Chinese Corner

Seeing Sini3 min read

The origins of Chinese Islamic calligraphy – Eveline Chao

The next time you’re in a Chinese mosque, look up. If you’re lucky, the entrance will be adorned with Sini, a Chinese-ified version of Arabic script. (And if you won’t be near a Chinese mosque any time soon, check out Professor Dru Gladney’s photos of Sini and other Islamic art in China.) Sini appears in most mosques in eastern China, and a bit in the northwestern provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu. You’ll see it used on the tasmiya, or invocation of prayer, hanging above the entrance or in the prayer hall, and sometimes on the shahada, a profession of faith hanging in a niche that indicates the direction of prayer.

Sini script on the walls of a mosque. (Dru Gladney)

The first official delegation of Muslims was sent to China around 651 AD by the Khalifa Uthman, the Prophet Muhammad’s companion who led the Muslim nation after his death. Today, there are around 23 million Muslims and 35,000 mosques in China.

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Mongol control over China, Persia and Central Asia made for close ties among their Muslim communities. With the rise of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), though, trade and travel restrictions isolated Chinese Muslims. It’s during this time of isolation that Sini developed.

As Haji Noor Deen, perhaps the most acclaimed master of Arabic calligraphy, notes on his website“The Chinese and Arabic calligraphic traditions have often been compared as the two of the world’s finest manifestations of the written word, but never likened; indeed, they are at once opposites and complements.” (British readers, by the way, can check out Noor Dean’s work at the British Museum, where his piece “The Ninety Nine Names of God” is on permanent display in the gallery of Islamic Art.)

How are these two traditions – Noor Deen’s “opposites and complements” – combined into one? Arabic letters have long flowing tails. Chinese characters are square and modular. Chinese calligraphy is also characterized by thick versus tapered effects, a result of the round, pointy-ended brushes used. Sini is more or less Arabic script with “slender ankles and fat feet” (as the China Heritage Quarterly puts it), squished into the square-ish format familiar to Chinese readers.

Sini on the walls and columns of a mosque. (Dru Gladney)
“Luck” on a doorway, hung upside-down so that good fortune flows. (Naoko Takano)

Chinese doorways are often decorated with a four-character phrase above the door and a vertical couplet on either side. Sini around the doorway of a mosque is similar, but the vertical text is a pair of lines from the Koran, and the square forms that Chinese characters occupy are rotated into a string of seven or nine diamonds. China Heritage Quarterly explains that this is a universal practice among Chinese Muslims and “may be an aesthetic choice that resonates with the arrangement commonly found on Chinese doors of the character for fu (luck) on a diamond background, or it may reflect a conscious departure from the Chinese aesthetic veneration of the square.” (The journal also notes that Chinese Muslims often place square tea trays at a 45-degree angle to a square room or table.)

It’s Arabic – with a Chinese flourish.

An earlier version of this article appeared in That’s Beijing. Dru Gladney’s photos are copyrighted and used here with his permission.