This article is the third in a series on the history and culture of Quanzhou.
The southeastern city of Quanzhou, which covers an area of 10,000 square kilometers and is home to some eight million people, is not a big city by Chinese standards. Yet in terms of historical and cultural significance, it dwarfs the importance of better-known metropolises like Shanghai or Shenzhen.
Much of this significance — and a key reason why the city was recently added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage sites — is tied to Quanzhou’s past as a religious melting pot. A thousand years ago, the city was a key port on the eastern edge of the Maritime Silk Road. Traders from all over the world passed through its harbor, leaving behind temples, statues, and religious architecture devoted to no fewer than nine different religions. These include the region’s local Mazu cult; China’s indigenous “religions” of Confucianism and Taoism; and imported faiths like Buddhism, Islam, Manichaeism, Hinduism, and Nestorian Christianity.
In the run-up to UNESCO’s announcement, much was made of Quanzhou’s supposedly unique religious diversity. And to an extent, these claims were true: There are few examples in Chinese history of so many belief systems coexisting within such a small area. Yet, contrary to what the city’s backers have sometimes argued, this coexistence is not the product of some unique tolerance inherent to Quanzhou or its environs. Rather, the city acquired its diversity the way so many other cities have: through a combination of political marginalization and commercial exchange.
Let’s start with geography. There is an old Chinese saying: “Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away.” Although not coined with Quanzhou in mind, few places have embodied this truism over the years better than the surrounding province of Fujian. Located along China’s southeast coast, far from the inland capitals of most dynasties and surrounded by mountains, for centuries, imperial authority was only loosely enforced in the region.
That liminal status proved a boon to followers of imported faiths. Already, in AD 626 — six years before the death of Muhammad — four converts to Islam arrived in China; two of their tombs can still be found in Quanzhou today. Over the ensuing centuries, traders from the Islamic world made frequent calls in Quanzhou’s port, building mosques in the Arabic style and using materials like granite rarely found in Chinese architecture.
An exterior view of Qingjing Mosque in Quanzhou, Fujian province, July 28, 2021. Chen Xiaorong/People Visual
In the ninth century, the Wuzong Emperor ordered a purge of foreign religions. The decision was mainly targeted at Buddhism, but it encompassed all faiths not deemed native to China. The damage done across China was extensive, yet the mosques of Quanzhou emerged from this tumultuous period unscathed.
An even more important factor in Quanzhou’s transformation into a religious melting pot, however, was its emergence as a hub of maritime commerce and trade around the turn of the last millennium.
Although traders had visited Quanzhou for centuries, the port reached its peak beginning in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). After the previous Song capital of Kaifeng fell to Jurchen invaders from the north in 1127, the imperial court fled south to the city of Hangzhou near the Yangtze River delta. With the Song cut off from the traditional Silk Road routes that passed through northwestern China, the seas took on increased importance both diplomatically and commercially. The year after the court’s southward flight, the Song government allocated 300,000 guan — strings of 1,000 coins — to boost ports along the coast.
Within five years, Quanzhou had overtaken the southern city of Guangzhou to become China’s largest port. After the collapse of the Song in the late 13th century and the founding of the Yuan Dynasty, the country’s new rulers began issuing maritime passports to Quanzhou residents as a way of encouraging them to travel on business to the Arabian Peninsula or the Indian subcontinent. In “The Scenery of Luo River,” the Yuan poet Lin Heng commented that in Quanzhou, one could find sweet viburnum from the Lion Kingdom (Sri Lanka), jade hairpins from Annan (Vietnam), feathered overcoats from Chenla (Cambodia), blue wheat and purple rice from Siam (Thailand), camphor from Borneo (Indonesia), purple sandalwood from India, shark skin from the Indochinese kingdom of Champa, and rhinoceros horns from Ethiopia.
Stone carvings at Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province, Oct. 15, 2019. The upper left shows Shiva, while the upper right shows one of Vishnu’s avatars, “Narasimha.” Lin Liangbiao/People Visual
Thanks to this trade, Quanzhou began attracting a diverse mix of migrants and visitors from across Eurasia. Pu Shouxuan (1205-1290), the head of Quanzhou’s maritime trade and defense for 30 years, was a man of Arab Muslim descent whose family owned 80 large ships engaged in trade in the Indian Ocean. In 1281, merchants from the Indian subcontinent built the magnificent Pan Buddha Temple in the city, traces of which survive today. And 50 years later, in 1326, a Franciscan bishop stationed in the city, Andrew of Perugia, could write to his superiors that, “In this vast empire there are people of every nation under heaven, and every sect, and all and sundry are allowed to live freely according to their creed. For they hold this opinion, or rather this erroneous view, that everyone can find salvation in their own religion.”
Over the ensuing centuries, Quanzhou’s importance to China’s economy would fade, and some of its religious temples fell into disuse. Other faiths, such as Manicheanism, were Sinicized beyond recognition. If there is a lesson we can take from Quanzhou’s history, it’s this: Cooperation, coexistence, and harmony are predicated on exchange and dialogue. The more open we are, the more the world will come to us.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
Correction: An earlier caption incorrectly identified the Hindu god depicted in the upper left-hand corner. It is Shiva, not Vishnu.
(Header image: An ancient Hindu religious icon of one of Vishnu's avatars. The carving is currently a part of Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province, Oct. 15, 2019. Lin Liangbiao/People Visual)