Contrary to popular belief, the term "Semu" (interpreted literally as "color-eye") did not imply that caste members had "colored eyes" in contrast with brown-eyed Mongol Yuan people. It in fact meant "assorted categories" (各色名目, gè sè míng mù), emphasizing the ethnic diversity of Semu people.
The Semu categories are pointed to people who come from Central and West Asia by Yuan dynasty, it is told that there are 31 categories among them. They had come to serve the Yuan dynasty by enfranchising under the dominant Mongol caste. The Semu were not a self-defined and homogeneous ethnic group per se, but one of the four castes of the Yuan dynasty: the Mongols, Semu (or Semuren), the "Han" (Hanren in Chinese, or all subjects of the former Jin dynasty, Dali Kingdom and Koreans) and the Southerners (Nanren in Chinese, or all subjects of the former Southern Song dynasty; sometimes called Manzi). Among the Semu were Buddhist Turpan Uyghurs, Tanguts and Tibetans; Nestorian Christian tribes like the Ongud; Alans; Muslim Central Asian Persian and Turkic peoples including the Khwarazmians and Karakhanids; West Asian Jewish and other minor groups who are from even further Europe.
Islam was not the religion of the Uighurs during the Mongol Empire. The Uighur land itself was not Muslim inhabited while the Muslim lands were towards its west. They were Nestorian, Manicheans, and Buddhist, and by Mongol times the Buddhists and Nestorians absorbed the Manichaens, and Buddhist clerics dominated the Mongol employed educated sector of their own population. The '"Compendium of the Turkic Dialects" by Kashgari, included among the infidels, the Uighurs. It was written "just as the thorn should be cut at its root, so the Uighur should be struck on the eye" by Kashgari, who viewed them as untrustworthy and noted that Muslim Turks used the derogatory name "Tat" against the Buddhist Uighurs whom Kashgari described as "infidels". The identities of "Buddhist" and "Uyghur" were intertwined with each other.
While administratively classified as Semu, many of these groups rather referred to themselves by their self-aware ethnic identities in everyday life, such as Uyghur. Muslims, Persians, Karakhanids and Khwarazmians in particular, were actually mistaken to be Uyghurs or at least, "from the land of the Uyghurs". Therefore, they adopted the label conferred to them by the Chinese: "Huihui" (see Hui), which was a corruption of the name Uyghur, but at the same time distinguishable from the name reserved for Buddhist Turpan Uyghurs proper, "Weiwuer". Of the many ethnic groups classified as "Semu" during the Yuan, only the Muslim Hui managed to survive into the Ming period as a large collective identity with self-awareness of common identity spanning across the whole China.
Other ethnic groups were either small and confined to limited localities (such as the Buddhist Turpan Uyghurs in Wuling, Hunan, and the Babylonian Jewry of Kaifeng, see Kaifeng Jews), or were forced to assimilate into the Han Chinese or Muslim Huis (such as some Christian and Jewish Semu in the Northwest, who, though thoroughly Islamicized, still unto this day retain peculiar labels like "Black Cap/Doppa Huihui", "Blue Cap Huihui").
The historian Frederick W. Mote wrote that the usage of the term "social classes" for this system was misleading and that the position of people within the 4 class system was not an indication of their actual social power and wealth, but just entailed "degrees of privilege" to which they were entitled institutionally and legally so a person's standing within the classes was not a guarantee of their standing, since there were rich and well socially standing Chinese while there were less rich Mongol and Semu than there were Mongol and Semu who lived in poverty and were ill treated.
The reason for the order of the classes and the reason why people were placed in a certain class was the date they surrendered to the Mongols, and had nothing to do with their ethnicity. The earlier they surrendered to the Mongols, the higher they were placed, the more the held out, the lower they were ranked. The Northern Chinese were ranked higher and Southern Chinese were ranked lower because southern China withstood and fought to the last before caving in. Major commerce during this era gave rise to favorable conditions for private southern Chinese manufacturers and merchants.
When the Mongols placed the Uighurs of the Kingdom of Qocho over the Koreans at the court the Korean King objected, then the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan rebuked the Korean King, saying that the Uighur King of Qocho was ranked higher than the Karluk Kara-Khanid ruler, who in turn was ranked higher than the Korean King, who was ranked last, because the Uighurs surrendered to the Mongols first, the Karluks surrendered after the Uighurs, and the Koreans surrendered last, and that the Uighurs surrendered peacefully without violently resisting. Koreans were ranked as Han people along with northern Chinese.
Japanese historians like Uematsu, Sugiyama and Morita criticized the perception that a four class system existed under Mongol rule and Funada Yoshiyuki questioned the very existence of the Semu as a class.
