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The Phoenix Mosque and the Persians of Medieval Hangzhou

The Phoenix Mosque and the Persians of Medieval Hangzhou


edited by George Lane

Format: Royal Hardback
Published: July 2018
Illustrations: Black and White Tombstones
Pages: 284
ISBN: 9781909942882

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In the early 1250s, Mongke Khan, grandson and successor of the mighty Mongol emperor, Genghis Khan, sent out his younger brothers Qubilai and Hulegu to consolidate his grip of power. Hulegu was welcomed into Iran while Qubilai continued to erode the power of the Song emperors of southern China. In 1276, he finally forced their submission and peacefully occupied their capital, Hangzhou. The city enjoyed a revival as the cultural capital of a united China and was soon filled with traders, adventurers, artists, entrepreneurs, and artisans from throughout the great Mongol Empire, including a prosperous, influential and seemingly welcome community of Persians. In 1281, one of their number, Ala al-Din, built the Phoenix Mosque in the heart of the city where it still stands today. This study of the mosque and the Ju-jing Yuan cemetery, which today is a lake-side public park, casts light on an important and transformative period in Chinese history, and perhaps the most important period in Chinese Islamic history. The book is published in the Persian Studies Series of the British Institute of Persian Studies (BIPS).

Dr George Lane is a Senior Teaching Fellow in History of the Middle East and Central Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His publications are on a wide variety of topics ranging from women in the Islamic world to notables and rulers in Ilkhanid Iran, and from cities in the Middle East to trade along the Spice Route and Silk Road. At present George Lane is working on two books both on the Mongols.

Dr Qing Chen is a graduate of SOAS, University of London. Her field of studies is Islamic art and archaeology, with special research interest in the development of Islamic communities, practices and culture in China.

Alexander (Sandy) Morton was educated at Oxford and after a spell at BIPS in Tehran he began his PhD at SOAS in London under Professor Ann Lambton, but he was recalled to Tehran to take up the post of Director of BIPS without actually finishing his doctorate. Alexander Morton’s influence in his field remains wide and strong and there are many leading scholars in Persian and Islamic studies who remember with gratitude the assistance and advice afforded them by this greatly missed scholar.

Dr Florence Hodous is a Post-doctoral scholar at Renmin University, Beijing. Her research encompasses the history of the Mongol empire and in particular its laws and religions, as well as cross-cultural contacts between Yuan China and the Ilkhanate in Persia.


List of Illustrations vii Acknowledgments

An Introduction: Hangzhou and the Persian Community of Medieval Quinsai

George Lane

Chapter One: Islam and China: The Early Years Chen Qing

Chapter Two: The Emergence of Hangzhou and Persian Khinsai

George Lane

Chapter Three: The Phoenix Mosque 鳯凰寺: Libaisi or the
Temple of Ritual Salutations

George Lane

Chapter Four: The Jujing Yuan 聚景园

George Lane

Chapter Five: Life in Khinsai

George Lane

Chapter Six: A Cultural Capital

George Lane

Appendix I. Tombstones: Translations and Transliterations

Alexander Morton

Appendix II. The Islamic Stelae of Hangzhou
 Introduced by George Lane, translated by Florence Hodous




An Introduction: Hangzhou and the Persian Community of Medieval Quinsai

George Lane

In 2010, the city government of Hangzhou, supported by the Hangzhou branch of the Communist Party, organised a major three-day conference on Medieval Hangzhou to explore the current state of scholarship surrounding this historical icon, cultural lodestone, tourist showpiece and glorious capital of Song China. The state-sponsored conference attracted widespread media interest with press and television coverage, as well as academic, commercial, and tourist representative delegates who swarmed to the city from all over China, though there was only a mere sprinkling of foreign interest in evidence. The media had been alerted to the conference by the Communist Party and invited to demonstrate their interest, since it coincided with the beginning of a well-financed business and cultural project estimated to be a major drive to attract tourism to what the authorities hoped would become China’s show-piece city of culture and tourism, an example of living history, and a vibrant magnet for the arts. Millions were being invested in the restoration of historical sites, re-construction of historically authentic streets, replication of medieval buildings and artefacts, expansion of parks and public spaces. The resurrection of interest in Hangzhou’s colourful past brought picturesque pedestrian walk-ways, plentiful and extensive bike- hire, canal tours, easily accessible lake excursions, and the opening of numerous museums, exhibition centres, art galleries, public music recitals, and other events and centres all designed to attract millions of tourists and their fat wallets to Hangzhou’s over-crowded streets.

