Traditional Hui Mosques in Northern China

by Candice Del Medico (PhD student at the Université Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne, recipient of a fieldwork grant from the EFEO)

The presence of Muslims in China is a phenomenon which seems unknown to the general public. However, today there are more than twenty million Muslims in Chinese territory. The early implantation of Islam was accompanied by the construction of a new type of architecture that had never been seen in China before: the mosques, or qingzhensi (清真寺) in Chinese.

There are currently more than forty thousand mosques in China and some were erected as early as the 14th century. These oldest mosques are the traditional Hui-style mosques.

Islam arrived in China in two waves. The first started in the eighth century under the Tang dynasty with the installation of Muslim merchants on the southern coast. They were grouped in districts reserved for foreigners, close to markets. At that time the term used for them was “fanke (番 客)”[1]. It seems too early to speak of “Muslim Chinese” at this time, although some Chinese were already converted.[2] No Islamic building from the Tang dynasty survives today. We can suggest two possible explanations: either the first Muslims of China prayed at home, or they met in unmarked places. The mosque proper appeared much later. Today some sites are dated to this period, but the authenticity of the testimonies about them has been strongly questioned by researchers.[3]

The second wave came from north of China, with the Mongols in the 14th century. Many Muslims were forced to join the Mongolian army’s engineering corps and to follow the future founders of the Yuan dynasty in their conquests. Under the Yuan, Muslims began to be able to settle in real communities. The trust the Mongols placed in them gave them access to many prestigious positions within the Court. The first mosques date from this period.

From the end of the 14th century, we are faced with a very complex situation. It was under the Ming dynasty that Islam in China developed to the greatest extent in all its aspects. The number of Muslims and of mosques increased, Sino-Islamic architecture became more and more perfected and great maritime expeditions were carried out by a Chinese Muslim named Zheng He. But it was also under this same dynasty that the Muslims were forced to assimilate with the Chinese people and hide their faith.

Under the Qing dynasty, the now-formed Muslim ethnic groups rallied to the Han to fight the Manchus. They were considered sowers of disorder since many revolts were led by Muslims. However, the number of mosques in the territory increased further and Sino-Islamic architecture was at its peak during this period.

Since the 1950s the number of Muslims in China has grown steadily, and it is impossible for us to know their exact number.[4] The mosques began adopting a new model of architecture, the Saudi-type mosque, a model that has now tended to become global.

I will focus here on the ancient traditional mosques of Northern China. These belong to the Hui ethnic group, one of the ten Muslim ethnic groups in the territory. Although they are less well-known than the Uighurs, they represent half of Chinese Muslims (about ten million people) and constitute the oldest Muslim ethnic group. The Hui are descendants of the first Muslims from the Middle East, but also of the first Chinese converts. Unlike the other Muslim ethnic groups they are distributed throughout Chinese territory. This distribution has enabled traditional mosques to develop in each province, adopting particular regional styles. The Hui-style mosque is characterized by a mixture of Chinese and Islamic traditions, unlike Uighur mosques whose characteristics are much more central Asian.

The traditional Hui-style mosque

Entrance to the Zhuxian village mosque, next to Kaifeng

The traditional Hui mosque is located in the heart of the Muslim city. It is a quiet, silent enclosed space in opposition to the tumult of restaurants and markets surrounding the site. Unlike Buddhist temples the mosque is always attached to a community living around the complex. In addition, buildings are named after the street where they are located or after the dignitary who commissioned the site. These principles come purely from the Islamic tradition.

The Hui mosque is most often defined by a set of buildings, not by a single one. It is a real complex around several courtyards and concentrating different functions. The Hui mosque is not only a place of worship, but also a space for gathering, trade, hosting and sometimes teaching.

“qingzhensi” inscription at the entrance to the mosque of Daxuexi street in Xi’an

From the outside, the traditional Chinese Hui-style mosque is almost impossible to distinguish from a Buddhist temple. It has a walled enclosure made from brick with some sculptures of plants, geometric patterns and Chinese calligraphy. Similarly, the decorative terracotta elements present on the roof of the wall, like figures of dragons or aquatic monsters, do not indicate the nature of the building. Only the inscription in Chinese “qingzhensi 清真寺” or “libaisi 礼拜寺”[5] above the front door informs us about the site’s use. Even inside the complex, at first glance it may be difficult to see the difference from a temple. Yet the Hui mosque has its own characteristics, a mixture of the Chinese and Islamic architectural traditions.

