Emily Feng, NPR, October 24, 2021
The Dongguan Mosque has adopted some very different looks in its nearly 700 years in China’s northwestern city of Xining. Built in the style of a Chinese imperial palace, with tiled roofs and no domes, and adorned with Buddhist symbols, the mosque was nearly destroyed by neglect during political tumult in the early 20th century. In the 1990s, authorities replaced the original ceramic tiles on the roof and minarets with green domes.
This year, provincial authorities lopped off those domes.
China is removing the domes and minarets from thousands of mosques across the country. Authorities say the domes are evidence of foreign religious influence and are taking down overtly Islamic architecture as part of a push to sinicize historically Muslim ethnic groups — to make them more traditionally Chinese.
China’s ethnic policy is directly modeled on the Soviet approach, classifying citizens into 55 distinct ethnic minority groups, each of which, in theory, is granted limited cultural autonomy within its territory. But experts say the Communist Party under Xi Jinping’s rule has shifted to a new approach, one that favors integration and assimilation — a process dubbed “sinicization” in official speeches and documents.
“A very liberal or positive view of all this [sinicization] is just basically to compare it to, say, what’s it like to become an American citizen? You accommodate and people adjust,” says Dru Gladney, an expert on Islam in China at Pomona College.
After more than 1,300 years of living and intermarrying in China, Hui Muslims — who number about 10.5 million, less than 1% of China’s population — have adjusted by becoming culturally and linguistically Chinese. They even made their version of Islam accessible to Confucians and Daoists — trying to show it as inherently Chinese and not a foreign influence — by adopting spiritual concepts and terms found in ancient Chinese philosophy to explain Islamic precepts.
Various Hui sects have also incorporated Chinese religious practices into their worship, such as burning incense at religious ceremonies. Hui communities in central Henan province are even known for their female-only and female-led mosques, believed to be a uniquely long tradition in China.
The problem from Chinese authorities’ perspective, says Gladney, is that the Hui are not Chinese in the way sinicization proponents want: “When people make this one-way argument of sinicization, I think they’re confusing that with Han-isization” — in other words, making Chinese Muslims more like China’s Han ethnic majority.
Beijing has a much narrower understanding of what being “Chinese” means – adhering to Communist Party values, speaking only Mandarin Chinese and rejecting all foreign influence, say scholars.
The streets of Xining city in China’s Qinghai province are redolent with reminders of China’s historically multiethnic and co-religious composition. Many people wear the white cap or scarf favored by Hui Muslims, and visitors are equally likely to hear Mandarin Chinese as the Tibetan spoken by about a fifth of Qinhai’s population. Roughly one-sixth of the province’s population belongs to ethnic groups China classifies as Muslim.
But missing are the big green domes that once crowned its minarets and prayer hall. Under the slogan of “removing Saudi and Arabic influence,” authorities have torn down the domes from most mosques across China’s northwest as part of a national removal campaign that began in earnest in 2018.
Xi first called for sinicization in 2016. In August, he gave a speech saying religious and ethnic groups should “hold high the banner of Chinese unity” — meaning they should put Chinese culture ahead of ethnic differences.
In other parts of China, sinicization has allowed the state to justify the confiscation of mosque assets, the imprisonment of imams and the closure of religious institutions over the last two years.