Sinicization of language and culture (architecture in particular)

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Before and after the recently completed sinicization of the Grand Mosque of Shadian, Yunnan, in southwest China:

Domes gone (more about them below).  Minarets transformed into pagodas that are not suitable for calling the faithful to prayer five times a day.

These photographs are from:

"Last major Arabic-style mosque in China loses its domes",

Exclusive: Experts say changes to Grand Mosque of Shadian mark completion of five-year sinification campaign

by Amy Hawkins and Elena Morresi, The Guardian (5/25/24)

Readers of Language Log are certainly aware of the strictures against Islamic language and religious practices that have been imposed by the CCP throughout the PRC (e.g., against the Uyghur language and people in Xinjiang), but perhaps were unaware of how staunchly opposed to Islamic architecture the CCP/PRC government has been.  The case of  the Grand Mosque of Shadian, Yunnan is a good example of why the authorities are so intent upon removing the overt symbols of Islam as a foreign-derived religion.

Excerpts from the article of Hawkins and Morresi:

The last major mosque in China to have retained Arabic-style features has lost its domes and had its minarets radically modified, marking what experts say is the completion of a government campaign to sinicise the country’s Muslim places of worship.

The Grand Mosque of Shadian, one of China’s biggest and grandest mosques, towers over the small town from which it takes its name in south-western Yunnan province.

Until at last year, the 21,000 square metre complex featured a large building topped with a tiled green dome, adorned with a crescent moon, flanked by four smaller domes and soaring minarets. Satellite imagery from 2022 shows the entrance pavilion decorated with a large crescent moon and star made from vivid black tiles.

Photographs, satellite imagery and witness accounts from this year show that the dome has been removed and replaced with a Han Chinese-style pagoda rooftop, and the minarets have been shortened and converted into pagoda towers. Only a faint trace of the crescent moon and star tiles that once marked the mosque’s front terrace is visible.

Yunnan’s other landmark mosque, Najiaying, less than 100 miles from Shadian, also recently had its Islamic features removed in a renovation.

What is the CCP/PRC rationale for tearing down these magnificent examples of Islamic architecture in China?

In 2018 the Chinese government published a five-year plan on the “sinification of Islam”. Part of the plan was to resist “foreign architectural styles” and to promote “Islamic architecture … that is full of Chinese characteristics”. A leaked Chinese Communist party memo shows that local authorities were instructed to “adhere to the principle of demolishing more and building less”.

They have done the same thing to Christian architecture, tearing down dozens of impressive cathedrals, except for a few in big cities that are well known as historical monuments to international tourists (dollars!).  Many beautiful churches in small villages have been dismantled to the ground.  Symbols of foreign religions are especially vulnerable, inasmuch as they are relatively small yet particularly powerful:  crosses and the crescent moon, especially when combined with the star of Islam.  The latter combination is conspicuously offensive to superpatriots when juxtaposed to the Chinese communist flag symbol of one large star surrounded on one side by four smaller stars.  The large, central star is usually held to represent the CCP, the four small stars the people, sometimes defined according to their social classes.  A more detailed explanation may be found in Britannica:

The red of the Chinese flag has two historical bases. It expresses the revolutionary communist philosophy that has dominated China since 1949, when the forces of Mao Zedong won the Chinese civil war and expelled the Nationalists and their flag from the mainland. However, red is also the traditional ethnic colour of the Han, who form the overwhelming majority in the country. Under the Ch’ing (Manchu) dynasty, which ruled from 1644 until 1911/12, most of the flags of China were yellow, the Manchu ethnic colour. Blue became associated with the Mongols, white with the Tibetans, and black with the Hui—the other major Chinese ethnic groups. In the first republic, established in 1912, these five colours formed horizontal stripes in the national flag. Indeed, five has long been a significant number in Chinese symbolism; it corresponds to the four cardinal points plus the centre (i.e., China itself), as well as the traditional Five Classics, Five Elements, Five Rulers, and Five Virtues.

In the flag of the People’s Republic of China, first officially hoisted on October 1, 1949, the symbolism of five was reflected in the stars appearing in yellow in the upper hoist canton. The large star was said to stand for the Chinese Communist Party and its leading role in guiding the nation. The smaller stars, one point of each of which aims at the centre of the large star, were associated with the four social classes united in the coalition supporting the party—the proletariat, the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and the “patriotic capitalists.” Later, reinterpretations of the party structure led to a revised symbolism: the large star was said to stand for China, the smaller stars for the country’s many national minorities.