The city’s heyday was under the Song when it was China’s ‘temporary’ capital city, so-called because of the regime’s humiliation at their expulsion circa 1127 from the north and their capital at Kaifeng at the hands of the ‘barbarian’ Jurchen.

The Song had vowed to return but it was the Mongol Yuan who would eventually unite the country and establish a new capital on the site of China’s present seat of government, Beijing. Marco Polo made Hangzhou internationally famous when he devoted many laudatory pages of his famous travelogue to Quinsai’s bustling cosmopolitan streets, beautiful lake and multitudinous bridges traversing a network of busy canals, which he witnessed as Quinsai/Hangzhou adapted to the new Yuan (1271–1368) administration and the many foreign residents who now walked its bustling streets. The current authorities fully appreciate their city’s rich heritage, well aware that Hangzhou’s 1281 Phoenix Mosque has been well- known for centuries throughout the Muslim world. They quickly realised that Muslims were very willing to travel great distances to visit holy or revered sites, especially to see one of eastern China’s four ancient mosques, the other three being: the Huaisheng or Lighthouse Mosque of Guangzhou; the Qingjing mosque of Quanzhou; and the Pu al-Din mosque complex of Yangzhou. It is not surprising therefore that one of the first projects with which the ambitious scheme planners chose to commence operations was the restoration of the Phoenix Mosque and the adjacent area of Zhongshanlu Street, formerly Imperial Street.

Although Hangzhou’s Phoenix Mosque is world famous and mention of its existence can be found in documents stretching back to 13th-century Iran, the actual building was not easy to find on my initial visit. The mosque’s very distinctive tall entrance arch, a mixture of Persian, traditional Islamic, and Chinese architecture, was demolished in 1921 in order to facilitate the widening of the busy commercial thoroughfare, Imperial Street or Zhongshanlu Street. The imposing and ornate gateway was replaced by a plain metal doorway painted green and the decorative Arabic calligraphy was replaced by a Chinese sign stating that this was the Phoenix Temple. Nothing suggested the presence of a mosque or an Islamic centre other than a neighbouring Muslim restaurant. Even if the intrepid traveller discovered what lay behind the plain metal gate, the welcome within was less than warm and non-Muslims were not encouraged to stay or investigate further than the bland new prayer room which had been erected opposite the entrance and masked the ancient domed main prayer halls beyond. The annex containing the mosque’s famous stelae and tombstones lay hidden behind bolted doors and curtained windows and two unsmiling janitors made it plain that visitors were unwelcome and that non-Muslims were certainly not allowed into the hallowed precincts of the mosque or stelae annex.

That all changed at the city government’s initiative and first to go was the mosque’s aging and decidedly unwelcoming Imam, who was replaced by an able younger cleric recently graduated from Beijing. He oversaw the re-building of

the mosque’s ornate gateway and entrance hall, the Wangyue Pavilion, a perfect replica of the original based on surviving photographs and pictures of the medieval construct. The genial Imam, Masum Idris Ye Mansu, presided over the welcome committee which greeted the delegates to the 2010 conference when they visited the mosque and inspected the stelae and tombstones, now no longer veiled and hidden away but open to tourists, visitors, the curious, and academic researchers alike. The present study grew out of the conference and the contacts gained at that memorable event and afterwards.

