Muslims of Quanzhou

The descendants of Arab traders who brought Islam to China are re-establishing traditions

"It is a huge and important city in which are man ufactured the fabrics of velvet, damask and satin . . . its harbour is among the biggest in the world, or rather is the biggest; I have seen about a hun dred big junks there and innumerable little ones . . ." Ibn Battuta was astonished by Zaitun, a city on the south-eastern coast of China, when he reached it in 1346.

He was nearing the end of one of the most extraordinary journeys in history. Almost 20 years earlier, aged 21, he had set out from Tangier to travel the known world. Yet, despite all that he had seen, he was unprepared for the scale of Zaitun and the vigour of its Islamic life.

Today, Zaitun, now named Quanzhou, or "spring city", is a medium-sized port in Fujian Province, directly across the straits from Taiwan. From here, many illegal immigrants - like the tragic cockle-pickers of Morecambe Bay - depart for Europe. As are other Chinese provincial cities, it is draped with advertising hoardings and pock-marked with new developments, crackling with careless ambition and commercial energy. The city's harbour is crammed with container ships, descendants of the junks Battuta saw 660 years ago. Its modern claim to fame is as China's "shoe city": Quan zhou's 3,000 shoe factories produce 500 million pairs a year, including one in every four pairs of sneakers made in China.

Yet the city's real distinction derives from the survival of its past, particularly its Islamic past. In the old quarter, you can still see streets set aside during the medieval period for foreigners, the fan - mostly Arab or Persian traders. The Aisuhabu Mosque is one of the oldest in China, established in the 11th century and rebuilt in 1309. Its minaret and roof have long gone, but the walls and pillars of the main prayer hall still stand. In the prayer niche, a text from the Koran is carved in classical Arabic script, and in the local museum Islamic gravestones bear witness to the lives of the city's foreign residents.

Remarkably, present-day Quanzhou retains remnants of the living Islamic culture that Battuta encountered. Several Chinese clans claim to be descended from the foreign traders, and a saying refers to the prominent beard and deep-set eyes of the Arabs: "Mr Su's beard and Mr Ding's eyes". These features are thought to mark the descendants of the Arabs, although, to my eyes, the people look exactly like other Chinese. The largest and most influential clan is the Ding: more than 20,000 live in Chendai, an industrial village outside Quanzhou. In accordance with Chinese tradition, they have built an imposing hall of ancestor worship, laid out in the shape of the character hui, the Chinese word for "Muslims". Ding Tong Zhi, its guardian, is a sprightly old man who claims to be a 23rd-generation descendant of an Arab trader. With barely suppressed excitement, he explained how his family intermarried with the Chinese. Opening his family tree, he showed us a portrait of a man sporting a moustache who looked distinctly non-Chinese. "This," he said, "is the very first Ding to come to China."

The details of Tong Zhi's story are hard to check, but its essence is certainly true: the Ding 15th-century family tomb has an Arab-style tombstone, even if the horseshoe-shaped graveyard is distinctively Chinese. Over the centuries, Islam died out in the clan, but it remained in the folk memory and some traditions were kept alive, such as abstention from eating pork.

The Ding are proud of their ancestry. During the medieval period, Arabs were influential in Quanzhou, and often rich. Over time, they assimilated: some married Chinese women, and later their families adopted Chinese surnames to avoid persecution under the Ming dynasty. Ding Tong Zhi spoke in hushed tones of the Sinicisation of his clan. As the campaign against foreigners gathered pace, the Ding moved to Chendai. Ding Tong Zhi mentioned tombs being dug up and bodies burned, but he clearly wasn't comfortable with the topic.

In China today, the persecution of the Muslims remains a sensitive subject. Mao's China, of course, regarded religion as "poison": mosques were closed and religious activities forbidden. A Muslim identity was best hidden. During the 1980s, the authorities conducted a survey to divide China's population into ethnic groups. Suddenly, ethnicity was in vogue, and religion became a cultural category, illustrating China's new tolerance after decades of repression. Mino rity groups were allowed more than one child per family, and university entrance requirements were relaxed. Many, attracted by these benefits, sought to reclaim their Muslim heritage. For the first time in centuries, to be Hui was to be a winner in life's lottery.

As China pressed ahead with economic reforms, Quanzhou revived as a port, reconnecting with ancient trading partners in Asia and the Middle East. Ding Zong Ying, a local millionaire, invited us to dine at his opulent club. He is a 22nd-generation Ding, a typical Chinese businessman of the early 21st century, a man who built his business empire from scratch. A few years ago, he changed his name to Yusuf Ding, and gave his company a new name - Silam. "I wanted to commemorate my Arab ancestors," he told us, "who sailed across the seas to live in China."

In the past 20 years, many young people from Quanzhou have travelled to the Middle East to explore their cultural roots and study Arabic. Some, like Husayn Ding, a bright 25-year-old who studied Arabic in Medina, return as believing Muslims. He now works as an interpreter and, in his spare time, teaches Arabic. The city government frowns on his lessons, fearing the spread of Islam, but Husayn says he is not trying to convert his pupils. "After all," he says, "I am only teaching them a language." It's a characteristically defensive remark, implying that Islam in China is alive but hardly well. Its revival is evidence of official tolerance, but the authorities would like to retract it, if only they could.

It was this typical Chinese suspicion of the divisiveness of monotheism that Ibn Battuta found repugnant during his year-long stay in the country: "China, for all its magnificence, did not please me. I was deeply depressed by the prevalence of infidelity, and whenever I left my lodging I saw many offensive things which distressed me so much that I tended to stay at home as much as possible. When I saw a Muslim, it was as though I had met my family and my relatives."