The Rich Islamic History of China’s Coastal Trading Hub
Eastern China’s Fujian province is best described by a local expression: “Wherever we go, spirits linger just above our heads.” Here, Buddhism, Taoism, and a number of folk beliefs form an inextricable part of the local culture. Fujian’s coastal location also allowed Islam to take root here as early as the 7th century, brought by the seafaring merchants of southern Asia and the Middle East.
Islam played a crucial role in Fujian’s history, but today, the province’s Muslims are few and far between. According to official statistics, Fujian is home to only around 110,000 of China’s 10.5 million Hui people, one of China’s main Muslim minorities. As a Hui myself, albeit from the northeast, I felt an irresistible impulse to delve into the history of Muslims in Fujian. My first stop was Fuzhou, the provincial capital.
The Fuzhou Mosque is a powerful reminder of Islam’s former influence on the city. It is located in front of a Confucian temple in a prosperous district, just a block away from a popular pedestrian shopping street.
When it was first built during the Five Dynasties period (907-960), this structure actually served as a Buddhist temple. Over the following centuries, it gradually fell into disuse, and was finally converted into a mosque during the Yuan Dynasty, in the 13th and 14th centuries. Records show that the first people to use it were most likely the Ispah Army, a Fujian-based organization of Shiite Muslims who acted as a local peacekeeping militia to ensure the safe passage of Persian trade caravans into Fujian.
The Yuan emperor was of Mongol stock, and between 1357 and 1359, Fuzhou’s Han population rebelled against their foreign overlords. Led by two high-ranking Muslim officials, the Ispah Army traveled up the coast from Quanzhou to suppress the rebellion.
After the original Fuzhou Mosque was destroyed by fire in 1541, Ge Wenming, the descendant of a diplomatic envoy from the Kingdom of Calicut in southwest India, collected donations to restore the building. According to the “History of Ming,” an official historical text commissioned by the court of Qing Dynasty in the 17th century, Muslims made up half of the population of Calicut — now the city of Kozhikode in Kerala state — and cross-border trade with the empire was common along a number of well-traveled sea routes. Some even claim that Zheng He, a Ming-era admiral whose fleet sailed as far as the coast of East Africa, died in Calicut.
The Fuzhou Mosque continued to be used throughout the Qing Dynasty, but collapsed in 1955, six years after the Communist Party took power. Afterward, the mosque was restored again, but on a smaller scale. Although many of the mosque’s spectacular woodcuts, stone tablets, and wooden inscriptions were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, some have since been restored. With its white walls and black roof tiles, the mosque’s current appearance has a minimalistic elegance that is typical of historic landmarks in southern China. Unfortunately, the grandeur of the mosque is eclipsed by a gigantic, kitschy Arabian-style tower, which looks completely out of place.
In the mosque’s courtyard are many Chinese stone inscriptions that date from the mid-16th century. The tablets list the names and titles of those who sponsored the mosque during the Ming, and reveal an interesting fact: While mosques in other regions of China have almost always been funded by so-called commoners — for example, wealthy merchants or particularly pious peasants — the restoration of Fuzhou Mosque was funded by Chinese naval officers.
During the Yuan and Ming dynasties, Fuzhou was home to a community of Muslim military officers who had been dispatched there to serve the imperial state. Together, they were part of a caste called the semu, an all-encompassing term that the Mongols gave to subjects of central Asian heritage.
At the end of the Yuan and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, there were intense conflicts among ethnoreligious groups in many parts of China, with Han people attacking Mongols and semu people. Against such a chaotic backdrop, Fuzhou was a rare example of peace and tolerance, perhaps because of its history of religious diversity. When, during the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongol administrator of Fuzhou killed himself and his entire family instead of admitting defeat, the city’s Han population didn’t celebrate his death. Instead, they praised the strength of his convictions and built a temple in honor of his daughter.
After the Qing government forbade overseas trade, Fuzhou’s Muslim population began to dwindle, and the only people who still paid any attention to the daily upkeep of the mosque were Muslim officials whose duties led them to Fuzhou, rather than the locals. By 1912, the first year of the Kuomintang’s rule following the abdication of the last Qing emperor, there were hardly any Muslims left in the city; most had assimilated into local Han culture, abandoning their beliefs in the process.
The far-reaching consequences of history and culture are etched into the personal stories of certain Fujianese Muslims. Sa Zhenbing, a Muslim naval officer who fought for the soundly defeated Qing navy during the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, was the direct descendent of Sa Labuha, a favored semu official of the Yuan emperor Kublai Khan.
Sa Zhenbing’s father was the head of a once-great family that had fallen into decline. Nonetheless, his son won a place at the Fuzhou Naval Academy before becoming an officer in the Beiyang Fleet, one of the Qing navy’s most technologically advanced divisions. Although he was of Muslim descent, Sa Zhenbing practiced Buddhism. In later life, he founded the Fujian Buddhist Hospital — now known as the Fuzhou Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital — which provided free healthcare to poor people and Buddhist monks. Among the people of Fuzhou, he is remembered more for his philanthropy than his military exploits.
Sa Zhenbing died in 1952 at the age of 94. The Sa clan’s official residence has since been converted into a tourist destination, while Sa Zhenbing’s second home is located on a secluded hillside district called Yeshan, overlooking the city. Today, it stands dilapidated, and the stairway to the second floor has been blocked with a sign reading: “Danger: Do Not Approach.”
One story about Sa Zhenbing shows the extent to which the city’s rich Islamic history has faded from view. In 1950, when the Chinese army occupied Hanseong — now Seoul — during the Korean War, the nonagenarian Sa Zhenbing penned a poem expressing his joy at China’s victory over American troops. “No matter how shallow the water, the dragon forges forward,” he wrote. “In the end, there comes a day to raise its head and breathe again.”
How starkly that victory must have contrasted with the crushing defeat, and personal disgrace, that Sa Zhenbing and his comrades must have felt during the dying days of the 19th century. Yet on a deeper level, Sa Zhenbing’s words reveal a phenomenon common to many foreign cultures in China: In the course of assimilation, people would eventually put the interests of their adopted homeland above ethnic or religious beliefs. This was reflected in the life of Fuzhou’s last great sailor of Muslim descent: he hailed from a family of semu, practiced Buddhism all his life, and in the end, became an avowed nationalist.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: An external view of the Qingjing Mosque in Quanzhou, Fujian province, Nov. 7, 2006. Zhao Bing/VCG)