The Great Mosque of Tongxin was built in 1573 during the reign of Ming Emperor Wanli (1563-1620) and rebuilt about fifty years later under the Qing Dynasty. It is located in the hills above the old city of Tongxin and just south of the Great Wall, which was extended by the predecessor of Emperor Wanli. One of the largest mosques in the Hui Autonomous Region of Ningxia, the Great Mosque of Tongxin incorporates traditional Han elements into Hui Islamic architecture and is akin to early coastal mosques in its synthesis of traditional Chinese and imported Islamic styles, in spite of its inland location and later date.
The mosque complex sits on an irregularly shaped brick platform that is ten meters tall and about fifty-five meters at its longest. The structures are oriented along the east-west axis atop the platform, which is accessed with a series of steps at the gateway.
The prayer hall, which is thirty-five meters long and twenty meters wide, dominates the platform. It has a shallow crucifix plan composed of three sections: entry portico, central hall and qibla iwan projecting west. Its timber-frame is encased in brick. The roof of the central hall is carried on four columns, which are moved out of alignment with the columns of the portico and the qibla area to create quite a dynamic interior. Three distinct yet linked roofs mark the three successive spaces on the exterior. The central hall and the qibla area have pitched roofs, whereas the portico is sheltered by the round bump of a lower rolled-shed roof.
The elaborate detailing of the structural wooden elements of the mosque are unique to Ningxia and to Gansu and Qinghai, which lie to the west. (See Great Mosque of Xining). Supporting the roofs are five tiers of ruyi type dougong brackets. The convex eaves of the roof reveal the numerous rafters of the wooden structure below. Clusters of these elaborate brackets, combined with the tiered capitals supporting them, create a visually rich transition from the columns to the roof. Dougong brackets were reserved for use in special buildings such as temples and palaces during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Floral wooden latticework adorns the lambrequins of the portico.
The portico of the prayer hall opens onto a courtyard to the east, which is flanked by lecture halls to the north and south; they are a Ming addition to the local mosque typology. The complex was originally entered from a gateway facing south, of which only the drum stone remains today. The present entrance, which was the second gateway, is aligned with the prayer hall and faces west.
This entrance consists of a passageway crowned by a bangke or, moon-watching tower, followed by a stairway that leads up to the platform level. The passageway is divided into three narrow corridors with walls that support the tower above. Used also used as a minaret, the tower rises to the height of the mosque roof in two stories. Each story is pillared and open, protected by wooden lattice balustrades. The corners of the towers' hipped roofs are lifted, revealing five tiers of dougong brackets, with an extra set of rafters that mimic the carved lambrequin details of the interior rafters.
A yingbi or zhaobi, the traditional brick screen that shields direct views, precedes the entryway. It is richly carved with a moonlit landscape of pine and cypress trees and Chinese calligraphy. Its tile roof is carried on dougong brackets and is crowned with openwork floral motifs anchored at either end with dragonheads.
Qiu, Yulan. Ancient Chinese Architecture: Islamic Buildings, edited by Sun Dazhang, 132, 144, 152,160. Vienna: Springer-Verlag, 2003.