Plan and Layout

  • General plan

The Hui mosque has several peculiarities in its plan that are typical of traditional Chinese architecture. Indeed, its layout in a succession of courtyards is similar to that of Buddhist temples or Imperial palaces. This layout can vary from two courtyards (ex: Beiguangji street mosque in Xi’an) to five courtyards for the largest mosques (ex: Huajue alley mosque in Xi’an).

Layout of the Huajue alley mosque in Xi’an

The entrance is located in the first courtyard and a path is created to the hall of worship, the most important hall of the complex, in the last courtyard. A central axis separates the complex symmetrically. Two secondary axes parallel to the main path are used to manage the flow of visitors. This scheme is very representative of the Chinese architectural principles found in sacred places.

The layout of the mosques has a specificity linked to the Islamic tradition: its East-West orientation. Buddhist temples and palaces are most often oriented South-North, with some exceptions related to relief. The mosques are perfectly recognizable thanks to this particularity which  differentiates them from the other historical complexes of a city. This is one of the architectural obligations of the Islamic tradition: a mosque has to face Mecca. The role of the qibla wall in the prayer room is to give the direction of Mecca.

Layout of the Dongda mosque in Kaifeng

The courtyards of traditional Hui mosques in Northern China are developed on the model of the siheyuan (四合院), a courtyard with buildings on its four sides. This model is characteristic of Northern China. On the east and west sides of the courtyards are buildings reserved for the various functions of the mosque (exhibition halls, reception halls, library, etc.), while the doors separating each space are situated to the south and north. This succession of courtyards and gates prevents the visitor from perceiving the worship hall at first glance. The visitor is forced to cross the different courtyards and the different atmosphere that emerges from them. Even for the smallest mosques, it is very rare to see the prayer room from the entrance. A system of apertures and corridors is always set up in order to force the visitor to wander. The same principle applies to temples and palaces where main rooms are not directly visible and accessible.

Layout of the Daxuexi street mosque in Xi’an

This principle of closed space is equally valid in the Islamic tradition. The mosque is often surrounded by an enclosing wall to hide the prayer room and to separate it from the tumult of the neighbouring streets.

  • Buildings within the mosque

Buildings within the Hui mosque are themselves original creations obtained through the mixing of Chinese and Islamic traditions. Some are of typically Chinese inspiration, others have functions related purely to the religious practice of Islam and some are unique architectural works derived from the genius of Hui craftsmen.

 a) Chinese elements

These buildings are found in almost all the Chinese palaces and temples in Northern China but can’t be found in the mosques of other countries. Among these buildings, I count the wall screen or yingbi (影壁), the structures protecting the steles or beiting (碑亭) and the different doors separating the courtyards.

Wall-screen of the Xiaopiyuan mosque (Xi’an)

The wall-screen is intended to chase the spirits of Chinese tradition. This wall is not present in all the mosques because it references superstitions which do not exist in Islam. This is a reflection of the complexity of Hui culture: that of a Muslim ethnic group that keeps some traditional Chinese beliefs. The wall-screen can be isolated or integrated into the surrounding wall. In the latter case, it will be larger, thicker and more decorated in order to be distinguished. Most often, there is a screen wall at the east and west ends of the complex and two in the north and south of the courtyard where the prayer room is located.

Beiting of the Huajue alley mosque (Xi’an)

Structures protecting stelae, named beiting in Chinese, are present in the various religious complexes of Northern China. They usually take the form of a decorated brick pillar, or square planted pavilion. These buildings protect stelae linked to the history of the complex from inclement weather. These pavilions include calligraphy, inscriptions on Islam in China, and old maps of the site. Only the most remarkable stelae are displayed. The aim is to highlight the reputation of the mosque, especially if its stelae were engraved by famous figures.

Moon gate in the Xiaopiyuan mosque (Xi’an)

Chinese doors take different forms and are very important in the visual game of religious or palatial complexes. This importance is revealed by the fact that even doors are named in the Chinese tradition. Within the mosque, they constitute real rooms destined to be crossed, or openings in a brick wall. The famous gates of the moon or yueliangmen (月亮门), characteristic of Chinese architecture, are also present in many mosques. These doors are most often located on the east-west axis of the complex.

b) The Islamic elements

These buildings are linked to the practice of Islam and are specific to mosques. However, their architecture condenses the principles of the Chinese tradition whilst adapting it to these new types of building that did not previously exist in Chinese territory. The ablution room, the minaret, the prayer room and its platform belong to these worship buildings. It is also possible to find classrooms (madrasa), quarters of the Imam, or associations in charge of the maintenance and management of religious complexes.