I had been visiting Hangzhou for a number of years for my research into the connections between the Ilkhanate of Iran and the Yuan regime of China. I had suffered repeated rebukes in my attempts to gain access to the mosque and the tombstone annex and even the help and sympathy of Zhejiang University’s History Department had failed to move the aging, implacable Imam who ruled the complex until 2009. Not to be deterred, I perceived a certain weakness in the old man’s armour. I noticed that he had no objection to meeting me and would always smile as he once again refused me permission to enter the mosque or the tombstone annex. I also noticed that he was very happy for me to take his picture set against his personal library, for which he would carefully strike a serious and scholarly pose. He was very pleased when I confronted him after Friday prayers as he greeted the respectful Faithful and snapped his picture as he exited the mosque’s prayer hall, dressed in his Friday-best. Racing back to my hotel room I stopped on the way to have the photographs printed out in glossy A3 format. I immediately had these photos laminated and the resulting ‘posters’ were very impressive. Next morning when I presented him with my work, the sparkle in his eyes told me that I had won. The old Imam was so chuffed at his posters that he waved his hands at his watchmen, a dreamy, half-smile flickering over his face, and murmured his permission for me to have access with my camera to the mosque and its priceless annex. I raced trembling into that forbidden sheltered cloister and began frantically snapping as many images as I could before anyone changed their mind. Many of the blurred images betrayed my nervousness as I filled my card to capacity. I was back the next year to take more and better photographs and to let people know that I now had the interest and collaboration of Alexander Morton who had begun work on translating those elusive inscriptions for me. Few of the tombstones had even been examined, let alone photographed or translated, the exceptions being the 1452 Persian/Arabic stela which was trans- lated and published in Cambridge by E.G. Browne in 1911, while a preliminary study in 1993 by Guo Chengmei and Guo Qunmei had appeared in Chinese summarising the tombstone collection and identifying some of the inscriptions.

The Chinese scholar Liu Yingsheng soon heard of our work on the tombstones and Morton, myself and Florence Hodous, who at that time was my PhD student, were invited to attend the Hangzhou conference. Professor Liu also requested an article detailing our work for inclusion in the Chinese Journal, Qinghua Yuan shi. As a result of these developments we three were awarded a warm welcome in Hang- zhou and later we were approached by the local Communist Party representatives who asked us to continue our work with their backing and support.

Our work appeared in various Chinese publications but my aim to publish a comprehensive illustrated study in English of medieval Hangzhou and its Persian community was resisted. The untimely and tragic death of Sandy Morton in 2011, just after he finally managed to complete his translations of the tombstones, meant that my hopes of getting the work to publication suffered a further blow. However, in 2013 I was generously awarded the Mid-Career Scholarship by the British Academy, which enabled me to devote myself full-time to the project and enlist the help of other scholars to present a fuller picture of medieval Hangzhou and its Persian community. It is tragic that A.H. Morton did not live long enough to see that his hard and persistent work will now reach a wide and appreciative audience.

To put the study into perspective and provide context, two introductory essays have been included. Prior to the Chinggisid occupation of Hangzhou, the city had only a small Muslim community. Little evidence of that community has survived, which contrasts strongly with those in China’s other cities, especially those on its eastern littoral. Chen Qing outlines the development of Islam in China before the 13th century.

While Chen Qing provides the background for the arrival of Islam in China, my own introductory chapter provides the historical context for the presence of an Iranian community in the city. Recent research into the nature of the Mongol conquests has underlined the importance of the Khitans, the Turko-Mongol Liao, in advancing and assimilating the Chinggisids and every stage of their progress out from the steppe and over the sown. The Khitans were crucial in the initial ventures against the Jurchen, they were there when Chinggis Khan’s generals pushed west and absorbed Turkistan, and they were already entrenched in Iran when Hulegu arrived and facilitated his establishment of the Ilkhanate. This introductory chapter explains the significance of the Khitans in the rise of the Chinggisids and explains the link they forged between the Iranian west and the Chinese east.

