The Meeting beetwen Chinese and Arabic Calligraphy Styles

Abdurrahman Hanif
8 min readNov 15, 2020
Fig 1. Map of the distribution of Arabic calligraphy types. abdrhnf


Calligraphy is an art that has been popular in China since ancient times, as well as Arabic Calligraphy in the Middle East and Persia at that time. When Islam came, the writing culture developed rapidly as well as the calligraphy style. During the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) the two Asian cultures established trade relations through the land and sea Silk Route, and as a result they knew each other’s culture, ideology, art, and knowledge.

Fig 2. Map of the Silk Route.

In the 8th century, traders from the Middle East, Persia, and Central Asia began to settle around the Silk Road inside China, then assimilated with the Han tribes and formed the Hui tribe, they carried the habit of writing names on headstones in Arabic script style based on their place of origin. Then after some time, the cultural differences between Chinese and Arab residents affected the way they communicated. Chinese people borrow a few words from the Persian language for some exotic goods such as grapes, pomegranates, and animals foreign to Chinese residents such as lions. More interestingly, a new writing system emerged, namely Xiao Er Jing (小兒 經) or Children’s Script, which allowed Chinese characters to be written phonetically using Arabic characters and used to teach Chinese characters to children in the Arab descent community. In contrast, Jing Tang Jiao Yu (经 堂 教育) or Chinese Madrasah Language, is the phonetic use of Chinese characters to write Arabic. Both are very interesting and I will discuss them in another article, inshaAllah.

As relations with Muslim countries faded, partly due to travel and trade restrictions, local calligraphy began to influence the writing style of Muslim communities living in China. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), a combination of calligraphy forms which had new characteristics began to develop and that is called Sini (Arabic Calligraphy in Chinese Traditions).

Fig 3. Calligraphy Sini at the Tuogu Mosque complex, Yunnan.

Sini Calligraphy

Sini” is the Arabic term for “China” and is the name for this Chinese style Arabic calligraphy. Often used on the media board that reads Tasmia (basmalah), Shahada, or other prayer sentences, and is installed above the entrance to the mosque. some examples of their use are also found in ceramics, utensils, stone carvings, and on wooden walls or windows.

Fig 4. Calligraphy Gallery

In general, Sini Calligraphy has the characteristic of a flowing and flexible brush, with a taper final shape similar to that of the Chinese Lishu Calligraphy / Clerical Script.

Fig 5. Chinese Arabic Calligraphy tools.

In some types of Sini, Chinese calligraphy brushes can be used for writing, but generally Sini is written using bamboo or flat wood, the ends of which have a cloth tied together as a brush so that it is soft unlike the qalam (pen) used in Arabic calligraphy and has a hard tip. The soft pen allows the use of Rice Paper instead of muqohar paper which is required if using qalam because the coating is harder. The ink used is Chinese calligraphy ink, which is a darker color than Arabic calligraphy ink.

Fig 6. Calligraphy Pen Here the tip needs to be wrapped in cloth as a brush.

There is also a special Sini pen that has been shaped in such a way as to make writing easier (Fig 6). Below is a video about preparing a pen to write calligraphy Sini by Haji Noor Deen.

Haji Noor Deen Hoca Demonstrating how to Wrap Chinese Pen. Deen Arts Foundation Youtube’s Channel
Fig 7. Songjiang Mosque, Shanghai. wikipedia

Arabic writing is generally easy to see from its shape which extends horizontally from right to left and uses nuqtah/dots as a letter proportional measurement tool. Whereas Sini is sometimes written vertically, like Chinese Calligraphy, and sometimes it is not continuous according to the rules of Arabic writing in general, and does not have a certain proportion of sizes but can still be read as an Arabic word. Here is also often made in one word in the form of a diamond and is usually found on mosque poles (Fig 7 & 19). In addition to the ketupat/square form, Arabic words written in Sini calligraphy, are also often wrapped into other forms such as circles, rectangles, triangles, or other shapes reminiscent of Chinese characters that have a composition and resemble a certain shape.

Fig 8. (Left) “Ya Mustafa”. Calligraphy painting in the form of Chinese “grass characters” or Cao Shu characters, by Ma Donghua. Collection at the West Mosque, Cangzhou, Hebei. (Right) ancient Chinese calligraphy presenting the character Hu (tiger). Emphasis placed on one line down is common in Chinese calligraphy painting with single characters.
Fig 9. Xi’an Grand Mosque, Shaanxi. Chinese Islamic Cultural Society

As relations with Muslim countries faded, partly due to travel and trade restrictions, local calligraphy began to influence the writing style of Muslim communities living in China. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), a combination of calligraphy forms which had new characteristics began to develop and that is called Sini (Arabic Calligraphy in Chinese Traditions).

Due to a lack of advanced research (at this time) I tried to category my own version of Here based on its form and function, please take this with a grain of salt:

1. Calligraphy in the kitab

Fig 10. Surah Yasin from the nineteenth century Quran with Chinese translation, owned by the Muslim Admiral in Amoy / Xiamen (BL IO Islamic 3440, f. 13v-14r).

