The Bonan are small Muslim minority that lives primarily in four villages located in the foothills of the Jishi Mountains on the southern bank of the Yellow River in western Gansu Province. Also known as the Bao'an, Baoan, Baoan Hui, they speak a South Asian language, practice ground burials and celebrate Muslim holidays. Some practiced polygamy until it outlawed by the Communists.

The Bonan are regarded as Altaic Mongolians and are closely related to Tu and Dongxiang. The origin of the Bonan is not known. It is thought that they were formed through the merger of the local populations with Mongolian and Tibetan immigrants. They converted to Islam in the early 19th century and have a history of being persecuted by their Buddhist neighbors. Some are Sunnis, sometimes referred to as the Old Teaching. Some are Shiites, sometimes referred to as the New Teaching.

The Bonan call themselves Bonan, but have sometimes been denominated as "Bonan Hui" or "Huihui" based on their Muslim religion (Hui is a term used in China both to describe all Muslims and to describe the Hui ethnic group). It is thought that they received the name Bonan because about 150 years ago they inhabited the area around the city of Bonan in Qinghai Province. They live closely with the Dongxiang and Salar. They share the Islamic faith and have many similar customs with these two groups.

The Bonan breed livestock and grow wheat and rye. They are known in Gansu and Qinghai Provinces as expert knife makers, making the knives almost completely by hand. Most Bonan are farmers despite the fact the lands they occupy are very poor agriculturally and provide them low yields. They are also raise cattle and are engaged in forestry little. The crafts they make are generally for their own use although their knives and swords enjoy some notoriety. China Made as a cottage industry, the Bonan knives are famous all over China for their beauty and sturdiness.

The Bonan language belongs to the Mongolian branch of the Altaic family. It is related to the languages of the Dongxiang, Mongolians, and Tu. Most Bonan also speak Chinese. A Chinese-based writing system is used for the Bonan language. The Bonan are mostly Muslims and their living customs are similar with other northern Chinese Muslim groups, namely the Hui, Dongxiang and Sala minorities who live around them. Bonan Muslims are divided into two different sects — the Old and the New.

Websites and Sources: Xinjiang Wikipedia Article Wikipedia Xinjiang Photos Synaptic Synaptic ; Maps of Xinjiang:; Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; People’s Daily (government source) ; Muslims in China Islam in China ; Islam Awareness ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia

Bonan Population and Where They Live

The Bonan are one of China’s smaller minorities but their numbers have doubled to over 20,000 in the last three decades. They live in northwest China mainly in compact communities such as Dadun, Ganhetan, Meipo, Gaoli and other villages in Lingxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, Jishishan Autonomous District of the Bonan, Dongxiang and Salar in Gansu Province. Some live in Qinghai province in Tongren County.

Bonan are the 10th smallest ethnic group out of 56 in China. They numbered 20,074 and made up 0.0015 percent of the total population of China in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census. Bonan population in China in the past: 16,505 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 12,212 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. A total of 4,957 were counted in 1953; there were only about 5,600 in 19595,125 were counted in 1964; and 6,620 were, in 1982. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

The Bonan live in an arid area of grasslands withe some forests. Gansu's Jishishan Bonan, Dongxiang and Salar Autonomous County are located south of the Yellow River, near Gansu's border with Qinghai. In the old days, the "three inhabiting places of the Bonan"—the main regions where the Bonan live—were Bonan town, Xiazhuang and Gasa'er in Tongren county, Qinghai province. Now it refers to the "Ganmei" (that is the two adjacent villages of "Ganhetan" and "Meipo"), "Dadun" and "Gaoli" villages in Jishishan autonomous county of Bonan, Dongxiang and Salar nationalities, Gansu province. The formation of Bonan and the birth of their clan name all have close relationships with the "three inhabiting places of Bonan". ~

History of the Bonan

The origin of the Bonan is not known. It is thought that they came from the border area between Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai and merged with local populations of Mongolian and Tibetan immigrants in the area they live in now. In the Yuan dynasty they adopted Islam, one feature that distinguished them their Tibetan and Mongolian neighbors, who are mostly Tibetan Buddhists. [Source: Ethnic China]

