Mosques and Islamic Identities in China

By Lawrence E. Butler | Associate Professor of Art History - George Mason University | Apr 2, 2015
Mosques and Islamic Identities in China

This essay is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...

The great trading routes connecting medieval Eurasia by land and sea brought Islam, like Buddhism centuries earlier, to China. Somewhere between 20 and 40 million Muslims—reliable data remains elusive—now live in China. They acknowledge a variety of official and unofficial ethnic identities due to the diverse origins of Islam in China as well as the complexities of modern Chinese ethnic policies. The architecture of China’s mosques, both historic and modern, reflects this diversity. This essay examines the development of mosque architecture in southern China, in the old central capitals, and in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region from earliest times up to the present. In the twenty-first century, modern construction techniques allow patrons to choose from a variety of styles and materials as they design mosques to reflect a particular version of Islamic identity.[1]

Hui Muslim Communities in Coastal Southern China

Islam entered China with Arab and Persian traders on the sea routes from India and Southeast Asia in the first century of Islam, the seventh century CE. According to tradition, the first Islamic mission to China arrived in 627 CE and was led by the Prophet’s uncle, who supposedly made his way from the port of Guangzhou in the south to the Tang Dynasty court in Chang’an (Xi’an). Accurate or not, it is true that the oldest Chinese Islamic communities, mosques, and cemeteries are in China’s southeastern port cities. These communities’ Hui descendants constitute the largest Muslim group in China, now widely dispersed in the port cities of the southeast, the capitals in the north, and elsewhere. To this day Chinese Muslim families on the southeast coast maintain clan halls honoring official lineages dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), often tied to important cultural heroes of the era, preserving at least a cultural memory of Islam.[2]

China’s earliest remaining mosques all have ties to the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368 CE), the Mongol period of rule noted for its ecumenism and openness to Western trade, though some have traditions stretching back to the Tang. Older mosques can be considered significant reflections of community identity—or, at least, reflections of their wealthy patrons’ tastes.

Mosque design worldwide is uniform in its functional requirements and main parts, but reflects local design and building traditions. A mosque is essentially a community center with a prayer hall oriented toward the qibla, or direction of Mecca, which in China lies approximately to the west. They are often the center of an urban complex including teaching halls, baths, and charitable institutions, all supported through the waqf system of revenue-generating pious endowments that often include local markets. This is the organizing principle of all the great Islamic bazaar cities across Eurasia and North Africa. A mosque’s prayer hall has only a few necessary elements: a broad clean floor space for group prayer, a mihrab, or niche in the qibla wall that focuses the worshippers’ attention toward Mecca, and a minbar, or stepped throne, from which the imam (spiritual leader) preaches the Friday midday sermon, the most important prayer service of the week. The prayer hall is usually preceded by a walled courtyard with washing facilities, ritual ablution being required before prayer. A minaret tower of some sort is traditional, both to call the community to prayer and to mark the mosque in the urban landscape. A dome is also commonly used to dignify the prayer hall or its mihrab but is not required and is lacking in most early Chinese mosques, as well as some recent ones. Traditional aniconic decoration includes Qur’anic passages in Arabic calligraphy, floral arabesques, geometric interlace, and intricate muqarnas moldings in the vaults. The lack of figural decoration is an important point of identity with Chinese Muslims, a major distinction between themselves and local Buddhists, who were never considered “people of the book” and who have been labeled as “idolators” at various points in Islamic history.

Virtually all Chinese mosques contain these functional features and decoration. But the architecture displays enormous variation over time and by region. The oldest remaining mosque in China is the Huaisheng Mosque, also known as the Lighthouse Mosque, in Guangzhou, with its tall minaret, traditionally said to have been founded by the Prophet’s uncle in 627 and still used by the Hui community of Guangzhou. More plausibly, it dates back to the tenth or eleventh centuries, and like so many ancient Chinese structures, it has been rebuilt frequently. Steinhardt dates the current plan from a rebuilding in 1350 and restoration in 1695, while the prayer hall dates back only to 1935. It may have set the pattern for later Chinese mosques: a series of palace-style courtyards running from south to north, but with the prayer hall at the end of the axis facing west, in rough alignment with the qibla. The whole complex is sheltered behind walls, with only the minaret visible from the street. Mostly Chinese in its design vocabulary, it includes some unusual West Asian features in its details, as do other early mosques in the Chinese port cities. A Hui variant on Chinese wooden structural vaulting gives the prayer hall monumentality, while the round minaret is of an unusual, non-Chinese design of uncertain date.[3]

