Mosques of Xining: Constructing Chinese Muslim Identity

Originally built in 1380, Dongguan 東關Great Mosque mixes historic
Chinese features with a new Arab-style entrance hall built in the 1990s.
Whether they are centuries old or newly constructed, China’s mosques and Muslim tombs, gongbei 拱北, are often-overlooked architectural treasures that display a fascinating combination of traditional Chinese, Central Asian, and Arab styles. With sloping, tiled roofs, upturned eaves, and columns topped with interlocking brackets, many mosques are almost indistinguishable from Buddhist or Daoist temples. Others have onion-shaped domes and soaring minarets that look like they could have been airlifted out of Central Asia or the Middle East. Still others resemble Byzantine Christian churches or the fanciful castles of Disney’s magic kingdom. During my time in Xining 西, the capital of Qinghai Province青海省, I photographed thirty-eight different mosques within the city limits and countless more in my travels around the region. The various types of domes and minarets dotting the skyline not only add a diverse architectural flavor to the city, they also convey the long history and complex identity of Chinese Muslims.

Fu Qiang Xiang 副強巷 Mosque features the green-and-orange
style, pointed minarets flanking the prayer hall entrance,
and domed minarets at the prayer hall's back corners
and entrance to the mosque complex. 
Several distinctive architectural styles are evident within Xining alone, and then variety begins to increase outside the city, differences in regional types become more evident when one leaves Qinghai Province, and the mosques and tombs of Xinjiang 新疆 Uyghur Autonomous Region are too different to consider in this article. Only a few Xining mosques retain all of the original Chinese temple-style architecture that was once typical of Chinese mosques outside Xinjiiang. Many of these survived Maoist crusades against religion because they served as schools, factories, or meeting halls until religious practice became legal after 1978. In the early 1980s, Xining’s Muslims began building new mosques and resurrecting old ones, and this new construction began integrating features more typical of mosques in other countries.

Dong Guan's old and new minarets
Regardless of architectural style, minarets topped with crescent moons clearly identify mosque buildings. One minaret often towers over the entrance gate, or two may rise from either side. In addition, minarets usually emerge from either side of the prayer hall’s main entrance, or one minaret might mark each of the prayer hall’s four corners. Minarets usually consist of two, three, or four stories with one or two ambulatories from which a muezzin once would recite the call to prayer. Today’s minarets are mounted with loudspeakers that broadcast the voice of a student reciting the call inside one of the mosque buildings. Chinese-style minarets generally consist of several stacked pavilions supported by columns without walls and topped with a sloping Chinese-style roof. More recently built minarets often feature a semicircular or onion-shaped dome, which is often a miniature version of the large dome atop the prayer hall, reminiscent of mosques commonly found in south and central Asia. The newest minarets usually taper toward the top and feature a conical point, resembling the towers found in the mosques of Mecca and Medina.
Feng Huang Shan 鳳凰山 Gongbei is a Muslim tomb
originally built in the 1300s for a Sufi teacher from Yemen.
It was rebuilt in the 1980s and is currently being renovated.

Muslim tombs built to house Sufi masters resemble Chinese-style minarets, as the mausoleum towers feature upturned eaves and octagonal or hexagonal plans, but their Chinese-style roofs are rounded off into a steep dome. Solid walls make these towers more like pagodas than pavilion-style minarets, and they lack staircases, doors, or windows because they are made to house the dead, not offer views to the living. These gongbei and other structures built by Sufi brotherhoods generally adhere to traditional Chinese Islamic architecture, but the other sects of Xining prefer building styles more common to the Muslim world.

