NEW HAVEN, Conn. — 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.
Tea Leaf Nation is Foreign Policy's blog about news and major trends in China.