Judging from their legends, language features and customs, many of which were identical with those of the Mongolians, the Bonan are at least partly descendants of Mongol soldiers who occupied the Tongren area during Genghis Khan's rule. When the Mongol Empire fell, they chose to remain rather than retreat to Mongolia. The Bonan seems to have taken shape after many years of interchanges during the Yuan and Ming (1271-1644) periods between Islamic Mongolians who settled down as garrison troops in Qinghai's Tongren County, and the neighboring Hui, Han, Tibetan and Tu people. The Bonans used to live in three major villages in the Bonan region, situated along the banks of the Longwu River within the boundaries of Tongren County. [Source:]

Tomb of Ma Anliang, a famous Qing general involved in the Dungan wars and Boxer rebellion who some say was Bonan

Some scholars say Bonan formed through the long-term contact and merging of Semu people that came to the east after the Mongol invasions of China and Central Asia in the 12th century. The name of "Bonan" originates from the name of their living place — the Bonan town on the banks of the Longwu River, Tongren county, Qinghai province. It is believed that during the Qing dynasty, they participated in some of the big rebellions in northwest China. After their defeat, the survivors moved to their current home. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences~]

In the old days, Bonan were call "the Huis" along with other Muslim groups in China. They dwelled in present-dayTongren county, originally a Tibetan area. In the Yuan Dynasty, Mongols and the Semu people migrated to the area. After the Ming Dynasty, the rulers began to station soldiers there to "garrison the border and defend the foreign kingdoms". During the Hongwu years in the Ming Dynasty, a Bonan castle was established near Tongren. During the Wanli years, Bonan town was built. In the Qing Dynasty, "Bonan barracks" was established there. At that time all "Bonan people" lived is Tongren in Bonan, Xiazhuang and Gasa'er—the "three inhabiting places of Bonan".

Later, allegedly because they were oppressed by the Tibetan Buddhist aristocracy at in Longwu Temple, the Bonan people were forced to migrate during the Xianfeng years and the early years of the reign of Emperor Tongzhi (1862-1874) in the Qing Dynasty. After staying for a few years in Xunhua, they moved on into Gansu Province and finally settled down at the foot of Jishi Mountain in Dahejia and Liuji, Linxia County. They again formed themselves into three villages — Dadun, Ganmei and Gaoli — which they referred to as the "tripartite village of Bonan" or the "three inhabiting places of Bonan".

Dahejia in western Linxia County is the place where the Bonans mainly concentrated. The area is thickly wooded and enjoys a moderate temperature supported by plenty of water and lush grass, which make it suitable for farming and stockbreeding. According to the Chinese government: However, until the mid-20th century, under the heavy burden of feudal oppression and exploitation, the place had been bleak and desolate. In Dahejia, Bonan and Hui bureaucrats, landlords and religious leaders owned large tracts of farmland, forests and orchards. They also monopolized the river transport and owned 20 of the 27 water mills. The majority of the people were reduced to tenants toiling under the severe exploitation of land rents and usury. Rent in kind was a form of exploitation widely practiced in the area. In most cases, rentals were as high as 50 per cent. Exploitation by the landlords also took on other forms such as hiring farm labourers on a long-term basis and trading in slave girls. After the founding of the People's Republic of China, in 1952, the "Bonan" were recognized as one of China’s 50-odd nationalities. |

Bonan Festivals

left The Bonan observe the main Islamic holidays. “Ramadan”, the Muslim month of fasting, and the celebration after its over is called “Roza”, meaning a happy festival, or Greater Bairam: It is held during ninth lunar month on the Islamic calendar and lasts for 30 days. Lesser Bairam is celebrated 70 days after Roza Festival, according to the Islamic calendar. It is considered to be the new year of the Hui calendar; therefore it is celebrated in a larger scale than Roza Festival. [ \=/]

