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From the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom (7)

By Julie Ma on Oct 18, 2021 12:10 am

This article discusses the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and key events in the decade leading up to it. It belongs to the series “From the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom”—which is drawn from the leading ethnographic course helping Christians better understand China’s Hui Muslims.

Why are the Hui so anxious, even paranoid, about halal food?

If you’ve ever shared a meal with a Muslim, you’ll know pork must be avoided. Other meats are slaughtered according to Islamic rituals. Depending on where your Muslim friend is from, they may have told you something about alcohol or tobacco or frogs. Yet, Hui concepts of halal (Chinese 清真, qingzhen, literally“pure and true”) might seem especially over-the-top, even to other Muslims. Halal milk? Halal water? “How could they not be?” you may ask. “Well,” comes the reply, “a pig could have fallen into the well!” Then there are suspicions about fake signage and pork-eating con artists donning white caps and serving food with unwashed hands. These worries are not merely results of some pan-Islamic halal-certification fundraising venture. All these things happened within living memory.

The Communists took power in 1949. They kept their promises—for a time. By 1953, the Hui had achieved minzu (ethnic identity) status and been granted limited autonomy in governing their affairs. Religious freedom allowed forced converts to the Wahhabi-inspired New Teaching to resume their traditional expressions of Islam if they so desired.

Then came the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962).1 Private ownership was abolished. The Hui lost their traditional family-run businesses. Mosques started to close. Some mosques were converted to state-owned factories. Factory work and the ensuing famine further diminished Hui families’ capacity to pass on their traditions. Next came the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when devotees of all faiths were pushed underground. Muslims who had not yet abandoned their worship met with their God in the only place their persecutors were afraid to pursue them—Muslim graveyards.2 Unlike their Han neighbors, Hui were not afraid of ghosts.

But what Hui remember most about the Cultural Revolution is the pigs. To fix the famine caused by the economic mismanagement of the so-called Great Leap Forward, China needed crops. Crops need farmers, so the CCP sent everyone to work the fields. That included any Muslim teachers still in their mosques. To produce enough manure for fertilizer, every family was required to raise pigs.3 Anhui, Shandong, and Henan provinces enforced this policy most rigorously, and its secularizing effects on the Hui are most noticeable there. Even some of Qinghai’s devout Muslims secretly admit their families’ involvement in this shameful endeavor. If you’ve spent any amount of time with Muslims, then, like me, you will struggle to find words to describe how, disgusting, humiliating, dehumanizing that was for them. Maybe a Hui could avoid eating the pigs, but they had to touch them, smell them, feed them, collect their waste. Their vegetables, even their grains, were all grown in pig feces.

Then it got worse. When the Red Guards ransacked mosques and seized relics, they didn’t just destroy them with hammers. The scenes were reminiscent of Jerusalem in 167 BC, when Antiochus IV desecrated the Jewish Temple by sacrificing a pig to Zeus on its altar. In 1966–67, Chinese mosques were splattered with pig blood. Pig intestines were deliberately thrown into wells used by the Hui. It turns out the Hui are not paranoid: water can be “unclean” after all.

There were isolated protests, but the Hui knew from their own recent history that large-scale rebellions were doomed to fail.

As with survivors of any trauma, individual Hui have chosen different paths in the years that followed. A Hui friend of mine from Shaanxi was raised believing it was sinful to even look at a pig. Another Hui friend grew up on a pig farm in Anhui. Her grandparents made a living from pork and manure long after it stopped being compulsory.

With the loss of their religious meetings, their halal food, and their freedom to run small businesses, some felt there was nothing left of their Hui identity. But others took their religion “underground” and a reactive revivalism began to flourish.

I have another friend from Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. She eats only meat sourced directly from her hometown. Distrust of “the other” extends to Hui Muslims, even certified halal vendors, outside her immediate circles. Parents quote cases of “fake halal” foods in other provinces, and even other villages to keep their children close to home.

For a Christian trying to build any kind of trusting relationship with a Hui, leaving pork off the menu must be the bare minimum standard for an incarnational lifestyle. A second word of advice: don’t lie about it. If your pan has ever been used to fry bacon, don’t trick your Hui friend into believing it is qingzhen. We believe in a pure and true gospel, and we are called to live pure and true lives. Ask your friend what qingzhen means to them.4 When you have trust, when you have true friendship, they might believe you as you speak about the purity of heart that comes from the true Lord Jesus


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