Ningxia, home to China’s biggest Hui Muslim population, has renamed an Arabic-sounding river in a controversial campaign to weaken the Islamic identity of the region as reported by various news media including Inkstone.
The Aiyi river, named after Ayisha, one of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)’s wives, is now called Diannong, which is the ancient name for Yinchuan, the current capital of Ningxia.
“We received a request from the local water resources department based on a regulation on the names of public locations,” the Ningxia government said in a statement. “The name has been changed after on-site examinations and discussions by experts.”
The regulation, passed by the Ningxia government in 2013, bans local authorities from naming public locations after foreign persons or places.
Located in northwest China, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region has about two million Hui Muslim residents, who make up approximately one third of the population.
Descended from Arab and Central Asian Silk Road traders, Hui Muslims number more than 10 million in China.
Most of them speak Mandarin, live in peace with the majority Han population, and even look much the same as them – apart from the white caps and headscarves worn by the more traditional Hui.
A hub of Islamic culture in the country, Ningxia hosts the annual China-Arab States Expo and is an important stop along China’s Belt & Road Initiative with direct cargo services to Central Asia and Iran.
But since 2016, the local government has been trying to minimize Arabic and Islamic influence in the region.
The name change is seen as a bid to emphasize traditional Chinese cultural influence in Ningxia, at the expense of its Hui Muslim roots.
“Changing names shows the local government’s ignorance and stupidity,” says Wang Genming, a researcher at the Ningxia University institute of Hui studies.
“Aiyi is just a name reminiscent of a beautiful Hui lady.”
Wang tells Inkstone that the name change follows a series of efforts the regional government has been making to demolish Islamic décor on buildings and removing Arabic signs.
“Even the local theatre and residential compounds are being renovated to remove ethnic features,” Wang says. “More than 860 books regarding Hui ethnicity have been taken off the shelves in the libraries.”
In March, an avenue called the China-Arabic Axis in Yinchuan was redesigned and renamed Unity Road to play up traditional Chinese culture.
The avenue leads to a square with Arab-style monuments and statues, which was originally built to commemorate China-Arabic friendship.
Ningxia’s efforts are broadly in line with a wider campaign by the Chinese government to “sinicize religion” – a policy introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2015 to bring religions in line with the government’s definition of Chinese culture and under the absolute authority of the ruling Communist Party.
“Sinicizing religion is ‘de-extremifying’ religion,” Xiong Kunxin, a professor at Minzu University of China in Beijing tells Inkstone. “This name change shows the central government’s determination to correct a trend of Islamization.”
The Chinese authorities believe Islamization, the process of a society’s shift toward Islam, conflicts with mainstream culture and values. The extension of Islam into areas outside of religion, such as food and medicine, is frowned upon.
But scholars like Ningxia University’s Wang dismisses these concerns, because the Hui Muslims are already highly integrated with the majority Han population.
Hui Muslims make up less than 1% of China’s population. They wear Han clothes and speak the Han language. Wang says he doesn’t believe they have to be “sinicized.”
One verse tells us why this is happening,
“They want to extinguish the light of Allah with their mouths, but Allah will perfect His light, although the disbelievers dislike it.”