China shifts to more 'authentic' Arabian-style mosques
BEIJING //The casual observer would probably not realise Niujie Mosque in the south-west of the Chinese capital was a Muslim place of worship.
With its two-storey pagoda-style tower in place of a minaret, and ceramic animals on the ridges of its elaborately sculpted roof, it has few of the architectural flourishes, such as domes and pointed arches, characteristic of mosques.
Indeed, without seeing the Arabic lettering on parts of the complex, a visitor might mistake the mosque, which dates back to 996, for a Chinese temple.
While there are other Chinese-style mosques in China, in recent decades an increasing number of mosques built using the domes and minarets typically found in the Middle East have appeared.
The popularity of Arabian-style mosques, coming as China and Middle Eastern countries enjoy greater cultural and commercial exchange, is partly the result of a belief that these designs are more "authentic".
Li Weijian, an associate professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Science's Institute of World Religions, estimates as many as 70 per cent of mosques being completed in China now are largely of Middle Eastern style.
It is linked, he said, to the "opening up" China has been embarked upon since 1978, a period that has seen the rebuilding or replacement of many mosques that were damaged during the Cultural Revolution.
"China and the Islamic world exchange so frequently in every field - from culture to commercial, from politics to economics," said Mr Li, adding "interaction between China and the Muslim world is enhanced".
He said that in some Muslim communities in China, "more beautiful" Arabic-style mosques are becoming more common.
One factor is cost. The wood-based structures of traditional Chinese mosques are more expensive to build.
China's tilt towards Middle Eastern mosque architecture has been mirrored in parts of Asia as far apart as Pakistan and Indonesia, where sometimes an influx of funds from Saudi Arabia has resulted in the creation of Arabian-style mosques.
Foreign organisations, including those from Saudi Arabia, have also funded mosque building in China.
"Religious organisations in foreign countries have had an interest in exerting influence in China. That is partly why they have offered funding to build mosques in areas such as Xinjiang and Lanzhou," said Zang Xiaowei, a Chinese studies professor at the United Kingdom's University of Sheffield, who carries out research into China's minorities.
In the western province of Xinjiang, the homeland of the Muslim Uighur minority, mosques have traditionally shown strong influences from Turkey and Central Asia, a result of the Uighurs' links to these areas, Mr Zang said.
Not everyone has welcomed the increase in Arabian-style mosques in China, where 35,000 mosques provide a place of worship for 20 million Muslims.
Jacqueline Armijo, a professor in the department of international affairs at Qatar University specialising in China's Muslim history, said the claim that Arabian-style mosques are more authentic threatens the character of Islam in China.
The view that Middle Eastern style represents authenticity extends beyond mosque design.
"People who can produce beautiful [Chinese-style Arabic] calligraphy, if they go overseas they learn 'proper' Arabic calligraphy style, some of them are no longer willing to write in local style," she said.
More recently, there have been attempts to return to traditional Chinese designs, something that has become possible as Muslim communities are now able to raise money to rebuild mosques from their own members, rather than relying on outside funds.
As an example, Ms Armijo cited Shuncheng Jie Mosque, the main mosque in Kunming city, the capital of Yunnan province in south-west China. This was rebuilt several years ago in its original style, offering a stark contrast to the city's Middle Eastern-style Nancheng Mosque.
The local Muslim community rebuilt it using the same methods and materials as the original, even though Ms Armijo said this cost several times as much as a Middle Eastern-style mosque.
"After so many traditional mosques in the region had been destroyed, the Muslim community finally realised they had been mistaken in emulating outside traditions and chose to respect their own history and traditions," she said.
"This is really important, because for almost 20 years there was a lot of pressure on them from outside and themselves to build 'authentic' mosques, as if because it's Arab it's authentic."
Yet even at the Niujie Mosque, some feel there are good reasons for China to build Arabian-style places of worship. Wei Chunjie, a Hui Muslim who is head of the mosque administration, said "more and more" people like mosques built to Middle Eastern designs.
"In my opinion, it's better to build some Arabian-style mosques," he said. "Some people think it's a good way to build a different style in China. You can say the Bird's Nest Stadium and the Water Cube [swimming centre] for the Olympics were not like traditional architecture, but they're fine for the Chinese people."
One worshipper at the mosque, Ma Zhiyuan, 19, who is studying Arabic at university in southern China's Yunnan province, also prefers mosques inspired by Middle Eastern architecture.
"Arabia is the starting place of Islam, so that's why I prefer Arabian-style mosques," he said. "It's the tradition of the religion from Mecca."
Updated: July 18, 2012 04:00 AM