In a country known for large numbers, it was a modest, round number that grabbed our attention: 100. That is the approximate number of mosques built before 1700 that are estimated to remain throughout central and northern China—out of some 30,000 mosques over an area larger than either Texas or France. We set out, traveling highways and back roads, in search of the oldest, least well known among them.
Figure 1. The entrance to the Great East Mosque at Kaifeng (Source)
Note of the Editor
This article appeared originally in the Saudi Aramco World, Vol. 65, issue 6, November/December 2014, p. 14. For the online version, with figures, see: Blair, S. & Bloom, J: The Back-Road Historic Mosques of China. (© Saudi Aramco World). We reproduce the article under the permission granted by the publisher (see Copyright and Permissions). Photography © Jonathan Bloom. For additional photographs, readers should go to the Aramco World article.
Figure 2. Great Mosque of Xian (Source)
To prepare, we briefed ourselves with more numbers. Of China’s more than 1.3 billion citizens, some 1.8 percent, or 23 million, are Muslims. This Muslim population comprises 10 major ethnic and language groups including 10 million Chinese-speaking Hui and 8.4 million Turkic-speaking Uighurs. The rest are Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Salars, Tatars and Uzbeks, who all speak Turkic languages, as well as Mongolian-speaking Dongxiang and Bao’an, and Farsi-speaking Tajiks.
We did not want to cover, in the short time available to us, China’s well-known historic mosques. These include Beijing’s Ox Street Mosque, so named for its Muslim neighborhood where oxen—not pigs—were butchered, and the Great Mosque of Xian, both of which are whistle-stops on tourist itineraries. We also avoided tourist favorites in the old port cities along China’s southeastern coast, including the “Cherishing the Sage” Mosque in Guangzhou (formerly Canton); the “Sacred Friendship” Mosque in Quanzhou; the “Phoenix” Mosque in Hangzhou; and the “Transcendent Crane” Mosque in Yangzhou. All of these were bestowed Chinese names that reflected Chinese tenets and myths by their Muslim founders, who arrived in China via the maritime Silk Road. Finally, we excluded a third group of well-known mosques, which serve the Uighur population of Kashgar and other cities of far-western China and whose architecture has much in common with mosques in nearby Uzbekistan and other countries to the west.
Far more intriguing to us were the less-well-known, off-the-beaten-track historic mosques of central and northern China that adopted, adapted and built upon traditional Chinese building designs to meet Islamic needs.
Soon after we met in Beijing, a driver whisked us off for the western Hebei province, northwest of Beijing. Along the three-hour trip, we caught a passing glimpse of the Great Wall before stopping in the city of Zhangjiakou (jang-jea-koo) to visit the Xuanhua (shwen-hwua) North Mosque. There, outside a nearby bookshop, a casual greeting of “as salamu alaykum”—“Peace be with you” in Arabic—was understood with a smile, and it led to an invitation inside: The place was filled with Qur’ans, books and calligraphic inscriptions, in Arabic and Chinese, penned by our host. It was clear this would be a richly fascinating trip.
Indeed, traveling exclusively overland for the next two weeks, we exhausted six different drivers and cars, and rode one overnight train to climb up through the Yellow River Valley from Guyuan to Xining (shee-ning) on the Tibetan Plateau. (See map below) In all, we traversed the seven provinces of Hebei, Shanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Hubei and Henan as well as the two autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia and Ningxia—all areas in central, north and northwestern China with significant Hui populations.
Figure 3. The Beiguan Mosque in Tianshui in Gansu province (Source)
Many of China’s mosques are said to have long histories, but it is often difficult to ascertain just how old the edifices are. Nobody likes to talk about what transpired during the Cultural Revolution, which lasted the decade until the 1976 death of Chairman Mao Zedong. During that time, the practice of religion was curtailed, and many religious buildings were appropriated and repurposed. In some places, inscribed stele (upright flat stones), often inscribed in Arabic on one side and Chinese on the other, tell the stories of mosques back through the centuries, but much of what remains dates back no further than the 1700s, and it is often overlaid with modern reconstructions, repairs and repainting, all of greatly varying fidelity to older designs. Indeed, in Tianshui in Gansu province the Beiguan Mosque was in the midst of just such a renovation.
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