The Great Mosque of Xi’an is one of the largest pre-modern mosques in China which has served worshippers since the eighth century. It was destroyed and rebuilt at least four times and is mainly frequented by Hui Muslims, a Chinese Muslim demographic likely originating from mixed marriages between Central Asian migrants and China’s dominant ethnic group ‘the Han’ during the era of the silk roads.
Located in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi and in the same city as the terra-cotta army, the Great Mosque of Xi’an is believed to have been built in 742 during the Tang dynasty. Merchants from Arabia and Persia are thought to have settled in the region and Emperor Xuanzong decreed a place of worship for them. It is unclear if this was the first mosque ever built in China as there may have been other mosques constructed around the same time.
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The mosque is larger than many temples and boasts a blend of Chinese and Islamic architecture. After the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907, the mosque was destroyed along with the city of Xi’an. A reconstruction effort was launched under the Ming dynasty in 1378. Over the centuries new structures were added including the mosque’s front gate, the Paifang and Sebil.
In 1956, the Chinese Communist Party under Chairman Mao declared the mosque a protected heritage site, but during his ‘cultural revolution’ the mosque was shut down and converted into a steel factory. It only became a mosque again after Mao’s death in 1976 and has since been a major site of worship for Chinese Muslims.