Prayer hall of the Yingli mosque (Xi’an)

In all the mosques I was able to study, I noticed that the ablution rooms were all found in the newer buildings of the complex. The oldest dated from the 1950s. An ablution room requires a certain degree of logistics and a certain standard of hygiene. Old buildings cannot be adapted to these activities without the risk of being denaturized. Moreover, I have not discovered traces of possible ablution ritual, whether in these buildings or in the texts. This lack can be explained by a practice of ablution that was formerly simple, with the use of basins or fountains just before entering the prayer room. The need to create a space dedicated to this function is probably relatively recent in China. The ablution rooms are very discreet and have no specific place in the mosque. The only common point I could find between these buildings is their situation to the south of the complex, but the courtyard in which they are placed does not seem to matter.

The prayer room is preceded by an open platform. This space is called sahn in the Islamic tradition. It is quite common to find it in mosques because it serves as an extension of the prayer hall.[6] In the Chinese architectural tradition, we sometimes find this platform before a room. However, these are rare cases and their use was totally different from those of the mosques. We can find it in Confucian temples, in front of the Dacheng hall, and in places dedicated to education such as the Imperial College of Beijing. This platform was for students who had to listen to the teachings of the scholars and attend the readings. There were also ceremonies in tribute to Confucius.

Inside the Prayer Room of the Huajue alley mosque (Xi’an)

The prayer room is the most important building in the mosque. It is named libai dadian (禮拜大殿) in Chinese. In Northern China, there are several distinct parts of the hall. A small space comes before the room. It is delimited by the two first alignments of columns of the building. It is an open space separated from the sacred wooden wall panels where the believers take off their shoes before entering. The prayer room takes the shape of a hypostyle, entirely covered with carpets. Hypostyle is sometimes found in the Chinese architectural tradition[7] but is not systematic, whereas it is in the Hui mosques. This plan is typical of the Arabic layout for a mosque. The space where the mihrab and the qibla is delimited is in the prayer room. Constituting the most sacred element, it is partially hidden by wooden panels. Sometimes the mihrab has a roof of its own, at the west of the prayer hall.

Classroom in the Dongda mosque (Kaifeng)

Classrooms or madrasa (Koranic schools) are present within certain mosques. The teaching of the Qur’an and the Hadith to the young is essential in the Islamic tradition. In a country where Islam is a minority religion, these schools allow its perpetuation by the passing on of knowledge of the religion to younger generations. These classrooms can be situated in old buildings or newer ones. The rooms of the Imam or those of the associations are also either integrated into the original skeleton of the complex or in buildings constructed later and there is no particular restriction as to their place in the mosque or their architecture.

The minaret is not present in all mosques. It takes the form of a large tower surmounted by a Chinese-style pavilion. It has no precise place in the mosque. Its utility is now obsolete since today the call of the muezzin is launched from high speakers distributed throughout the complex. Minarets are buildings whose decoration receives attention and they make it easy to identify mosques from a distance. The minaret is one of the most emblematic elements of Islamic architecture, and yet it is absent from the oldest mosques.

Minaret of the Beida mosque (Ankang)

One of the minarets of the Datong mosque

 c) Mixed and unique buildings

By mixed elements I include here the buildings that are found in both traditions. These include libraries, exhibition halls and reception rooms. These buildings belong to the adjoining rooms of the complex and appear in the old buildings.

The ones I call “unique buildings” are specific to Chinese mosques. They are found only in the Sino-Islamic tradition. These buildings have an original architecture, testifying to the genius of the Hui craftsmen who developed it. These elements can appear within several mosques with a specific function or be characteristic of one mosque in particular.

