Muslims in China

A photo of a man making lamb skewers in Xi'an, China.

Written by ian robert knight

Travel Photographer, Bangkok

Everyone knows that China is huge. But when people think of the population of over 1.3 billion people, it’s unlikely that most would think there are any Muslims in China. But in reality, there are millions of them. And there always has been, throughout centuries of Chinese history. In China today, there are about 22 million citizens that identify as Muslim, spread out through half a dozen provinces. It’s true that 22 million is less than 2% of the population of China, but the fact that they have the right to practice their religion at all, is significant.
Generally, religions are banned in China. But there are exceptions. In the northwestern province of Shaanxi, there are millions of Hui Muslims. They enjoy the freedom to practice their religion without fear of persecution from the Chinese government. There are many theories about why this is, most of which are based on political reasons. I won’t get into that here – that would fill another blog post completely.
A photo of a man making lamb skewers in Xi'an, China.
Preparing lamb skewers
But what is important to note, is the contribution that the Hui people bring to the province. The provincial capital of Xi’an, which is famous for it’s terracotta warrior excavations, is just as well known for its Muslim Quarter. And specifically famous is the evening market that takes place every night. And no visit to Xi’an is complete without a visit to this incredible market.
…the Muslim Quarter night market in Xi’an is all about food. Lots of tasty, wonderfully scented, colorful food…
As markets go, this one is particularly active. Most markets in China are full of cheap souvenirs (not surprisingly ‘made in China’) that you can get anywhere. But the Muslim Quarter night market in Xi’an is all about food. Lots of tasty, wonderfully scented, colorful food. Each stall is operated by a different family, selling their own special halal food. To the first-time visitor, some of the stalls may be hard to believe. The variety of food, and the smells can be overwhelming.
A photo of a hawker selling lamb skewers in Xi'an, China.
“Come get your lamb skewers!”
For photographers, the market represents unparalleled opportunities for fun photographs. The street is well lit, and the vendors are animated. Walking from one end of the street to the other should yield several wonderful images. The street is always very crowded, so it will be impossible to avoid getting people in your photographs. But that is just as important – to show the crowd.
A photo of chefs cooking broth in Xi'an, China.
A photo of chefs grilling lamb skewers in a night market in Xi'an, China.
A photo of a chef cooking soup in a night market in Xi'an, China.
A photo of chefs preparing to cook ram ribs in Xi'an, China.

Some photo tips for shooting in a night market:

  • If you use Auto ISO, you’ll be able to shoot the scenes that change from dark backgrounds to bright spotlights
  • Keep an eye on your aperture – sometimes you’re going to want a large aperture to focus on one person in a crowd, and sometimes you’re going to want a medium aperture to capture the crowd
  • Look for individual stories amongst the crowd of people. Single out one specific person and watch them, and tell their story
  • Shoot with a wide or standard lens (24 to 50mm range) for crowd shots, and shoot with a medium telephoto for close-ups of people (105 to 200mm range)
  • Avoid using flash – it will be too disruptive
  • Shoot some crowd shots overhead, by holding your camera above your head at arms length, to get a sense of the crowd size
  • To keep your black backgrounds black, shoot at -1 EV or -2 EV, depending on the darkness of the scene
  • Taste the food!

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