John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore and the author of Unequal Conflict: Israel and the Palestinians, available from the AET Book Club.
Some of the oldest cities in China once stood in Shaanxi Province. Here, deep in the country's interior, was where Qin Shih Huang, who first united China in 221 BCE, built his capital, and where the Han and Sui Dynasties built theirs. These ancient capitals have either vanished or been swallowed up in the rapidly expanding city of Xi'an, one of the most prosperous cities in China's interior today. Most of its modern success has been built upon manufacturing, which, together with the use of coal for heating and the soaring level of car ownership, has done nothing for local air quality. Yet at Xi'an's heart, much of the old city still stands, its buildings surviving from a time when Beijing was a minor trading town and Shanghai a mere village.
Under the Tang Dynasty, which ruled from 618-907, Xi'an grew to be a city of over a million people. Its prosperity was partly based upon its status as the starting point of the Silk Road. This trade route divided in central Asia, with a northerly branch reaching southern Russia and the ports of the Black Sea, and a southern one passing through Iran to the great markets and trading centers of the Middle East. The Silk Road already had been used for hundreds of years when the early Tang emperors sent out armies to extend their control along it, conquering the Turkic peoples who lived in the surrounding regions. In 751, a Chinese force met the army of another expanding power at the battle of the Talas River. The victorious Arabs did not advance further, however, and this conflict proved to be a brief interlude in a longer history of friendly relations. To the benefit of both sides, trade was hardly--if at all--disrupted.
Most of the people who physically transported goods between Xi'an and the Iranian borderlands were from the Turkic communities who had traditionally handled the trade. They formed a favorable impression of the religion brought by the Arabs. Gradually, they embraced Islam and, together with Arab traders, carried it into northern China.
During the Tang Dynasty, China was very prosperous and culturally self-confident. At no other point was it more receptive to foreign influences. It was also tolerant, by and large, of the religious customs of other peoples. The travelers from Central Asia seem to have particularly interested the Chinese. Among the surviving masterworks of Tang Dynasty pottery are numerous models of the Bactrian camels that were their beasts of burden, and some of the traders themselves, with their beards and their boots that curled up at their toes.
Modern legend has it that the ancestors of the present-day Muslim community of Xi'an were Arab soldiers who settled down there. It seems far more probable, however, that it was the traders who came from Central Asia and the Middle East who first introduced Islam to the city and converted some local people.
Within Xi'an, a Muslim quarter grew up, which today is home to some 30,000 Muslims, known as Huis. Many of its streets are narrow and inaccessible to cars--or, at least, large vehicles--so that they are more pedestrian-friendly than those of the city outside. Food stalls seem to do a lively trade throughout the day, whatever the state of other businesses. Arabic inscriptions above the doorways of many restaurants confirm their Muslim ownership. Inside, winter visitors can warm themselves with plates of steaming meat stew and cups of fragrant tea.
Tradition has it that the first mosque in Xi'an was established even before the clash at the Talas River, in 742 CE. That building grew to become the Great Mosque that still stands in the heart of the Muslim quarter. Locals claim that it is the biggest and most famous mosque in China. Today, the visitor approaches it through narrow lanes lined with shops that spill out onto the …