Wangyuelou in the Huajue alley mosque (Xi’an), third courtyard of the complex

The wangyuelou (望月楼), literally “tower to watch the moon” is often mistakenly considered a minaret as it is made up of several floors. In the majority of mosques it is the highest building in the complex. However, at a time when Muslims were forced to assimilate, it would seem strange that the call for prayer was allowed in mosques located in the heart of the city. This discretion could be one reason for the absence of minarets in Ming mosques. The wangyuelou, as the name suggests, seems to be rather an observatory, which is why it needs several floors. An observatory within the mosque is absolutely necessary since the Muslim calendar follows the phases of the moon. To determine when religious festivals take place the observance of the moon is indispensable. The wangyuelou often takes the form of a pagoda of one or two floors, with a square, hexagonal or octagonal base. This building can also be used as a door, which is the case in the Datong mosque or the Beida mosque in Zhengzhou.

Wangyuelou in the Beida mosque (Zhengzhou)

Pavilion of the Phoenix in the Huajue alley mosque (Xi’an)

If the wangyuelou is a building found in several mosques, the design of some wangyuelou is specific to one particular complex. The most emblematic example is the Phoenix Pavilion in the fourth court of the Huajue alley mosque in Xi’an. This building, named because of its resemblance to a phoenix taking flight, is unique in its architecture. It is made up of three parts: a central hexagonal pavilion and two diamond-shaped wings on the side. Its central part is very common in Chinese tradition even if the very raised edges of its roof recall the architecture of Southern China more than that of the North. It is the association of this element with two lateral wings which make it a singular work. There is no trace of another pavilion of this kind in China, and still less in the Middle East. The structure of the central pavilion also contributes to the reputation of the building since it constitutes an exceptional architectural element. This one plays on the mixture of the two traditions, using Chinese construction techniques to recreate Islamic architectural elements.[8]

The central structure of the Pavilion of the Phoenix, forming a cupola

Construction Techniques and Materials

The construction techniques of Hui mosques are mainly Chinese. Chinese buildings have three parts: a foundation, a building block with a wooden frame, and a roof. In most Chinese constructions we can find the system of dougong: multiplication of interlacing consoles, a real network of pieces of wood connecting the pillars to the framework of the roof. This typically Chinese system represents an important element of continuity from the Tang dynasty[9]. Fengshui is also inseparable from Chinese architecture.

The materials used in the construction of a Hui mosque are wood, brick, ceramic, and stone. All these materials are present in both the Chinese and Islamic architectural traditions:

  • Wood is the dominant material in the construction of the Northern Hui mosques, as in Chinese houses and temples. Chinese constructions are made with a wooden frame. This material is found throughout the structure of the buildings (dougong, beams…), at the level of the columns supporting this framework and the wall panels. Wood has many advantages beyond its vulnerability to fire, rot and time. Thanks to its use, it is possible to repair the buildings at a lower cost by replacing only the parts damaged. Wooden architecture is adapted to all climates and has seismic resistance. However, the main advantage of wood framing is its high flexibility and its adaptability. It is possible to enlarge or modify a building without having to transform the original structure.
  • Brick is used in the construction of the side and rear walls of buildings, enclosure walls and some walls separating the different courtyards. The bricks constituting the mosques of the North are mainly grey, as is typical of this part of China.
  • Stone is mainly used for the foundations of the buildings and to mark the passage from the entrance to the platform preceding the prayer hall. It also used for certain porches and for the sculpted slabs in some mosques. This use of stone is essentially the same as for Chinese temples and palaces.
  • Ceramic is used for the tiles of mosques. The tiles, or the terracotta figurines appearing on the edges of the roofs, are varnished in blue or green for most buildings.


The Islamic tradition and the Chinese tradition share many of the same decorative principles. Calligraphy and the garden occupy a prominent place. Decorations with painted or carved vegetable and geometric patterns are also common in both cultures.

The only difference is in the prohibition of figurative representations (human beings or animals) within mosques. This absence is very emphasized because this type of image abounds in Chinese temples and palaces. In the mosques, there are no images of gods, emperors or emblematic characters dedicated to a specific place. Even the smallest human representations are forbidden. The Immortal on a Chicken, who normally takes his place among the terracotta figurines decorating the edges of roofs, is absent from the roofs of mosques. Nevertheless, we can sometimes find some hidden human figures on wooden panels or column bases. These oversights may be due to the use of re-employment from temples or from the ignorance of this prohibition by a Chinese and non-Muslim craftsman. However, animal or supernatural figures like dragons, aquatic monsters and traditional dunshou 蹲兽 (protective figurines placed one behind the other on the roofs of temples or palaces) are accepted within mosques.

