It is not well known that China has as many as twenty million Muslim practitioners. The reason might be that since China has not been conquered by military force of Islam, the whole land was not Islamized nor ruled by a central Muslim government.
It was mainly through trade activities that Islam was introduced into China, and also by Sufis’ evangelizing in and after the 17th century. There were sea routes and land routes for the propagation; the sea routes were via littoral cities along the Pacific like Guangzhou or Quanzhou, and the land routes were from Central Asia to the Xinjiang Uyghur region in northwestern China.
‘Uyghur’ was written as 回鶻 or 回纥 in Chinese by transliteration in the era of the Tang Dynasty, and it was diverted into 回回 (Huihui pronounced as ‘Hoo-i hoo-i’). Uyghur People were Islamized from about the 10th century, but the word Huihui became a more broad indication of Muslims as a whole or the Western Regions. As it became the sole name of Muslims in the age of the Yuan Dynasty, Islam came to be called ‘Huihui’ or abbreviated to ‘Hui.’
Although Hui People of the Chinese inland cannot be discerned from Hang People, speaking Chinese as a sequel to marriages with Hang People, the government has treated them as an independent nation by their faith to Islam and the accompanying customs. Now Uyghur People have become treated as another Muslim nation that differs from Huihuis.
As there were some local Muslim governments established in the Xinjiang Region historically, mosques were built in its oasis towns like Tulufan or Kashghar in a similar style to those of Central Asia.
However, as mosques were never built on the monarchs’ orders in the inland of China, they had to be constructed in accordance with the popular traditional way of Chinese architecture, that is the Buddhist or Taoist temple style. It was also the appropriate method for the Chinese climate, which differs from subtropical areas.
Although there were tens of thousands of mosques in China, most of them have been demolished by wartime fires and especially by the Cultural Revolution. The most large-scale and well-preserved one is the Huajuexiang Qingzhen Dasi (Grand Mosque on the Huajuexiang Street) in Xian.
The rectangular precinct is wholly surrounded with high walls, divided into five successive parts by partitions, each of which has a gatehouse. Although each part is a courtyard garden, it doesn’t necessarily give an impression spatially of a courtyard enclosed by solid walls unlike a Middle Eastern one.
In the fifth courtyard at the innermost place stands the Great Worship Hall, the front terrace (Moon Platform) of which is not encircled with walls but open to the surrounding garden. It looks like a Buddhist or Taoist wooden temple, but when going inside, one finds an empty hypostyle hall without any sacred statues or idols, recognizing it to be a mosque actually.
In order to create a hall of a grand area, a mosque often disposes ridged roofs in parallel in front and behind. Moreover it is quite characteristic to add a Mihrab that takes the shape of a large square room, protruding in the rear.
Small roof on an opening and chiseled brick wall
Chinese Islam has been on the way to resurgence since the death of Mao Zedong, constructing new mosques at various towns under governmental assistance. Those mosques tend to adopt the western dome style, not the traditional Chinanized style like Xian’s Great Mosque.
Side Elevation of Great Worship Hall
(From the Website "Great Mosque of Xi'an, Digital Library, ArchNet" 2008)
The worship room of a Chinese-type mosque is referred to as 大殿 (Great Hall), 礼拝大殿 (Great Worship Hall), and so forth. Even though its outer walls are made of 砖 (burnt bricks of black earth), the inside is basically a wooden columned hall. At grand mosques, magnificent wooden frames sustaining a grand roof are often exposed without a ceiling, and even if they straddle with a span that is quite wide, the worship hall as a whole has to be a hypostyle hall.
The wooden interior of the worship hall is usually crude or single colored, but there are also garishly painted mosques like the Niujie Mosque in Beijing. Plaques set up at many places show Islamic doctrinal mottos or slogans with Chinese characters, while there is mostly Arabic calligraphy on the Qibla wall.
( December, 2006)