Hui and Han Interaction and its Influence on Ethnic Prejudice

Experiencing the World Fellowships

On Wednesday, May 30…

I have been in Pingliang for about a week and I have conducted ten interviews. Half of the participants are teachers of Wangping Primary school and half of them are residents of Wangping village.

One thing that I found most frustrating in the past week is the difficulty of making the interview conversation-like. My research requires me to investigate the interaction stories of the participants and this is impossible without the participants’ willingness to reveal those stories. However, a lot of times the participants tend to only answer the interview questions with a sentence or two. In this situation, I have to continue to ask questions in order to get more information. This practice, however, makes the interview more like a questionnaire survey, making the participants even more reluctant to say more. I think that is because my relationship with the villagers is not intimate enough, and also my very identity and behavior - being a Han and asking questions about Hui and Han relationship - makes them uncomfortable and less likely to speak about their own experience. Also, I am worried about the self-selection effect of my way of recruiting participants. My way of recruitment is simply going to people’s homes and asking if they want to participate in my research. Although the proportion of people who have agreed to participate is relatively high - only two families refused to participate so far - I am afraid that participants’ agreement to join such research and cooperate with me already entails a harmonious relationship or benign attitude to Han people. If this is true, the data I gathered would be biased. I need to think about a way to improve my way of recruiting participants.

One thing that I have enjoyed the most in the past week is that I am constantly learning from different participants. I can feel that I am diving deeper into the culture of the local community as I conduct more interviews. At first I only got a general picture of Hui and Han interactions, as I had little knowledge about the Hui-Han interaction in the local community and my questions were thus relatively general. However, after I did more interviews, I got more information about the local community and was able to ask more specific questions. These questions usually stimulated the participants’ memory and they would then give me more detailed and complex information. For instance, in my second interview, the participant told me that Hui people are sometimes invited to Han weddings. Due to the Islamic belief of the Hui people, they cannot eat Han food. Therefore, they usually just attend the wedding but eat nothing. After that interview, I began to ask questions like “Have you attended a Han wedding before? When did that happen? How do you feel about that experience?” Later, in response to these questions, a participant told me that a wedding ceremony that she remembered most is when she was invited by one of her Han friends and she was surprised because her friend actually held the wedding ceremony in a Hui restaurant so that she could also enjoy the food. These stories, which add complexity to the general picture that I had, are the very stories of interaction that I want to collect.

Hui and Han Interaction and its Influence on Ethnic Relationship

The purpose of this research was mainly to investigate the history of Hui and Han interactions in Pingliang. By looking into the daily interactions between these two distinct ethnic groups, I hoped that this research could contribute to the understanding of the ethnic tension of the local community: How do these interactions shape the relationship between Hui and Han people?What kind of interactions should be fostered in order to promote harmony of the local community?To address these questions, I went toWangping village, a Hui village in Pingliang, and conducted 28 interviews with the villagers, asking questions about their interactions with Han people and their visions for relationships between Hui and Han groups.

Different cultural practices and the Shared Concept of Renqing

In my interviews, I found that one of the main difficulties in establishing a harmonious ethnic relationship between Hui and Han people through cross-ethnicity interaction is the vastly different cultural and religious beliefs of Hui and Han people. For instance, Hui people, who are predominantly composed of adherents of the Muslim faith, reject the consumption of pork. For Han people, however, pork is the most commonly consumed meat. In this context, sometimes questions whether or not the local supermarket could sell pork might stimulate ethnic conflicts in Pingliang. Numerous differences in the customs of Hui and Han people make it hard for them to live together. 