The Almsgiving Festival is the traditional festival of Bonan people in Gansu Province. It is celebrated on an auspicious day in the ninth lunar month of the Islamic calendar. During the festival, households kill cattle and sheep and prepare chicken, oil and joss sticks at temples, where they give alms. Muslims go to the temples to chant scriptures. All the activities on this day are hosted and arranged by local women. The Langshan Festival is celebrated in from late-May to early-June. “Langshan” means “spring outing.” Bonan people usually go for a large picnic, bringing oil, meat, flour, pans and tents to the riverside, hill slope or grass slope, and enjoy a whole day out. \=/

The Huaer Festival lasts for five days and is celebrated between the 4th and 6th lunar months in May, June or July by the Han, Hui, Tu, Sal, Dongxiang and Bonan peoples in the northwest provinces of Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai. A huaer is a kind of folk song that is popular among these people. Most huaer songs are improvisations, sung by one or two people, with long and prolonged sonorous tones which have both a lyrical and a narrative content.

The festival is usually celebrated in a big square decorated with hanging red lanterns and colorful streamers. The festivities open with gongs, drums and fireworks. At night bonfires are built and sometimes the singing and dancing goes until dawn. In some places older singers put ropes around the festival site and people can't enter until after they have sung a song. In the singing competition, which are held on a stage, singers are given a subject and they quickly have to compose a song about it. There are individual, duet and team competitions and participants are judged on their singing, their improvisations and their words. Sometime the singing is gentle and soft. Other times it is more forceful.

Bonan Marriage Customs

Bonan people practice monogamy. Marriage have traditionally been arranged by matchmakers and decided by parents. To young man’s family asks the matchmaker to introduce a girl and then reward the matchmaker with some money. Parents of both families get together and approve the marriage before the wedding ceremony is held. The betrothal gifts are costly. [Source: \=/]

Bonan wedding

According to “Wedding ceremonies are mainly held on Fridays (the gathering day of Islamic calendar), or on days with number three, six and nine. In the morning of the wedding ceremony, the groom and dozens of people go to the bride's home to escort her back to the wedding. The groom rides a horse which is decorated with red. When the group of people arrives at the bride’s home, they should first greet and pay respects to the bride’s family before the wedding begins. They also give out walnuts and red dates to every guest coming to participate the wedding. They congratulate the groom’s party by leading them to the courtyard and daub ashes of pan on their faces. After that, some young men in the bride’s family will follow the groom’s group of people to his home and daub ashes of pan to the groom’s father as a form of congratulation.\=/

“At the same time, the groom’s father is carried to the bride’s home and asked to take a seat in the courtyard. The bride’s father comes out to greet and kneel in front of the groom’s father, asking for “forgiveness for not having raising the child well” by creeping on the ground. The groom’s father will take the whip prepared beforehand and lash for 20 times before returning home from the bride’s home. When the bride leaves her home, she will throw about five-colored grains behind her, meaning to leave felicity to her parents for raising her up.” \=/

Bonan Food: Noodles and Deep-Fried Dough Twists

The staples of the Bonan diet are wheat, barley, beans, corn, potato, buckwheat, highland barley, beef, mutton, dairy, eggs, poultry, fish and vegetables such as flax and leek. Bonan people prefer sour and spicy flavors. Thus, vinegar and red chilli oil is indispensable in every meal. Their main foods are usually flour-based things such as steamed bread, steamed twisted rolls, pancakes, steamed stuffed buns, noodle soup, noodles with minced meat, fried dough twists, cold noodles, sour soup noodles, fried noodles with minced meat, kneaded wheat gluten and noodle paste. Beef and mutton are the preferred kinds of meat. They strictly forbid eating meat from pig, horse, donkey, mule and other beasts. Eating meat and coagulated blood from animals which die naturally is also forbidden. [Source:]