The other three oldest mosques in China’s southeast likewise exhibit a mix of Chinese urban and architectural elements with unusual features attributable to foreign mosque design. In the Fujianese port city of Quanzhou are found the ruins of the oldest stone mosque in China, the Qingjing Si (or Shengyou or Ashab Mosque), along with ancient Islamic and Nestorian tombs. Hui families in the city record Islamic lineages that stretch back to the Tang Dynasty. An inscription dates part of it to 1009-10, while much of what remains of the prayer hall dates to a Yuan Dynasty reconstruction of 1310-11 by Ibn Muhammad al-Quds of Shiraz, emphasizing the Persian trade connection. A monumental granite iwan, or vaulted entry porch, dominates the street with its pointed flattened arch, while the ruined prayer space within was a broad hypostyle hall with a recessed mihrab bay, the masonry interior wall articulated with more pointed arches. It is hard not to see its models in Western Asian or North African Islamic architecture of the Abbasid period, rather than in Chinese temple architecture of its time.

The Xianhesi in Yangzhou, originally a masonry structure from 1275-6, also has a large hypostyle prayer hall entered from the east, as well as a Chinese yuetai ritual platform in the courtyard. In Hangzhou, the Fenghuangsi, or Phoenix Mosque, originated in the Tang Dynasty. Destroyed in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), it was reconstructed in 1451 and again in the later seventeenth century, this time smaller but with the unusual addition of three domes forming the prayer hall, reminiscent perhaps of Mughal mosques in India. All of these early examples combine the Chinese tradition of courtyard design with specific Islamic features, unusual structural details, and alignments to the western qibla direction, at least within their own walls.

Hui Mosques of the Chinese Capitals

Islam was well-established in China’s imperial capitals in the Tang and Song Dynasties, though never embraced by the court or large populations, unlike that other great import from the west, Buddhism. Persian and Soghdian merchants brought Islam overland along the “silk roads” from Central Asia to the Tang Dynasty capitals at Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) and Luoyang. The Tang, Yuan, and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties particularly valued Muslims as an important commercial class dominating the trade routes across Asia, and occasionally individual Muslims, such as Admiral Zheng He (1371-1435), achieved prominence. Hui populations today are found across China and its diaspora, and although they identify as ethnically Han, they are culturally quite diverse due to geographic dispersal. Proselytizing activities of Sufi sheikhs and, more recently, Wahhabi missionaries have contributed to their diversity.

China’s most famous mosque today is the Great Mosque of Xi’an, or Huajuexiang Mosque, associated with Admiral Zheng He (as was another mosque in Nanjing). Tradition dates its founding to 742 in the Tang, with a rebuilding around 1392. While such dates of origin are hard to verify, evidence shows that the Xi’an Mosque has been frequently restored—in the Ming, Qing (1644-1912), and modern periods—and it has been a protected monument since 1956. It now presents a Ming Dynasty plan and is certainly the most complete and attractive of all the premodern mosques in the predominantly Han parts of China. To modern visitors it often seems surprisingly “Chinese,” and indeed it is based on Chinese palace and imperial Buddhist temple design, with its long axial plan of courtyards leading through gateways to the prayer hall at the far end. The mosque occupies an entire city block and is appropriately oriented from the east to the west, the qibla direction. Structurally it is entirely Chinese, based on timber pole construction with vast overhanging roofs, flying eaves, and intricate painted woodwork. Chinese dougong roof bracketing approximates the distinctive Islamic muqarnas ornament throughout. The prayer hall uses an adaptation of a Chinese wooden structure found in other early mosques in order to give it more monumentality. Floral ornament and Arabic calligraphy, albeit in a Chinese style, abound. A two-story pagoda in the center serves as a minaret, architecturally harmonious with Chinese design but not so tall as to compete with Xi’an’s Drum, Bell, or Gate Towers, nor with the famous Buddhist pagodas. Preserving civic fengshui was apparently an issue with civil authorities, who seem to have frowned on tall minarets. It still sits in the center of the Muslim commercial neighborhood, its outbuildings including the usual array of hostels, baths, teaching halls, and other services. In short, Xi’an preserves not only its great mosque but its Islamic urban context as well.

Similar design principles were followed in Beijing’s famous old mosque, Niu Jie or Ox Street, named for halal dietary practices that substituted beef for pork in the Islamic neighborhood. The Niu Jie Mosque’s origins lie in the Song Dynasty, and mausolea were constructed for prominent imams throughout the Yuan. The current structure dates from the Ming and Qing, with numerous renovations recorded throughout those periods. Its western entrance portal is crowned by a minaret built in the form of a pagoda, as at Xi’an, although the original arrangement of spaces may have been altered, and another structure was perhaps intended to serve as a minaret. In any case, the recognizably Chinese form of the pagoda gateway proclaims—to one observing from the street—the building’s Han Chinese identity. Another prominent Hui mosque along the trade routes was Sojourners’ Mosque (or Western Passes Mosque), the Great Mosque of Lanzhou in Gansu, destroyed in the Cultural Revolution in the name of “urban renewal.” It too was a vast complex of wooden structures and courtyards with a tall pagoda-style minaret, surrounded by charitable institutions and revenue-generating markets endowed through waqf. In these three northern examples, and in others in Taiyuan, Xuanhua, and Tianjin, the mosque complexes were designed to suit Islamic ways but are architecturally indistinguishable from Buddhist and Confucian urban complexes, at least from the street. The style of the buildings proclaims allegiance to Han Chinese cultural norms.