Hui people cannot eat at Han restaurants, cannot enter Han kitchens and sometimes even cannot drink from the water sources used by Han people. “I really wanted to see her wedding dress,” one of the participants in my research said when she was telling me about attending the wedding ceremony of her best Han friend. Due to Islamic dietary laws followed by Hui people, and Han people’s food preferences for a wedding ceremony, when Hui people attend Han people’s festivals or ceremonies, most of the time they eat nothing. In this participant’s case, however, her friend invited her and other Hui friends to a Hui restaurant and her Han friends to another Han restaurant.As her friend was busy receiving guests in the Han restaurant, the participant was not able to even see the bride.This is not an uncommon experience. In the 16 interviews in which the participants mentioned attending a Han friend’s wedding ceremony, only three of the hosts provided Hui food to the Hui people invited. Most of the participants said that they are disappointed or frustrated by the way they were treated, but they also stated that they understand it is a part of living in an ethnically mixed community.The different cultural practices, which permeate almost every aspect of the lives of Hui and Han people, interfere with the establishment of positive interactions between them. In this situation, to build an intimate relationship across ethnic groups through interaction takes extra effort or even requires one to compromise one’s ethnic tradition and values.

Yet, it is to be noted that there is still a great potential for Hui and Han people to overcome the gap of different cultural practices.The possibility can be best demonstrated by the very fact that Hui and Han people continue to attend each other’s festivals and ceremonies in spite of the different cultural rules and values. In the 28 interviews that I conducted, 24 people reported that they have in the past attended ceremonies or festivals held by Han people and most of them stated that they have invited Han people to join their festivals or ceremonies in the recent past. Many of the participants mentioned that the reason for them to continue this sort of social intercourse is renqing. Renqing is a traditional Chinese social bond which requires the people that are bonded by it to continue to do favors for the other and return the other’s favor through activities like sending gifts, attending other people’s ceremonies and inviting other people to one’s own ceremony. Due to the openness of Hui and Han people’s festivals and ceremonies—a number of ceremonies and festivals such as Hui funerals and Han people’s Spring festivals require the hosts to invite as many as people as possible—and the ethnic mixed social context of Pingliang, it is very hard for one not to engage in one of the festivals and ceremonies held by people from the other ethnic group. Once one has attended one of these sorts of activities, one is bonded by renqing,which encourages people to stay connected. It is through this shared social convention and courtesy that Hui and Han people are able to develop and maintain a benign ethnic relationship in spite of the difficulties imposed by different cultural and religious traditions.These ongoing interactions help Hui and Han people to gather understandings of the important values and cultural practice of the other side.As a result, people in Pingliang seldom show prejudiced attitudes towards members of the other ethnic group when it comes to cultural and religious beliefs and practices.

On Education

Another essential element in Hui and Han interactions is education. In the 28 interviews I conducted, 18 participants stated that they have experience of attending a Hui and Han mixed school. Having Hui and Han students together is not an easy thing. For instance, the school must be able to provide specially cooked food for Hui students, which requires the school to have Hui cooks and a Hui kitchen aside from a Han kitchen—Hui and Han people cannot use the same kitchen—which the majority of primary and middle schools are unable to provide.Also, as Hui and Han students have different holidays, the school administrators sometimes need to adjust the school’s schedule for both groups. However, when being asked if any unpleasant incidents happened as a result of attending a mixed school, almost all of the participants stated that their experiences in such a school were rather pleasant ones.Anumber of the participants stated that they met their best Han friends in a mixed high school or college.According to the participants, teachers in such schools are usually aware of the differences in culture and religion and would intentionally direct students to give a clear understanding about them.When this awareness of cultural and religious differences is formed in students’minds at such a young age, it seems to make students more accepting of members of the other ethnic group.

Having Hui and Han students in the same classroom also relieves one major kind of ethnic prejudice in Pingliang.Although people in Pingliang rarely reflect prejudiced attitudes on religious or cultural issues, I have seen a number of incidents in which Han people show a prejudiced attitude towards Hui people on education issues. In Pingliang, it was generally believed by both Han, and even Hui people themselves, that Hui people are less educated than Han people. Hui people’s natural talent, as reported by participants, is their ability to run small businesses, but not to study. Studying in an ethnically mixed school, in this situation could not only facilitate Han people’s awareness of Hui students’ability to become highly educated, but could also foster Hui people’s own confidence in believing that they might be as talented as Han people when it comes to studying.

