Since 1219, Genghis Khan (1162-1227 A.D.) with his sons and grandsons marched westwards three times and conquered Central Asia and China, and built up a huge empire spanning the European and Asian continents, including large Muslim areas. In the Kublai Khan's war against the Southern Song Dynasty to reunify China, many Arabs, Persians and Central Asians who believed in Islam organized the Western Region Army and participated in this war. When the war was over, these Muslim soldiers stayed where they fought to grow crops and graze horses. They were scattered all over the country, while many more were in the Northwest and a small number were dispersed in the Southwest and Central regions, afterwards some were moved south of the Yangtze River. Most of the Muslim soldiers coming along with the army usually did not take their families. They married local women and multiplied after they settled down. Moreover, the Mongols dispatched a great number of Muslim craftsmen to many places in the country, most of whom settled down where they worked. In the Yuan Dynasty, the Muslims from the Western Region and their descendants were called Hui Hui, who belonged to Se Mu (one of the four classes into which China's population was divided in the Yuan Dynasty, including Central Asian allies of the Mongols, mostly Uighurs and other Turks.). As Muslims in the Yuan Dynasty had made great contributions to the establishment of the Dynasty, they were given high social status that was only below that of the Mongols and above that of the Hans and the Southerners. The upper circle of Muslims were placed in important positions by Yuan rulers, and some of them ranked among the ruling class. In this period of time, the Muslim population increased at a sharp rate, and Islam spread and developed rapidly. The distribution structure of the Muslim population which could be described as "being dispersed widely and concentrated in small groups" was taking shape. It was a time when Islam experienced great development.
The development of Islam in the Yuan Dynasty was related to the birth and growth of the Hui Huis. The term "Hui Hui" appeared earliest in Shen Kuo's book "Meng Xi Bi Tan" (Notes Written in Dream) in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 A.D.), referring to the Hui Hus in the Tang Dynasty. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the Hui Hui had not come into being as an ethnic group, so it had nothing to do with Islamic religion. Since the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.), the conception of the term of Hui Hui was broadened to cover the Muslim peoples, states and places in the Western Region. In the Yuan Dynasty, as the transportation and communication between China and the West further developed, large numbers of Muslims in West and Central Asia came to China. By then the term 'Hui Hui' referred to all Muslim groups immigrating from the Central Asia, Persia and Arabia to China. In the early period of the Yuan Dynasty, Muslims conning from the Sea Route were called "Nan Fan Hui Hui" (Muslims in the South). It was said in "Gui Xin Za Shi" by Zhou Mi: "Today, all the Hui Huis take the Central Region of China as their home, while there are many more in the south of the Yangtze River." By the second year of Emperor Xianzong (1252 A.D.), the term 'Hui Hui' was used in official census, and it became the special ethnic name of the Muslims living the central region of China in the Yuan Dynasty.
It was a long historic course that the Hui Huis were turned into an ethnic group. During the period of the Tang and Song Dynasties, the Arab and Persian Muslims who had already taken up permanent residence in China lived in commercial cities located on main traffic lines. They intermarried with local peoples and multiplied, and the population of the local-born Muslims increased steadily. They became the earliest Muslims in China and the ancestors of the Hui Huis.
The Mongols' three conquering marches to the west during the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368 A.D.) led to the migration of various ethnic groups, classes and professionals to the east. They were not only confined to the cities located on traffic lines, but widely spread throughout the countryside, commercial towns and places where Chi Ma Tan Jun (Muslim troop composed of the tribes in the Western, Region) stationed, covering a vast area from Mobei and Dadu (now Beijing) to the south of the Yangtze River,and Yuannan and the Northwest. The population and extension of the Hui Huis went far beyond that in the period of the Tang and Song Dynasties. They were allowed to marry local women and multiply when they settled down in various places, and as a result the population the Hui Huis increased at a sharp rate.
The Mongols' conquering marches to the west put an end to the splitting-up situation of the northern and southern sides of the Tianshan Mountains and enabled communication and amalgamation between the olds tribes. Moreover, some Mongol kings and Khans embraced Islam and it exerted a great influence on the spread of Islam in this region. The Hui Huis grew much stronger when the Uighurs, some of the Mongols and other tribes joined in by embracing Islam.
The national migration taking place in the Yuan Dynasty made a large number of the Hui Huis begin to live a new life dependent on farming. The preferential treatment given by the Yuan government together with their own efforts enabled Muslims to live in one place for a long period of time and maintain their life without any economic aid from the outside world. The class system practiced during the Yuan Dynasty created favorable conditions for the development of the Hui Huis. They enjoyed certain privileges on many aspects such as working in the government, paying lower taxes and attending the imperial examinations. It made it possible for different tribes and groups of the same class with the same religious belief and custom to amalgamate and become one ethic community.
