Paint on wood decorates the entrance to the Great East Mosque at Kaifeng, in Henan province, where Arabic calligraphy appears amid Chinese motifs including dragons, fish, birds, peony and lotus flowers, and symbols for good luck; a string of led lights winds around the rafters that support the tile roof.
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.
Offering both an entry and a frame for the view beyond it, a circular opening in a wall is known in China as a moon gate. A common feature in gardens, it was also used in religious architecture and, as we see here, in the wall at the Great Mosque of Xian.
o 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.
The gateway to the new Hui Culture Park, bottom-right, stands only a short distance from the Na Family Mosque (left), but is 3000 kilometers (1865 mi) and four centuries from its architectural model, the Taj Mahal, built in Agra, India, by the Mughal emperor Jahangir in the 17th century. This cultural park reflects both new wealth in China and the globalization of Islamic culture. Top-right: The Na Family Mosque at Yongning in the Ningxia Autonomous Region reflects traditional Chinese architecture with its balconies and upturned tile roofs, but the recently restored arched gateway and the two flanking, gray brick towers evoke the later influence of Middle-Eastern mosques with the symmetry of a main entrance flanked by minarets. The mosque’s stepped minbar, or pulpit, is another Chinese adaptation of a traditional Islamic form. Behind it, the wall is painted with a medallion similarly combining Chinese motifs and Arabic calligraphy.
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