Here we get into language issues, since most of those "national minorities" speak non-Sinitic/Hannic languages, which the communist government is trying its best to eliminate.

Returning more directly to architecture, the Chinese authorities went to considerable trouble and expense to remove the domes and replace them with Chinese style hip-and-gable roofs (xiēshān 歇山 ["resting hill"]).  Could it really be that they thought the latter were so much more innately and esthetically superior to all other styles of architecture that they couldn't bear the presence of domed architecture in their land — until the 20th and 21st centuries when the wildest assortment of Western architectural styles at great cost?

I wonder if one of the problems is that pre-modern Chinese architects were not capable of making domes:

There is no evidence of the dome in Chinese architecture, unnecessary in any case with wooden structures, although stone and brick tombs of various periods do have arched doorways and vaulted or corbelled roofs.

"Ancient Chinese Architecture", World History Encyclopedia

For whatever reason, the Chinese authorities really cannot tolerate Islamic domes in their country, nor do they want

For those who are curious about what's written on the construction wall in the second photograph, these are the 24 Chinese characters that constitute the twelve disyllabic words that make up the official "Core Socialist Values" of the PRC government:

National values
Social values
Individual values


Selected readings

[Thanks to Philip Taylor, AntC, and John Rohsenow]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2024 @ 11:08 pm

    In The Guardian article, there is text and video showing that the people struggled to defend their mosque, but were met with force. That happened not just at Shadian, but again and again across the PRC wherever the government embarked on a campaign of destruction of non-Han language, architecture, and cultural symbols.

  2. AntC said,

    May 29, 2024 @ 12:05 am

    Thank you Prof Mair.

    I'm amazed, considering the restrictions on foreign journalism within Xinjiang/western China, that the Guardian obtained so much specific information; including even "A video from inside the prayer hall …"

    … [which] shows that several surveillance cameras have been installed. In 2020 the mosque management committee refused a request from the authorities to install surveillance cameras, said the former mosque employee.

    It seems Islamic attitudes to photography/iconography of worshippers and worshipped varies quite widely. My memories of travelling in the Middle East are strictly no photography within Islamic sanctified grounds. And indeed in Taiwan the usually selfie-mad Chinese frown on photography within a temple.

    Not of course that CCP would let mere religious sensibilities get in the way of their birth-to-death surveillance.

  3. Lazar said,

    May 29, 2024 @ 11:36 am

    Later, reinterpretations of the party structure led to a revised symbolism: the large star was said to stand for China, the smaller stars for the country’s many national minorities.

    Did they? I thought the canonical interpretation of the flag has always been "party + classes", with the "Han + minorities" one never having official sanction.

  4. Allawa said,

    May 29, 2024 @ 12:22 pm

    This is so sad.

    I wonder why other Islamic countries don't express their concerns or support for their brothers and sisters. Some Islamic countries always show their zealous spirit. Why haven't they said something? Or they did say something about it ?

  5. Scott de Brestian said,

    May 29, 2024 @ 12:58 pm

    To add a little context: the mosque is not merely 'Islamic style,' but bears close resemblance to the art of Safavid Persia. Interestingly, it lacks the iwans (large formal archways) that are characteristic of many Persian mosques. Rather, the form seems based on the secular pavilions found in places like Isfahan, notably the Hasht Behesht:

    Albeit the pavilion lacks the prominent dome of the mosque. The same design was adapted for Mughal tombs such as the Tomb of Humayun and the Taj Mahal, which do have domes.

    Given that the mosque in Shadian was apparently constructed in 1684, the Safavid/Mughal influence is not surprising.

  6. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    May 29, 2024 @ 7:10 pm

    "I wonder why other Islamic countries don't express their concerns or support for their brothers and sisters."

    This is a wrong way of exposing the problem. It is just a new political/ideological power taking over another one. The slogans on the entrance are explicit.

    look for instance the cathedral (museum) of Agia Sophia in Istanbul and you will see the same process in the opposite direction. The new geopolitical powers of the 21th century are now playing with religion and history.