Mosques and Muslim Communities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region

Religion and trade often follow the same routes, and it is important to note that the oasis kingdoms of the Tarim Basin, now in China’s Xinjiang Province, often had stronger cultural links with their trading partners to the west or south than with Han China, or even with each other. The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people indigenous to the Tarim Basin oases, are Sunni Muslim but with otherwise little sense of community with the Han-identified Hui Chinese. While both groups were treated harshly under Qing Dynasty rule, for a while the local Hui, or Tungans, ruled Xinjiang’s Uighurs in the name of the central government. Under the Chinese Republic both were recognized as legitimate ethnic populations of China, however arbitrarily they may have been defined. Xinjiang’s Hui and Uighur Muslims have different cultural allegiances and tend to avoid each other’s mosques, which are often distinguished by inscriptions in Chinese or Uighur in addition to the Arabic.[4]

To understand the architecture of older and contemporary Uighur mosques one must  look to Sunni Central Asia, to the great trading oases of Bukhara and Samarkand, where Turkic identity and Persianate cultural forms are clearly discernible in the monumental architecture. Persianate mosques are brick and usually vaulted, with tall cylindrical minarets and large central courtyards punctuated by soaring iwans that form covered porches and portals with pointed arches. Since Timurid times, they have included ogival domes covered in brilliant glazed tile. A pishtaq marks the entrance: a tall façade framing a pointed-arched iwan, itself framed by slim minarets. Amongst the early mosques of China, only the stone mosque in Quanzhou still preserves any such monumental entry facade, although some modern Hui mosques have adopted features of the style in rebuilt facades.

Uighur mosques consciously reflect the architecture of Central Asia, particularly of Bukhara, to which Kashgar was linked via trade routes over the Pamirs. Xinjiang Province’s grandest old mosques represent this style, such as the fifteenth-century Idgah Mosque in Kashgar [image right], the eighteenth-century Emin Minare Mosque in Turfan [image below left], and the elaborate sixteenth-century complex of mosques and shrines in Yarkand. All have grand entry pishtaq facades, flattened pointed arches, cylindrical minarets, courtyards or atria, and low spreading prayer halls. Uighur tradition adds elaborately carved and painted wooden-roofed open porches for prayer use in the hot summer months. Domes appear most prominently over the tombs of revered sheikhs, pilgrimage to which forms an important traditional Uighur devotional practice. The building of great domed mausolea over the tombs of prominent figures is a notable (if dubiously Islamic) practice throughout the Turco-Iranian sphere, the Taj Mahal being the most famous example. In the Tarim oases, the prominence of Sufi spirituality with its sheikhs, or charismatic spiritual leaders, accounts in part for their use. These mazar tombs have long played an important part in popular Uighur devotion through pilgrimage, while domed dynastic tombs became the focus of local loyalties. Examples include the great tiled mausoleum of Afaq Khodja in Kashgar and the domed shrine over the sixteenth-century tomb of Amannisa Khan at the Altyn Mosque in Yarkand.[5] [image right] Under the pressure of harsh Chinese and Tungan rule, local Uighur historical figures have become increasingly viewed as heroes of Islam, and these Sufi and dynastic shrines have been revived as destinations for Uighur pilgrimage.[6]

Mosques in Modern China

Since the establishment of the Republic in the early twentieth century, older mosques throughout China have been actively restored, rebuilt, or replaced, particularly in Gansu and Ningxia. While the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 laid to waste many of China’s religious structures, including the Sojourners’ Mosque in Lanzhou, the tolerance of religion and opening of Xinjiang’s borders under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership (1978-92) resulted in a mosque building boom. According to a widely quoted figure, China has some 28,000 mosques, with 19,000 in Xinjiang alone. The Qur’an is available in multiple translations, and the hajj pilgrimage is permitted, if tightly controlled. Much of the funding for these ventures now comes from outside China, with direct competition between nations—Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, for instance—seeking to support the Chinese Islamic revival and to encourage trade and political connections. Throughout the twentieth century, Wahhabi missionaries (Yihewani in Chinese) have actively promoted a more puritanical Islam in China to offset the Sufi spirituality more familiar to both Han and Uighur populations. Beijing is also actively involved in mosque construction, hoping to attract Muslims in western China to buy into a broader Chinese identity. All of these dynamics are reflected in the architecture of recent mosques in China and affect the restoration of older monuments.

