The Great Mosque of Xining is one the four largest mosques in northwest China and is the largest and most important mosque in the Qinghai Province. Locally, it is known as the Dongguan Masjid, or the East Gate Mosque, due to its eastern location in the city alongside the Muslim Hui neighborhood. According to an inscription added to the mosque during a major reconstruction in 1914, the mosque was first built during the Ming Dynasty under Emperor Hongwu (1368-98). However, it is known that the mosque was destroyed and rebuilt entirely as recently as in the late nineteenth century. Renovated in 1914, the mosque was enlarged in 1946.
Built atop an irregular two-level brick platform, the mosque complex consists of a grand eastern gateway that opens into a large rectangular courtyard that is flanked by two lecture halls to the north and south, with the prayer hall to its west. The five-arched gateway is anchored at either end by bangke towers, which served as minarets and moon-watching pavilions. They rise to three-stories above a tall base: The first two stories are built of brick and have a window on each façade, while the third story is an open pavilion with a pyramidal roof. Built at a later date than the mosque, the wide gateway features neo-classical elements. It leads into the courtyard flanked by lecture halls, where a set of stairs climb up to the prayer hall straight ahead.
The prayer hall is composed of a great hall that is preceded by a portico and extended with a rectangular qibla iwan. The portico, hall and iwan have separate hipped roofs, a common feature in early Hui mosques inspired from Han palace architecture. Carried on six columns, the portico is covered by the gentle bump of a rolled-shed roof, which dips down to join the roof of the great hall. This large hall is equal width to the portico and sports a pitched roof raised above the others on twelve columns arranged in two rows. Its roof is curtailed at the back by the hipped roof of the qibla iwan, whose eaves are supported on twelve external columns.
The central prayer hall and the portico combine to form a square plan that measures twenty-six meters on each side. The qibla iwan, which adjoins the western wall of the great hall, is eight and a half meters square. Together, the portico, prayer hall and qibla iwan cover an area of seven hundred and seventy square meters.
The walls of the prayer and lecture halls are made of brick reinforced with wooden pilasters. Wooden beams supporting the prayer hall roofs are carved with rich stalactites that resemble the dougong brackets of the outer eaves. Lining the interior of the short portico walls are beautifully carved brick plaques divided into nine elongated panels of floral and tree designs. Each of these plaques is set on a sumeru base, a Chinese wainscot derived from the base of the mythological Buddhist mountain. Each base is divided into four horizontal segments filled with grass, flower and book motifs. This style of brick carving is a common feature of Hui mosques and is also found on the screen walls, steps, sumeru platforms and archways of Chinese temples.
In 1998, a three-story modern building was built between the gateway and the street to house the mosque administration. Visited by as many as ten thousand worshippers during each one of the Muslim holidays, the Great Mosque of Xining is still the most important mosque in Qinghai and serves as a center of religious education for the region.
Qiu, Yulan. Ancient Chinese Architecture: Islamic Buildings, edited by Sun Dazhang, 55-56, 150, 164-165. Vienna: Springer-Verlag, 2003.