The Public Soundscape of China’s “Little Mecca”

Wei Yukun and Xiao Mei

Linxia, which lies in the central part of Gansu Province in China, is a city filled with all kinds of sounds. While some are typical of Chinese towns, others are unique to this place. As a multi-ethnic city, the lay-out and construction of Linxia both shares traits with other modern cities and has its own particular features. Today Hui Muslims and Han populations form almost equal proportions of the population,[1] and this mix is a distinctive characteristic of the city, it being a spot in China where Islamic culture has had the most profound impact. In fact, the local Hui population represents almost half of the entire population of Muslims in China, which has led to the city being dubbed China’s “Little Mecca”.

The central local government area, both in the Qing dynasty and during the Republican period, was mainly occupied by the Han, while suburban areas like the Bafang (八坊) and the western outskirts were Hui areas, full of mosques and shrines (qubbah)[2]. The After the founding of People’s Republic of China, the city expanded to include new Hui suburban areas which are habitually called the “New Town”, and the original town centre mainly populated by the Han became known as the “Old Town”. However, this division has been greatly undermined by the gradual mixing of the Han and the Muslim residents in all parts of the city as the traditional courtyard homes have been replaced by apartment buildings. Thus, there are now many Hui residents in the “Old Town” and Han in the “New Town”. With such changes to the structure of residency within this city, could there be conflicts between different beliefs, customs and ways of life? In our fieldwork carried out in the summer of 2012, we were concerned above all with the problem of sound in public spaces.

The Inhibited Call to Prayer

What most characterizes the public soundscape of Linxia, a city also known as “the little Mecca”, is the call to prayer, which local people call “bangke” (邦克).


The deep and resonant sonority of bangke can be heard five times a day, echoing around all the mosques, a symbol of community and faith in the Hui areas, and a summons to the faithful to attend to their personal cultivation, both physically and mentally, according to Islamic doctrine. It is also a shaping force in the landscape of the Hui areas. The mosques function as both the centre of sacred belief and the centre of the Hui neighbourhood (sifang) or mosque community. Linxia’s Bafang area denotes eight neighbourhoods, and refers to eight major Muslim communities in Linxia. In this dense layout of mosques, the call to prayer is experienced as a multi-vocal, multi-layered sound event.

However, most of the Han people we interviewed in the New Town, that is the original Hui area, complained about this sound. For some, it was simply insufferable to be woken at 5am by the call to prayer. They regarded the sound as a disturbance. Thus, in order to maintain the normal social order of the city, the local government required the mosques to turn down the volume of the call to prayer.

complaintProhibited entertainment

Besides the Muslim soundscape of Linxia, many other sounds characterize this developing small city. The horns and the noise of engines of cars, the roaring of drills and excavators in the construction fields, the popular tunes at top volume coming from shops, the peddling of vendors, and cries, shouts and chats everywhere – all these sounds are no different from those of many other Chinese cities. 

However, the soundscape of day and night in this city takes different forms. In the evening, when the hustle and bustle in the daytime come to an end, the vendors, car and construction workers gradually quiet down, the call to prayer is similarly still. Now the city begins to enjoy its leisure time. We found that all the places with nightclubs and bars lay in the Han-concentrated areas, where energetic music, laughing and talking can last until midnight. The sounds of these largely Han entertainment venues seemed to be equally repellent to local Hui. The Han owner of a tea house in the Hui area, where alcohol is also served, told us that all his customers were Han. The tea house was less noisy than nightclubs and bars, but he nevertheless often had to deal with the local official Islamic committee, who tried to persuade him to stop selling alcohol, and prohibited the shouting which often accompanied drinking games. Thus, we can see that the attitudes of Hui and Han towards the public soundscape are often opposed to each other and in disagreement on the control of sound. This opposition came to a head in 2010, when the local government constructed a big new town square (guangchang) in order to facilitate mass cultural activities. Contrary to the government’s intent, when we visited Hongyuan square in 2012, there were few people in Linxia’s biggest square either during the day or at night. Instead of the group dancing, karaoke singing and commercial performances that take place in most town squares, all that could be seen were old people sitting in twos and threes on benches.


The abnormal silence of Hongyuan square was due to its situation adjoining Linxia’s famous qubbahs. A qubbah is a kind of shrine typical of Chinese Sufism, which holds that only with the guidance of a master can one achieve a higher level of religious cultivation. This emphasis on the role of the master has led to the practice of worship at the tombs of deceased masters. These qubbahs are serene, solemn and sacred places. It is not difficult to imagine the contradictions that might be caused by the construction of a large town square nearby.

In the first two months after the completion of the square, several commercial performances were held there. As we can imagine, the extremely loud music from the loudspeakers impacted on the tranquil atmosphere in the qubbahs. As a result, large groups of local Muslims publically protested against such activities and forced the performers out of the square. To prevent events from escalating, the local government ruled that anyone desiring to give large-scale entertainment and commercial performance in the square must consult with the management of the qubbahs and, if permitted, should keep the time, content and volume of the sound of the event appropriate. Other activities like group dancing and commercial performance were completely prohibited.

These conflicts over the public soundscape of Linxia remind us that sounds are symbols with particular cultural meanings, but they are also embedded in, and can structure, a particular way of life. One reason why sound can cause contradiction between different communities lies in the different ways they lead their lives. For many young Han in Linxia who work from 9am to 5pm, entertainment after work is part of their normal lives, and the morning call to prayer disrupts their established sleep patterns. In contrast, the daily schedule of life for pious Hui, according to religious rather than commercial imperatives, remains consonant with the timings of the call to prayer five times a day. Perhaps in historical eras when everyone’s lives were more in tune with, and conditioned by, the patterns of sunrise and sunset, distinctions between the diurnal customs of Muslims and non-Muslims were less acute.

Another cause of difference has to do with aesthetics and values relating to sound. In Islamic doctrine we can find strong principles when it comes to the perception of sound: any sound that is made or listened by a Muslim must conform to the religious, ethical and moral standard of Islam. Many Hui whom we interviewed thought that good and appropriate sounds should be deep and gentle, while loud and sharp sounds were bad and undesirable. They regarded the entertainment in Hongyuan square as “the yell of the devil”. On the other side, the spatial separation of Hui populations and possible link with sonic enclaves is depicted in an old Han saying that conceives of Hui ethnicity as being nested in wider Han society.[3] Some Han, in contrast, fail to see the call to prayer as meaningful and perceive it predominantly as noise.

Achieving accommodation

Our fieldwork fell at a time when the conflict over Hongyuan Square was at its sharpest, but a more recent visit in April 2014 showed that the passage of time had permitted a form of accommodation. During the day and the evening we heard roller skate hire booths playing recorded pop music, and a large group of women practicing a line dance also to recorded music. The volume was relatively muted, and they were situated at the end of the square furthest from the qubbahs. We also observed that the roller-skating was very popular with young Muslim students who were allowed out of the mosques for leisure on Friday afternoons, thus suggesting that the ethnic and religious divide was less clear cut than it had initially appeared.




[1] Hui form 50% of the population; Han, 47%; the remaining 3% is made up largely of minorities that are officially classified as Dongxiang (东乡族), Sala (萨拉族), Bonan (保安族), and Tibetan (藏族).

[2] Known as 拱北.

[3] “回族是一个窝”. Here 窝 (wo) signifies ‘nest, shelter, place’.



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