Islam in China: A cross-cultural observation

Regina Lau

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Amidst his hectic administrative duties, Professor H K Chang, CityU President, grabs every chance to get close to students and to share his knowledge with them. In the Chinese Civilisation Centre’s (CCIV) Audio-Visual Room with more than 100 people in the audience, Professor Chang shared his insights on “Islam in China”, 7 October. Muslims and non-Muslims, students and academics, were attracted to his speech, which he said was from the perspective of an interested observer.


Growing up in Jinan, Shandong province, Professor Chang has been interested in Islam ever since he was a child. “I had a neighbor and classmate, who seemed to live exactly the same way as I lived except that he never ate anything in our house,” he recalled. “His family were Muslims.” Later in his life, when he had a chance to visit Spain, he became enamored with the Islamic influence on Spanish architecture, music, dance, and other arts. He began to develop an intense intellectual curiosity about Islam and its impact on humanities, history, cultures and arts. Having traveled widely in Xinjiang, and many parts of China where the cultural influence of Islam thrives, Professor Chang also enlivened his presentation with some of the pictures he took in those places.


In his speech, Professor Chang first introduced the audience to the world of Islam, briefly recapping the life of Muhammad, and explaining the meaning of some basic Islamic terms such as Islam, Muslim, Kuran, Sharia, Sunni, and Shia, etc. “In Arabic, Islam means submission,” Professor Chang said, “And Muslim means a person who submits to God.”  He also outlined the five pillars of the Islamic faith: Shahada, the profession of faith that “there is no other God but Allah, and Muhammud is his messenger”; Salat, formal worship or prayer; Zakat, the giving of alms for the poor; Hajj, prilgimage to Mecca; Sawm, fasting during Ramadan.  


He went on to recount how Islam was spread to China during the Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties.  It was believed that trade and warfare between China and the Arabic countries during the period had brought about migration of people between East and

West. As war captives from China settled in Arabia, they spread the Chinese invention of paper to the West. When Muslim traders settled in China, they established their communities, mostly concentrated in the coastal cities of Quanzhou and Guangzhou. The most significant migration of Muslims to China occurred during the Yuan Dynasty, according to Professor Chang, when the Mongols recruited masses of people from Central Asia as soldiers and laborers. These people, many of them were Muslims and were estimated to be as many as a million, mainly settled in the Western provinces of Yunnan, Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia. They were the ancestors of the Hui ethnic minority in today’s China. Currently, there are some 20 million Muslims in China, distributed mainly in the northwest. They belong to 10 ethnic minority groups, of which the largest are the Huis, Uighurs and Hasakes, Professor Chang added. 


Professor Chang also analyzed the contribution of Chinese Muslims, in the areas of medicine, astronomy, architecture, seafaring, literature, history, philosophy, linguistics,

martial arts, drama, cooking, music and dance. The building of mosques and the eating of lamb are among some of the most notable Islamic influences in China. Many of the Muslims, being adept traders and travelers, also brought significant contribution in ship building and marine trade in China. Finally, exemplifying the history of Muslims in China, Professor Chang quoted the story of a renowned Muslim tribal family. One of the famous descendants of the family was Zheng He, China’s legendary marine explorer who was sent to expeditions by the Ming Emperor to show the might of the empire. Some contemporary historians argue that it was Zheng He who first discovered America.


Professor Chang will share his observations of the cultural interaction between Islam and  China with more students in a coming CCIV lecture, “Impact of traditional Chinese culture on Chinese Muslims”, to be held on 2 November.    


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