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Volume 53, Number 4July/August 2002

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Beijing's Millennial Mosque

Written by Caroline Stone
Photographed by Peter Sanders

Whether in the crisp dry cold of Beijjing's winter or in the mild warmth of its summer, the idea of escaping the metropolis for a ride out across the surrounding plain or the Northern Hills is very attractive. Within the memory of old people alive today, horses were a common sight in this city, as were camel caravans, driven in from the Central Asian steppe. Along with the horses and the camels, long ago, came soldiers and traders from the West, and with them came their faith, which was Islam. Some of these Muslims settled in Beijing and other cities of China as long ago as the late seventh century. Over time, they were joined by their co-religionists—Tartars, Mongols, Kyrgyz and Uighurs, as well as the local converts known as the Hui—until today the Muslim community in the capital city numbers about 200,000.

The traditional areas of the city, rapidly vanishing under the pressure of high-rise buildings and multi-lane highways, are known as the hutong, or "alleys." The word comes from the Mongol term for a water-well, but its meaning has expanded to mean the lanes, housing compounds and ultimately the neighborhood that once centered on the well. These are clusters of low-lying, mostly gray and modest houses, and their names often tell us something about their original inhabitants: Muslim Camp, Westerners Camp, Mongol Camp and others.

On the edge of one of these hutong, in the southern sector of the city, stands Beijing's oldest mosque, the Niujie, whose name means "Oxen Street." By the beginning of the Qing Dynasty in 1644, Oxen Street was already an important market for halal beef and mutton—that is, meat that had been slaughtered according to Islamic law. The mosque itself was founded in 997, according to tradition, and its survival to the present day seems almost a miracle in view of all that has happened in Beijing over the past millennium, especially in the last century.

At first, the Niujie district appears similar to others in Beijing—until one begins to notice details. The entrance arch, a feature common in many Beijing neighborhoods, has small domes at each end and its inscription is in Arabic as well as in Chinese. Some of the shops, too, have Arabic signs: "halal meat," "only licit food served" or the characters huimin fandian, "Muslim people's eating place." The little stationer's shop has Arabic calligraphy texts for sale alongside the jars of writing brushes and office supplies. The butchers' shops have beef and mutton but no pork, in contrast with the rest of the city, where pork is often the preferred meat. All this is very discreet, and it would be possible to walk through the area and not notice that it is different.

When one enters the neighborhood along its main street, where some 12,000 of Beijing's Muslim community live, the atmosphere changes subtly. The older men wear fur caps and long, fur-edged jackets. Their trousers are tucked into boots, something that ordinary Chinese almost never do. Some of the younger women have their heads covered with scarves, also a practice uniquely Muslim in China. All this is both very old and very new: Under the previous regime, during the Cultural Revolution, all religious activity was forbidden, and many places of worship, of all religions, were damaged or taken over for use as warehouses or factories. The faithful, naturally, hid their treasures, put aside their distinguishing dress and continued to pray and teach in secret. Over the past 20 years, however, mosques and other places of worship have been refurbished, now actually with the help of government subsidies. Qur'an schools have been recognized, and at Beijing's second-largest mosque, the 15th-century Dongsi Mosque, there are facilities for high-level training in Islamic tradition and law.

Nonetheless, if one does not read Chinese, it would be possible to walk past the Niujie Mosque itself without realizing what it is, for the curling roofs and the hexagonal "tower for watching the moon" are all fine examples of traditional Chinese architecture. Historically, this is not surprising, for throughout the Islamic world, local styles of architecture have long been used for mosques. In part this was because these were the building techniques to which the local people were accustomed, and in part because it avoided the imposition of a foreign style that would have stressed the separateness of a minority. In this way also the esthetic unity of the city was shown to be important, something not lightly to be broken. It is also true that, then as now, many Chinese Muslims felt strongly Chinese in their heritage, and saw no reason why Islam, as an international religion, should be limited to the architecture of one particular area of the globe.

So, from the outside, the Niujie Mosque is a fine example of Chinese noble architecture, with its elaborate eaves and glazed tiles. Beneath the eaves hang two signs with gold characters on a blue background. The higher one identifies the mosque; the lower one reads "the good path to heaven." One enters the mosque compound by an unobtrusive lane on the right-hand side where, most days, a blind man sits to indicate the way and give visitors both information and the opportunity to practice the virtue of charity. The main courtyard opens off to the left, silent and immaculate. To the right stands the "tower for watching the moon"—used to look over the neighboring roofs to sight the new moon of Ramadan—and beyond it, the main prayer hall, where on weekday afternoons a number of older men customarily gather for prayer. Although smaller than the beautiful "Great East Mosque" in the old T'ang capital of Xian, whose compound measures 12,000 square meters (3 acres), this mosque is of a good size, and it can be used by a congregation of several hundred.

