Xi'an Muslim Quarter
Xi'an Muslim Quarter
Where an ancient Arabic script comes to life - Xi'an, China
Islam has a rich history in China beginning in the seventh century. As traders from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia came to China via the Silk Road, they spread their religion, culture, and language. Many Muslim traders married local Han Chinese women, thus creating the Hui community. Over time, the Hui gradually integrated into Chinese society, at the same time maintaining their Islamic faith.
The Hui community was historically centred in Shaanxi Province, particularly in Xi’an, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter is home to the oldest Hui community in the country. The neighborhood is a maze of winding brick lanes, shops and mosques. The small streets and alleyways of this district come alive at night when vendors and shop owners hawk their wares, bikes fly between shoppers, and the smell of delicious Hui street snacks fills the air.
One of the customs retained from Arab traders until the present-day is the use of a form of Arabic script that is unique to the Hui. Throughout Xi’an’s Muslim District Hui shops and restaurants are easily spotted because of their Arabic scripted signs. This script is called xiao’erjing.
It is a form of writing in which the Chinese language is written in Arabic script. Over the centuries imams at the madrasah schools taught this script to Hui children. In fact, there are two types of xiao’erjing. One type is used as a formal writing system, while the other is an informal system mixed with simple Chinese characters.
Within Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, various restaurants, shops, and community buildings are marked with xiao’erjing signs. Most signs are made using the informal system. However, in many local mosques, the beautiful formal script can be seen all over the structure. Most of the mosques in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter are entirely Chinese in style, except for the xiao’erjing carved calligraphy in the walls and above the courtyard and prayer hall entrances. The Great Mosque in the centre of the district is home to one of the oldest known xiao’erjing artefacts in China, a stele dating back to the fourteenth century.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the use of xiao’erjing has become relatively non-existent. As China has rapidly developed, less and less Hui people learn xiao’erjing in schools. Xi’an’s Muslim District is one of few parts of the country where you can prominently see the legacy of this beautiful ancient script.
Michelle Raffanti of the China Guide
- A must-see for any visitor to Xi'an, the Muslim Quarter is a look into another side of China. The China Guide travel planning company offers tours around China and can include a tour of the Muslim Quarter in any Xi'an tour. The China Guide can customise tours to each individual traveller’s liking. For more information, please visit the China Guide's website: www.thechinaguide.com