The Great Mosque in Xi’an is China’s oldest, most impressive and renown mosque and has a colourful history stretching back to 742. Visiting the mosque will provide you with a fascinating insight to Islam in China and the Chinese Muslim ethnic minority.
The original mosque was founded in 742 and the current mosque was built in 1392 by Admiral and Hajji Cheng Ho, the son of a prominent Hui family. Since construction in 1392, the mosque has undergone restorations with additions being made during the Yuan, Qing and Ming dynasties.
Islam In Xi’an and the Hui Chinese
Islam in Xi’an – Xian was the eastern point of the Silk Road and received a lot of traffic from Muslim and Arab merchants, travellers and caravan guards/workers. The Tang Dynasty encouraged migration from countries to the west such as Persia and many Muslim foreigners arriving in Xian along the Silk Road married local Han Chinese, settled down and formed their own communities and introduced Islam to China in the process. This group of Muslim Chinese is called the Hui.
Hui Chinese – The Hui are one of China’s 56 official ethnic minorities and they have a population of around 10 million. Hui communities are spread throughout China with the largest concentrations found in north western China. The Hui are mostly Muslims that follow Islamic dietary laws (no pork) and traditional dress with the Hui men normally wearing white caps and the women wearing white head scarves
The Great Mosque Architecture and Grounds
Islamic and Buddhist Fusion – One of the characteristics of the Great Mosque that make it a great place to visit is the harmonious blend of Chinese Buddhism and Islam.
The actual layout of the mosque follows the typical Buddhist Chinese layout with the buildings and grounds laid out on a single narrow axis. This axis is aligned from east to west so the mosque faces Mecca. The actual construction used in the mosque is all Chinese and there are no domes or minarets. The only obvious Islamic influences on the mosque are Arabic lettering and Islamic decorations.
Size and Layout – The mosque covers and area of around 12,000 square meters, has five courtyards and the prayer hall with an area of 1,270 square meters is the main building. The prayer hall has three areas under one roof that can easily hold 1,000 people.
Courtyards – The five courtyards hold many buildings and structures so I’ve outlined the main ones below.
First Courtyard – Is dominated by a wooden gateway pailou at the center that is 9 meters high, supported by columns and is from the 17 century. This courtyard also contains the Unmatched or Yizhen Pavilion, a very impressive building that is used as a lecture hall.
Second Courtyard – Contains another gateway structure built from stone that has four doorways, and two free standing vertical brick piers.
Third Courtyard – Is called Qing Xu Dian, “Place of Meditation” in English. The main structure here is a 10 meter brick octagonal pavilion called the “Pavilion of Introspection”.
Fourth Courtyard – Is dominated by a Qing Dynasty Phoenix Pavilion and the Prayer Hall.
Fifth Courtyard – The least well known of the courtyards and is accessed through moon gates behind the Prayer Hall. This courtyard is dominated by two small manmade hills that are used for ceremonial viewing of the moon.
Tips for Visiting the Great Mosque
Dress Appropriately – The Great Mosque is a tourist attraction AND a place of worship so be considerate and dress appropriately. No need to be extreme, shorts and t-shirts are fine but micro/mini shorts or skirts and excessively revealing clothing would not be good.
The Great Mosque is on 30 Huajue Lane near the Drum Tower so very easy to get to.
Subway – Get off at the Bell Tower (Zhong Lou) stop on line two and walk to the north west to Huajue Lane OR get off at Yuxi Angmen station on line six and walk to the south east.
Bus – Take any of the many buses that go to the Bell Tower i.e. 4, 222, 252 and get of at Bell Tower stop and walk north east to Huajue Lane.