Who Are the Dungan People?

A Dungan mosque in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan.
A Dungan mosque in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan.

Dungan is a term used across the former Soviet Union to refer to a group of Muslim people of Chinese origin. The Dungan people reside in China and other Soviet republics are refer to themselves as the Hui people. The history of the Dungan people can be traced to Central Asia where they originated from the Kuldja and Kashgar regions.

History of the Dungan People

The Dungan people were captured by raiders and brought to Asia as slaves, mostly to serve in private wealthy households. After Russia annexed Central Asia in the 19th century, slavery was abolished but most female slaves remained in the region. In 1887, the Hui fled from China to Soviet republics following the Hui Minorities War. The first wave of migration occurred in three separate groups through the Tian Shan Mountains during the exceptionally severe winter of 1877-1878. The first group comprising of 1,000 people from Turpan settled in the southern region of Kyrgyzstan. The second group comprising of 1130 individuals from Didaozhou settled in the Eastern region of Kyrgyzstan, while the last group comprising of 3,000 individuals from Shaanxi settled in the northwestern region of Kyrgyzstan. According to the 2002 census in Kyrgyzstan, 58,409 Dungan natives live in the region.

The second wave of migration occurred in 1880, when the Dungan people of the region were allowed to move to the Russian side of the border following the Saint Petersburg Treaty, which required the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Upper Ili Basin. About 4,600 Dungan people moved in small groups under this treaty, settling in the Southern part of Kazakhstan. According to the 1999 census in Kazakhstan, 36,900 Dungan people live in the region.

Culture of the Dungan People

The Dungan people are mainly subsistence farmers who grow rice, vegetables such as sugar beets, and rear dairy cattle. They are also involved in the growth of opium, which is mainly used for trade since their religious beliefs do not allow them to smoke. Although the Dungan people are not known to be actively religious, they claim to belong to the Sunni sect of the Hanif Muslims. Almost every Dungan settlement has a mosque which is administered by a mosque elder known as Ahug. The livelihood of the Ahug comes from the zakat, a tax levied on property, and from donations from the faithful. Like other Muslims across the world, the Dungan people observe the five pillars of Islamic faith, which include reading the Quran, fasting, praying five times a day, pilgrimage, and payment of zakat.

The Dungans honor their Chinese origin and observe many traditional ceremonies. Elaborate celebrations of birthdays, circumcisions, weddings, and funerals are tied to the traditional customs practiced in China during the last half of the 20th century. Besides the ceremonies, schools, and museums, the Dungan also preserve their traditional culture through embroideries, traditional clothing, and silver jewelry.

Death rites and rituals are conducted according to Arabic funeral rites. The corpse is washed before the funeral and women are not allowed at the cemetery. After the burial, a mullah is hired to say a prayer over the grave each day for the next forty days, which is the mourning period. Thereafter, the deceased is honored on the 4th, 7th, 40th, and 100th day after death, and then each year on the anniversary of the death.


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