Chinese “Swatow wares” were named after the port from which they were thought to have been exported

Islam has a long history in the People’s Republic of China, dating to the seventh century. The earliest Muslims in China were traders who came to the south eastern ports as part of the Indian Ocean trade as well as along the Silk Route. Muslims of China are generally divided into two groups. The first group consists of descendents of Arab, Persian, Central Asian, and Mongol traders who married Chinese women and settled in small communities around a central mosque; they are known as the Hui. Culturally diverse, the largest concentration of Hui can be found in north-western China.

The Great Mosque of Guangzhou (Image: Archnet)
The Great Mosque of Guangzhou (Image: Archnet)

The second group consists of Muslims belonging to minority groups whose homelands are located in the territories of the former Soviet Union, such as the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and Kazakhs. Most of the Muslims are Sunnis with the exception of the Tajiks in Xinjian who follow the Shia interpretation of Islam. Sufism also has a long history in China since the seventeenth century and has played an important role in sustaining Islam for many centuries.

The early mosques in China were located in the coastal ports and were established in the seventh century by Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas, the maternal uncle of the Prophet, and several of his companions. The Great Mosque of Guangzhou, known also as Huaisheng Mosque (Memorial of the Holy Prophet) or the Guangta Mosque (Light Tower Mosque), is thought to be the earliest surviving mosque in China.

Trade between China and what was to become the Islamic world was formed very early, a couple of centuries BC or earlier. After the spread of the Islamic dynastic empires, a large-scale network of shipping facilitated the travel of goods between east and west. Chinese porcelains, textiles, and high-quality paper were shipped from China while glass, spices, and minerals were imported into China. Art and craftsmen also travelled widely.

A group of porcelains called “Swatow wares” were produced in China for export. Swatow is a Dutch mistranslation of Shantou, the port from which such ceramics were thought to have been exported. However, recent archaeological research has established that Swatow  wares were actually produced in Zhangzhou between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries for export to Europe, Japan, and South East Asia.*

Swatow dish, China, seventeenth century. (Image: Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Arts of the Book & Calligraphy)
Swatow dish, China, seventeenth century. (Image: Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Arts of the Book & Calligraphy)

The inscriptions on this dish include invocations to Allah, verses from the Qur’an, including Sura 2 (al-Baqara), Sura 112 (al-Ikhlas), Sura 114 (al-Nas), as well as the Nad-e ‘Ali prayer and the word “Allah” which is repeated in the middle are of the dish. The inscriptions seek protection and assistance for the owner, and possibly also confer protection on whatever was to be contained within the bowl.*

Michael Dillion “Islam in China” The Muslim Almanac, Detroit: Gale Research Inc. 1996

*Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Arts of the Book & Calligraphy

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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