It was an indication of the acknowledgment and encouragement given to Islam by the authority of the Yuan Dynasty that a good number of mosques were built as sites for Muslims' religious activities. The Mosques became a place where Muslims of various identities could come together to perform religious services and engage in various social activities. Hence, Islam became an important medium to foster and strengthen national ties, eventually leading to the birth of the Hui Huis as an ethic group.
In the Yuan Dynasty, the distribution of the Hui Huis appeared to be "being dispersed widely and concentrated in small groups". By "being dispersed widely" the Hui Huis were scattered all over the country; and by "being concentrated in small groups" the Hui Huis throughout the country lived in compact communities with mosques at the center of their community. The unique characteristics of the geographical distribution of the Hui Huis, different from that of other minority groups had much to do with the specific environment in which the Hui Huis lived during the Yuan Dynasty.
The Hui Huis were adept at engaging in business and managing finance and were capable of and experienced in administration. Additionally for the great contribution they had made to establish the Yuan Dynasty and administer the country, the Hui Huis won the trust of the Yuan rulers. They were given higher political status, and many of them were appointed officials at various levels. In almost all positions there were Hui Huis - civil and military, central and local, provincial and grass-root. They were in possession of land, houses, servants, subordinates and large property.
To meet the needs of the wars, the Yuan government carried out the system of Tun Tian (having garrison troops or peasants open up wasteland and grow food grains) in its early period.When the whole country was reunified, it began to implement this system comprehensively. Among the Hui Huis who opened more wasteland and grew more grains, most were in the Northwest.
The Mongols conquered the world with their sharp cavalry, so they attached great importance to grazing horses, and opened 14 grazing lands throughout the country. Among the herdsmen who were engaged in military horse grazing, many were Hui Huis. Huihuiwa near to Gongxian County in Henan Province, and Yidu and Qingzhou in Shandong Province were important places where Hui Huis grazed horses. These military herdsmen were transformed into civil households afterwards and became local inhabitants.
The Yuan Dynasty also practiced the system of Jun Hu (militarized households). The government allocated lands for Jun Hus for military maintenance, and were exempt from tax. So Jun Hus were both militarized households and peasant households at the same time, who fought as soldiers did in times of war and farmed and grazed like peasants in times of peace. Most of the Hui Huis recruited into the army as gunners or craftsmen usually did not take their families, and became permanent local inhabitants when they settled down where they fought or stationed. They lived there, farming and intermarrying with local people.
The Yuan government also encouraged the Hui Huis who came along with the Mongols from the west to settle down in China to be engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry, and gave them many preferential policies such as allocating wasteland for them to cultivate, permitting them to engage in land business with favorable taxation treatment. Thus, the Hui Huis coming from the west soon became laborers who cultivated wasteland and developed agricultural production. In the Northwest in particular including Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang, they lived and intermarried with local people, and eventually became permanent inhabitants there.
Among the Hui Huis coming along with the Mongols from the west there were a great number of craftsmen. For example, when the capital of Khorezm (a part of the ancient Persian Empire, conquered by the Arabs around 700 A.D., and by the Mongols in the 13th century, now in Uzbekistan) was destroyed, over 100 thousand craftsmen were sent to China, and more than 30 thousand craftsmen captured in the Battle of Samarkand were moved to China and settled down in compact areas too.
During the Yuan period, Hui Hui traders who came along with the Mongols from the west and Muslim traders from Southeast Asia were everywhere in the country. Traffic became convenient after the Mongols' conquering marches to the west,and motivated by the preferential treatment, Hui Hui traders came to China in large numbers and in the end settled down where they worked.
The Yuan Dynasty was appreciative of the scientific talents of the Hui Huis who came from the west and put them in important positions. To make good use of these professionals, the Yuan government set up special departments to deal with certain work, for example Guang Hui Si (department of wide welfare) was in charge of the Hui Huis' medicine; Hui Hui Guo Zi Jian (the Imperial College of the Hui Huis) was for training translators; and Hui Hui Si Tian Jian (astronomy department of the Hui Huis) was in charge of the management and study of the Hui Huis' astronomy and calendar system. Many Hui Hui experts like astronomer Jamal al-Din and Kamal al-Din, artillery-making expert 'Ala' al-Din and Isma'il, architect Ihteer al-Din, medical scientist Dalima, and linguist Haluddin were placed in various institutions established by the imperial court.
The Yuan rulers held an attitude of tolerance and protection towards all religions. Islam developed rapidly at that time. The Mongols' conquering marches to the west and the religious policies they adopted directly promoted the extensive spread and development of Islam in the Northwest of China and Central Asia, and made Islam develop into the religion that was later to be in a leading position.