Following this chapter, which places Hangzhou into the historical context of the Chinggisid Empire, the Phoenix Mosque itself is introduced, outlining its construction in the heart of the cultural capital of the Yuan empire. A separate chapter is devoted to the nearby Jujing cemetery, where in around 1920 approximately a hundred tombstones were discovered buried in the soft mud bordering Hangzhou’s

famous West Lake. Unfortunately, only 21 of those gravestones have survived the ravages of China’s recent history but their inscriptions as well as information on other residents of the cemetery provide an historical portrait of the Muslim, mainly Persian, population of medieval Hangzhou. A further chapter examines the nature of the city to which the Persian émigrés moved and the employment they found there. It investigates the nature of the community into which the newcomers merged and the impact they had on the residents. Contemporary gazetteers and literary sources provide a vivid picture of urban life in medieval Hangzhou.

Alexander Morton’s contribution consists of his translations and transliteration of the tombstones on which he worked for several years. He had already published some of the translations in China and after the 2010 conference in Hangzhou he submitted a written version of his own contribution to the heralded event, a short account of the Persian verse present in the tomb inscriptions. He died within weeks of finally completing his main work though unfortunately he did not have time to fully check or edit the final drafts. He also left various notes and observations that he had made while trawling through the many sources which were for him new and exciting and often very obscure, but unfortunately it has not been possible to include these various notes, jottings, and random observations. They must await a more expert and dedicated scholar to unravel, edit, and conclude their secrets.

Florence Hodous has done an admirable job of translating the four stelae which are housed in the mosque complex beside the headstones. They were built and inscribed from the 15th to the 19th centuries and unlike the tombstones have stood above ground ever since. Translations of all four Chinese stelae and the one Persian/Arabic stela dated 1452 have appeared before but only the earliest has been translated into English. Florence has used the French translations of Vissière together with Chinese transliterations, where available, and high-resolution photographs of the original Chinese to aid her translations into English. For the translation of the stela found in the Bakhtiyari compound and by the poet Ding Henian’s pavilion, thanks are due to Hangzhou’s tourist board and their excellent leaflets and brochures.

Though in many ways this is a focused study, the insights and conclusions formed in the following pages should throw considerable light on other Islamic sites in China and assist other scholars working in those areas. In some ways this is an early step in the emerging study of the origins and development of Islam in China and once again it has created more questions than it has answered. However, it casts considerable light on an important and in many ways transformative period in Chinese history, certainly on a very significant period in Chinese Islamic history.


‘The Phoenix Mosque in Hangzhou, south China, is one of the most remarkable survivals from the period of Mongol rule in Asia. Built in 1281, it served the mainly Persian Muslims who had come to China from the other end of the Mongol Empire. Some 21 tombstones from that time, with texts inscribed in Arabic and Persian, remain in the mosque, and are a primary historical source of great interest. They are transcribed, translated and commented on in this study, the last work of a great Persian scholar, the late Alexander Morton. George Lane and his colleagues have provided a fine series of chapters which put Morton’s work into its appropriate historical context. The result is a major contribution to our knowledge of the history of the Mongol Empire.’

— David O. Morgan, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

‘This long awaited book by George Lane opens new venues for the study of the mobility, economy and cultural presence of persianised individuals (mainly from Central Asia) in medieval China. The focus on Hangzhou and particularly on the still standing Phoenix Mosque of the city serves as a living testimony of the presence of a Muslim-Persian community that helped to integrate large cities of Central China into the networks of the Mongol empire that controlled Eurasia during the 13th and 14th centuries, an interesting and not as well-known subject. The transcriptions and translations by A. H. Morton and Florence Hodous included in the appendixes add a further layer of interest to the book, bringing to life the epitaphs of these Muslim migrants into China in the Mongol period.’

— Bruno De Nicola, Goldsmiths (University of London)


Click here to read a review of The Phoenix Mosque and the Persians of Medieval Hangzhou in the Asian Review of Books.