The Hui (回族) are perhaps China’s most unusual ethnic minority; they are the only people to be designated as one solely because of their religious beliefs. The Hui don’t have their own language, speaking only Mandarin, and are scattered throughout every province of the country with nearly 80% of the 10-million-odd Hui living outside their official homeland.
Their origins date back more than 1000 years to the time of the Silk Road, when trade thrived between China and the Middle East and Central Asia. Arab traders intermarried with the local women and now most Hui are ethnically indistinguishable from the Han Chinese. What marks them out is their adherence to Islam.
Most Hui men wear white skullcaps, while many women don headscarves. The more educated can read and speak Arabic, a result of studying the Koran in its original language. For many young Hui, learning Arabic is the path to a coveted job as a translator for the Chinese companies on the east coast doing business in the Middle East.
Although the Hui can be found all over China, they are most numerous in the northwest provinces of Gānsù, Níngxià and Shaanxi. True to their origins as traders and caravanserai operators, many Hui are still engaged in small businesses, especially the running of restaurants.