Hui mosques of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have not been constructed in the traditional Chinese style of Xi’an’s Great Mosque. Concrete rather than timber is used to build in a style that is now recognizable globally as Islamic. This modern approach to mosque construction has roots in the British Empire’s “Indo-Saracenic” style—based on the Mughal architecture of north India that is exemplified by the Taj Mahal—featuring tall ogival “onion” domes, tapering minarets, pointed windows, and brightly-colored details. British Imperial examples of such mosques were built from Malaysia to Kenya to Hong Kong, and are still reflected in Hollywood’s Orientalist movie sets. More recently, the prestige of Saudi Arabian Islam and the experience of the hajj pilgrimage have promoted a starker, simpler Islamic architecture, with white-walled, green-trimmed mosques becoming the new global norm. Mosques worldwide now combine the onion dome of the Indo-Saracenic with the stark white and green of the Gulf, creating a new Islamic koine that is easily replicable in reinforced concrete. The ultimate example of this new Islamic global style in China is the rebuilt Sojourners’ Mosque in Lanzhou, a Hui mosque that combines a towering onion dome with sleek modernist detailing, conveying three strong messages: Islamic tradition, Chinese modernity, and a connection to the broader Islamic world. The older Hui use of Chinese courtly architecture is nowhere to be seen.

In contrast, as money pours into Xinjiang, Uighur mosque patrons have developed a distinctive and flamboyant Persianate mosque style that stresses their Central Asian as well as Islamic identity. Tall, slim, cylindrical minarets and ogival domes set these mosques apart from the surrounding landscape, but the similarity to Lanzhou ends there. Inside and out they are decorated with a profusion of intricately painted and carved decoration, recalling the older monuments of Kashgar, Yarkand, and Turfan. The clear intention is to express not just Islam but an ethnically specific Islam that is not Han Chinese. The Beijing government has co-opted this Persianate style for commercial and touristic architecture in Xinjiang. Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang but an almost exclusively Han and Hui city, has new shopping malls in a resplendent neo-Uighur style, suggesting a more prominent and prosperous Uighur presence in that city than might be the actual case.

Meanwhile, there is even deeper irony in the wholesale destruction of the historic center of Kashgar, the restive center of Uighur culture. In the name of modernization, old Kashgar’s brick bazaars and residential cul-de-sacs are being bulldozed by the Chinese government to make way for new apartment blocks, marketed to the increasingly Han Chinese population. Throughout the Tarim oases, grand old Uighur monuments such as the Idgah Mosque and Afaq Khodjah mausoleum are being renovated for the booming Silk Road tourist trade but increasingly isolated from the Islamic urban context that gives them their meaning. Thus is the great game of competing religious and political identities being played out in Xinjiang through the proxy of architectural style.

[1] See the following English language sources for the history of the major Chinese mosques: Luo Xiaowei, “China,” in The Mosque: History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity, eds. M. Frishman and H.U. Khan (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994); Bernard O’Kane, “Iran & Central Asia,” in the same volume; Sun Dazhang, Ancient Chinese Architecture: Islamic Buildings (Vienna and New York: Springer-Verlag, 2003); and Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, “China’s Earliest Mosques,” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 67 (2008): 330-361.

[2] On the construction of Hui identity, see the work of Dru Gladney, including Ethnic Identity in China: The Making of a Muslim Minority Nationality (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1997). See also Jonathan Lipman, Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China (Seattle, WA: University of Washington, 1998).

[3] Steinhardt, “China’s Earliest Mosques,” 335. I follow her dating and analysis for the earliest Chinese mosques in southeastern China, and for the great mosques in Xi’an and Beijing.

[4] This was noted by Justin Jon Rudelson in Oasis Identities: Uighur Nationalism along China’s Silk Road (New York: Columbia, 1997) and Dru Gladney in Ethnic Identity in China. For the modern history of Xinjiang, see the works of James Millward, especially Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (New York: Columbia, 2007).

[5] Afaq Khodja (1626-94) was a Sufi sheikh and local ruler. Amannisa Khan (1526-60) was a famous Uighur composer and royal wife.

[6] On Uighur pilgrimage mazars and their political dimensions, see Justin Jon Rudelson, Oasis Identities; Thierry Zarcone, “Sufi Lineages and Saint Veneration in 20th Century Eastern Turkestan and Contemporary Xinjiang,” in The Turks (Istanbul: Yeni Türkiye, 2002); Rachel Harris and Rahilä Dawut, “Mazar Festivals of the Uighurs: Music, Islam and the Chinese State,” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 11 (2002): 101-118; and Rahilä Dawut, “Shrine Pilgrimage among the Uighurs,” The Silk Road 6 (2009): 56-67.


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