George Lane's latest book is a study of the most famous mosque of Hangzhou, which flourished in the fourteenth century, and the influential Persians behind it. It is the first book by Lane to focus primarily on architecture, as well as his first book to focus primarily on China. In fact, the subjects are equally the mosque in the city and the Persians in the city. Although Lane modestly takes the role of editor, he wrote five of the six chapters, and he is also the voice behind one of the two appendixes. The book was at least ten years in the making and recognizes the centuries of scholarly research on Persian inscriptions behind it.

The introduction, written by Lane, includes a few pages that place Hangzhou in Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1271–1368) history, particularly after 1279, when the city succumbed to foreign forces from the north. In the rest of this essay, Lane explains that funerary inscriptions in Persian and Arabic are essential to an understanding of the Song–Yuan history of Hangzhou and documents the work of scholars who have addressed this subject up to the year 2010.

The first chapter, by Chen Qing, debates the origins of Islam in China based on four inscriptions dating to 618–26, 628, 634, and 651. Chen emphasizes that the dates are found in texts of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, but that Arabic and Persian writings similarly place the arrival of the first Muslims in China in the seventh century. Muslim traders, along with Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, surely traveled to China by sea from the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, or the Indian subcontinent by 758, when there was widespread persecution of all those groups in Guangzhou. A graveyard near Guangzhou with funerary inscriptions from the Qur'an further proves the existence of the city's eighth-century Muslim community. Chen presents evidence indicating that Muslims were in Guangzhou, Quanzhou, and Hangzhou, three southeastern coastal cities where China's earliest mosques survive.

In chapter 2, Lane introduces three ethnic groups that vied for power in China in the twelfth century: the Jurchen (1115–1234), who overthrew the Khitan in 1126; the Qara Khitai, who built an empire west of China that included migrant Khitan; and Chinggis Khan and his Mongol followers. The history extends to the end of the thirteenth century, when Chinggis's grandson Qubilai ruled the Mongol empire from China and Qubilai's younger brother Hülegü led the Mongols to triumph in Iran.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Phoenix Mosque as it is described in Chinese and Persian sources—the Chinese sources (mentioning the mosque, bridges, and gardens) from English translations, and the Persian ones, which Lane quotes more extensively, from the originals. Comparing maps that accompany the texts, Lane is able to conclude that what one sees in the neighborhood of the mosque today is not what was there in the thirteenth or fourteenth century.

The Muslim cemetery in Hangzhou is the subject of chapter 4. Originally a garden of the Song and deeded as a cemetery in 1281, it once included about a hundred gravestones from the period of Mongolian rule (found in the early decades of the twentieth century), most of which are lost today. Lane discusses five of the remaining stones, partially translating their inscriptions, and points out that some of the stones clearly belonged to elite members of society and some to merchants.

The longest and most interpretive of the chapters, about life in Hangzhou in the late twelfth through thirteenth centuries, comes next. Lane seeks here to understand how Muslims functioned in the city, a topic difficult to address from Persian sources, and thus he relies on Chinese ones, mostly in translation, and on secondary literature. Lane is able to build a negative case from the Chinese sources, writing, for instance, that “the undercurrent of Song loyalism … viewed the Persian Muslims … as loyal servants of the foreign invaders” (69). He quotes a description by literatus Zhou Mi (1232–98) of the desert (as the origin of the Muslim residents of China) as a place where “when the water is exhausted … [Muslims] drink horse's urine or pound the horse dung and drink the juice from it” (71), as well as a description by Tao Zongyi (active 1360–68) of Muslims as covered in dust, with “elephant noses” and “cat's eyes” (72). He then contrasts these portrayals with quotes from the sixteenth century characterizing Muslims as upright citizens who performed acts of piety and charity.

In describing Hangzhou, Lane emphasizes the flourishing commerce that generated revenue for the Mongol capital; the city's ceramics industry, which included a kiln; and daily life downtown, using information from an imperial recipe book published in 1330 to describe various delicacies that were available. He also notes the city's theater and entertainment districts, making the important point that the land acquired for the mosque in the thirteenth century and the nearby cemetery were bracketed by districts known for their intense nightlife. Lane thus argues that in spite of the negativity about Muslims expressed in some writings of the time, the community did not fare poorly in Hangzhou. In the final sections of this chapter, he poses some interesting questions, such as why the mosque is not plotted on the map of Hangzhou dated 1274, and whether Mongol patronage of Tantric Buddhism at the rock-carved caves outside Hangzhou can shed any light on the relation between Islam and religious practices of the Mongol court.

In the short final chapter, Lane explores the information contained in seven Persian tombstone inscriptions, confirming that those who wrote in Persian in Hangzhou were familiar with Persian poetry and its conventions. Here the tombstones are the only evidence, for no poetry written in Persian in Hangzhou survives.

The six chapters are intended to introduce the book's appendixes, which are the key contribution of the volume. The first appendix consists of translations and transcriptions of more than twenty carved-stone funerary inscriptions found in Hangzhou, along with commentary. These inscriptions document the presence in the city of Persians from several places in Iran and farther east in Bukhara. The stela inscriptions translated in the second appendix provide the history of the Phoenix Mosque, beginning with its founding in 1281.

The quality of the translations, transcriptions, and commentary, together with the discussion of the stela inscriptions themselves, presents a contrast to the first half of the book. It is not a unique contrast, nor is it one with a clear solution. In our generation of global initiatives, the Phoenix Mosque and Sino-Islamic problems around it are ideal topics for research, and the construction of the mosque under Mongol rule also offers the more enticing problem of Mongol globalism. Sinologists, however, will question comments made throughout this book even as they turn to the translations in their future publications. Are Lane's comparisons between Qubilai and his younger brother Hülegü in Iran justified (27)? Can a scholar adequately address the presence of Muslims in Hangzhou without reference to the works of John Chaffee, Hugh Clark, or Billy K. L. So?1  Should Lane have given more attention to Hangzhou during the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), when it was China's wealthiest city and capital? While some might see Mongol China as a direct product of Jin or Liao-Jin, before the Mongol conquest the primary influence in Hangzhou was Song.

Those who understand the purpose of Lane's book would not press these concerns. The Phoenix Mosque and the Persians of Medieval Hangzhou is a book that a Sinologist could not write, but that nevertheless provides useful new avenues of research. It is first and last a book by a Persianist, and could not have been written without Sinology to fill in background about the city in which the stela inscriptions were written. The mosque and adjacent grounds have been altered so many times that the purest surviving documents are the inscriptions. They are now translated and available to many more than the few who could read them previously.


See Hugh Clark, Community, Trade, and Networks: Southern Fujian Province from the Third to the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Billy K. L. So, Prosperity, Region, and Institutions in Maritime China: The South Fukian Pattern, 946–1368 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Asia Center, 2000). John W. Chaffee's The Muslim Merchants of Premodern China: The History of a Maritime Asian Trade Diaspora, 750–1400 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019) is too recent for Lane to have consulted it, but he might have referred to Chaffee's previous periodical articles as well as Chaffee's edited volume on the Song dynasty: John W. Chaffee and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, vol. 5, part 2, Sung China, 960–1279 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).