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In An Attempt To Sinify China, Authorities Are Removing Domes From Mosques


Chinese authorities are removing the dome roofs from thousands of mosques across that country. They say the domes are evidence of Arab influence. It's part of a push to sinify ethnic groups - as in, to make them more Chinese - which has people asking, what is Chinese in the first place? Here's NPR's Emily Feng.


EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The streets of Xining city in northwestern Qinghai province are redolent with reminders of China's multiethnic and co-religious composition. Many people wear the white cap or scarf favored by the Hui, Chinese Muslims. And it's a city where you are equally likely to hear Mandarin spoken alongside Tibetan.


FENG: Noodle vendors hand-pull the halal noodles that go into the region's signature beef soup. Just outside are carts piled with dates and almonds. And at the center of the hustle and bustle is the Dongguan Mosque, Xining's largest. But the first thing I notice is what is missing - the big green domes that once crowned the Dongguan's minarets and prayer hall are gone. Ali, a farmer selling his pomegranates nearby, explains.

ALI: (Through interpreter) The government says they want us to sinify our mosques so they look more like Beijing's Tiananmen Square

FENG: Under the banner of removing Saudi and Arabic influence, authorities have already torn down the domes from most mosques across China's northwest. The campaign has met limited public resistance.

ALI: (Through interpreter) I think the mosque looks good either way. But what say do we have anyways? Our imam and our mosque director had no choice in the matter. They were detained and forced to sign in favor of the dome removal.

FENG: We're only using residents' first names because they've been ordered not to speak about the dome removals. The removals are part of a sinification campaign, something China's top leader, Xi Jinping, has been pushing for since 2016. And in August, he gave a speech saying religious and ethnic groups should, quote, "hold high the banner of Chinese unity" - meaning, put Chinese culture ahead of ethnic differences.

DRU GLADNEY: If you want to take a very, I think, liberal or positive view of all this is just basically say, what's it like to become an American, American citizen? You know, you accommodate, and people adjust.

FENG: This is Dru Gladney, a professor at Pomona College and an expert on Islam in China. He says after centuries, Hui Muslims have adapted, becoming culturally and linguistically Chinese. They even made their version of Islam accessible to Confucians and Daoists.

GLADNEY: Using incense at a funeral. Following the Chinese ritual calendar for funerals for remembering the saints. Women's mosques in China, of course, among the Hui. That's very (laughter) - very Hui. It's not Middle Eastern at all.

FENG: The problem is the Hui are just not Chinese in the way the sinification drive's proponents want.

GLADNEY: So when people make this one-way argument of sinicization, I think they're confusing that with Han-isization.

FENG: Han-isization - as in, making Chinese Muslims more like China's ethnic majority, the Han. Ma Haiyun is a history professor at Frostburg University, and he was born and raised in Xining, around the Dongguan Mosque. He says Beijing has a very narrow definition of what being Chinese means, like loving the Communist Party, speaking only Mandarin Chinese and rejecting all foreign influence.

MA HAIYUN: You try to eliminate English, right? You try to eliminate Western influence. The communists nowadays, they try to culturally, you know, rule China. That's why we're here, what happened in Mongolia.

FENG: He means the province of Inner Mongolia, where mass protests were quickly stifled last year after schools reduced the time devoted to teaching the Mongolian language in favor of Mandarin Chinese.

MA: And, of course, everybody knows Xinjiang.

FENG: Where authorities have detained hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs in camps Beijing says are schools that teach Chinese and Chinese communist theory. In other parts of China, sinification has allowed the state to confiscate mosque assets, imprison imams and shut down religious institutions over the last two years. And although simply an aesthetic change, mosque dome removals have split China's already fractious Muslim community.

MA: So if you remodel this mosque, create some kind of chaos and also, in recent decade, you have different sect you see begin to rise in Xining. So I think our government basically tried to divide and rule.

FENG: The state itself has been divided over what Chinese mosques should look like. For example, the Dongguan Mosque was originally built 700 years ago in a so-called Chinese style, like an imperial palace with tiled roofs and no domes. It was nearly destroyed in the early 20th century. Then in the 1990s, as China opened up politically, local leaders encouraged Persian Gulf states to invest money in China. They tore down centuries-old Chinese-style mosque roofs and built domes, including the ones on the Dongguan Mosque.

GLADNEY: And I was jumping up and down saying, don't do it, don't do it.

FENG: This is professor Gladney again.

GLADNEY: You can build your dome and your new mosque next door, but preserve what you have here.

FENG: The Hui Muslims did not always abide by that philosophy. For the most part, they have accommodated the ever-changing cultural pressures around them. Yusuf, the Muslim owner of a store near the Dongguan Mosque, selling Muslim head coverings and halal beauty products, says the Hui must continue to adapt, like they have for centuries, to survive.

YUSUF: (Through interpreter) Everything changes from one era to another. During Chairman Mao's time, they tore down all our mosques. Then they built them up. Now they're tearing them down again. Just follow whatever political slogan the country is yelling at the time.

FENG: He says Chinese Muslims have lasted centuries by blending in and adopting Chinese culture.

YUSUF: (Through interpreter) To the average person, Chinese style, Arabic style - we don't care. Our faith does not exist in our buildings; it lies in our heart.

FENG: So for the third time in under a century, the Dongguan Mosque is going through another makeover.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Qinghai, China.


Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.