The Great Mosque, as the edifice is somewhat pretentiously called (it is a small building as far as mosques go), is located at the intersection of Zhongshan Lu and Tongdao Jie streets in the Hui district of Hohhot. The Hui, it will be remembered, are a Chinese ethnic minority group that embraces Islam.*
The Great Mosque of Hohhot was founded in CE 1693 by a group of Hui merchants. Perhaps typical of the Hui, who were eager to pay homage to their Han Chinese hosts, the Great Mosque of Hohhot was built in a mix of Han Chinese and Islamic styles. Of course, in those times, no mosque built in China was permitted to have a genuinely Islamic minaret; instead, Chinese mosques during the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty had minarets that were a compromise between a pure Islamic minaret and a Chinese pagoda, i.e., they were minarets that were crowned with a pavilion-type roof. Moreover, Chinese mosques of the period had steles, or plaques, which reminded muslim worshippers of their inescapable loyalty to the emperor. The Great Mosque of Hohhot has only a single minaret, which, incidentally, was not part of the original design, but was added on later.
Typical as well of Chinese mosques, the Great Mosque of Hohhot is constructed in the black brick architectural style of Imperial China. It is, however, an unimposing little building that has preserved the link to its Qing Dynasty past although it sits in the heart of a modern, thriving muslim neighborhood that looks more like a neighborhood in the heart of Jeddah or Abu Dhabi than a neighborhood in a Chinese city.
The mosque had eventually fallen into a state of disrepair when it was rejuvenated and enlarged by concerned Hui residents in 1923. Among the new additions to the mosque was a special pavilion which muslim worshippers were – still are – permitted to make use of during lunar and solar eclipses, etc. The mosque also has a public bath, in the spirit – if not style – of a Turkish bath.
On the inside, the Great Mosque of Hohhot is ornately decorated in a distinctly Islamic style. It has the unmistakable feel not only of a place of worship, but also of a place of contemplation and scholarship, a spiritual oasis in the midst of a bustling city. The mosque's most prized possession is a 30-volume exemplar of the Koran, in Arabic, that is two hundred years old.
* The Hui designation primarily covers muslims of Turkic ethnic origin who fled the Uyghur Empire – whose leader was called a Khagan – when that empire was definitively toppled in CE 847 (the Uyghurs were toppled by another Turkic/ muslim group, the Kyrgyzs, who make up present-day Kyrgyzstan). The Uyghur Khaganate at its pinnacle in CE 800, circa, was a very large empire that comprised most of present-day Inner- and Outer Mongolia as well as a large portion of Central Asia. Of the four Uyghur groups which fled the collapse of the Uyghur Empire, three of them, including the group that eventually called itself the Hui, abandoned their Turkic language for the host country's language. In the case of the Hui, they not only embraced the language of the Han Chinese, they adopted in very large measure the customs of the Han Chinese, being constrained only by Islamic strictures regarding clothing, the consumption of pork, etc.