Dongguan (alternatively, Dong Guan, or East Gate) Grand Mosque was built during the reign (CE 1368-1398) of Emperor Hongwu of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty. It thus has a history of more than 600 years. The mosque, which faces east, covers a total area of 13,602 square meters, its eclectic construction style blending features of traditional Chinese architecture and medieval Islamic architecture with other international architectural influences. The mosque, destroyed in the ravages of war, was re-created in the late 19th cenury, renovated in 1914, enlarged in 1946, and finally revamped in 1998.
The best way to describe Dongguan Grand Mosque complex is to say that it is a large open square, or courtyard, with four large buildings, one on each side – north, south, east, and west – that more or less wall off the center square. This is not a typical Islamic mosque construction as seen, for example, in the Middle East, but there can be no doubt that there are enough Islamic elements of this mosque complex to identify it as a place of Islamic worship. It has the typical large center dome and the two towering minarets on either side, and it's prayer hall faces east, the symbolic orientation of Mecca. Dongguan Grand Mosque also serves as an Islamic teaching center. There is a large, underground parking facility under the mosque complex.
To return to the physical layout of the mosque complex, the main entrance has an added, facade-like, multi-storeyed, three-sided structure which, besides serving as the new main entrance, also houses the many administrative facilities of this large mosque. The mosque complex also serves as a Koran school. The new main entrance is situated on the eastern side of the mosque complex, with the prayer hall opposite the new main entrance, i.e., on the western side of the large, open center square. On either side of this east-west axis, corresponding to a north-south axis, are located the educational facilities – classrooms, libraries, etc. – that make up the mosque complex's Koran school, as well as other structures that are used for commercial as well as administrative purposes, as will be described in more detail below.
The old main entrance still stands, albeit rebuilt and renovated over the years, on the eastern side of the complex. It is a low structure with round portals, or gates, more in the Roman/ Christian architectural style than the traditional pointed-domed style of Islamic architecture. On either side of this old main entrance stand two small, aqua-green towers, built in distinctly Chinese style, which served as the mosque's original minarets. This old main entrance structure consists in fact of two sets of gates, since on the one side, or face, of the structure – it's old main street-entrance face – it has three gates (called the "First Three Gates"), with a second set of gates, consisting of five gates (called the "Middle Five Gates"), about 30 meters beyond the first set of gates (i.e., in the direction of the center square).
This latter set of gates is constructed atop a set of marble staircases, making this old main entrance a two-level structure, whereby one entered the structure from the street – a sort of facade in fact – at one level, and emerged onto the center square at a different, higher level. Thus the center square of the mosque complex is built on a higher plane than the surrounding terrain, i.e., the surrounding city streets. Approaching the marble staircase leading up to the second gate, or the "Middle Five Gates", the visitor will see a network of word-like patterns, in iron, embedded into the steles of the second gate as well as into the steles of the older, smaller, aqua-green minarets, enhancing the artistic appeal of this section of the mosque. Passing through the "Middle Five Gates" – through which only Muslims may pass – one enters the center square with its characteristic black tiles. Arriving at this square, or courtyard, which covers an area of some 5000 square meters, the Muslim visitor senses the somber dignity of this building complex as a place of Islamic worship.
At the opposite, or western, end of this center square is the main, or prayer, hall, constructed primarily of black-lacquered wood that has weathered the climate remarkably well, with a series of steps leading up to its entrance. The name of the prayer hall, in English, is "Phoenix Spreading One Wing". This hall, which spans an area greater than 1000 square meters, exhibits an ancient Chinese architectural style, yet it is wedded to the ideals of Islam in ways that make a strong and lasting impression. The entire outer wall is made solely of black-lacquered wood, which, in spite of its somewhat weather-beaten appearance, given its exposure as an outer wall, remains solid and in excellent structural condition.
A variety of engraved patterns are to be found on either side of the corridor leading to the prayer hall, and on either side of the the hall's entrance gate are nine brick screens engraved with ingenious flower patterns. These simple yet elegant screens are considered not only as religious artifacts, but also as works of art in themselves. At the center of the hall itself stand three glittering, golden columns. The area immediately in front of the prayer hall is covered in the same wooden flooring as the prayer hall itself, injecting an atmosphere of simple dignity to the mosque.
To complete the picture of the layout of Dongguan Grand Mosque, a new, broader entrance structure has been grafted onto (constructed in front of) the old main entrance structure. This latter structure is also facade-like – it is only 10 meters or so deep – but it is multi-storeyed, and has short extensions, or wings, flanking it on both sides (north and south). Thus the new facade is a three-sided affair, with the center section – the new main entrance, which also faces east – being the longest section.
This latter section is in turn in two vertical planes (think of the sub-sections of this front facade wall as being staggered), where the center sub-section, which spans the space between the two new, extremely tall minarets, is positioned well in front of the end sub-sections of this new entrance/ facade, and where the end sub-sections then make an abrupt, 90-degree turn, becoming the north-side flank, or wing, and the south-side flank, or wing, such that the new entrance/ facade wraps around the entire front portion of the mosque complex in an embrace, as it were.
The new, tall minarets therefore do not stand at the front corners of the mosque complex, but stand slightly offset towards the center, where the center sub-section of the front section of the new entrance/ facade ends. The two flanks of the new entrance/ facade – the north-side and south-side flanks – serve as a commercial building and an administration building, respectively. The latter building, apart from serving as the offices of management, also includes a reception room, classrooms, a dining room, and a dormitory.
Two, old-style (traditional Chinese style) wooden buildings are located on the mosque grounds, one on the north side and one on the south side of the center square – and thus in extension of the two new wings, or flanks that form part of the new entrance/ facade. The old-style wooden building on the north side consists of a reception room, a room for storing religious texts, a meeting room, and other related rooms. The old-style wooden building on the south side consists primarily of classrooms and housing quarters for the aspiring imams who study here, as well as of various ancillary rooms for the teaching staff. The funeral room is located at the back, or street side, of the latter building, as are the men's and women's bathrooms.
The overall design of the mosque complex is orderly and purposeful. The front sub-section of the new entrance/ facade of the mosque, each corner topped with its towering new minaret, together with the end sub-sections of this facade with its wrap-around effect on either flank, present an imposing outward impression to the visitor as well as to the Muslim devotee, while the series of successive interior gates, individually and collectively, are laid out in a supremely stately, Chinese-influenced manner that contributes to the sense of religious devotion that permeates Dongguan Grand Mosque.