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April 29, 2023

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Quanzhou: a melting pot of diverse cultures and religions

QUANZHOU is an intriguingly diverse city.

Imagine a suburb with a coffee shop that wouldn’t look out of place in a cool section of any national capital, were it not for an ancient mosque next to it.

Sipping an espresso while looking out to the onion dome in a Chinese city: What a cultural integration and coexistence!

And this is what the coastal city in southeast China’s Fujian Province has been all about since the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties when sailors, merchants and explorers came together from all over the world.

Quanzhou today does not often make the news and is rather underrated, but centuries ago it was the most “cosmopolitan” city of China as Marco Polo called it “one of the two greatest havens in the world for commerce.”

Great Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, who visited the city in 1345-46, lavished it with praise.

“The harbor of Zayton is one of the greatest in the world — I am wrong; it is the greatest,” he wrote.

Zayton was the city’s Arabic nickname referring to the large quantity of citong (刺桐), or tung trees, planted around the harbor entrance since the 10th century to welcome and impress sailors with their eye-catching red flowers.

The city became the largest port in east China during the Song Dynasty, linked with around 100 other ports along the Maritime Silk Road, including Chennai in India, Siraf in Iran, Muscat in Oman and Zanzibar in Tanzania.

The many foreigners’ presence contributed to the development of harmonious coexistence between the many different ethnic and religious groups in Quanzhou, including Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Nestorian, Jewish, Catholic and Muslim.

In 2021, UNESCO placed Quanzhou on its World Heritage List for its historical role as an “emporium of the world in Song-Yuan China.”

Today, the glorious past with early foreign settlers and thousands of turbaned Arabians are gone, but the cultural mix is well illustrated by the diversity of buildings and extensive archeological remains in and outside the historic quarter of Quanzhou.

To better understand this fascinating city, a visit to the Quanzhou Maritime Museum is highly recommended. Viewers can engage with some of the most valuable archeological findings and religious artifacts from the coastal city.

Spending two to three hours here would reward you with the opportunity to expand your horizons. The hundreds of ancient relics help us realize that, at one time, Zayton was indeed the “capital of religions.”

The museum houses dozens of ancient Christian tombstones and covers carved with crosses, angels and lotus flowers showing a blend of diverse artistic styles.

Elaborate Hindu stone carvings on display are relics of the Hindu temples in the Yuan Dynasty, testifying to the large presence of Indian traders during the era. Quanzhou is the only city in China that still preserves the remains of Hindu temples.

Arabians and Persians made their homes here, and the surnames of Muslim descendants living in the region are Ding, Guo and Pu.

For example, Ding-surnamed Arabic descendants mostly reside in Chendai Town in Jinjiang, a county-level city under Quanzhou’s jurisdiction, numbering more than 20,000. A beautiful collection of Islamic tombstones and carved stone fragments recovered during the dismantling of the city walls are on display at the museum.

There are many fascinating stories about the city with many foreign descendants adopting Chinese names, marrying locals and becoming proud Quanzhou locals.

One is Xu-Shi Yin’e, who is one of the 19th-generation descendants of the Sri Lankan prince who traveled to China in the 15th century. The prince fell in love with the mountains and waters of Quanzhou and resolved to stay.

In 2002, Xu-Shi was invited to Sri Lanka and was received with royal etiquette, but similar to her ancestor, she wanted an ordinary life in the city of Quanzhou.

Quanzhou is known for its friendliness and openness. Its sublime beauty is best savored when you wander the city after dark. Shrines and temples are illuminated, and you can walk the lantern-lit streets, pass the ancient banyan trees and soak up the mythical atmosphere.

The magnificently carved Guandi Temple on Tumen Street is immediately identifiable thanks to its dragon-decorated roof under its atmospheric, fairy lighting. It’s dedicated to Guan Yu, a Three Kingdoms (AD 220-280) general who is deified as a military sage.

Just west of Guandi Temple is the Qingjing Mosque, which stands as a witness to the long-lasting interaction between Quanzhou and the Arab-Islamic world.

Built by Arabs in 1009 and restored in 1310, it is one of the oldest surviving Islamic mosques in China.

Quanzhou has numerous temples and pavilions built over many imperial dynasties, but if you are on a short trip, the must-visit is still the symbol of Quanzhou — Kaiyuan Temple, which has earned the reputation of being “the Buddhist realm of southern Quanzhou.”

During the Song Dynasty, renowned scholar Zhu Xi composed the following couplet for the Kaiyuan Temple: “In old days this place was called a Buddhist kingdom; the streets were full of sages.”

First established in AD 686 during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the land on which the temple stands was originally an orchard of mulberry trees owned by a regional governor, who promised a monk to build a temple if his mulberry trees were to produce lotus blossoms.

It magically happened and it is for this reason that the temple has been given the nickname: the Lotus-Blooming Mulberry Dharma World (Sang Lian Fa Jie). And this ancient mulberry tree of more than 1,300 years still survives to this day and is listed as the world’s oldest mulberry tree.

As the largest temple in Fujian Province, it features a grouping of halls and a pair of spectacular rust-colored, five-story stone pagodas, with stunningly beautiful scenery.

The intriguing beauty lies in many details. At the base of the “moon platform” that stretches in front of the main hall are 72 sphinx sculptures, with lion bodies and human heads. These sculptures, along with two finely carved columns with scenes from ancient Hinduism mythology are fine evidence of the multicultural exchange that flourished in old Quanzhou.

If time allows, travel outside the historic city of Quanzhou, and there are much more on offer. Just half an hour’s drive from the city center, there is the quirky temple dedicated to Manicheism, a religion originating in Persia in the 3rd century. It is the only Manichean temple that has survived intact.

The most remarkable Manichean relic in the temple is the statue of Mani, commonly referred to in the Chinese Manichean tradition as the Buddha of Light.

The stone statue was donated to the temple by a local adherent in 1339. Additionally, the area around this Manichean temple is profoundly soothing, offering a resting place to enjoy all of nature’s goodness.

Religious sites are essential elements of Quanzhou but beyond that, you should venture to one of the outlying traditional villages, such as Xunpu, to discover more of the region’s hidden wonders.

The fishing village of Xunpu, some 10 kilometers southeast of Quanzhou city center, is a popular tourist attraction these days for its unique traditions.

The women there are famous for raising oysters and their habit of wearing flowery headwear. Such hairdo has been passed from generation to generation.

These days, tourists love to stop for photos with the headwear.

It does look touristy but explore inside the local village, the original oyster shell houses have a kind of fisherfolk atmosphere.

Mazu is the most worshipped sea goddess in China’s coastal areas. Every year, on the birthday of Mazu, there is a grand celebration to worship her in Xunpu.

If you go

To reach Quanzhou from Shanghai, you can take a domestic flight that operates daily between the two cities. The flight usually takes one hour and 40 minutes, landing at Quanzhou Jinjiang International Airport.

Alternatively, you can opt for a high-speed train from Shanghai to Quanzhou, which takes about five hours and 50 minutes.


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