  7. AntC said,

    May 29, 2024 @ 9:32 pm

    @Lucas, or the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba (debatably the Mosque was built over a former Christian church, debatably built over a former Roman temple — and we know the Romans were dab hands at usurping former culturally significant sites).

    So it's all equal to you? You're also OK with C19th slavery as merely the Europeans continuing to express a Roman and within-Africa cultural practice? What's happening to the Uyghurs in Xinjian is comparable destruction of not only cultural artefacts but a whole way of life. (And probably genocide in effect, although it's very difficult to obtain reliable information.) You don't think we could a teensy bit learn from history and do better?

    We should just bulldoze over the ruins in Rome or Athens to build some much-needed housing? Or some shiny glass-and-steel mercantile temple, in obeisance to the new Gods of Corporatism?

    I mention Córdoba because I've been there, and to comparable Arabic sites in Southern Spain. The Mosque would have been a very harmonious piece of architecture. The Cathedral is a typical, pleasant enough Gothic structure — at another site it might be quite attractive. As it is, one smashed into the middle of the other makes both seem unbalanced and discordant; a continual reminder of the ethnic cleansing that accompanied the Christian takeover.

    now playing with religion and history

    A civilised attitude to religion and history would be to learn from them; to foster their values that contribute to civilisation; to preserve their learning. (Yes I'm lecturing culturally imperialist Europeans just as much as the New Chinese Emperor.) Chinese culture is amongst the more long-standing amongst those that have survived. And yet CCP has taken it back to the Dark Ages.

  8. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    May 30, 2024 @ 1:57 am

    I did not say either that it was good to destroy historical monuments…just do not idealize.
    For slavery in the Muslim world:

    "Most slaves were imported from outside the Muslim world. Slavery in Islamic law does not have a racial foundation in principle, although this was not always the case in practice. The Arab slave trade was most active in West Asia, North Africa (Trans-Saharan slave trade), and Southeast Africa (Red Sea slave trade and Indian Ocean slave trade), and rough estimates place the number of Africans enslaved in the twelve centuries prior to the 20th century at between six million to ten million."

  9. Vulcan with a Mullet said,

    May 30, 2024 @ 8:22 pm

    Just call it eradication, as every civ has tried to do to its predecessors. It is human arrogance and hatred and it is completely universal among those who gain power over others. Historical monuments are mere kitsch compared to the millions of humans who have died in these futile wars. Civilians and others.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    May 31, 2024 @ 4:40 am

    I can't go along with your "mere kitsch", VwaM, but your point regarding "the millions of humans who have died in these futile wars. Civilians and others" is well-made and well-taken. And as those "millions of humans" may well have had pets or domesticated animals who either died with them or who were then left to starve, I would also add the countless millions of completely innocent animals who also lost their lives.

  11. Levantine said,

    May 31, 2024 @ 6:46 am

    Scott de Brestian, the style of architecture of the previous mosque was more Mamluk than Safavid, and it was clearly the result of a modern rebuilding campaign rather than anything resembling the original seventeenth-century structure, which, like most historical Hui mosques, would have followed traditional Chinese architectural norms. Such mosques usually had minarets in the form of pagodas (you can Google some examples that still survive). Ironically, then, the recent sinicisation of the mosque returns it to something closer to its original aesthetic, though of course not for the right reasons or with the consent of the community that actually uses it.

  12. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    May 31, 2024 @ 7:51 am

    In 1933-34 the Chinese Hui Muslims fought the Ugyurs and the Kirghiz in the battle of Kashgar. Since then, Islamic influences and sponsors may have been tossed between different powers in China. I remember a Moroccan friend who disregarded the Hui, saying that they didn't understand anything about Islam.

  13. kerrie said,

    June 16, 2024 @ 3:12 am

    Re: Photography.
    Many mosques, Tibetan temples and Christian churches are seen as tourist sites as much as places of worship and people take photos wherever there are no signs prohibiting it (and even when there are 'No Photography' signs, some Chinese tourists ignore them… )
    Security cameras are everywhere in China including at the entrances to and inside places of worship.

    There are fewer restrictions on reporting within Yunnan province. It's an area of China popular with both domestic and foreign travellers. It's also far from Xinjiang.

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