Inside, the style is a pleasing mixture. The decoration is both carved and painted. The mihrab, or prayer niche, is said to date from the 14th-and 15th-century Ming Dynasty, and at first it seems purely Chinese with flowers and scrolls, but a second glance reveals that these are only the background for the traditional texts done in a style of calligraphy that has clearly been influenced by the local manner. Again, trees are often planted in the courtyards of mosques, but the large, carefully tended bonsai in pots are of Chinese inspiration, as are the stone lanterns. A large, handsome bronze vessel, inscribed in Chinese, is something which has its counterpart in many Indian mosques, for preparing food for the feasts or for distribution of charitable goods to the poor.

Chinese again is the small building with stone steles commemorating the founding of the mosque and its restoration on several occasions, notably in 1442 and again in 1692 under the Emperor Kangxi. The inscription on one of the stone tablets reads:

Tell the provinces of the country that the governor will have anyone who spreads false tales about the Muslims executed, and then bring a report to me. All the Hui shall follow Islam and may not disobey my commands.

The story runs that when the emperor's spies brought him news that the Muslim community was planning to rebel under cover of the gatherings for one of their major feasts, he himself went to visit the mosque and, on finding the rumor untrue, made the proclamation above. Another factor was that the services of the emperor's excellent Muslim troops were of great importance to the stability of the country, and he may have wished to conciliate them.

The minaret of the Niujie Mosque is square, not tall, and is clearly designed for the call to prayer to be heard by the community in the immediate vicinity of the mosque, not beyond. The general orientation of the mosque, its qibla, is of course westward toward Makkah. To the east, there is a courtyard garden with a cypress tree and the tomb of the founder of the mosque, said to be an Arab scholar named Nasruddin, as well as the tombs of two shaykhs from Central Asia and Persia who visited Beijing in the 13th century, presumably having traveled the Silk Roads about the same time as Marco Polo. The tomb inscriptions are carved in a curiously local Arabic script, a Chinese-looking thuluth style. Unfortunately, the dates have been erased, apparently a very long time ago.

This and the Dongsi Mosque are not, of course, the only ones in Beijing. There are said to be 68 of them scattered about the city—there are some 40,000 mosques in all of China—and there must have been more in the old Tartar quarter that is now largely destroyed. A Muslim element in the population of a hutong is generally indicated by a little cluster of restaurants, food shops and stalls bearing signs in Arabic, and near them may well be a small mosque that is not immediately evident. Certainly this is true of the villages around Beijing, where only some of the mosques announce themselves to the stranger, and in most cases the architecture is purely traditional and thus inconspicuous. This is also true of the Chinese characters over the entrance of the arch to each mosque, which translate, "Temple of the Pure and True Doctrine." This is the Mandarin term for a mosque, with the result that casual visitors could easily be forgiven for not knowing what they were looking at.

The Cultural Revolution was hard on all religions in China, but the Niujie Mosque does not show evidence of extensive damage. Although it is still not a subject to be discussed openly, the community must have worked hard to protect its treasures, hiding or burying them, as did the Christians and Buddhists, "until the storm passed." In any case, the damage inflicted and the effects of enforced neglect have now been lovingly repaired with some financial aid from the present government. Contact with the outer world has been resumed. The library is being reorganized, and added to it are many donated books from Saudi Arabia.

On our way out, we visited the little shop by the mosque gate that was selling objects commemorating the mosque's millennial anniversary, which took place officially in 1997. Appropriately, the souvenirs were a mixture of East and West: handkerchiefs and headscarves, teapots and tea bowls, hanging scrolls in Arabic, calendars for the hijri year in both Arabic and Chinese. Altogether, it looked as though it had been a truly happy anniversary for the Niujie Mosque, and as we took our leave, we returned the sentiments with "Peace and good wishes for another 1000 years."

Caroline Stone lives in Seville and Cambridge, where she is working on a website dedicated to travelers and cross-cultural exchange, with special reference to the Muslim world, and aimed at students of world history at all levels. She and Paul Lunde are just completing a volume of translations: Travellers from the Arab World to the Lands of the North.

Peter Sanders (www.petersanders. com) has photographed throughout the Islamic world for more than three decades. He lives near London.

This article appeared on pages 34-41 of the July/August 2002 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 2002 images.