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Reviewed by:
  • China’s Early Mosques by Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt
  • Wei-Cheng Lin
China’s Early Mosques by Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015. Pp. xxiv + 331. $160.00 cloth, $54.95 paper.

China’s Early Mosques could not have been an easy undertaking even to its author, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, a prolific scholar and one of the best known and respected specialists in the history of Chinese architecture. As made explicit in its title, the book deals with a non-Chinese architectural tradition, that of Islam, built in the land of China. Thus, the first, immediate challenge lies not so much in the topic’s cross-cultural nature as in what the proper frame of analysis for this topic should be.

A mosque refers to a house of prayer built across the Muslim world both as an Islamic worship center and also as a community center. Serving a monotheistic religion that worships no figurative icons, mosques were from the outset an architectural style that signaled to the Chinese the foreignness of Islam and its followers. But how foreign are China’s Muslims? As early as the seventh century Muslims arrived in China for missionary, commercial, or diplomatic purposes, and subsequent periodic waves of Muslim immigration brought believers of Islam to China. They at first settled in trade cities but later dispersed widely. By 2010, there were 23,308,000 Muslims in virtually every province and autonomous region of China, comprising approximately 1.8 percent of the Chinese population and served by more than 30,000 mosques (p. 1). Muslims in China are hence not necessarily “foreigners” but more often Chinese “minorities,” including the assimilated, often Chinese-speaking Muslims who have been known as Hui 回 since the fourteenth century and also Uyghurs, who are Turkic Muslims spread across today’s Xinjiang Province and the Northwest.1 Derived from a building tradition outside China, mosques in China nonetheless have been treated as part of, or a subtype of, Chinese architecture. Indeed, most textbooks of Chinese architectural history introduce some key [End Page 282] mosques, albeit only briefly, amid discussion of building traditions by Chinese minorities or for non-Han religious architecture.2

The difficulty in deciding on a proper analytic framework continues when one examines actual mosques. Flipping through the pages, after learning that the Sugong 苏公 Mosque (built 1778) in Turfan (Tulufan 吐魯番) contains the tallest minaret in China or that the ʿIdgah Mosque (1798) in Kashgar (Kashen shi 喀什市) is China’s largest worship hall, an uninformed reader may be surprised to see Huajuexiangsi 花覺巷寺 in Xi’an, known as the Great Mosque, and its centrally located Chinese-style tower in the same architectural category. While the former two structures recall Islamic examples in Central and West Asia, the latter, also ranked among the grandest mosques in China, fully conforms to the traditional Chinese courtyard-and-hall layout, with a tower replacing the expected minaret. It is true that a mosque entails no particular building form to be an Islamic house of worship, so as Islam spread, mosques were constructed in the regional styles and building traditions of their local sponsors, yielding no consistent international style. Yet in the Muslim world, though the architecture of mosques varies from, for instance, the Arabic heartland to India, regional differences may not be as great as the provincial variation seen within today’s China, a degree of variation exemplified by the disparities between the Sugong Mosque and the ʿIdgah Mosque, located in Xinjiang, on the one hand, and the Xi’an Mosque in Shaanxi, on the other. In at least one survey book of mosques, the author for the section on China opted to include only those mosques “based on traditional Chinese architecture adapted to Islamic belief and ritual requirements,” presumably because they represent a distinctively “Chinese-style” Islamic architecture.3 Yet what makes a mosque count as “Chinese”: its location or its architectural features?

Perhaps most challenging in formulating the best analytic framework for discussing mosque architecture in China is the difficulty in creating a historical narrative. A brief outline of mosques in Chinese [End Page 283] history can be summarized as follows: The earliest extant mosques date from the Song dynasty (960...


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pp. 282-294
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