China destroys only major Arabic-style mosque domes

The last major mosque in China to retain Arabic-style features has undergone significant alterations, marking the culmination of a government campaign to “sinicise” the country’s Muslim places of worship. The Grand Mosque of Shadian, one of China’s largest and most impressive mosques, now stands transformed in the small town of Shadian in southwestern Yunnan province.

Previously, the 21,000-square-meter complex boasted a prominent green dome with a crescent moon, flanked by four smaller domes and towering minarets. However, recent photographs, satellite imagery, and eyewitness accounts reveal that these elements have been removed. The dome has been replaced with a Han Chinese-style pagoda rooftop, and the minarets have been shortened and converted into pagoda towers. The once visible crescent moon and star tiles on the entrance pavilion are now barely discernible.

Another significant mosque in Yunnan, Najiaying, located less than 100 miles from Shadian, has also seen its Islamic features removed during renovations. This transformation is part of a broader campaign initiated by the Chinese government in 2018, which published a five-year plan to “sinicise” Islam, aiming to replace “foreign architectural styles” with “Islamic architecture full of Chinese characteristics.” A leaked Communist Party memo revealed directives to “demolish more and build less.”

Ruslan Yusupov, an anthropologist at Cornell University who conducted fieldwork in Shadian, noted that the sinification of these two landmark mosques signifies the success of the campaign. He explained that even if some small mosques with Arab styles remain in villages, it will be difficult for local communities to resist their sinicisation.

Historian Hannah Theaker from the University of Plymouth highlighted that the mosque sinicisation campaign has progressed “province by province,” with Yunnan being one of the last regions to undergo these changes. By 2023, there was an expectation that architectural sinicisation would eventually reach Yunnan’s notable mosques, the last major ones in China to remain unsinicised.

Ma Ju, a Chinese Hui activist based in New York, criticized the renovations as a clear attempt to eradicate both religion and ethnicity. The Grand Mosque of Shadian, originally built during the Ming dynasty, was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in an event known as the Shadian incident, where over 1,000 Hui Muslims were killed by the People’s Liberation Army. The mosque was later rebuilt and expanded with government support, modeled after the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

The Hui are a Chinese Muslim ethnic minority predominantly living in western China, with a population of over 11 million, comparable to the Uyghurs. Yusupov remarked that the modifications to Shadian and Najiaying mosques symbolize the post-Cultural Revolution efforts of Muslims to reclaim religious and Islamic spaces, which are now being impaired under Xi Jinping’s regime.

A Hui Muslim opposing the mosque redevelopment lamented the loss, stating that the Shadian mosque holds significant importance for all Muslims, not just those in Shadian. He emphasized the desire to preserve dignity amidst widespread mosque remodeling across the country.

The Grand Mosque’s modifications include the addition of Chinese characters beneath the gold-plated Arabic script, reading “The imperial palace of supreme truth,” a term associated with Taoism and Chinese Islam but not previously linked to the Shadian mosque. Ian Johnson, author of *The Souls of China*, viewed the reconstruction and renaming as an effort to erase local beliefs and cultural heritage, especially given the mosque’s tragic history of destruction due to Han chauvinism.

In 2014, the Chinese government launched a “strike hard” campaign against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, involving oppressive surveillance and harsh punishments for Islamic expressions. This led to the detention of around a million Uyghurs and other minorities, which the UN suggested could constitute crimes against humanity. The Chinese government justified these policies as necessary to combat extremism and separatism.

The 2018 sinification campaign also targeted Islamic architecture. According to a Financial Times analysis, three-quarters of more than 2,300 mosques in China have been modified or destroyed since then. Hui communities, traditionally allowed more freedom in practicing their faith than Uyghurs, have also faced clashes over mosque modifications. Last year, police clashed with protesters at the Najiaying mosque over planned renovations, which were eventually enforced despite opposition.

Shadian residents did not protest the mosque’s closure for sinification, having observed the government’s strong control during the Najiaying incident. A former Shadian mosque employee, now living abroad, noted the community’s discontent with the forced changes. The Grand Mosque reopened in April, just in time for Eid, with several surveillance cameras installed, despite previous resistance to such measures.

China’s mosque sinicisation campaign, now largely completed, is part of broader efforts to align religious practices with government ideology. In February, Beijing tightened regulations on religious expression to ensure adherence to sinicisation, with several local authorities banning minors from attending mosques or fasting.

Historian Hannah Theaker emphasized that the sinicisation of Islam was never just about mosque appearances but about broader religious and cultural conformity to government standards.

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