Government Policy

The interaction between Hui and Han people in Pingliang is also subject to the influence of policies of both the Chinese central government and the local government. Due to Hui people’s social minority status, Hui festivals are not classified as statutory holidays. In this situation, as Hui people became increasingly involved in a Han dominated society, it becomes harder for Hui people to celebrate their festivals in the traditional manner. In the past, it may have been possible for a Hui farmer who only worked in a Hui village to spend weeks celebrating one of their festivals. These days, however, as Chinese society advanced rapidly, increasingly Hui people went to nearby towns and cities for education and job opportunities. It is impossible for these people who, for instance, teach in a Han high school or work as government officials to leave their works for weeks at a time to celebrate Hui festivals.Anumber of participants reported decreasing formality and frequency in festivals and ceremonies in recent years. This affects not only the preservation of valuable Hui cultural practices, but also the opportunity for Han people to attend these festivals and thus learn about Hui culture and religion.As a result, one important form of Hui and Han interaction that could promote Hui and Han relationships has become even more difficult to facilitate.

Yet, as I continued to conduct interviews, another facet of this issue was revealed to me. Although the central government of China rarely recognizes the various cultural traditions of the Hui outside of the province of Ningxia (a HuiAutonomous Region in the northwest of China), the local government of Pingliang takes Hui people’s needs and pursuits into account. During important Hui festivals such as the Corban Festival, one participant reported, it is a convention in Pingliang for the leader of the local government officials to attend the Hui ceremonies in the local mosque.Also, in a number of districts primarily occupied by Hui residents, the government officials would permit several days of holidays during important Hui festivals, although secretly, for them to celebrate. Motivated by the need to cooperate with the Hui community, the local government of Pingliang helps Hui people to preserve their traditional cultural and religious practices.

The flexibility in policy regarding Hui cultural practices offered by the local government in Pingliang, however, has been disappearing in recent years. Part of the reason seems to come from the increased convenience in monitoring government regulation offered by the proliferation of new technology, which restricts local government’s freedom in dealing with ethnic issues.As a result, local government’s practices such as secretly giving holidays to Hui government officials and Hui schools for them to celebrate became more rare.Another part of the story has arisen from the gradual change of the attitudes of the Chinese government towards the cultural practice of Muslims.As reported by the participants, the Chinese government has enacted a number of policies that restrict Hui people’s cultural practice in recent years. For instance, Hui people in Pingliang are not allowed to post photos of Muslim ceremonies on social media and Hui government officials are sometimes even prohibited from going into mosques.What angers the Hui community of Pingliang even more is that Hui Children under age of 18 are prohibited from going into mosques to do Koran study. In this situation, it is not surprising that the local government became also less supportive of Hui cultural practices than before.Anumber of religious practices that used to be done publicly can now only be conducted privately. Ironically, these policies which are targeted to restrain Hui people’s cultural practices and assimilate them into Han society trigger disaffection and anger in the Hui community in Pingliang: Due to these policies, interactions which could promote mutual understanding and respect of Hui and Han communities have become harder to foster.


In this research, my interviews with Hui villagers help me dive into the complex mixed environment of Hui and Han people in Pingliang. Forming positive interactions across ethnic groups can be difficult. Hindered by vastly different cultural practices and restrictive government policies, it takes extra effort for Hui and Han people to stay connected and live harmoniously together. However, a great potential for positive interaction can still be explored.The shared basis of Chinese social intercourse, the Pingliang local government’s recognition of Hui people’s needs, and increasingly ethnically mixed Chinese education system all contribute to the decrease of prejudice and construction of a benign Hui and Han relationship. Based on the above discussion, it seems safe to conclude that the central principle that Hui and Han people should adhere to when it comes to across ethnic interaction is not forcibly compromise each other’s tradition in order to assimilate but to recognize and accept cultural and religious differences between each side.

Adviser: Erika Summers-Effler