This essay is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...

In the 1930s, several groups of Muslim students from China arrived to study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. They were destined to play an important role in the history of modern Chinese Islam.[1] These 35 Chinese Azharites, all but two from the Sinophone Hui community, helped China to establish lasting links with Egypt and other Muslim countries in the Middle East. They also left a considerable cultural legacy, including translations of crucial texts from both the Islamic and Chinese traditions.

After returning to China, many of the Azharites became intellectual and political leaders of the Hui community, roles they continued to play in both continental China and Taiwan after the establishment of two competing Chinese states in 1949. Both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China utilized these highly educated men in their diplomacy, putting former colleagues on two opposing sides of the deep political divide. Yet regardless of their post-1949 citizenship, the Chinese Azharites remained loyal to a similar vision of modernized Chinese Islam. Drawing on the example of “Arabic purity” they learned in Egypt, they sought to reconcile the Islamic and Chinese components of the Hui identity and to use the resources of both civilizations for the benefit of the entire Chinese nation-state.[2]

This national project with a common cause was the result of decades of intellectual ferment within Chinese Muslim scholarly circles. The Chinese Azharites were products of modernist Muslim schools that Hui literati had been busy establishing since the late Qing dynasty. One major goal of the modernist Muslim elites was to impart to young leaders―religious and lay―sufficient linguistic skills and knowledge of the modern Muslim world so that they could act as intermediaries between China and Islam. It was hoped that these rising leaders would inject the Chinese Islamic practice with new ideas based on a better understanding of the “original” Islam found in the Middle East.

The Yunnanese Pioneers

Al-Azhar had stood at the center of the Sino-Muslim quest for authentic Arab Islam since at least 1845, when Ma Dexin (1794-1874), the famous Islamic scholar from Yunnan, visited the university and briefly studied there. Ma described his time at Al-Azhar and its importance for Muslim jurisprudence in the immensely influential work Record of the Pilgrimage Journey (Chaojin Tuji), the first practical “guidebook” to routes linking China with the Islamic world. His student Ma Lianyuan (1841-1903) followed in his teacher’s footsteps and stayed at the university in the 1870s. Given Ma Dexin’s intellectual and practical legacy, it was not surprising that the Muslim community of Yunnan was at the forefront of Chinese Muslim efforts to send students to Al-Azhar.

In 1928, influenced by both Mas’ respect for Al-Azhar as the central legal authority of the Muslim world, Yunnanese Muslims sought the university’s judgment in a conflict between traditionalists (adherents to the so-called “old teaching,” or Gedimu) and their scripturalist opposition (the “Muslim Brotherhood,” or Yihewani). In their reply, the legal authorities of Al-Azhar called on the Chinese Muslims to reconcile their differences and abandon quarrels over trivial matters. This fresh Middle Eastern perspective on Hui internal divisions convinced the local elites that closer ties with Al-Azhar might provide a remedy for the escalating conflict over Islamic authenticity.[3]

Despite sporadic visits to Al-Azhar by individual Hui scholars from other parts of the country in the 1920s (most notably by Imams Wang Jingzhai from Tianjin and Ha Decheng from Shanghai), it was only in 1930 that the Yunnanese chapter of the Chinese Islamic Progressive Association (Zhongguo Hujiao Jujinhui) took concrete steps to organize a delegation. Inspired by the visit of Afghan Azharite scholar Daja Muhammad, the association asked for his help in arranging contact with the Al-Azhar authorities, who agreed to host four students from the association’s Mingde Muslim School for a full program of study.[4]

The student group, which left for Egypt in late 1931 [see image #1 left], included two men who subsequently became leading Chinese scholars of Islam and Arabic culture: Ma Jian (1906-1978) and Na Zhong (1909-2008). During his years in Cairo, the former made contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood and its publishers. In 1934, the Salafi Publishing House published Ma Jian’s book, Overview of the History of Islam in China and Conditions of Muslims Therein, the first volume-length presentation of Muslim Chinese history in Arabic.[5] A year later, the same press released another milestone publication, Ma’s translation of the Confucian Analects into Arabic, which gave Middle Eastern audiences their first chance to become acquainted with this crucial source of Chinese tradition.

While in Cairo, Ma also translated Risalat al-Tawhid and Tafsir al-Manar, both written by Muhammad Abduh, though the latter was finalized by his student Rashid Ridah (a personal acquaintance of Ma).[6] In 1939, Ma returned to China and continued his efforts as China’s leading Arabic scholar, first working on a translation of the Qur’an into Chinese (initially with Ha Decheng’s assistance until the imam’s death in 1943), which remains a popular choice for readers for its strictly linguistic approach. In 1946, he became professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures at Peking University, the first Chinese state university to introduce an Arabic major.[7]

Ma remained politically active throughout his career, and after the Communist victory and establishment of the PRC, he was elected to be a member of China’s Political Consultative Conference (CPCC) in 1949. With his strong Arabic skills, he was frequently employed as an Arabic interpreter for important state leaders, including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Liu Shaoqi.[8] Despite the political upheavals of the Maoist era, Ma kept his positions as deputy of the CPCC and professor at Peking University until his death in 1976, training a whole generation of Chinese Arabic and Islamic scholars.

