Islam and the Middle East in the Far East; at the Start of the Silk Road Lies Xi'an's Great Mosque
Gee, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
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 thoroughfares. Most target tourists with their handicrafts and leftover souvenirs of China's Cultural Revolution such as Mao badges and the Quotations. The Great Mosque itself is hidden from view behind a tall wall until one reaches its single gateway.
At first sight, the buildings inside seem completely traditional Chinese in character, like those found in temples, but the differences soon become apparent. While there are representations of natural forms in the decoration of some buildings, there are none of human figures. What appears to be a pagoda turns out to be the minaret, in which is mounted a loudspeaker for calling Muslims to prayer. A sign indicates where worshippers may go to wash before they pray. Inside the Imperial Hall, in the third courtyard of the mosque, is a stone known as the "Moon Tablet." It was inscribed in Arabic by an imam who wanted to record, among other things, how the beginning and end of Ramadan was to be determined.
In a courtyard at the center of the enclosed area stands the "One God Pavilion." It is hexagonal and its tiled roof has upturned eaves. Upon the side nearest the entrance hangs a Chinese calligraphic inscription written by a high official of the Ming Dynasty which simply proclaims "One God." Many other inscriptions around the mosque were executed by respected calligraphers, and reflect in part the respect in which Chinese emperors of the past held their Muslim citizens, who were viewed as hardworking and loyal. Indeed, the extensive repairs to the mosque undertaken during the Ming and Qing dynasties were performed by imperial orders.
At the eastern end of the mosque precincts is a broad elevated courtyard, beyond which lies a hall reserved for Muslim prayer. It is roofed with turquoise tiles and upon its walls are 600 wooden boards carved with all the verses of the Qur'an.
The whole of the mosque area seems like a place of peace and calm after the hubbub of the city outside.
A television campaign intended to court sympathy for the U.S. in Muslim countries was dropped after meeting an unfavorable response. Part of a broader campaign called "Shared Values," the ads featured five American Muslims and sought to convey a positive image of America as a place where Muslims enjoy equality and respect. As reported in an earlier issue (see January/February 2003 Washington Report, p. 32), Malaysia and Indonesia were among the first countries where the advertisements were aired. The response of many viewers there was to question why Washington was engaging in a public relations effort which did nothing to answer the most fundamental concerns that most Muslims elsewhere in the world have about U.S. policies--particularly its support for Israel.
Negative reactions increased as the advertisements were broadcast in Pakistan and the Middle East, and the campaign was terminated in December 2002 while the State Department considered approaches that might be more fruitful. Of the original $15 million budgeted for the PR effort, about $5 million was spent on buying media time for the Shared Values ads. The campaign had been developed by Charlotte Beers, who after working on Madison Avenue became the State Department's under-secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.
Israeli, Chinese Arms Links Still Blocked?
With the Phalcon affair behind them, Israel and China both hoped last spring to open a new era of trade in military goods. The Phalcon deal had been scuttled by U.S. opposition to Israel's sale to China of a warning system that Washington believed could be of value to Beijing in a conflict with Taiwan.
In May, a few weeks after a delegation of Chinese army officers visited Israel, an Israeli military delegation went to China for five days. The delegates, including Israel's chief scientist for its army's technology planning division, examined possible avenues of future cooperation, according to a June 3 Ha'aretz report ("Israel, China resuming defense ties") by Amnon Barzilai.
Once again, the U.S. has stepped in to disrupt ties. In December 2002, it informed Israel that it wanted to stop arms and advanced military technology from being supplied to China until Washington formulates a new policy guiding its strategic relationship with Beijing. Sobered by the bruising experience of its long-drawn-out fight with the Clinton administration over the Phalcon, Israel decided to comply immediately with the U.S. request.
Washington had expressed fears that advanced military technology that had been made available to Israel as a result of its close ties with the U.S. might be passed on to China. Indeed, this has been a recurrent concern. While the main worry cited by the U.S. has been the Taiwan consideration, American arms manufacturers also have been concerned that they might lose sales opportunities to Israel. They find it galling that Israel might sell products to China partly on the strength of U.S. inputs when U.S. manufacturers are barred from competing for business in China by their own government.
The Bush administration's position on Israeli military ties with China currently is more restrictive than those in place under the Clinton and first Bush presidencies, when the arms trade between the two states flourished. It could work in favor of U.S. firms if a new policy identifies a range of arms and military equipment which U.S. companies will be permitted to supply--as, implicitly, will the Israelis.
Beijing reacted to the news of the halt in Israeli military exports by issuing a Foreign Ministry statement saying: "It is China's consistent position that the development of normal military trade cooperation with Israel is a matter between the two countries." Without naming the U.S., the statement added that "other countries" had no right to interfere in this.
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Photograph (Xi'an's Great Mosque)…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Islam and the Middle East in the Far East; at the Start of the Silk Road Lies Xi'an's Great Mosque. Contributors: Gee, John - Author. Magazine title: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Volume: 22. Issue: 3 Publication date: April 2003. Page number: 45. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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