One of the smallest and least densely populated provinces in the entire country, Ningxia is a forgotten land resting on the fringes of the Tengger Desert. For this reason, Ningxia sees few tourists. The good news for some is that the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (NHAR), the official homeland for China’s Hui Muslim ethnic minority, is far from China’s overpopulated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, making it a beacon of hope for the extreme traveler looking to rough it, or those looking to learn more about the fascinating culture of the Hui (who are more than 10 million strong throughout the country). What’s more, this land of yellow earth offers a collection of historical sites, ranging from old imperial tombs to Buddhist statues and even the ageless waters of the Yellow River (Huáng Hé; 黄河).
Historically, Ningxia was a relatively unimportant area due to its desert climate and harsh weather conditions, but its proximity to the Silk Road connecting China’s former capital of Chang’an (known as Xi’an today) to the rest of the world greatly altered its future.
After the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Muslims traders from Persia and Arabia arrived in China via the Silk Road. These traders settled down in and around present-day Ningxia, intermarried with Chinese people, and assimilated into Chinese culture; but they never dropped their religion. Over time, these people became known as Hui. (Though the Hui and Uighurs are both Muslim groups, the Uighurs have Turkish origins, while the Hui have Arab and Persian blood).
The Tangut, a different race of people about whom little is known today, established the Xixia Dynasty (1038 CE – 1237 CE) in present day Ningxia, but Genghis Khan destroyed much of their unique history, architecture, traditions and heritage. Although not much is left over from the Tangut, their unique logographic writing script is known to be even more difficult than Chinese characters and it is believed that the Tangut created a fairly advanced civilization for their time.
After the Mongolian-led Yuan Dynasty collapsed in the 14th century, many Turkic speaking Muslims (mostly Uighurs) from the west began moving in, but the patchwork of cultures and religions in Ningxia created tension with local Han Chinese. From 1862-1877, the Dungan Revolt – aka the Hui Minority War; a racial war between Han and various Muslim factions in and around Ningxia – ensued, but the Qing Dynasty quelled the uprising. In the end, many Chinese Muslims from this region fled to Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where many of them still live today.
In 1954, Ningxia was incorporated into Gansu Province, but four years later the Beijing government separated it and named it an autonomous region for the Hui people. Since the Deng reforms in the 1980s, Ningxia has been left in the dust by the rest of China’s skyrocketing economy, while its GDP remains one of the smallest in the nation.
The local Hui – who predominately adhere to Sunni Islam – used to speak an ancient form of Arabic, but nowadays they speak Chinese dialects under the linguistic umbrella of Linyin Mandarin (aka Dungan). The Hui can read and write Chinese characters, but they also use the Xiao’erjing script – or the written practice of using the Arabic alphabet (written in cursive form from right to left) for writing Sinitic languages such as Mandarin and the Dungan dialects of Mandarin. However, anyone familiar with Arabic will realize that the Xiao’erjing the Hui use is different than standard Arabic because they always mark short vowels, unlike the other languages that use the Arabic script that omit vowels in standard written language. The Hui chose to keep the vowels due to Mandarin’s high rate of vowel clusters and tones, since it’s essential to note vowels to differentiate words in their written language.