Built in 1896, Shuichengmen 水城門 Mosque, Xining’s finest
example of Chinese-style Islamic architecture,
served as a wire factory between 1958 and 1980.
Most Chinese mosques feature several buildings centered on a central courtyard in a style not unlike Chinese temples and common to mosques all over the world. Unlike temples, most mosques do not include a screen wall immediately behind the entrance gate, and instead of the many, interlocking courtyards common in large temples, they generally contain just one large courtyard where congregants gather and sometimes perform prayers when the prayer hall is full. To either side of this largest structure, several smaller buildings house classrooms, dormitories, the imam’s office, and his living quarters. The prayer hall usually sits opposite the entrance gate, often positioned at an angle in relation to ancillary buildings and city streets, so it is oriented to face Mecca.
Nanguan 南關Mosque is home to Xining’s most prestigious
young imam who helped raise funds to replace
a 1934 Chinese-style mosque with a new Arabic-style one.
Inscriptions in Arabic and sometimes Chinese calligraphy often decorate mosques inside and out, and the more ornate buildings include geometric patterns, scrollwork, vases, lotuses, peonies and other familiar Chinese motifs. But human and animal figures are absent due to a Quranic ban on depicting figures with eyes. In Xining, Chiang Kai-shek’s 蒋介石 calligraphy adorns the entrance to the oldest and largest mosque, and in Xi’an’s 西安oldest mosque, a Chinese translation of the entire Quran is carved into the prayer hall’s interior wooden walls. But some other mosque interiors are somber and bare, featuring only a digital clock displaying the time for each prayer and a simple niche in one wall to indicate the direction of Mecca.

Lian He Cun 聯合邨 Mosque was built in the 1980s
with Chinese-style minaret and miniature dome.
One could argue that more conventional Islamic architecture is gradually replacing Chinese-style mosques. There were some newly built Chinese-style mosques in rural areas, but all four of the mosques under construction in 2013 Xining were virtually indistinguishable from mosques of the Islamic world. Three of these had replaced older Chinese-style mosques. Just under half of the mosques in Xining still had prayer halls built in the Chinese style, but many of them more recently added minarets or other architectural features more typical of Islamic nations. Others still retain Chinese-style minarets, but feature oddly shaped domes constructed atop preexisting buildings. The largest and oldest mosque in town, Dongguan Great Mosque, is a prime example of this fusion as a new entrance hall was built in the 1990s to resemble Mecca's Masjid al-Hasam with a colonnaded front façade and large dome, but the old Chinese-style minarets and wooden prayer hall remain inside.
Yi Ke Yin 一顆印 Mosque features a white tile building
topped with an unusually wide, gray dome. 

Before Chinese Muslims began reproducing the mosques of the Islamic world, they experimented with creative combinations of traditional and modern Chinese and Islamic architecture. Mosques built in the ‘80s and ‘90s often feature the vertically aligned white tile façades and blue-tinted windows that began replacing drab Soviet-style architecture in all Chinese buildings during the early days of economic liberalization. This white color represents purity in both mosques and the white hats Muslim men, but most recently built mosques have replaced the no-longer-fashionable white tiles with somber gray or white plaster or stone.
Dingzi Lu 丁字路Mosque exhibits the typical
white tile, blue windows, and green dome
popular among mosques built in the 1990s.

 The domes of most mosques are green as it was Muhammad’s favorite color, but three mosques in Xining combine the conventional green and white palate with orange architectural features and geometric patterns to produce a colorful and ornate style that seems to be unique to the region around Xining. A decorative orange-tile cornice stretches across the front façade of these mosques, possibly a local interpretation of muqarnas, a type of decorative molding often found in Iranian mosques that may represent the stalactites of the cave in which the Quran was first revealed. Sadly, one of the best examples of this type will soon be demolished and replaced with a standard Arab-style mosque.
Built in 1996, Xin Cun 新邨 Mosque, the best example of the
ornate orange-and-green style, is slated to be destroyed
to make way for the Xining-Xinjiang high-speed rail line.

These mosques, built with congregants’ donations, are not only monuments to the increasing religiosity and economic resources among Chinese Muslims, they also represent changing perceptions of modernity and identity. Tracking the evolution of mosque architecture over time reveals a constant negotiation among the historical legacies of Chinese ethnicity, aspirations to a universal religious identity, and creative local interpretations. 

Shui Cheng Men, Dong Guan, and a few other
mosques feature festive lights at night.


Popular Posts