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Hui minority footballers leading China’s next generation

Fairly early into any stay in China, you will almost certainly be told that this is a country with 56 ethnic groups, rather than the singular Chinese identity that it most coming into the country would imagine. Han Chinese, whose culture and customs account for nearly everything acknowledged as “Chinese” in the outside world, account for 91 percent of the country, numbering in the region of 1.2 billion of the population. However, China has also benefitted immensely from the influence of its minority groups, and their influence can be seen across the entirety of the country—particularly in terms of language, cuisine and customs. Indeed, for political reasons, this influence is promoted now as much as it ever has been in Chinese history, with inclusiveness a major theme of modern China.

Some of China’s biggest icons and historical figures have been ethnically non-Han chinese: woman warrior Mulan was likely Xianbei, acclaimed pianist Lang Lang is Manchu, while gymnast and sports brand owner Li Ning is Zhuang chinese. It is not unusual then to see such “minority” figures excel in various areas of society, and football is no different. Wild East Football has touched upon the subject before, with a basic list of some prominent minority footballers, as well as a look at football in Uygher-dominated Xinjiang. There are, though, many more that did not make the list compiled above.

As we look forward to improved fortunes for Chinese football, following a challenging couple of years, has also tried to offer an insight into some of the country’s rising stars—with Wu Lei (pictured, centre) and Zhang Linpeng (left) the brightest of the country’s young charges at present. Both players have been linked with moves to European clubs in recent times, and will surely need to move in the coming 12 to 18 months in order to avoid stagnating in the Chinese Super League. Coincidentally, the two players share many commonalities in their backgrounds. Both players are products of the prolific Genbao academy and Shanghai East Asia club, while they are also also both of Hui (回) ethnicity.

The Hui population of China adds up to around 10 million, with the vast majority of the ethnic group based in Western China. They are composed of mainly Muslim chinese who emigrated from Persia and Turkey during the time of Mongol rule in China, and are thus distinguishable from China’s other Muslim populations. However, as is the case for many minority chinese, a large section of the Hui group are now spread across the country, with their minority status being passed down via the mother’s side of the family. While once an indication of a person following the teachings of Islam, it is no longer the case.

Wu and Zhang are far from China’s first notable Hui footballers. Indeed, Wu’s current coach at Shanghai East Asia, Gao Hongbo, is also Hui chinese. Former Beijing Guoan player Tao Wei, was another prominent ambassador for the minority group, whilst Tianjin’s Cao Yang and Guizhou’s Yang Hao are both Hui international footballers still playing in the CSL. With Gao regarded as China’s best young coach, and the two current rising stars of Chinese football both of Hui origins, it certainly appears the case that the minority group could have a big say on football in China over the coming years.

It is an unusual circumstance purely due to both players emerging as leading talents at a similar time. Their performances and achievements will be a great source of pride to the Hui people, and both have the potential to go on to bigger and better things than their current levels. For Chinese football as a whole, their progression will undoubtedly be a major factor in any success the national team may achieve in coming years. Perhaps even, in the future, they will be joined by China Under-20 defender Mi Haolun—another rising star of Hui ancestry. Hopefully, their successes will allow for a wider understanding of China’s minority groups both inside and outside of China’s borders.

Based in Guangzhou, Christopher covers Chinese football for a range of media outlets worldwide and is Wild East Football's lead editor for news content.   His work can regularly be seen on ESPN FC, Bleacher Report and Hupu amongst other media outlets, while he has interviewed a number of leading figures in Chinese football.



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