Thursday, July 16, 2009
Jiuquan and Jiayuguan, as cities in the heavily Muslim Gansu province, have their own mosques, many of which show signs of recent restoration and rebuilding; but what I found more unexpected was the presence of equally large and prominent Christian churches, with enormous crosses on their roofs. I don’t know the history of Western Christianity in Gansu, although it may well be that, as elsewhere in China, pockets of Western-style Christian belief have survived from the missionary movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (There is of course a separate history, starting in the eighth century, of Syriac Christianity in the Hexi corridor; but that’s another matter.) What was striking about both the mosques and the churches was not only their newness, which reflects China’s recent building boom, but their architectural similarities. Both were built in a modern style dominated by the distinctive and repeated use of pointed arches. In the case of the churches, this was a clear reference to the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival style favored by the Anglo-American missionaries who probably established the current Christian communities in Gansu. But those nineteenth-century churches got their pointed arches, in the end, from the same Arabic architectural tradition that informs the style of the mosques. The pointed arch, introduced into the Gothic architecture of medieval Europe, is thought to have been borrowed from Islamic architecture of the Near East and Andalusian Spain; and it is this medieval style that informed so many nineteenth-century churches around the world. In western China, the Anglo-American pointed arch is reunited with its distant cousin, both descendants of the same early Near Eastern ancestor.