Chinese followers of Islam have a long history. The influence of early Muslims in south-eastern provinces is recalled at a number of historical sites.
Within China’s borders there are many Muslim communities. The western provinces have sizeable ethnic Muslim populations who continue their strict adherance to Islam under the eye of an atheistic administration. The presence of Islam in Eastern China is not so obvious. There is not the ethnic tension that the Uyghur of Xinjiang for instance face, and Muslims are very much a small minority . Islamic life exists there all the same.
The Arab Traders in Early China
The early Arab traders who ventured to the wealthy southern and eastern cities of imperial China left their mark there through religious practice and customs. The surviving great masjid (mosques) are what signal this heritage to the visitor.
The Silk Roads, both overland and maritime, opened the way for Arab traders to enter China. Bringing with them not only the products that they would exchange for Chinese goods, these traders also brought their ways of life. As far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Islam was establishing itself within Chinese society with the construction of mosques. Later the ethnic Turkistanis of western China spread their influence eastward as the fortunes of Imperial China ebbed and flowed under the policies of successive dynasties.
One of the oldest surviving Muslim places of worship in China is Guangzhou’s Huaisheng Mosque, constructed originally in 627 and since rebuilt twice. The Memorial of the Holy Prophet is also known as the Light Tower Mosque for its most distinctive feature, the minaret that was for many years Guangzhou’s tallest structure.
Quanzhou is an ancient trading port on the southeast coast of China, in modern-day Fujian province. Quanzhou’s Great Mosque was built under some of the earliest Arab influences in this part of China, and remains a major visitor attractions. Little of the original structure remains, and most of what the visitor sees daties to the 14th century. This mosque goes by several names, including Shengyou (Mosque of the Holy Friend), Qingjing (Mosque of Purity) and Ashab (Mosque of the Prophet’s Companions).
The Spread of Islam In China
During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) Muslims gained status in China as the ruling Mongols invoked racial policies against the majority Han. Immigration from the western lands was encouraged and followers of Islam gained high-ranking positions at the expense of Confucian scholars.
The Phoenix Mosque in Hangzhou dates to the Tang but was extensively redeveloped during those supportive Yuan times. It gained even further prominence during the Ming which followed, when Hangzhou became the centre of Chinese silk production.
Another ancient city that had its fortunes revived by Ming commerce is Yangzhou. Xianhe Mosque (Crane Temple) continues to operate as a focal point for Yangzhou’s 3,000 Muslims, 400 of whom attend Friday prayers each week. This mosque dates to 1275 and was rebuilt during Ming rule.
Nearby Crane Temple is the Tomb of Puhaddin, built in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The mosque’s founder and a l6th-generation descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, Puhaddin lived in Yangzhou from 1265 to 1275. His last resting place is shared by many later Chinese Muslims, laid to rest in distinctly Arab-style tombs.
Chinese Mosques Link the Orient to the Middle East
Externally, Chinese mosques are mostly of Chinese architectural styles, a notable exception being the Quanzhou mosque modelled on a building in Damascus, Syria. All have some recognizable Middle Eastern features, such as the domed minarets at theTomb of Puhaddin. The interiors are invariably designed in accordance with the functionality needed for Muslim worship.
Arabic characters from antiquity are used above entranceways and at other points in Chinese mosques, while signage of a more pragmatic nature uses Chinese characters. Mosque artwork reflects the mixed ethnic and customary practices of the Muslim people of China.