“The Phoenix Mosque and the Persians of Medieval Hangzhou” by George Lane, editor

Phoenix Mosque (detail) ( Phoenix Mosque (detail) (Wikimedia Commons)

Bluntly and simply, this is a very scholarly book about twenty-one tombstones with Arabic and Persian inscriptions on them, epitaphs commemorating people whom most of us have never heard of. Every one of them is carefully photographed front and back, the texts transcribed and translated in the lengthy appendix. A second appendix describes “The Islamic Stelae of Hangzhou”.

So far, not a very prepossessing description of what turned out to be a most fascinating book, which comes, incidentally, with two silk bookmarks and forms part of the Persian Studies Series of the British Institute of Persian Studies, published by the Gingko Library, a scholarly foundation which promotes the study of Middle Eastern and North African cultural history. This book is a good example of how even specialized scholarship can be made accessible and interesting to a wider audience outside its discipline, and encourage a non-specialist reader to look further into the area. George Lane and his colleagues have done just that, from the presentation of the book to the excellent and readable essays on various aspects of Islamic culture in Hangzhou.

The twenty-one tombstones featured in this book were erected to the memory of real people.

 The Phoenix Mosque and the Persians of Medieval Hangzhou George Lane (ed) (Gingko Library, July 2018)
The Phoenix Mosque and the Persians of Medieval Hangzhou George Lane (ed) (Gingko Library, July 2018)

These tombstones are to be found in a building known as the Phoenix Mosque, and it’s not in Persia or any other obviously Muslim location, but in the thriving modern metropolis of Hangzhou (formerly Hangchow), the capital city of Zhejiang province in East China. It turns out that this relatively modest building, erected in 1281 and still standing, was used as a place of worship by Persians who had been invited to China by its new Mongol rulers, and who played a major part in the life and trade not just of one city, but of all Central China and the Mongol Empire.

The twenty-one tombstones featured in this book were erected to the memory of real people, all of whom had come from the far quarters of the Mongol Empire to make their fortunes in China. They come alive today thanks largely to the late Persian scholar Alexander Morton, whose work is printed in Appendix I, and whose colleague George Lane from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London (SOAS) has contributed five of the six chapters of the book as well as Appendix II. Chapter 1, “Islam and China: The Early Years”, has been written by Dr Qing Chen, also of SOAS, and is a very useful background piece. Dr Lane’s essays provide readers with a scholarly yet accessible account of how Hangzhou (or Khinsai as the Persians knew it) became a major Islamic center in China, not just of religion or trade but of culture as well, showing how


the people of Hangzhou welcomed these visitors from Iran and allowed them to practice their strange rituals and construct their foreign artefacts and decorations because they came in peace and friendship.


It speaks volumes for the enlightenment of the Mongol rulers as well as the tolerance of the Chinese people.

It also tells a story of medieval multiculturalism.

In 1127 “idyllic” Hangzhou was elevated to the status of a temporary capital city by the Southern Song dynasty under emperor Gaozong (1127-62) “for the glorious last century of one of China’s greatest dynasties.”

After a rebellion by the Jurchens, a people from Manchuria, against their overlords the Liao or Khitans, who ruled in what is now Mongolia, northern Korea and the Russian Far East, the Song, who had been allies of the Jurchens, found themselves under attack by the latter, and were defeated in 1127. The Jurchens totally destroyed the Liao state and inflicted great damage on the Song, who were forced to withdraw to various cities in their empire, including Hangzhou. Many Liao people fled and settled in Turkestan, where they became prosperous and powerful, proving useful to receptive Muslim rulers such as the Caliph of Baghdad, eventually establishing their own kingdom and ruling peacefully over their Muslim subjects; they were known as the Qara Khitai. Other Liao remained in China, where they eventually teamed up with the Mongols and co-operated with them as Genghis (or Chinggis, as Lane has it) Khan extended his rule into Chinese territory after 1206.

In 1276 Hangzhou was taken by the Mongols under Qubilai (Kublai) Khan’s general Bayan Noyan, who became its governor. Bayan was originally from Turkestan and had married a Persian woman, and it was under his rule that the Phoenix Mosque was built. He had been to Persia with Qubilai’s predecessor Hulagu Khan in 1254, and it was his Persian connections which established a bridge between the Mongol Empire and the Persian merchants who were invited or encouraged to come to Hangzhou and other cities. They seem to have been not just tolerated, but welcomed by Bayan as they moved eastward and established their enclaves, particularly in Hangzhou.

The focus in this book is on Hangzhou because, first of all, the Phoenix Mosque may actually be seen today and therefore stands as a concrete symbol of a neglected aspect of medieval Chinese culture during the 13th and 14th centuries, and second, because it still testifies to the Muslim presence as real, once-living people whose tombstones have their own stories to tell. It also tells a story of medieval multiculturalism, which may serve as a corrective to readers who think of Islam as narrow or intolerant or of the Chinese as xenophobic. It would seem that in 13th-century Hangzhou, we can see an example of how multiculturalism has been operating for a very long time with positive results for everyone involved in it, both Chinese and Persian. That is not to say there were not conflicts from time to time, described in the chapter “Life in Khinsai”, in which Lane notes that because of the way the foreigners looked and, more to the point, the more successful they became, they “attracted some negativity” as they penetrated society even to its highest levels and the “previously closed clique” of the Chinese.

