Beijing, up in the north, is China's political and diplomatic centre. Shanghai, in the middle, and Guangzhou, down south, are the undisputed commercial hubs of the country. Together, these are the huge cities that garner almost all the attention.
Stones with Arabic inscriptions are preserved to show visitors the spiritual heritage of the mosque.
But, tucked in the southern province of Fujian, the coastal city of Quanzhou can lay claim to a longer and special culture heritage that traces its roots back more than a millennium.
The key to the city's claim is the Quanzhou Qingjing Shi, which can be translated as the 'Tranquility Mosque'.
The fact that a mosque is found in this Chinese city should not come as too much of a surprise. According to recent published statistics, there are more mosques than temples in China, despite Muslims forming only a small percentage of the population.
Evidently, the Qingjing Mosque is an important cultural asset, for it was among the first batch of historical buildings and monuments gazetted by the Chinese government.
So what makes the mosque special?
For one, it is one of the oldest in China. First built in 1009, it is older than the Forbidden City in Beijing. Indeed, while Quanzhou is not the most famous of the Chinese cities, it has a long and colourful economic and cultural history. Together with Egypt's Alexandria, these two cities were described as the two greatest harbours on earth. This proclamation was made no less by the medieval explorer and traveller, Marco Polo.
Quanzhou's status as a port city was brought about by trade. It was the starting point for the 'Silk Road of the Sea', as merchants from the Middle East used Quanzhou as a base to buy silk and sell other commodities back to their lands of origin, after the original Silk Route overland was cut off. Inadvertently, as the overseas traders settled down in Quanzhou, they brought with them their culture, their language and their religion - Islam.
The urn (in the middle), carved from Shousan stone, is used to burn fragrant sandalwood instead of incense.
The Qingjing Mosque was modelled after the Syrian mosques of that era. Although the mosque has been rebuilt and renovated many times, traces of its original structure remain. Over the years, the mosque has evolved into a curious and unique mix of architectural styles that is reflective of its Islamic roots and Chinese neighbourhood.
The mosque's exterior is dominated by an archway measuring some 20m tall and more than 4m wide. It is impossible not to notice the onion-shaped archway, which reminds us of typical Islamic architecture all over the world.
Despite coming from multi-racial Singapore, one cannot help but marvel at the Arabic stone inscriptions, the Chinese-styled roofs, the red bricks (the most common building material in Quan-zhou) and the onion-shaped door arches that dot the little courtyards and rooms within the mosque's compound. Upon closer scrutiny, distinct Arabic characters can be seen inscribed on the arches, reminding visitors that this is a spiritual place for Muslims.
Just like Chinese temples, there is a huge urn placed right outside the main door. This urn deserves special mention because burning incense is not really an Islamic practice. Apparently, this urn is used not for incense but to burn fragrant sandalwood. Standing at nearly a metre tall, the urn was intricately carved from the famous Shoushan stone (commonly used in a much tinier form as signature seals by calligraphers nowadays, but also by officials and businessmen of the olden days). Needless to say, this stone is considered valuable.
But more valuable than this is how the Qingjing Mosque has successfully integrated two radically different cultures and heritage, in a seamless way in the city of Quanzhou.