it usually turned out that the non-Muslim in the marriage converted to Islam.
At the end of the Ming Dynasty, Muslims fought on the side of the Ming against the Qing. Millions were slaughtered in these battles, and the Muslims didn’t regain their place of prominence in Chinese society when the Qing dynasty eventually began. All through the 19th-century Muslim rebels rose up against the Qing rule, but the rebels were always defeated. Some Muslims eventually fought on the Qing side, suppressing the Muslim rebels, which brought about in fighting.
This confusing and problematic situation continued until the People’s Republic of China was set up at the end of the 19th century. Emperor Sun Yat-sen, of the Kuomintang Party, immediately proclaimed that the country belonged equally to the Han, Man (Manchu), Meng (Mongol), Hui (Muslim), Tsang (Tibetan) and Miao peoples. Islam in China again found stability.
During the reign of the Kuomintang Party, the Kuomintang appointed Muslim warlords in a few provinces. Bai Chongxi was Defence Minister of China during this time. During the second Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s, the Japanese slaughtered and raped Hui Muslims throughout China. Mosques were destroyed in many provinces; they smeared Hui mosques with pork fat, and they forced Hui women to work as sex slaves. Many Muslims fought for China in the war against Japan.
The People’s Republic of China began in 1949 and immediately the suppression of Islam began. The Communists were, of course, atheistic. All religions were suppressed for the first 30 years of their rule. Mosques were destroyed or turned into schools and 1000s of copies of the Quran were burned. Since about 1978, restrictions on Islam have steadily eased. Today, Islam is experiencing a modest revival and many new mosques have been built.
There has been an upsurge in Islamic expression, though Uighur Muslims are not given the same freedoms as Hui Muslims. Hui Muslims are given religious freedom to practice their religion, build mosques and have their children attend mosques, while Uighur Muslims are severely restricted due to the conflict in Xinjiang, where the majority of Uighurs live. Xinjiang, formerly known as East Turkestan, has witnessed Uighur revolts against Chinese rule there for hundreds of years.
Sympathetic to Islam
In fact, the Chinese Government in recent years has been sympathetic to Islam. In 2007, anticipating the coming year of the pig in the Chinese calendar, depictions of pigs were widely banned in China ‘to avoid conflict with Muslim minorities.’ In response to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, the Chinese state-run media sided with the Muslims and attacked Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons that insulted Muhammed. There is conflict between Hui Muslims and Uighur Muslims because Hui troops and officials have assisted in crushing Uighur revolts.
Tibetan Buddhists and Hui Muslims are constantly at loggerheads. Hui Muslims are a minority in Tibet, and most of the violence is against them. Mosques have been burnt, and women are prevented from wearing hijabs in public. They do not support Tibetan separatism and the Chinese government openly endorses Hui Muslims at the expense of Tibetan Buddhists. While China doesn’t support ISIS, it won’t join the fight in the Middle East. It has its own anti-terrorist laws, directed almost exclusively against the Uighur Muslims. A number of Chinese Muslims have gone to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq.