chapter  10
Language and the Hui
Pages 10

There is much confusion among non-Muslims in China about the language spoken by the Hui and especially about the role of Arabic, both written and spoken, in their lives. An extraordinary example of this lack of understanding is a guidebook for tourists to Lanzhou, written by a Chinese author and published in English in the Discover China's Cities series in 1989. It explains that the Hui 'speak the Han language or [M]andarin outside their own communities, but speak Arabic among themselves. tl This delightful but fanciful conceit reveals the exoticism of the Hui vernacular to outsiders and does contain a grain of truth. Arabic is indeed extremely important to the Hui in China today. On the long rail journey from Lanzhou to Urumqi, a tough Hui businesswoman told me with some emphasis, 'Arabic is one of the languages of the Hui.'2 Certainly, the Arabic script is prominent in Hui communities. For example, the Stars and Moon Restaurant at 113 Beiyuan Gate, Xi'an, which specialises in yangrou paomo $iJ:Jr@Y*, a lamb hot pot poured over broken nan bread considered to be the finest Hui food in the city, has the phrase mata'am al Muslimin, Muslim Restaurant, in Arabic in green print on its business and menu card. The phrase appears in the same form on the signs of halal restaurants and food stalls throughout China making them instantly recognisable.3 Arabic is of course used for liturgical purposes in the mosques and Sufi centres, and for calligraphic decoration in mosques, important in the light of the prohibition on images in Islam. It is studied as a foreign language for religious purposes in the Islamic Academies and for more practical

reasons such as commerce and diplomacy in private language schools and the Tongxin Arabic School.4