Did a bit more work on the Going to Extremes outline yesterday. Here’s a little snippet that I liked, about the Grand Mosque in Xi’an.
The Grand Mosque at Xi’an was the first Islamic site in China, built in the eight century at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and is still the home of Chinese Islam. The religion had come to China, but Islamic architecture did not come with it. So the Grand Mosque follows the traditional Chinese architecture for temples, modified to meet Islam’s precepts.
There is a great gate, partly in decay now, with the three gateways set within it. A huge carved and painted crosspiece dominates overhead, edged with abstract patterns of mixed color. Stepping within, you would not notice at a casual glace this was a mosque. The interior of the temple compound was itself divided into gardens and rooms, stretching out and folding in on one another like an elaborate set of boxes lacquered in the muted colors of nature and stone and fired ceramics laced with the patina of age and hard use and Communist neglect. It looked like so many other Chinese temple sites, pathways winding among the willows and the flowers, peaked roofs with their sweeping beams pointing up to the sky like praying hands.
Except that most Chinese temples are replete with statues of wise men and demons and teachers and prophets. Their walls feature paintings and iconographies of religion and history and heroes. In China, a temple is a place of faith and belief, but also a place of story and significance, a celebration of the life of the people, their city, and their entire land.
The Grand Mosque is different. Islam prohibits personal images, so most Islamic art is abstract rather than representational. Here the decoration is abstract, patterned, or just textual. Inscriptions in eccentric, sweeping versions of Arabic script, for example. To Western eyes, this is a very curious fusion of two cultures we normally perceive as utterly distinct.