In the thirty-eighth year of the reign of Kangxi (1662-1723), Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, his advisors proposed a ban on Islam. They wanted all Muslims expelled from Beijing. The advisors told the emperor that Muslims were gathering in the mosque at night to plan rebellion. According to a popular Islamic legend, Emperor Kangxi decided to investigate the matter personally. He disguised himself as a Muslim and entered the mosque during evening services. Finding nothing to alarm him in the Imams preaching, the emperor next day issued a protective decree that read, in part, the crime of bringing serious harm to the Muslim community is punishable by execution.
It is, of course, unlikely that the emperor ever took such a risky trip outside the walls of his Imperial Palace. Kangxi must have relied on other evidence to formulate this decree. Whatever the case, the Muslims of the Niujie Mosque in Beijing proudly display the emperor's edict in the wall of their tablet pavilion.
The incident surrounding Kangxi's decree is significant not only because of the emperors action, but because it points to the kind of discrimination Muslims in China have faced ever since this religion first came to that country during the 7th century.
The long-standing prejudice against Chinese Muslims can be attributed to the fact that almost all these believers in Islam are members of ten minority ethnic groups. They are Huis, Uygurs, Kazaks, tartars, Kirgizs, Yajiks, Uzbeks, Dongxiangs, Salars, and Bonans. In physical features, dress, and lifestyle many of them are different from the dominant Han Chinese. Some are blonde and blue-eyed. Others have dark hair and Arabic features. Still others , living on Chinas northern border, are closely related to the Muslim ethnic minorities that live in Russia.
Chinese Muslims write in Arabic script, rather than Chinese characters. They face west toward Mecca for worship, which goes against the traditional Han view of China as the center of all things. The very name for China in the Chinese language is a word composed of two characters meaning central country.
The Chinese government, since 1949, has done much to try to overcome discrimination against the ethnic minorities within China's borders. The government allows minority families to have as many children as they wish, although it imposes a policy of permitting only one child per family on the Han majority. For the ten Muslim minorities this has resulted in more than doubling their population between 1949 and 1990, the numbers growing from 8 million to more than 30 million.
The government also provides financial subsides to the minority populations, allows them to have their own schools and hospitals, and gives them other benefits designed to improve their living conditions. As the government views it, such special measures are necessary to overcome centuries of prejudice and economic deprivation to which the minority ethnic peoples were subjected.
Arrival in China
Islam was officially introduced into China in 651 by envoys to the Tang Dynasty emperor, sent by the third successor to Mohammed, Khalifa Uthman ibn affan (577-656). However, Islam actually entered China earlier through contacts with Arabian merchants and four disciples of Mohammed who were sent to China between the years 618 and 626. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, reportedly took great interest in China and Chinese culture, saying, though China is far, far away, we should go there in the quest of knowledge. The first of these four missionaries went to Guangzhou, the second to Yangzhou, and the third and fourth to Quanzhou. The graves of the latter two are preserved today on a hill near Quanzhou.
Throughout the Tang (618-907) and the Song dynasties, many Arab and Persian merchants of the Islamic faith came overland to northwest China by way of Middle Asia, and by sea to Quanzhou and other ports in the south and southeast. This promoted the development of trade and cultural exchange with the Arabic countries. Some mosques were built in China by these merchants.
During the western military expeditions of Genghis khan, in the early 13th century, many Muslims recruited from Central and West Asia came to China. Later, they were garrisoned with the Mongolian army as farmer soldiers in inland areas. Wherever these mercenaries settled, they brought Islam with them. By the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368), Islam was thriving in China. The rulers of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties saw advantages in allowing Islam to grow on its own in China and did nothing to discourage it. When the fleet of the famous Ming navigator, Zhenghe (1371-1435), reached the Arabian Peninsula, Muslim members among his crew made a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Islamic scholars in China translated many of the classics from the Arabian and Persian languages into Chinese. They promoted Islamic medical knowledge, added to China's knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, and helped to spread new techniques of weaving and cloisonné craftsmanship.
There are sometimes conflicts between Muslims and local government officials, and the imperial army was occasionally called to suppress Muslim disturbances on China’s borders. In the port city of Quanzhou, in the early 1300s, there was an attempt by the Nestorian Bishop Andre to convert all the Muslims in that city to Christianity. The bishops campaign led to bloodshed and the destruction of six mosques and probably some of the Nestorian churches, although details are not known. In any case, there are no more Nestorian sites in this city and only one Islamic mosque.
In modern times (shortly before 1949), a campaign was mounted by a Muslim official who was employed by the former Nationalist government to declare independence in the area of what is now Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. He wanted to designate this area a Muslim country named Eastern Turkistan. He convinced enough Muslims to be able to found a small separatist movement. But most of the Muslims of Xinjiang did not like this proposal, and it never received support from the Imams and other Muslim religious leaders in China. The members of the separatist movement have, from time to time, mounted political independence campaigns with little success.
The number of Islamic believers in China today totals more than 30,000,000. The statistics represent the combined size of the ten Muslim ethnic minorities. Although there are undoubtedly non-believers within these ten minorities, it is doubtful if there are many because the religion and their ethic cultures are closely intermixed. Even the ethnic minority members of the Chinese Communist Party tend to observe the religious dietary laws and Muslim customs so as to remain an integral part of their people. In fact, when Muslims decide to join the Communist Party of China, they are never asked if they are religious or not, as are other Chinese who join the Party. Presently, China has more than 23,000 mosques in which at least 40,000 full-time professionals (Imams) are employed. Most Chinese Muslims are Sunni Muslims, belonging to Ahl al-sunnah WaI-Djamaah in belief and al-Hanafiyah in doctrine. There are also a few adherents of several other sects of Islam, but all the Muslims of China are united within the Chinese Islamic Association.
Chinas mosques can be divided into two groups in architectural style: one is Arabic-style architecture, and the other, temple-style siheyuan (a compound with houses around a courtyard). The best known mosques include Huaisheng Mosque in Guanzhou; the Qingjing Mosque in Quanzhou; the Phoenix Mosque in Hangzhou; the Xianhe Mosque in Yangzhou; the Huajuexiang Mosque (commonly known as Great Mosque) in Xian; the Niujie Mosque in Beijing; and the Idkah Mosque at Kashgar.
All the mosques are built to face west, or at least their worship halls are so built that the worshipers can face west as they pray. West is the direction in which Mecca lies from China. Muslim graves are also dug so that the head of the deceased will point toward the West. Tradition has it that the Prophet Mohammed used to stand on a flight of steps to preach while holding a wooden cane in his hand. For this reason many of the mosques have constructed the preaching platform up a flight of stairs and attached a wooden cane to the stairway. The closing of the mosque and criticism of Imams during the Cultural Revolution(1966-1976) forced all religious activity underground. Muslim families then had to conduct their own worship within the family circle. When the Cultural Revolution ended and mosques reopened, the Imams discovered that the faith of their congregations had been strengthened rather than weakened by the religious persecution of that period. They also found that the number of Muslims had increased.