Painted frame of a door in the Dongda mosque (Kaifeng)

Each building, door, and wall of the mosque is decorated. The more sacred the building is, the more ornamentation it has. The mihrab therefore tends to be the most decorated element of the mosque. Nevertheless there are exceptions where the mihrab is a simple niche without adornment. Blue and green are ubiquitous in Chinese mosques. These colours are found on roofs, painted beams, frescoes and ceiling caissons. These colours are the most important in the Islamic tradition. We also find red on the columns and on the framing of buildings. The red colour refers rather to Chinese architectural habits. White and yellow are also present in small keys.

Inscriptions in Arabic and Chinese engraved in the brick wall of the Xiaopiyuan mosque (Xi’an)

Calligraphy is a crucial decorative element within the mosque. In the inscriptions we most often find quotes from the Quran or hadiths (the Prophet’s sayings). These may be in Arabic or Chinese and often have a meaning appropriate to the place in which they are. These inscriptions are engraved, carved on brick or painted on panels of wood or on the beams of the buildings. Their ornamentation varies between simplicity and multiplicity of decoration. The beauty of the calligraphy, incorporating foliage and other convoluted motifs, is more important than the legibility of the inscription. Moreover, the calligraphy in Hui mosques sometimes mixes two scriptures, making the message undecipherable. These inscriptions can also be found in high places or in hard-to-reach places. The readability of the message is sometimes sacrificed in favour of its symbolism and the splendour of its calligraphy.

The use of geometric and vegetal decoration is recurrent in the decoration of Hui mosques. Sculpted in brick or painted on wood, these elements are ubiquitous in the complex. They are distributed on friezes and wall panels, on medallions, and on real scenes of natural landscapes. Chinese frameworks composed of dougong and the geometric engineering tradition of Islamic tradition allow the creation of unique architectural devices, such as the adaptation of Islamic muqarnas with Chinese construction techniques. The floral patterns of Hui mosques refer to the local vegetation in order to talk to the Hui Muslims.

Symmetrical garden in the first courtyard of the Huajue alley mosque (Xi’an)

Finally, the garden is an integral part of the decoration of a Chinese mosque. It is as important in the Chinese tradition as in the Islamic tradition. In one, it respects the rules of fengshui, in the other it alludes to the image of paradise. The garden of Chinese mosques can be simplified to a few trees and plants in small flower-beds or ceramic vases. It may also take the form of luxuriant yet ordered vegetation. Very often, the garden of the Hui mosque is symmetrical with respect to the central axis of the complex. All trees, shrubs, and other plants are duplicated on each side. The varieties of vegetation are very different but flowers which give a real aesthetic, olfactory interest and are capable of giving a different ambiance to the complex each season are preferred. Trees high enough to hide the inside of the site while providing shade and protection against the weather are desirable. In the North, the weather can sometimes be extreme. The garden creates genuine picturesque scenes in each courtyard of the mosques, stimulating the five senses of the visitor. The garden of the Hui mosque is a real decoration in several dimensions.

Candice Del Medico conducted her research in China with the support of the EFEO Field Scholarship.

Credit for all Photographs: Candice Del Medico.


[1] Jonathan Lipman, Familiar Strangers, USA, University of Washington Press, 1997, p. 29.

[2] Mainly for reasons of ease in trade.

[3] In particular, Marshall Broomhall demonstrated some anachronisms present on the stele of the year 732 of the Great Mosque of Xi’an in his book Islam in China: A Neglected Problem (London, Morgan & Scott, 1910).

[4] Since the 1920s the number of 20 million Chinese Muslims has been regularly mentioned. However, it is difficult to imagine no change in that number in one hundred years.

[5] qingzhensi (清真寺) literally “temple of pure and true”, libaisi (礼拜寺) literally “temple of worship”.

[6] The sahn makes it possible to welcome a greater number of people, especially during the great religious ceremonies such as Eid el-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan.

[7] Changling Tomb where the Emperor Ming Yongle is buried, near Beijing, has an immense hypostyle hall.

[8] With the development of the consoles up to the top of the building, we can see a kind of dome with muqarnas, a typically Islamic architectural element.

[9] The Tang Dynasty lasted from 618 to 907. It was replaced by the Song dynasty which would greatly improve the Chinese art of building with the drafting of an architectural treatise in 1103 by the architect Li Jie, the Yingzao Fashi (營造法式).

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