Diasporas: Bishkek Dungans

I thought I heard Chinese at the little bazaar in Jal.  Not pure Mandarin, but enough common words thrown in to jilt my ears and make me turn in question.  The speaker looked Kyrgyz. Or was she? The more I visited the little bazaar the more I heard this broken, gutteral Chinese, just familiar enough to realize that it came from the same root, like studying French and Spanish and then hearing Romanian for the first time.

A portion of the vegetable sellers definitely weren’t Kyrgyz, as they just looked on in confusion when I used my usual bazaar mix of Russian-Uyghur-Turkish (numbers in Turkic languages are almost uniform across the board, and bazaar-level conversational skills in Uyghur will get you across most of Central Asia).  I then chatted with one boy who had studied for a bit in China and discovered that they were Dungan (Дунгане).  I had no idea there were Dungan in Kyrgyzstan before I arrived.

Dungans are Hui in China.  Though Hui are the country’s second-largest minority at some 10.5 million, most Chinese actually have no idea what Hui ethnicity entails.  Most of the time they’re referred to as “Chinese Muslims”. They look Chinese, speak Chinese, dress like most Chinese, and are often nominally religious.  They are also spread from Central Asia to Inner Mongolia to Yunnan and the warlord borderlands of Myanmar to Malaysia. Which is quite a diaspora, stretching some 3,100 miles north to south and 2,200 miles east to west.

640px-Ethnolinguistic_map_of_China_1983A Little bit of Dungan History: First of all, Dungan and Hui are actually a bit different.  Dungan specifically denotes Chinese Muslims of mixed decent (Hui) who emigrated across the mountains into Central Asia following their failed uprising in the 1870’s and 80’s. At this time in China, Hui denoted Muslim inhabitants of the Western Central Plains – present day Gansu, Qinghai, Shaanxi and Ningxia – who were of mixed Chinese, Mongol, and foreign Muslim ancestry, most likely descended from Silk Road traders from Central Asia, Arab communities and Persia who married and intermixed along the way until they were all but indistinguishable from the Han (except in their ability to grown beards). The term Hui  was used to describe descendants of foreign Muslim traders and local Chinese as early as the Song Dynasty (960–1279).

By today’s government definition, however,  Hui includes this original group along with “all historically Muslim communities not included in China’s other ethnic groups” (On a side note, Kyrgyzstan, a small country of 5 million, has half as many ethnic minorities as China, a vast country of 1.2 billion.  This is in great part due to Chinese government-designed streamlining – while over 300 communities applied for ethnic minority status in the 1950’s, all but 56 of these communities were categorically placed within other ethnic minorities).  China’s Hui thus include a few traditionally Muslim peoples with near no ethnic relation (like the Utsuls of possible Vietnamese descent).

Dungan Diaspora: Almost every town in China has at least one Hui restaurant serving up noodles and halal beef dishes (though Chinese Uyghurs often believe that Hui aren’t really Muslim and their food isn’t really halal). While most Hui originally lived in China’s Central Plains, participation in the Qing’s Five Banners (armies) spread them across the country, and growing unrest between local Hui communities and (Manchu) Qing officials led numbers to flee – some to Yunnan (where there already was an established community), some across China to other regions where they further integrated with the Han population, and some to Central Asia.  Which is how Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan ended up with approximately 110,000 Dungans, mostly around Karakol, Tokmok, and Bishkek. Currently there are a few villages around Karakol in Issyk Kul; two villages in Kazakhstan across the river from Tokmok (East of Bishkek); two in Kyrgyzstan between Tokmok and Bishkek; and another 12,000 Dungans from Sokuluk district, 30 km west of Bishkek, which is probably where most of our local bazaarmen come from. You can find a complete map of the communities here. There are also a number of Hui that settled in Malaysia, initially arriving as migrant workers.

Panthay Mosque in Myanmar

Of the Hui that settled in Yunnan, plenty more fled over the border into Myanmar following the Panthay Rebellion (1856-1873).  The Hui there turned into the Panthays, and produced some of the regions most notorious drug traffickers and warlords (more on Panthays here).  Other Hui re-located to Dali (northern Yunnan), where they mixed with the local Bai population, sometimes adopted Bai speech and dress, and invented a (absolutely amazing…) fusion halal-Bai cusine with dishes like mint-beef over thick rice noodles.  Living in Dali, the only way we could tell Bai and Hui apart outside of a restaurant, however, was often by their funeral wear.

Ningxia within China

Inside China, Ningxia, a small rocky sliver of land between Shaanxi, Gansu and Inner Mongolia, was declared a “Hui Homeland” in 1958.  Some Hui moved back from Beijing an other parts of China, and the capital now boasts a Hui cultural museum (with the world’s smallest Koran), plenty of mosques historical and new, and a lot of Arab businessmen. From what I noticed in 2012, Hui in Ningxia were notably more religious, with far more men dressed in the telltale white caps. The Hui couchsurfer I stayed with, however, ate pork when out with Han friends.

And a Little on Dungan Language (Хуэйзў йүян): So back to that language I heard in the bazaar.  It isn’t the language I heard among Huis in Yunnan, or even Huis in most of China.  For since the original Hui settlers migrated to Central Asia 150 years ago, Hui elsewhere have gradually adopted the language of their surrounding communities.  The Hui/Dungan language in Central Asia was based off of  the GanSu/ShaanXi dialect of Chinese (Central Plain Dialect/中原官话, one of the only northern dialects difficult for outsiders to understand).  Hui residing in China’s Central Plains now speak either the Central Plain dialect or standard Mandarin. Huis elsewhere in China generally speak Mandarin and/or the local language/dialect.  However, the Chinese language (and its dialects) has undergone massive changes and modernization within that period.  New terms have generally been borrowed from Mandarin, and many of the Arabic or Persian elements of the original Hui language were gradually eradicated.

Dungan in the Soviet States, however, received education in a standardized Dungan written in cyrillic and with new terms borrowed from Russian.  Scores of outdated Qing-era vocabulary were retained, and fall strange on the ears of modern Mandarin speakers.  A president is a “Хуангди” (’emperor’), a civil servant a “ямын” – the name for an office that died a hundred years past. According to the astounding Dru Gladney, an expert on Muslim minorities in China, Hui/Dungan in Almaty speak “in a hybrid Gansu dialect that combined Turkish and Russian lexical items” (book here). Which would be fascinating to study further, for someone interested in diverging dialects and emerging ethno-linguisitc identities, just saying…


So, if you’re still a bit confused (or intrigued) by the topic above, here are a few more resources you can peruse:


One thought on “Diasporas: Bishkek Dungans

  1. Pingback: Forgetting Russian in a Post-Soviet State | Mountains And the Sea

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