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Places in China (Xi’an’s Chinese Muslims)

April 25, 2015

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Modern China’s historical hub

Looking at the roaring, modern Xi’an that exists today, it’s hard to believe that this bustling metropolis of more than eight million people was once the starting point of the ancient Silk Road, a 6,400km trading route that linked China with the Roman Empire starting in the 2nd Century BC. But it’s exactly that history that gives this city one of its most interesting modern-day enclaves. (Credit: Mark Fischer/Xi’an Bell Tower/Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0)

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The introduction of Islam

More than just a source of goods, the Silk Road brought new cultures and religions into China – many of which continue to thrive today. In fact, the country’s 10 million ethnic Chinese Muslims can largely link their religion back to the Arab and Persian traders that spread various elements of Islam as they travelled along the Silk Road. Today, about 70,000 of China’s ethnic Muslims live in Xi’an’s Muslim quarter, a bustling district that palpitates with energy and character. Here, it’s easy to get lost in the mishmash of colourful alleys, chock full of street food, local produce, antiques and knickknacks. (Credit: Zhang Peng/Getty)

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A monument to Muslim architecture

There are about 10 mosques in the city’s Muslim quarter, the oldest of which is the Great Mosque of Xi’an, built in 742 AD. It’s thought to be the oldest – and one of the largest – mosques in China. (Credit: Tim Graham/Getty)

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Mainly Chinese architectural features

Unlike most mosques in the Middle East or Central Asia, the Great Mosque of Xi’an has mainly Chinese architectural features, including a glaze-tiled roof, phoenix statues and Chinese pagodas. Hints of Arabic influence can be seen in the inscription of the Muslim declaration “God is one” in the One God Pavilion. (Credit: Geoff A Howard/Alamy)

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Open for visitors

Today, the prayer hall in the Great Mosque’s Xingxin Tower sees up to 1,000 people for each of the five daily services. The mosque is open to visitors from 8 am to 7:30 pm each day, although non-Muslims are not allowed into the prayer hall. (Credit: Bertrand Gardel/Alamy)

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An ethnic revival

As we made our way through the Muslim quarter, Zhang Jie (my guide from China Odyssey Tours) pointed out other smaller mosques, often tucked between the alleys. They are hidden, he explained, because during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), many minority cultures were suppressed and Muslim prayer services were forbidden. During this time, China’s Communist party destroyed more than 29,000 mosques, burned copies of the Koran and paraded imams around with paint splashed on their bodies. The government began to relax its policies towards Muslims in 1978, and these days, the Hui people – descendants from Silk Road traders who married Hans – can pursue their religion openly. “When I was a child, it was forbidden to study in the mosque,” said Zhang. “Now we have much more freedom of Islamic expression in China.” (Credit: Feng Li/Getty)

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The Hui people

Many of the residents in Xi’an’s Muslim quarter are Hui. “We are ethnically similar to Han Chinese except that we practice Islam,” explained Zhang. “We have our own food and way of dressing, but we still feel Chinese.” (Credit: Frederic J Brown/Getty)

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Chinese street food, Hui-style

A smorgasbord of Hui street grub, most of which is certified as halal (or qingzhen in Mandarin), is one of the Muslim quarter’s prime draws. While mutton and lamb are the predominant ingredients, Xi’an’s Hui people have incorporated Chinese cooking methods such as braising and roasting into their cuisine. Some of the quarter’s most typical dishes include chuanr (meat kebab skewers), oven-baked na’an (bread) and yang rou pao mo (crumbled flatbread in mutton stew). It’s the perfect fuel for a day spent diving into Xi’an’s thriving Muslim history. (Credit: Nellie Huang)