The Dongxiang are one of China's official minority groups. They were called Mongolian Huihui prior to 1949, when their name was changed to the Dongxiang (East District) people. They call themselves by the Islamic term Santa. Other Muslims in China do not consider the Dongxiang to be a part of the Islamic faith because of their involvement in drug and prostitution rackets. One visitor to the Dongxiang described them as "very mean people, with hard faces."
The Dongxiang speak a Mongolian language. "Quite a few words in the Dongxiang lexicon resemble words of the same meaning in Modern Mongolian, and some are even identical to words presently used in Inner Mongolia. Many other words are close to the Middle Mongolian spoken in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries." Only 12% of the Dongxiang are literate in Chinese.
In the thirteenth century China was subdued by the Mongols. Genghis Khan, in a bid to control the land he had taken over, moved some of his garrisons into China. These soldiers intermarried with local women and gradually developed into their own distinct ethnic group called the Dongxiang. Some placenames seem to support this theory. For example, Zhayingtan (Encampment Beach), is said to be the site of an old Dongxiang garrison.
The Dongxiang are primarily employed as farmers. Their main crops are potatoes, barley, millet, wheat, and corn. They are also renowned across China for producing traditional rugs.
Not long after the Dongxiang first arrived in China, they were converted to Islam. By 1949, when the Communists took over China, there was one mosque for every 30 Dongxiang homes and one paid Muslim worker for every nine families. The majority of Dongxiang belong to the Old Sect, which emphasizes worshiping at the tombs of Muslim saints. "The remainder belong to the New Sect, a fundamentalist and reformist group." There were numerous brutal wars between the two Dongxiang sects in the last century.
In the 1940s some missionaries briefly visited the Dongxiang area but were unsuccessful in converting anyone to Christ. In 1993 a Hong Kong based organization conducted mass literature evangelism in the main Dongxiang town. The nearest church to the Dongxiang is a Han Chinese fellowship in Linxia.