Bonan festive meal

"Deep-fried dough twists" and "salted cakes fried in sesame oil" are two traditional wheaten Bonan foods, popular in China with both Bonan and non-Bonan alike. Deep-fried dough twists are made of dough that is made by flour, salt water, brown sugar, Chinese prickly ash water, egg, fragrant bean powder, vegetable oil, honey and warm water. After the dough has been repeatedly kneaded it is pulled and broken into small dough pieces about 100 grams in weight, and covered with wet cloth. The pieces of dough are then rolled into round strips as thin as chopsticks. Several strips are braided together and pulled into twists or shaped into rings or other shapes. Then the dough twists and rings are dropped into boiling oil and deep fried until brown in color. They taste best when eaten hot. The best ones are light and crispy and have a beautiful golden brown color. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

Salted cakes fried in sesame oil are similar to other breakfast snacks served in northern China. They are made with kneaded dough made from flour and the water containing vitriol, soda and salt. The dough is fermented and mixed with an egg and vegetable oil with small quantities of peppermint leave powder. The dough is pulled and broken into small dough pieces 70 to 80 grams in size, and rolled into round cake with the diameter of around seven to eight cm, and deep fry them in oil. When they become bun brown and bulging, they are finished and can be eaten. When eating these cakes, people generally do not bite into them directly, but tear it into small pieces and put them into mouth to eat. ~

Salted cakes cooked in oil were originally a food to entertain guests in parts of the Middle East. According to legend, in 622, Mohammed, ate some at the home of an old man named Ayoubu in Medina, and praised it a lot, then it became widely popular. In the Yuan Dynasty, salted cakes reached China and became a food associated with the Bonan, Hui, Dongxiang, Salar and Muslim minorities in China. Salted cakes can be prepared in a variety of ways. According to the different raw materials and mixing ingredients, they can be divided into 1) "polished glutinous rice salted cake", 2) "potato powder salted cake", 3) "sweet salted cake" 4) and "sweet potato salted cake". According to custom, salted cakes should be fried by older, experienced women without other people, especially non-Muslims, looking on. Some people believe if other people enter the kitchen when the salted cakes are being fried, the oil will be alerted and the cakes won’t taste as good. ~

Bonan Eating Customs and Taboos

According to “When guests come to visit, Bonan people will let the guests be seated in the seat of honor (left side of the heatable bed built of bricks), and then serve them with tea and food. Before having meals, a senior or the host will recite a passage from the Koran, thanking for Allah’s food. People then start eating after the chanting. Staple foods, such as steamed bread and pancakes, should be firstly divided by the host before the guests’ eating. Usually there are three courses during a meal, including pancakes or steamed bread, mutton or chicken eaten with hands and thin thread noodles. If the guest is male, young and middle-aged women are not supposed to appear in front of guests. They should prepare food or have a rest in the kitchen. They will not go into the house until the guests leave. [Source: \=/]

“It is strictly forbidden eating pig, dog, horse, donkey, mule, snake, turkey and any other beasts. Besides, animal’s coagulated blood, animals that die naturally, cattle, sheep and chicken butchered without chanting prayers beforehand are also forbidden. They abstain from smoking and drinking alcohol. The following are also considered taboos: use nose to smell food; marriage with non-Islamic people (in case of inter-marriage, the other party has to change their religion to Islamism); dump leftovers on the ground. Guests and family members must not enter the kitchen when the hostess is making fried food. Women must wear veiled hats while going out, and they are not allowed to keep long fingernails. It is regarded inauspicious to walk over production tools such as axe, sickle and ropes. The bride is forbidden eating meals in her husband’s family in the first three days of marriage. The guests should not leave any leftovers in the meal.” \=/

Bonan Clothes

Bonan men like wearing white or black hats, white shirts and black-cloth waistcoats for every day wear. At festivals and celebrations, they dress up in top hats, long black robes with lapel and cardigan front, multicolored belts and high leather boots, with a broadsword fastened at their waist. Their robe looks like Tibetan robe, but shorter and is decorated with trimmings of various widths and colors. In winter they wear turndown-collared fur coats which are usually brown. [Source: \=/]

