East Asian art prof documents early Chinese mosques

Temples in China are not only houses of worship, but are also treasured works of art representing architectural traditions that go back thousands of years. A surprising number of these beautiful structures that look like Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian temples on the outside, are, however, actually mosques.

“Any religion that worships in China needs to fit into the longstanding norms of Chinese space,” says Nancy Steinhardt, a professor of East Asian art and chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Penn, where she has taught since 1982.

Steinhardt has done extensive fieldwork in China, Korea, and Japan, and is curator of Chinese art at the Penn Museum. Her research shows that mosques, and ultimately Islam, have survived in China because the Chinese architectural system is adaptable, allowing for the convergence of China’s building tradition and foreign religious building systems. 

About 70 of these historic mosques built before the 20th century that are still standing are featured in Steinhardt’s new book, “China’s Early Mosques.” They are among some 34,000 mosques in China. Her book provides a rich exploration of the mosques of Hui Muslims who live in every province of China.

Steinhardt says that the Uighur population of Muslims in far Western China bordering Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan has the most well-known mosques.

“I knew about and had seen China’s famous mosques that are tourist sites: Ox Street Mosque in Beijing, the mosque in Xi’an, and two in the south, one each in Guangzhou [Canton] and one in Quanzhou,” Steinhardt says. “I was more surprised to find out how active Islam is everywhere else in China, both in contemporary mosques that represent global Islam and in the restored and revived mosques that have hundreds of years of history.”

Steinhardt explains that in Chinese architectural design, buildings are constructed as part of compounds and never in isolation. They are behind gates, surrounded by walls and in courtyards, ensuring that outsiders don’t know what’s happening inside them.

The principles reflected in traditional Chinese building design were easily adapted to meet Islamic mosque requirements. 

Long before the arrival of Islam in China, probably in the 7th century, domes and other specific features usually associated with mosques were built in China. Like Chinese temples, mosques often were designed and constructed with accompanying schools, residences for religious leaders, hostels for visitors, libraries, and markets.

The difference between China’s temples and mosques is seen mostly inside the mosque where decorative Arabic calligraphy can be found. And every mosque has a feature known in Arabic as a qibla wall indicating the direction to face (toward Mecca) when praying, accompanied by a mihrab, a niche in the qibla wall. 

The exterior feature most often associated with mosques, the minaret, a tower from which the call to prayer is given, was often built as a pagoda-like structure. 

Published last December, the book “China’s Early Mosques” is part of the “Edinburgh Studies in Islamic Art” series of illustrated academic monographs.

China mosque