This type of style is usually used for the Quran or a kitab/book that functions as a reading, because the letters are quite clear and are more like Arabic writing in general than here other types. The influence of local Chinese writing can be seen from the strong line character and the final sharp resulting from the strokes on the brush.

Fig 11. Calligraphy collection at the Great Mosque of Xi’an, by Imam Ma (Muhammad Fudayl). Chinese Islamic Cultural Society
Fig 12. Sini combined with the decorations from the 17th century Quran.

2. General Style

Fig 13. Quran with Xiaoerjing. wikipedia

Written using a typical Sini pen which is flat and covered with a cloth, this type of shape is the Sini form that is common in China until now. Here this type has good legibility, is written from right to left and is layout similar to Tsuluts which distinguishes it is a more fluid shape adjusting the soft Sini pen with a longer brush stroke than Middle Eastern Arabic calligraphy. It is not difficult to find this type of Sini because it is widely used by the Muslim community in China to write Arabic text which is usually on a board or decoration and hung in front of a house, shop, or as a mosque board.

When someone mentions Calligraphy Sini, it is usually meant for this type because it is most common in China with its unique characteristics different from Arabic calligraphy in the Middle East, Persia, or North Africa.

Fig 14. Calligraphy Here at Bukui Mosque, Qiqihar, Heilongjiang. wikimedia
Fig 15. Calligraphy at Dongguan Mosque, Xining. Flickr
Fig 16. Calligraphy at Halal Restaurant.
Fig 17. Calligarphy at Daowai Masjid, Harbin. Flickr

3. Iconization Style

Fig 18. Diamond ligature calligraphy on the pillar of the Great Mosque of Xi’an, Shaanxi. Flickr

This type of style is writing a word into a particular form, generally a diamond or circle. This seems to be influenced by the Chinese people who are accustomed to Chinese characters which are logograms, namely characters consisting of logos / icons. So this influence made the Chinese Muslim community start writing Arabic words into one composition of a form.

Fig 19. Calligraphy style in the form of a diamond on the pillar of the Great Mosque of Xi’an, Shaanxi. Flickr
Fig 20. Hohhot Masjid, Inner Mongolia. Pinterest

Besides the diamond shape, There is also circular and square.

Fig 21. Great Mosque of Xi’an, Shaanxi. Chinese Islamic Cultural Society
Fig 22. Imam Yahya Ma Yi Ping Collection, behind him is calligraphy with a square shape. Sujimy
Fig 23. Hohhot Masjid, Inner Mongolia. Flickr

4. Contemporary Arabic Chinese Calligraphy

Fig 24. Haji Noor Deen work. Buckinghamhsiao

After the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was stopped, Muslims in China started to rebuild their culture. Some Chinese Muslims have started going abroad to study Islam in Egypt, Turkey, Saudi and other Middle Eastern countries. This openness led to the experimentation on Sini being carried out, and the contemporary Sini developed. Haji Noor Deen Mi Guang Jiang is one of the world-famous Sini calligraphy masters, his famous work is Asmaul Husna, which is to write 99 names of Allah that resemble Chinese characters but can be read as Arabic as well (Fig 25).

Imam Yahya Ma Yi Ping, Imam at the Great Xi’an Mosque, created a calligraphy style that could be read in Chinese and Arabic (figure 26). sentence 真主 至大 (zhen zhu zhi da, “Allah is great”) when the paper is rotated 90 degrees it reads the sentence Basmalah. Other well-known Sini calligraphers include Haji Yusuf Chen Jin Hui, Haji Abdu Hakim, and Japanese Muslim calligrapher Kouichi Honda.

Fig 25. Asmaul Husna and Basmalah by Haji Noor Deen.
Fig 26. Reads 真主至大 (zhen zhu zhi da, “Allah is great”), when the paper is rotated 90 degrees, it is read as بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم (Bismillahirrahmanirrahim). Buckinghamhsiao
Fig 27. Contemporary calligraphy shaping a crane by Yusuf Chen Jinhui. Pinterest

Unfortunately, some of the traditional Sini calligraphy is missing. The cause is none other than the events of the Cultural Revolution in China (1966–1976) which destroyed many works of Islamic art. Also some Chinese Muslims who criticized the mosque building for using traditional Chinese art and architectural styles, eventually many samples of Sini’s calligraphy were removed and replaced with Arabic calligraphy styles from the Middle East.

Hopefully this article can increase knowledge about the art of calligraphy, especially in Asia. Here is a field that has not been widely explored so I hope someone who is more knowledgeable can make research on this. It’s great to see two art cultures becoming something new and exciting… and Sini is one of them.

Sini Awaits You To Explore!

Wallahu A’lam

This is a translation of my previous article in Bahasa Indonesia

Abdurrahman Hanif (Instagram: @abdrhnf)