The Chinese Room
There are indications that there were trade links between various Chinese coastal cities and coastal Middle Eastern cities prior to the introduction of Islam but records of such are limited. According to local lore and certain scholars in China, the first Muslims from Arabia arrived in Chang an, the capital of the Tang Empire, in AD 629 although there is no clear evidence for this claim. The Muslims in China however, hold this to be a fact. Again, according to local lore in the Muslim community in China, the first mission included Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas, a relative of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). There are other sources that indicate that the first formal introduction of Islam to china occurred when the third Caliph, Othman, dispatched an official delegation in the year AD 651, with the purpose of introducing Islam to the Chinese. However, the first Arab delegation officially mentioned in Chinese records arrived in AD 713, when an envoy was presented at court who refused to kowtow to the Emperor because he would only bow to God. The Tang Emperor did not kill him as “a difference in the court etiquette of foreign countries ought not to be considered a crime.” A second ambassador sent in AD 726 did kowtow and was presented with gifts of honour by the Emperor. Chinese Muslim tradition and local lore states that, six years after the arrival of Saad ibn Abi Waqqas in Guangzhou, he received permission from the Tang emperor to build a mosque and this led to the construction of the Huaisheng mosque.
Arabic script in China is called Sini. It is a distinctive combination of Arabic writing with a Chinese style. The script originated in eastern China where there are examples of it on tombstones and the interiors of mosques. There are also early copies of the Holy Qur’an in this script as well as ceramics. When Islam first arrived in China, Arabic writing was introduced. The script then continued to develop through to the Ming dynasty when Sini reached its apogee and Chinese Muslims started to develop their own distinct style. Arabic and Chinese are two of the most important calligraphic art forms and Sini script is the product of the marriage of these. The script is Arabic but the tools are Chinese as is the “soul” of this form of writing. In terms of style, the closest Middle Eastern script to Sini is the thuluth, which is a cursive script that was in wide use in Persia and Central Asia especially during the Ilkhanid period in the 14th century AD. Thuluth became a standard script, being used for inscriptions in mosques in Persia and Central Asia, and 14th century AD stone inscriptions found on tombstones in Quanzhou in China show the introduction of this style into China.
The Mongol Yuan period in China was particularly significant for influences on Arabic script in China. As a consequence of the close relationship of the Yuan rulers with the Muslim community, various influences were brought in from the western regions and it was at this time that thuluth and muhaqqaq writing started to become more prevalent. At the start of the Ming dynasty, the emperor decided to sinicise the Hui community. This, along with restrictions on trade and travel, ended the close links between the Mongol rule of China and its own Muslim community and those of Central and Western Asia. As a result, the practices and traditions of the Hui community, including their Arabic writing, became isolated and started to develop along independent lines. During this period, distinct Chinese Islamic traditions of writing began to develop, including the practice of writing Chinese using the Arabic script (xiaoerjing) and distinctly Chinese forms of decorative calligraphy.
There has been increased interest in Sini calligraphy over the last 20 to 30 years and one of the most renowned contemporary Sini calligraphers today is Mi Guangjiang or Hajji Noordeen as he is more commonly known. He is considered a leader in this field as well as being a scholar and a researcher in Islamic Culture in China.
The Tareq Rajab Museum of Islamic Calligraphy possesses a gallery specialised in Sini script. Visitors can see examples of most of various styles implemented by Chinese Islamic calligraphers beyond straight forward Arabic Sini, which are used in combined calligraphy, works of Chinese symbolism, Qurans in classic Sini script, books with Chinese annotation and ceramics. These objects date predominantly to the Qing period of China, however, there are a number of exceptions, particularly in the ceramics section.