In their everyday lives, Bonan women wear purple or dark green coats with side openings and vests made of blue or black handwoven cloth. Some wear knee-length robes with varied decorative trimmings on cuffs of clothes and trousers. Women also like wearing long-veiled hats. Married women prefer white round hats with black veils, while young girls wear green veils and older women wear black veils. \=/

Bonan Waist Swords

Iron forging is a traditional handicraft of Bonan. In many Bonan villages, almost every household has someone with blacksmithing skills. Some of them cultivate crops during the growing season and forge iron during the off season when they not busy with farm work, when farm work is not busy, they are engaged in iron forging. Those that make a living from iron forging often produce items for the Tibetan communities in Qinghai and the southern part of Gansu. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

The Bonan produce a great variety of iron products, including almost all kinds of production utensils and articles for daily use., but they are most famous for their waist swords, which for 80 percent to 90 percent of the total volume of iron products. Bonan waist swords are kind of famous in northwestern China. Among the most famous types are "Shiyangmian", "Shuangluo", "Yawuqi", "Bianqiao", "Manba", "Xiluo", "Boriji" and "Shuangdao". Their specifications are mostly in three types: 5 cun, 7 cun and 10 cun. The manufacturing technology is very complex, requiring at least 30 or 40 steps, and often more than 80 steps. ~

The best Bonan swords are repeatedly forged with high quality iron and steel-making ingredients and repeatedly hammered and folded over and hammered some more. The surfaces of blades are often carved with the patterns of stars, plum blossoms, steam boat balls, dancing phoenixes, and double dragons playing with pearls. Bonan waist sword edges are sharp with the right combination of hardness and softness. When polished smooth and shining, they are beyond compare. For the sword handles, generally black or white ox horn with delicate luster, or various kinds of rigid plastics and celluloid, are used as raw materials. They are often inlaid with brass, red copper or galvanized iron wire as hoops or decoration. Sword scabbards, are generally made from brass or tin forged into an outer shell, and lined with wood on the inside to protect the sword edge. ~

Bonan "Hua'r" and Folk Songs

The Bonan have a rich culture. There are many folk stories, poems, songs, fairy tales and legends, mainly love stories about history of the ethnic group. They are also fond of singing and dancing. Their songs are usually sung in Mandarin Chinese but have a own Bonan melody which has integrated elements of Hui, Han, Mongolian and Tibetan folk songs. [Source:]

Bonan folk songs include "hua'r", "ditties", "banquet songs" and "work songs". "Hua'r" are the main form of Bonan's folk songs, traditionally sung in the fields and mountain areas. The Bonan people pasionately love "hua'r", almost every person can be moved by the sound of these extemporaneous songs. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities,]

Folk ditties are quite popular. They are generally sung on the New Year's Day, at festivals or other celebrations. The subjects can be quite varied, even covering things like, according to the China government, the “condemnation of feudal propriety” and “singing the praises of the new society and love life.’ The lyrics for “Such as The Evergreen Four Seasons” goes:

Bonan kids

What flowers in the spring are fragrant?
When the peonies are in blossom, the garden smells fragrant,
The flowers are red, the willows are green, the day is sunny and the sun is warm,
The little young girl accompanies her brother to relieve boredom,
She is only 18 years old,
My big eyes,
The brother leads his young girl the way.

What water in the summer is clear?
The flowing water in the mountain spring is clear during the four seasons,
The flowers are red, the willows are green and the flowers of rapes are beautiful,
The little young girl accompanies her brother to relieve boredom,
She is only 18 years old,
My peonies,
The brother cannot forget his little young girl. ~

"Banquet songs" are sung at weddings. The words are witty and humorous, and the tunes are lively and boisterous. Generally, the young men in the village sing it together on the night of wedding, with two people leading and many people joining in the singing. To goal is for all the people in the village to hear the songs, and share in the happiness of the bridegroom and bride. ~

Huarer Singing Festival

The Huaer Festival lasts for five days and is celebrated between the 4th and 6th lunar months in May, June or July by the Han, Hui, Tu, Sal, Dongxiang and Baoan peoples in the northwest provinces of Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai. A huaer is a kind of folk song that is popular among these people. Most huaer songs are improvisations, sung by one or two people, with long and prolonged sonorous tones which have both a lyrical and a narrative content.

