Xi’an is a great stop for backpackers touring China and the Terracotta Warriors are rightly a huge draw. The scale of the armies is astonishing. There’s no doubt China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, was truly one of the world’s first megalomaniacs.
But the city’s history did not stop with Emperor Qin Shi Huang and his buried army. The city, known as Chang’an for most of its history, was the capital of China through most of the 1st millennium CE. This included the cultural peak of the Tang Dynasty – arguably the most important intellectual era in China’s long history.
Throughout the Tang period the flow of ideas and goods hit unprecedented levels, and new religions arrived. Buddhism flourished, with scholars bringing important texts from India and establishing hundreds of monasteries in the city. Persian rulers and traders brought Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. And Syrians brought a version of Christianity in the 7th century CE.
Islam made its way across the Silk Road through traders and merchants and was also prominent in this mix of new religions. Many of those Muslim traders settled in Xi’an, or Chang’an, enticed by the city’s prosperity. Muslim sea traders brought isolated pockets of Islam to China’s coastal areas around the same time. But most of those did not last. It was the group trading on the Silk Road that formed the basis of China’s Hui Muslim community – the very same you see today in Xi’an’s Muslim quarter.
Walking through the Muslim Quarter, you will see the descendants of a migration from West to East that happened more than a thousand years ago. For this reason, Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter is a standout place of interest for any backpacker on a China tour.
There is no greater testament to this history than Xi’an’s Great Mosque, founded in 742. The structure you see today was built in the 13th century during the Ming Dynasty. It is a unique amalgamation of Chinese and Islamic styles. There is a traditional Chinese pavilion where there would normally be a minaret, and the curved roofs and upturned eaves of the buildings are hallmarks of classic Chinese architecture. But the details are Islamic. There are stunning gold Arabic inscriptions on pillars and a fantastic example of Arabic calligraphy on stone plaques.
As you’ll see in Xi’an, Hui Muslim culture extends into their food, dress, and names. Hui Muslims don’t use pork in their cuisine and their butchers follow halal protocols. And many of the best hand-pulled noodle (lamian) shops in China are usually run by Hui Muslims. Women often wear headscarves and men wear skullcaps. And Hui names are often Chinese approximations, in terms of pronunciation, of Arabic names taken from the Quran.
The food in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter is a big draw for backpackers on a China tour. Keep an eye out for fresh Rou Jia Mo, steamed buns stuffed with minced lamb or beef, and Yang Rou Pao Mo, flat bread crumbled into lamb soup that goes all warm and soggy (much better than it sounds). Xi’an is also famous for its sweets, including persimmon fruit pies.
The term Hui used to be synonymous with Muslim in China. But it became important to distinguish Hui Muslims from Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, whose Turkic language and Central Asian culture is distinct.
Hui Muslims are the distant descendants of Muslims from the Middle East and Central Asia. But they are assimilated into mainstream Chinese culture. Whereas some Uighurs do not feel at ease being part of China, this is not the case for the ten million Hui Muslims.
Even the types of Islam that are practised by Hui Muslims have found a way of adapting to local sensibilities and customs. This mix of distinctiveness and assimilation has enabled Hui Muslims to survive suppressive episodes throughout history.
The soldier statues buried in the ground for nearly two thousand years are impressive. But the real people in the Muslim Quarter who trace their culture and history back to the height of the Silk Road are even more so.