Tea Leaf Nation

OK, Computer

Specialized dating sites are helping lovelorn Chinese Muslims find their match.

iYuani.com/Fair Use
iYuani.com/Fair Use

IYuani.com, a dating site whose name combines the Chinese words for "Islam" and "destiny," and which boasts more than 13,000 registered users, features two default cartoon avatars. Males receive a bearded young man in a white cap, smiling confidently, while females get to use a demure young woman in a pink hijab and long-sleeved robe. Those wishing to register as new users are greeted with a warning that iYuani "is a serious, pure, sincere Muslim marriage/friendship site." If a user is "not sincere," the note respectfully asks them not to bother. But the profile photos on iYuani, almost two-thirds of which are men, tell a less traditional story: The men’s photos show them clean-shaven, wearing T-shirts or sweaters, while the women are mostly without headscarves, some showing off their bare shoulders. In other words, they appear heavily Sinicized. That’s because the site caters to Hui Muslims, many of whom are virtually indistinguishable in speech and dress from millions of ordinary young men and women in urban China.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t different: Many Hui still seek to marry within their ranks, despite the fact that they are widely dispersed across China, numbering only 10 million out of a population of 1.3 billion. But the Internet is coming to the rescue, as online Hui dating sites have arisen over the past few years to help some of China’s urban Muslims find their matches. "The Internet links major Hui communities in every city," said Haiyun Ma, a professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland specializing in Muslims in China and a Hui Chinese himself. As a result, "it is easier for young Hui to find spouses" than it used to be.

Easier, but not easy. Unlike China’s 10 million Uighurs — a Turkic people who mostly live in northwest China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region and comprise most of the rest of China’s Muslim population — the Hui vary greatly in their observance of Muslim traditions, and even knowledge about the Islamic faith. Some Hui complain that dietary restrictions are almost impossible to follow in get-togethers with schoolmates and colleagues; others proudly aver that they would not even walk into a non-halal restaurant; others feel no kinship to the Hui religion or accompanying customs at all. One young Hui woman in Beijing wrote on the popular social network Douban that she wished to find a Hui boyfriend, but when one suitor offered "to read her a section of the Quran every night," she bolted.

Even sites aimed at Chinese Muslims can’t solve the underlying demographic obstacles. On 2muslim.com, a matchmaking-focused site which appears to be designed to attract Hui and calls itself "the biggest Chinese-speaking Muslim community" in China (although that could not be confirmed), one 24-year-old designer claimed he wanted to find a "devout" girlfriend in the southwestern city of Chengdu who would "know how to pray properly at a minimum." Another user advised him that that such a person surely does not exist in Chengdu, a city of 7 million that includes only 20,000 Hui.

Crossing ethnic boundaries is one solution to the relative paucity of Hui, but a post on aimu5.com, a dating site with more than 13,000 users, details how hard that can be. "Aimu" literally means "love Muslim," and the site, which calls itself the "best Hui marriage site," offers forums including the "wishing pond," the "feeling diary," and the "love clinic." One Aimu user, a college-educated divorcé, wrote that his first love had been a Han Chinese girl. They had dated for four years, he wrote, until his parents strongly recommended that he leave her and marry a Hui instead. "Marriage isn’t a poem, and it’s not a painting," the user advised; in the end, he wrote, it’s best to follow parental guidance and only marry Hui.

That focus on ethnicity is not unusual on Aimu, which, unlike many other such sites, requires every user to give his or her ethnicity and displays that information on each dating profile next to the name. (Chinese ID cards feature the ethnicity of the bearer: There are 56 sanctioned ethnicities in China, with Han Chinese comprising 92 percent of the population.) One young woman living in eastern Anhui province posted on Douban that she was anxious to preserve her Hui identity, even though she admitted that she has only been to mosque once in her life, while her family has not observed the holy fasting month of Ramadan since her grandparents’ generation. "What can we do to continue the essence of our culture?" she asked.

The question has no definitive answer, but patience seems to help. One self-identified Hui calling himself Lü Zhibo wrote that he had posted a "seeking marriage" ad on the China Muslim Youth Club back in 2009. The site appears to have been founded in Beijing in 2007, and boasts more than 33,000 users; posts seeking marriage or friendship regularly get dozens of comments and hundreds of views. That site, also aimed at Hui, is more serious in tone than its peers — even the section for friend or spouse-seekers is populated with links to Islam-related news, faith, and literature. Registration is time consuming and appears rigorous, although this author, neither Chinese nor Hui, was able to wriggle through after three days.

For Lü, the long wait proved worthwhile. More than two years after his initial post, he met a young Muslim woman online; in December 2013, he posted their wedding photos. The attractive couple posed for glamour shots with strong Muslim motifs from faraway lands — one shot has him in a white thawb (a type of robe popular in the Arabic countries) and her in a black abaya, a robe-like overgarment. Another has him in a golden turban and her in a long embroidered red gown. Along with the photos, Lü wrote, "Praise be to Allah; praise be to Allah’s mercy."

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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