Phoenix Mosque is still there, a concrete testimony to an almost-forgotten multicultural society.

The tombstones are individually photographed front and back, with each inscription on them meticulously transcribed and translated by Morton. Every one of them has religious verses, and each one of the deceased is identified by name wherever possible. Information is supplied about the individuals based on what may be read on the memorials. For example, on the very first stone, that of Husam al-Din, we may understand from the words “the death of the exile is martyrdom” that he came from outside Hangzhou, and a reference to travel probably indicates that he made his living as a merchant. Morton also tells us that he was likely Turkish, because his father had a Turkish name, Tughril Bek. He is described as “a lover of the learned and the sage, helper of the righteous and the exiled.” Shihab al-Din al-Halabi (No. 10) is a Syrian by descent, as “al-Halabi” means “from Aleppo”, and on the back of his tombstone is a Persian poem comparing him with the first four caliphs, from which we may deduce that he was a Sunni Muslim. Morton also carefully observes that the calligraphy on this stone is different on each side. “He was always the companion and intimate of the pure in heart,” we are told on the back.

Most of the men whose tombstones are presented here were merchants, but there is at least one preacher and some may have been civil servants. The prayers are usually meditations on death, the mercy of God and the impermanence of this life; they often derive from Quranic verses mixed with poetry. “Death is a sea, its waves surging” the verses read on the tomb of Badr al-Din, a soldier; “in it the devises of the traveller are rendered vain.” They conclude “Nothing accompanies man to his grave, except for devoutness and righteous deeds.”

In addition to the discussion of the tombstones, Lane also appends a description with photographs of seven stelae, the earliest of which dates to 1452, the Arabic, Perso-Arabic and Chinese texts of which are here translated by Florence Hodous, a post-doctoral scholar working at Renmin University in Beijing. These stelae contain information about the mosque’s history, about some of the religious practices undertaken there, and even an inventory of the cost of renovations and other building work; as Lane notes, it’s “unfortunate” that they only date to the Ming Dynasty, which “may … endure and continue,” as a line on the first stela reads, testifying to the loyalty of the Muslims in Hangzhou. These artefacts are useful because of the material they provide about Hangzhou’s Islamic heritage and its relationship with the Chinese rulers. As the first stela states, citing the Quran, the Phoenix Mosque was “founded upon piety, most fitting for thee to stand up therein.” It is still there, a concrete testimony to an almost-forgotten multicultural society.

This book is, in the end, not a narrow specialist production, but an opening door into a fascinating culture.

Lane’s book is not just about a building and some tombstones. As mentioned above, there is a chapter on “Life in Khinsai”, and one can also read about the Jujing Yuan, a former garden used post-1281 as a cemetery, and a more general essay by Lane on Khinsai as a cultural capital.

These pieces add context to the discussions of the tombstones and stelae, and together with the introductory chapters put the whole topic of Hangzhou’s importance as a cultural center into an interesting perspective. In the Jujing Yuan “only two graves remain in situ”, and the area is now a public park. One of them, a tomb with a pavilion, is probably the resting-place of Deng Henian, a distinguished Hangzhou poet who died in 1424, and the other is of Sharaf al-Din, the chief tax-collector or darughachi, who also functioned as a kind of governor and died in about 1324. The latter, in spite of his Muslim name and religion, was renowned for his strict adherence to Confucian ideals, and thus serves as an example of how Islam could be adapted to operate within the world-view of the larger society in which it functioned. Lane also mentions other prominent figures whose tombstones are no longer extant but who are known to have been buried in the Jujing Yuan.

“Life in Khinsai” is one of the most interesting chapters in this book. Lane examines in detail how the Persians integrated themselves into the local society and how many of them served the Mongol rulers and rose to great prominence as administrators. This began immediately after the end of the Song Dynasty, because the new regime needed administrators who had no contact with the former rulers. Generally welcomed, as we have seen, there were nevertheless some problems, as Lane notes, some of it “an undercurrent of Song loyalism”, and writers sympathetic to this cause often launched literary attacks on the newcomers, viewing them as servants of the Mongols;

Lane gives readers a good sampling of how these people operated, and premonitions of modern racism may be discerned in some of their attitudes. As a rule, though, and particularly under Bayan Noyan, it was a period of enlightenment, with new building-projects (including the Phoenix Mosque) and a great flourishing of arts and commerce.

All these topics are discussed in detail by Lane and need not be rehearsed here. This book is, in the end, not a narrow specialist production, but an opening door into a fascinating culture; George Lane, together with his colleagues, has been able to combine meticulous scholarship with enthusiastic and accessible writing, which expands our knowledge of sub-groups in China and has many interesting things to tell us about an early development in the history of what we now term “multiculturalism”.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.