The Yuan dynasty "Han people" classification included Koreans, Bohais, Jurchens and Khitans, and they are included in statistics of intermarriage between Semu and "Han people". Semu and Han intermarried with Mongols. The Haluhu (哈剌鲁) Semu married Koreans, Uighurs Tangwu, Mongols and Han during Yuan rule. Tibetan, Qincha, Uighur, Hui Hui, and Han intermarried with Korean women during the Yuan dynasty.
A rich merchant from the Ma'bar Sultanate, Abu Ali (P'aehali) 孛哈里 (or 布哈爾 Buhaer), was associated closely with the Ma'bar royal family. After falling out with them, he moved to Yuan dynasty China and received a Korean woman as his wife and a job from the Mongol Emperor, the woman was formerly 桑哥 Sangha's wife and her father was 蔡仁揆 채송년 Ch'ae In'gyu during the reign of 忠烈 Chungnyeol of Goryeo, recorded in the Dongguk Tonggam, Goryeosa and 留夢炎 Liu Mengyan's 中俺集 Zhong'anji. 桑哥 Sangha was a Tibetan. Tamil Hindu Indian merchants traded in Quanzhou during the Yuan dynasty. Indian Hindu statues were found in Quanzhou dating to this period. Korean (Koryŏ) women's beauty was highly commended and viewed by the Ming Zhengde Emperor's Muslim advisor.
Among the Huihui, or Hui, there were in fact Muslim lineages that have migrated to China via Central Asia or by sea route prior to the Yuan migration of merchants, adventurers, craftsmen and service men from the Muslim World to China. These Muslims were not previously known as Hui, but have come to associate themselves with the "Muslims from the land of the Khwarezem" by the mere fact of common religious identity. "Hui" has thus become synonymous with the Islamic religion in the Chinese language since the Ming period (but not before that). Besides identifying themselves as Huis, the Semu Muslims of the Yunnan province, especially those descended from the Khwarazmian statesman Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, or Sayyid Ajjal, came to be labeled as Panthay wherever they migrated to in Southeast Asia, including Myanmar and Thailand.
This name Panthay is particular to the Yunnan Huis and is not shared by Huis in other parts of China such as Fujian and Ningxia. Zheng He is probably the best-known Panthay Hui in the West. The learned Semu, including scribes, interpreters and statesmen who served the Mongol military class, were known for their contributions to Chinese literature and sciences. Many of them became masters of Chinese poetry and also helped compose state-commissioned historical works on previous dynasties. Their privileged position in the Yuan bureaucracy was in part due to the Mongol military class's distrust of the native Khitay and Manji subjects. One such Yuan Semu mandarin and poet was Guan Yunshi, a Turk of disputed origin.
After the fall of the Yuan, many Semu intellectuals and soldiers, due to their less entrenched loyalty to the Mongols, also became quickly assimilated into the Ming political culture and became prominent mandarins and aristocrats. Some no longer retained separate ethnic identity and became Han Chinese, others still served the Ming court as Muslim Huis. The Ming court's tolerance for loyal Muslims and respect for their practices and ethnic identity partially explains the strength and vitality of the Muslim Hui community in modern China, compared to other Semu groups such as the Christians and Jews.
Similar practices in other areas of the Mongol Empire
Bukhara and Samarqand were visited by Changchun. At the same time the Mongols imported Central Asian Muslims to serve as administrators in China, the Mongols also sent Han Chinese and Khitans from China to serve as administrators over the Muslim population in Bukhara and Samarqand in Central Asia, using foreigners to curtail the power of the local peoples of both lands. The surname of Li was held by one of Yelu Ahai's staff of Han Chinese. There were various Chinese craftsmen. Tangut, Khitan and Han Chinese took control over gardens and fields from the Muslims. Han Chinese were moved to Central Asian areas like Besh Baliq, Almaliq, and Samarqand by the Mongols where they worked as artisans and farmers. Alans were recruited into the Mongol forces with one unit called "Right Alan Guard" which was combined with "recently surrendered" soldiers, Mongols, and Chinese soldiers stationed in the area of the former Kingdom of Qocho and in Besh Balikh the Mongols established a Chinese military colony led by Chinese general Qi Kongzhi (Ch'i Kung-chih).
After the Mongol conquest by Genghis Khan, foreigners were chosen as administrators and co-management with Chinese and Qara-Khitays (Khitans) of gardens and fields in Samarqand was put upon the Muslims as a requirement since Muslims were not allowed to manage without them.
The 1258 Baghdad siege involved a Chinese officer. Each of Eurasia's ends saw their specialists moved to the other end under the Mongols. The Yenisei area had a community of weavers of Chinese origin and Samarkand and Outer Mongolia both had artisans of Chinese origin seen by Changchun.
