About the research

This Research Fellowship examines how Sino-Muslim religious, cultural and historical knowledge is produced and maintained through everyday and community literacy practices. The Fellowship is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and runs throughout 2021-23.

The study is situated within the field of Literacy Studies1 and utilises interpretive approaches in linguistic ethnography2 to examine writing and reading as primarily a social and cultural practice. The study’s focus is on the everyday and ‘local’ literacies3 of modern Sino-Muslims and, therefore, brings together two areas of research for the first time: Literacy Studies and Hui Studies.

China has 55 minority groups which collectively represent around 10% of its total population4. Ten of these groups are designated as ‘Muslim’ minorities with the largest of them being the ‘Hui’, a Sino-Muslim minority situated across most of China. Many Chinese minority groups have their own mother tongues and these are acknowledged to varying degrees in national policies5. Sino-Muslims, particularly Hui, do not have their own language but a number of what could be described as ‘heritage literacies’ which the community has practiced and maintained for centuries, which have traditional as well as more recent digitalised manifestations, and which are central to community-based and translocal ways of knowing and being. This study examines the particular role that literacies play in both in the transmission of heritage and in portraits of Sino-Muslim identity.

Literacy practices can, for example, incorporate Perso-Arabic representations of Chinese, Chinese characters to represent Arabic pronunciation, various liturgical and community-based ways of reading and writing (which link to other languages), and more recent digital practices as part of everyday multiliteracy and (trans)linguistic practice online. Quotidian and everyday practices of literacy are central to how communities operate and the ways individual members of communities relate to each other, institutions, and wider society. They can deepen our understanding of how minority groups sustain cultural and linguistic agency in societies where ‘vernacular’ literacies may constitute the majority of everyday literacy practices and yet can remain undervalued, sidelined, and ‘below the radar’ of dominant discourses of literacy and language.

Upon piloting, the research will take place throughout most of 2022-23 and encompass research activity within the provinces of Ningxia, Yunnan and Shaanxi (pending travel restrictions). Fieldwork will consist of multi-site and multi-form ethnographic data collection, augmented by the researchers’ own auto-ethnographic reflections of their engagement with the project.

This Research Fellowship is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and the Primary Investigator is Ibrar Bhatt (Queen’s University Belfast) who will be hosted at Jilin University for part of his tenure. Learn more about the project team here.


1 Street, B. V. (1984) Literacy in theory and practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

2 Snell J, Shaw S & Copland F (2015) Linguistic Ethnography: Interdisciplinary Explorations. Palgrave Advances in Language & Linguistics.

3 Barton, D., & Hamilton, M. (1998). Local literacies: Reading and writing in one community. London: Routledge.

4 National Bureau of Statistics (2010) Tabulation of 2010 Population Source: http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/pcsj/rkpc/6rp/indexch.htm

5 Zhou, M. & H. Sun (2004) Language policy in the People’s Republic of China: Theory and practice since 1949, Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.