Generally, the words of Bonan "hua'r" songs are organized in 6 sentences, or 4, 8, or 12 sentences, even as many as 48 sentences. Subjects include agricultural work, life and love. The words are vivid and lively, filled with slang, mockery and humor. Most of the songs are sung in Chinese, while the words inserted in the lines for balance or harmony are often sung in the Tibetan language. The songs have been described as “sonorous, loud and clear, in freedom and naturalness, sweet and beautiful”.

An example of some typical hua’r lyrics are:
The white-porcelain bowls and fine flour,
The cotton felt spread on the heated kang;
The life of Bonan people is sweeter than honey,
The gratitude to the Party is like the sea, with no sides. ~

The festival is usually celebrated in a big square decorated with hanging red lanterns and colorful streamers. The festivities open with gongs, drums and fireworks. At night bonfires are built and sometimes the singing and dancing goes until dawn. In some places older singers put ropes around the festival site and people can't enter until after they have sung a song.

In the singing competitions, which are held on a stage, singers are given a subject and they quickly have to compose a song about it. There are individual, duet and team competitions and participants are judged on their singing, their improvisations and their words. Sometime the singing is gentle and soft. Other times it is more forceful.

Hua’er was inscribed in 2009 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: In Gansu and Qinghai Provinces and throughout north-central China, people of nine different ethnic groups share a music tradition known as Hua’er. The music is drawn from an extensive traditional repertoire named after ethnicities, towns or flowers (‘Tu People’s ''ling’,'' ‘White Peony ''ling’''), and lyrics are improvised in keeping with certain rules – for example, verses have three, four, five or six lines, each made up of seven syllables. [Source: UNESCO]

Bonan Sports: Firing Five Times" and "Saimo Flag"

The Bonan have engage in a number of entertainment and sports activities that grew out efforst to improve their health and warfare skills. "Firing five times" and "Saimo flag"—both performed on back of horses—are the two of the most popular. "Firing five times" tests riders ability to fill a gun with gunpowder, smashthe fuse cap and fire for five times in succession on the back of galloping horses within the prescribed distance. The riders usually shoot indigenous powder guns they make themselves. The distance is generally 200 meters. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities ~]

After riders are given the order to start, they whip their horses to run quickly. The riders grip their horse’s back with their two legs, take their guns with their left hands, and fill the powder, install the fuse cap and fire with their right hands, doing everything in continuous movements without stopping. Because the distances are short and the horses run very fast, and there are many firing tasks to do, the competition is very intense, dangerous and fierce. In the end, the first person that reaches the terminal point and finishes the firing tasks is the winner. ~

"Firing five times" is a traditional sport deeply loved by Bonan men and women, old and young. Spectators often go to all the "three inhabiting places of Bonan" to watch the competitions held there. There are no prizes or awarded money for the winners of the competitions. Organizers of the events simple announce the places of the competitors. Still winning is greatly valued and often everyone knows the names of the top contenders. Participant that claim first place, hold "ears" with cupped hands (win honors) for their themselves and their village. ~

"Saimo flag" features riders waving a flag in five directions within the distance of 100 meters and on the back of a running horse. The flagpole is made of bamboo pieces that are tied together with black cloth. They are tough and flexible and not easily broken off. Bonan call them "bun bamboo". The lengths are different, mostly about three meters. When the competition starts, the contestants use their right hands to support the flagpoles that are planted in the iron brace on the right side of the saddles. As the horses gallop across the 100 meter distance the riders wave their flags from right to left, from front to back and, finally across the top of their heads—the five directions—with astonishing speed and agility. The first contestant that reaches the finish line and successfully finishes the movement of waving flags is the winner. Because the competition demands that the flag be waved in five directions, it is also called "five door flag". This sport tests riding skill, braveness and arm strength. The winner is deeply respected and praised.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times,Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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