There is a long association between Islam and China. According to Chinese records, Muslim emissaries visited the Tang emperor within a few decades of the Caliphate being established. The message of Islam was welcomed most enthusiastically in major trading centres, such as Xian and Guangdong, and later in China’s western provinces. By the Song dynasty (960-1279), there were mosques throughout China. The high point of Islam in the Middle Kingdom was during the Ming era (1368-1644), when Muslims acquired unprecedented political influence. This gradual meeting of the world’s two greatest powers produced a far-reaching interchange of culture and technology. Whether intended for domestic use or for the huge export market, Islamic art in China has a clear identity. This unique contribution, which had been widely ignored by art historians until recently, is now beginning to receive the attention it deserves.
Calligraphy has always been a revered art form in China. This coincides with the Islamic ideal, although the results are often very different from the calligraphic works of other parts of Islam. Qur’ans from China follow a universal pattern, albeit using the special ‘Sini’ script. More distinctive are the calligraphic scrolls that take a traditional, Chinese approach. These wall hangings feature the bold sweep of the brush, rather than the precision of the typically Islamic reed pen.
The written word is found in many other Chinese Islamic media. Among the most visible of these are the cloisonné wares that China started to create in quantity during the 15th century. The rich colours of the enamels make a vivid contrast to plain calligraphic cartouches with statements of Islamic belief. The Shahadah (affirmation of faith) and praises to God are the most typical additions to vases and incense burners which might otherwise have ended up on Taoist or Confucian altars. The same blending of cultures is evident in bronze altar vessels, adapted to suit the tastes of Muslim patrons.
One important area of Chinese art in which calligraphy plays a comparatively small part is ceramics. Objects made for the domestic market rarely put much emphasis on the written word, in Chinese or any other language. Among the exceptions are highly prized Ming dynasty blue-and-white wares with Islamic inscriptions.
For the export market, China created a range of products to suit all tastes. From the Ming period onwards, shapes that were alien to Chinese tradition, such as pen boxes, were created to meet demand from overseas. Export wares were commissioned by Muslims in locations as diverse as Anatolia and East Africa. In Southeast Asia and Persia, vessels enamelled with religious inscriptions and talismanic devices were especially popular. Other types of Chinese ceramics were altered to local needs, rather than being made to order. In the case of rosewater sprinklers, which were used throughout the Islamic world, it was common practice to adapt forms based on porcelain flower vases to a new purpose by adding a perforated silver mount to the neck.