November 11th, 2015
Shadian isn’t a town most people have heard of. I certainly hadn’t. But as we happened to be driving past it on our way to Yuanyang, our driver pointed it out. “This town has the biggest mosque in East Asia,” he said, almost as an afterthought. “Do you want to stop?” I thought at first that he must be joking. If the largest mosque in East Asia was in Yunnan, wouldn’t I have heard of it?
The mosque was located on a quiet corner in a small, sleepy-seeming city. When we pulled up, there was almost no traffic on the road. A couple of other people were sitting in the large square in front of the mosque, but for the most part we had the place to ourselves.
As we approached, a young woman in a headscarf came up to me and spoke in very clear English. She introduced herself as Marina, and offered to give us a tour of the mosque, repeating the information we had been told: the Grand Mosque of Shadian, she said, is the largest in East Asia.
Like the town, the mosque was quiet and seemed almost deserted, though a couple pairs of shoes in the cubbyholes near the door indicated that we were not the only visitors. Marina walked us through the halls, paused to let us take pictures, and quickly rattled off the statistics she had been given to pass on to visitors: The mosque had been built in 2010 at a cost of 130 million yuan, mostly donated by local Hui muslims. On Fridays 10,000 people come to pray there. The building was modeled on the Nabawi Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
The space was beautiful, with high ceilings and tall arched windows covered in intricate metal screens. Every inch of the place was meticulously cared for, something I’ve almost never seen in a Chinese building, even in many famous landmarks.
I later learned that Shadian is much more than the home of the “largest mosque.” In 1975, the People’s Liberation Army carried out a massacre of Hui muslims here as part of the clearing out of the Four Olds during the Cultural Revolution. 1,000 people were killed and mosques all over this part of Yunnan were torn down. While other towns were allowed to rebuild, Shadian was explicitly prohibited from building a mosque for many years. In 1979 the party officially apologized for the incident, along with other similar campaigns carried out under the leadership of the Gang of Four. And when the people of Shadian set out to build their record-breaking mosque, the government contributed to the fund.
Of course Marina (who eventually told me that her Arabic name is Aisha) did not tell me any of this. Nor did she tell me about the hundreds of Uigurs deported from the area following the Kunming train station attack, just a few months before we met. She simply showed me her mosque, which she seemed genuinely proud of.
And is it the largest mosque in East Asia? Not really. In fact, it’s not really the largest mosque in China. That honor falls to the Great Mosque in Xi’an. Some source I’ve seen have called it the largest mosque in southeast China. But that’s still something, especially for a community like Shadian.
Photos: Josh Wand (6)