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Great Mosque

Brief Introduction

The Great Mosque is located near the Drum Tower and branches off from the West Street. It is an important location for the religious activities of over 80,000 Muslims in Xi’an. It is also an important historic monument in Shaanxi Province. Most of the Islamic mosques have splendid domes and minarets reaching to the clouds, but this one is quite different. It is much more like a Chinese garden or temple with pavilions, painted beams and engraved ridgepoles.

Located in this Islamic quarter inhabited by the Hui Muslim, this mosque is the largest one in Xi’an, and also one of the earliest built on a comparatively large scale, and well preserved in China. It was alegdly built as early as in the Tang dynasty (618AD - 907AD). The buildings now accessible to visitors date from the Ming Dynasty (1368AD - 1644AD), and have been restored several times. The complex consists of four courtyards laid out on an east-west axis, and covers an area of 12,000 square meters.

Background Knowledge

The Religion of Islam

The word Islam means submission, that is to say, the true Muslim is supposed to submit his life to the divine will of God. Islam, the world’s youngest universal and the second largest faith, was founded in the early 7th century AD by the Arab Prophet Mohammed. Eight words can sum up the central belief of the Muslims  ‘There is no God but God, Mohammed is the messenger of the God’. These words are recited by devotees over five times a day when the muezzins summon them to worship God. All Muslims  accept the Koran as God’s eternal word, though there different sects, but  not as many as in Christianity.

When and how was  Islam spread to China, and how did it develop  such a large following?

It can be traced back to the mid-7th century in the Tang Dynasty. At that time, the Tang Dynasty was in such a prosperous state that it attracted many Arabian merchants and travelers to establish diplomatic, trade, and military contacts with China. They passed through Persia and Afghanistan to reach the northwestern region of China. Some of them came to Quanzhou, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and other seaside cities because they started their travels from the Bangladesh Bay and crossed the Strait of Malacca. Many of them settled down in China and  married  Chinese women, and their children became the original Muslims  in China. However, the massive immigration of Muslims began   in the 13th century when Genghis Kan conquered vast expanses of land stretching from  Central Asia to Eastern Europe, and set up the Yuan Dynasty. A large number of Muslims  including artisans and soldiers were conscripted and later moved to China. They were all called ‘Hui’ by the Chinese people. Hui in Chinese means Go Back. Maybe they always missed their home and wanted to go back.

Many Muslims  joined Kublai Khan in his war for the unification of China, so they held positions both in the military and civilian sectors  of the country. Many  took part in Zhu Yuanzhang’s rebellion against the government at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. Therefore, after  establishing the Ming Dynasty, Zhu  ordered the  protection of Islam and set up many mosques for the Muslims  in many cities. In the 16th century, Islam predominated in Xinjiang and spread its influence to Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai.

Today Islam has a large following among ten of China’s minority groups. The Muslims  in Xi’an are mainly the Huis, being a small portion of the 17 million in China.

Muslims in China Now
Freedom of religious belief is a basic and long term policy of the Chinese government. The Muslims  have the same rights as other Chinese, and their religious belief is protected by  state law. They do the same thing as their brothers and sisters do everywhere in the world. They worship  God five times a day respectively at dawn, at noon, in the afternoon, at dusk, and at night. They cleanse themselves  before worshiping. They pay more attention to their health and always wear clean clothes. They are not supposed to drink wine or eat port, for in the Koran, pork was  mentioned as unclean four times.

Layout of the Great Mosque

The First Courtyard

Wall Screen
There is a huge wall screen  called ‘Zhao Bi’ in Chinese. It is a unique architecture style in a courtyard in China. It is said in ancient times, people believed ghosts would often come to visit their houses, so they set up Zhaobi to stop the ghosts. Actually the function of the screen is to prevent people outside the houses from seeing the inside of the houses to protect the privacy of the house owners. Most wall screens are carved with beautiful patterns as decorations.

Wooden Memorial Arch
Built at the turn of the 17th century, it is about nine meters high and has a history of 360 years. The four words on the top of it mean the mosque was built on  the order of the emperor. Memorial arches usually stand in broad view outside cities, in front of temples or tomb complexes and in  parks and palaces as landmarks. They were also erected by  Imperial order to honor or commemorate an outstanding and famous person.

The Second Courtyard
In the centre of the second courtyard, there are two tall tablets with dragons carved on each. They record the details of all  repair work ever conducted since the building of  the mosque. This one bears the characters written by a famous Song Dynasty calligrapher Mi Fu: ‘May Islam fill the universe’. And the other one bears the characters written by a Ming Dynasty calligrapher Dong Qichang: ‘Royally Bestowed’. These characters are typical examples of traditional Chinese calligraphy.

The Third Courtyard
The three-story wooden building in front of us is called ‘Xing Xin lou’ meaning ‘Retrospection Tower’. It is used for  the same function as   minarets in Arabic mosques to send orders to the Muslims  to come to worship. Respectively on the south and north wings of the Retrospection Tower are the Reception chamber and the Scripture Chamber in elegant layout. The five wooden houses are the ‘Water Houses’ in which the Muslims   cleanse themselves before they go to worship.

The Fourth Courtyard
The magnificent wooden building in the center is called the ‘Phoenix Pavilion’. The main complex is flanked by two three-gabled buildings, just looking like a flying phoenix, hence its name. It is used for worshipers to wait for services.

On the left hand is a reception hall, which used to be a place to receive high officials  bringing the Emperor’s orders to the mosque in ancient times. Now it displays twelve ancient decorative  screens, and some Ming and Qing dynasty furniture.

The hall behind the ‘Phoenix Pavilion’ is  the main Prayer Hall, which is the main structure of the mosque. It covers an area of 1,300 square meters and can hold over 1,000 worshipers at a time. The five clocks on the wall show the five exact times for the believers to worship. The believers come here at 13:10 every day, and the other four times depend  on the weather and season. The ceiling is painted with over 600 relief panels. The walls of the hall, as well as the panels, are decorated with patterns of trailing plants and Arabic letters. The thirty relief carvings on the wall make  a complete Koran, which has amazed many Muslims  overseas. They have never seen a complete Koran  in relief carvings. The minbar, also a shrine at the western end of the hall is where the Imam and worshipers chant the Koran while facing in the direction of Mecca.

Travel Tips

Location: Huajue Lane, west of the Drum Tower of Xi’an

Opening Time: 8:00 to 19:00

Ticket Price: Mar-Nov: RMB 25yuan per person

Dec-Feb: RMB 15yuan per person

Visiting Time: Around half an hour

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