Sunday, April 4, 2010

Islam in Hokchew (Fuzhou)

Islam has never been a mainstream belief at any period in the history of Hokchew (Fuzhou), and it may be difficult to trace the Islamic history of Hokchew to the very beginning. One important record of the early Islamic history of Hokchew is the inscriptions on a 16th century stone stele in Hokchew Mosque (Fuzhou Mosque), claiming that the first mosque in Hokchew was built in 628 AD. This can be doubtful, since 628 AD is too early even for many Islamic countries in the Middle East, like Iran and Egypt, and it is widely believed that Islam was first introduced to China in 650. However, according to the Book of Min (閩書) by He Qiaoyuan (何喬遠) in 1620, Muhammad sent 4 disciples to China by sea between 618-626, two of them resided in Hokchew, and the other two in Guangzhou and Yangzhou respectively. The two disciples finally died in Hokchew and buried in Ling-sang (灵山). If this is true, Hokchew can be one of the Chinese cities that has the earliest contact with Islam. Despite the disputes, we still learn that Islam arrived at Hokchew in the 7th century. Since Hokchew was already an important port in early Tang Dynasty, there was a considerable foreign population in the city, mostly from the Middle East (Persians and Arabs), therefore, a mosque was indispensable for them.

However, the heyday of Fuzhou as a commercial port did not last very long, and her importance was gradually surpassed by the Southern Min city of Chôan-chiu (AKA Quanzhou, 泉州), known as Zayton (刺桐) by the Persians and Arabs. Chôan-chiu became the largest port in China in the Song Dynasty (10th-13th century), and even the largest in the world in the Yuan Dynasty (13th-14th century). Most Persians and Arabs chose to live in Chôan-chiu, rather than Hokchew. As the Muslim population dwindled, the early Hokchew Mosque gradually went decrepit. It was not until the Yuan Dynasty that Hokchew saw an increase of her Muslim population. So when the main prayer hall of Hokchew Mosque collapsed due to the lack of maintenance in the mid-14th century (Yuan Dynasty), the muslims, even some high ranked officials in Hokchew helped to rebuild the mosque. In early Ming Dynasty (14th century), it was again renovated, and the famous Sah Family in Hokchew also donated money for the renovation.

The classical Foochow saddleback gable in the Hokchew Mosque (Fuzhou Mosque)

The main prayer hall of the Hokchew Mosque

In 1541, after the Hokchew Mosque was destroyed in a fire, the local muslim rebuilt the mosque in the form of classical Foochow architecture style, which is today's Hokchew Mosque. If anything unique can be found in the Hokchew Mosque, it must be that the Hokchew Mosque is the only mosque in the world in classical Foochow style. Here you can find Foochow saddleback gables in a mosque! The pic on the left shows what the Foochow saddleback gables in the mosque look like. Certainly, you can also find Arabic inscriptions and Chinese stone stele accompanying the oriental main prayer hall. The only thing that reminds a non-native of the religious function of the building is its facade with a dome (in the pic), but this was added to the original mosque only in 1989, and in my opinion, this recent modification was such a bad idea that harmed the integrality of the building.

Added to the original building only in 1989, the dome of Hokchew Mosque doesn't look in tune

Chinese inscription in the Hokchew Mosque

Arabic inscription in the Hokchew Mosque

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Hokchew Islam was again heavily weakened due to the shrink of Hokchew muslim population. In hundreds of years, the Hokchew Mosque was maintained by the muslim officers in Hokchew from other Chinese provinces appointed by the emperor. We only saw significant muslim immigration to Fujian after the installation of the communism in 1949, when some muslims from north China came to Hokchew following its occupation by the communist army, whose solders were mostly Northern Chinese. Since the 1980s, the booming economy of Fujian attracted many muslims from northwestern China to Hokchew. These new immigrants "revived" the Hokchew Mosque. Currently, the Ulama of Hokchew Mosque is a Hui (回族), and the Hui people and Uyghur people constitute the majority of the worshippers here.

A 15th century stone stele in the Hokchew Mosque, which conveyed the Yongle Emperor's decree to protect Islam

However, following the increase of Muslim population in Hokchew is the uneasy relation between the local Foochow Han Chinese and the muslims, particularly the Uyghur, just like what is going on in many other Chinese cities. I'd like to go a little deeper into the issue. Many of the Uyghur people in Hokchew are from Southern Xinjiang, the poorest region in Xinjiang and one of the poorest in China. The arid land and bad economy drove many Uyghur there to the eastern coast of China to look for jobs and better lives. But some of them did this in an illegal way: they brought many Uyghur kids from southern Xinjiang to eastern China by promising their families a better income, even by kidnapping. But it turned out that these criminals used the little kids, mostly about 10 years old, as thieves to steal for them. The money the kids stole finally went to the adult criminals' pockets and the kids were only provided their basic needs. There are also some notorious Uyghur peddlers who try to sell by force, threatening the customers to buy their things (usually some good-looking cakes), otherwise the customers may get beaten up. Such problems rapidly damaged Uyghur's reputation and brought tension between them and the local people. Unfortunately, many Han Chinese do not know where the Uyghur people are from. They simply take them as the typical example of all Uyghur, and consequently consider most Uyghur as thieves or evil peddlers. This is so sad.

Today, to most Hokchew residents, Islam is such a strange and somewhat mysterious religion, even though the Hokchew Mosque locates on one of the busiest street at the heart of the city. The mosque itself is listed as a relic protected by the city of Hokchew and open to the public, but it seems that very few Foochowese have ever set foot in it. When I and my friends visited the mosque, I met a clergy who kind of vigilantly asked: "What are you doing here?" When I answered :"I'm a tourist." He stopped asking questions any more. When I took photos in front of a small door, I didn't notice that I was in the way of a person who murmured something to me seemingly in Uyghur, obviously, he was grumbling. I don't know if we are also strange to them as they are strange to most Foochowese.


Oliver Loi said...

I am a descendant of 福州回族 - so thank you for your blog.

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