Genghis Khan and the following Yuan emperors forbade Islamic practices like Halal butchering, forcing Mongol methods of butchering animals on Muslims, and other restrictive degrees continued. Muslims had to slaughter sheep in secret. Genghis Khan directly called Muslims and Jews "slaves", and demanded that they follow the Mongol method of eating rather than the halal method. Circumcision was also forbidden. Jews were also affected, and forbidden by the Mongols to eat Kosher. Toward the end, corruption and the persecution became so severe that Muslim Generals joined Han Chinese in rebelling against the Mongols. The Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang had Muslim Generals like Lan Yu who rebelled against the Mongols and defeated them in combat. Some Muslim communities had the name in Chinese which meant "barracks" and also mean "thanks"; many Hui Muslims claim it is because that they played an important role in overthrowing the Mongols and it was named in thanks by the Han Chinese for assisting them.
The Muslims in the semu class also revolted against the Yuan dynasty in the Ispah Rebellion but the rebellion was crushed and the Muslims were massacred by the Yuan loyalist commander Chen Youding. After the massacre, the remaining Jews and Muslims escaped. Some were back to their own country, but some like Jews escaped to Guangdong.
After expelling the Mongols, the Ming dynasty was soon founded. Because of the Semu' help, some of them were being employed into the central government. However, the Ming dynasty enforced assimilation to Chinese customs, such as banning used their own languages, customs, names and instead switching to speaking Chinese and using Chinese names and intermarrying with Han people.
The aim for it is to reduce Semu's population since Semu was in the second class in Yuan and used to help the Mongols. Some Hui claim that the order was secretly done by the Ming Hongwu Emperor to protect them from attacks since they stood out while they thought Zhu was a Hui too.
Indeed, Zhu was not a Hui while at that time only the Semu used this name. But in the middle period of Ming Dynasty, the royalties separated Semu into different groups while the groups as Muslims and Tibetans were still many. The Islam and Tibetan religions have survived until today. But the minority groups such as Jews, most of their customs were no more, leaving them into the Han group. This separation continued until the establishment of the Republic of China. Although the Communist Party of China founded the "People's Republic", Chinese are scientifically separated into more groups which is now determined to be as many as 56 different ethnic groups. Some people claim that this number is higher than the periods before.
The new separation doesn't mean there are only 56 ethnic groups. This list doesn't include small populations like Jewish. Even if such ethnicities are so few in numbers, they still continue to exist in China.
The Ming dynasty allowed Islam and Judaism to be practiced and issued edicts that said they conformed to Confucianism while it banned religions such as Nestorian Christianity, Manicheanism and the White Lotus sect. Nestorian Christianity and Manicheanism died out during the Ming dynasty while Islam and Judaism were protected.
Around 1376 the 30-year-old Chinese merchant Lin Nu visited Ormuz in Persia, converted to Islam, and married a Semu girl (“娶色目女”) (either a Persian or an Arab girl) and brought her back to Quanzhou in Fujian. The Confucian philosopher Li Zhi was their descendant. This was recorded in the Lin and Li genealogy《林李宗谱》.
An anti pig slaughter edict led to speculation that the Zhengde Emperor adopted Islam due to his use of Muslim eunuchs who commissioned the production of porcelain with Persian and Arabic inscriptions in white and blue color. Muslim eunuchs contributed money in 1496 to repairing Niujie Mosque. Central Asian women were provided to the Zhengde Emperor by a Muslim guard and Sayyid Hussein from Hami. The guard was Yu Yung and the women were Uighur. It is unknown who really was behind the anti-pig slaughter edict. The speculation of him becoming a Muslim is remembered alongside his excessive and debauched behavior along with his concubines of foreign origin. Muslim Central Asian girls were favored by Zhengde like how Korean girls were favored by Xuande. A Uighur concubine was kept by Zhengde. Foreign origin Uighur and Mongol women were favored by the Zhengde emperor.
Tatar (Mongol) and Central Asian women were bedded by Zhengde and he wore Mongol clothing and was fluent in Mongol language, and he adopted Persian, Buddhist, and Mongol names and titles 威武大將軍太師鎮國公 沙吉敖爛 大寶法王 忽必列. probably studied Persian and Tibetan as well.
Zhengde received Central Asian Muslim Semu women from his Muslim guard Yu Yong: 錦衣衛都指揮同知於永致仕。特許其子承襲。指揮同知永色目人，善陰道秘戲得幸於豹房，左右皆畏避之。又言回回女晢潤瑳粲大勝中國，上悅之。時都督昌佐亦色目人，永矯旨索佐家回女善西域舞者十二人以進，又諷請召侯伯故色目籍家婦人入內教之，內外切齒。後上欲召永女入，永以鄰人白回子女充名以入，懼事覺，乃求致仕 永專導淫,上雖習其術,不能恆御女,致有宗祧之恨 武廟樂以異域事為戲，又更名以從其習。學韃靼言，則自名曰忽必列；習回回食，則自名曰沙吉敖爛；學西番刺麻僧教，則自名為大寶法王領占班丹。 你兒干 你兒幹 Ni'ergan was the name of one of his Muslim concubines.
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