One of the country's largest statues of sage Lao Tzu sits at the Qingyuan Mountain. Chen Yingjie/For China Daily
BEIJING, March 4 (Xinhuanet) -- Get away from the crowds in Xiamen and seek out the quieter pleasures in Quanzhou, a city with a rich maritime history that was once a melting pot of the world's religions. Sun Li tours Fujian province's lesser-known tourist attraction.
Many travelers visiting East China's Fujian province head straight for Xiamen, a seaside city widely regarded as the area's biggest tourist draw. But nearby Quanzhou, packed with culture and history, is just as worthy of your time.
Famous as the start of the Maritime Silk Road and the largest port in Asia during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, Quanzhou was once visited by legendary travelers, such as Marco Polo and Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, who compared Quanzhou to the Egyptian port of Alexandria.
The Quanzhou Maritime Museum is an ideal place to learn about the harbor city's rich history.
Designed to resemble a sailing ship, the museum, one of very few maritime-themed museums in the country, offers free entry and a free tour guide.
The museum boasts a number of replicas of ancient boats, ranging from brigs and schooners to battleships from different dynasties.
Among them is a medium-sized boat featuring a host of cabins, built in the Song Dynasty by local Quanzhou shipbuilders. It is said to be one of the most popular vessels used for trade at that time.
Documents reveal that these boats, made in Quanzhou, carried Chinese silk, jade and porcelain to eastern Africa and the Mediterranean, and they returned with foreigners intent on doing business or preaching religion in China.
A hall displaying religious steles carved to pay tribute to the deceased foreign merchants and missionaries reflects Quanzhou's status as a "World Museum of Religions", as named by UNESCO.
One can find a delicate cultural fusion in the collection, which contains 138 Islamic pieces, 133 Hindu, 44 Christian and one Manichean.
While some gravestones mix Chinese, Persian and Arabic language, several Christian tombstones bear interesting images of angels resembling Apsaras - female cloud and water spirits from Buddhist mythology.
Not far from the maritime museum is the majestic Qingjing Mosque, another admirable example of Quanzhou's tolerance of the world's religions.
Also known as the Ashab Mosque, it was built to resemble a mosque in Damascus, Syria, in 1009, and it is one of the oldest Arab-style mosques in China.
The 20-meter-high arched gate made of green granite looks quite exotic as its domes are carved with lotus and Arabic scriptures.
Islamic preachers followed Arabic trade contacts to Quanzhou as early as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and the Ashab Mosque's worshipping hall later became the center of Islamic worship in the region.
Although the hall's large dome collapsed during an earthquake, the open-air, spacious and grassy field dotted with gigantic pillars still evokes an awe-inspiring sense of solemnity under the clear sky.
The mosque is only a short drive away from the Kaiyuan Temple, the province's largest Buddhist temple.
The temple became the city's iconic landmark thanks to its two five-story pagodas that have survived earthquakes and harsh weather.
Both built in the 13th century, the twin pagodas feature lifelike cameos related to Buddhist mythology.
At the base of each pagoda, there are eight sculptures of bare-chested midgets, each demonstrating amazing craftsmanship. All sculptures are rather small, but they are varied in their expressions and gestures. While a midget bares his teeth in agony, another seems to hold his breath and exert all his strength.
Each story of the pagoda highlights sculptures of guardians, such as gods and Buddhist warriors.