Ma Jian’s fellow Yunnanese colleague from the first Chinese Azharite group, Na Zhong, also became a well established academic on his return to China. While in Cairo, he studied Arabic and Islamic history and translated several books on Muslim history into Chinese. He then returned to China in 1942, teaching first in Chongqing and then moving to Yunnan University in 1947. In Yunnan, Na established the Arabic language program and taught without interruption through the civil war and Communist victory. In 1958, the PRC government asked him to move to Beijing, where he remained the Arabic professor at the Foreign Affairs University until his retirement.[9] Like Ma Jian, Na Zhong trained a whole generation of Chinese Arabic scholars, many from non-Muslim backgrounds, becoming one of the founding fathers of Chinese Arabic and Islamic studies.

The strong Yunnanese links with Al-Azhar helped to make the students from the province the single largest contingent among the Chinese Azharites. In addition to the five members of the initial group, five more followed as members of the subsequent four delegations—one group in 1932, two in 1934, and the largest in 1938.

The Azharites from Eastern Chinese Muslim Schools

Following the Yunnanese trailblazers, the modernist Muslim circles of East China—centered around schools in Beijing (the Chengda Normal School) and Shanghai (the Shanghai Islamic Normal School)—began their own program of sending students to Al-Azhar. These two institutions, established in 1925 and 1928, respectively, formed the central axis of Sino-Muslim modernization efforts and were closely connected with the Yunnanese Muslims through personal ties and organizational links like the Chinese Islamic Progressive Association.

Ma Jian studied at the Shanghai school from 1929 to 1931 and knew the Chengda school’s rector, Imam Ma Songting (1895-1992). The Chengda school’s influential magazine Yuehua had been publishing reports sent in by the first Yunnanese Azharites since the beginning of their stay in Egypt, inspiring a desire among the school’s students to study in Cairo.[10]

In 1932, the first group of five Chengda students left for Egypt accompanied by Ma Songting [see image #2 left], who met not only with the rector of Al-Azhar, Muhammad al-Ahmadi al-Zawahiri, but also with King Fuad. The king promised to protect the Chinese students visiting Al-Azhar and to invite more of them in the future.[11] He also decided to dispatch two Al-Azhar shaykhs to teach at Chengda, where they remained for four years until the Japanese invasion in 1937.

During his 1932 meetings in Cairo, Ma Songting was presented with more than 400 Arabic books, which became the nucleus of Chengda’s library collection. A special building was erected between 1934 and 1936 on the grounds of the Dongsi Mosque (Chengda’s seat) to house the growing collection.[12] The library [see image #3 left] was named the Fude (i.e., Fuad) Library in honor of the late monarch, who passed away in April 1936. 

In late 1936, Ma Songting visited Egypt again to meet with Fuad’s son and successor, the teenage King Farouk, who took a strong interest in Chinese Muslims and promised to cover travel expenses and tuition at Al-Azhar for 20 additional Chinese students.

This so-called “Farouk group” eventually had 16 members and left China in dramatic circumstances in 1938, evading the Japanese invasion forces. It was spearheaded by Pang Shiqian (1902-1958), a Henanese imam who (like Ma Jian several years earlier) became a published author in Egypt. His 1945 book China and Islam, printed by the Muslim Brotherhood, caused quite a stir among Middle Eastern readers and was even better received than Ma Jian’s earlier contribution.[13]            

Pang remained in Egypt for nine years, closely collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, which made him a functionary in its outreach section. A memoir describing his time in Egypt was published in 1951 and continues to be an important source of information about the Chinese Azharites, even though it is somewhat distorted by the politics of the early PRC.[14]

With the Sino-Japanese war devastating their country, the Chinese Azharites began actively disseminating Chinese counterpropaganda, working to thwart Japanese attempts to win the support of the Muslim world. In 1939, the Chinese students of Al-Azhar organized a successful hajj mission to overshadow a pilgrimage of Japanese-sponsored Muslim collaborators from northern China.[15] In the same year, a Chinese consulate was established in Jeddah, and Wang Shiming (1910-1997), a recent Al-Azhar graduate and member of the 1932 Chengda group, was named vice consul.[16]

When the 1949 Communist victory forced many Chinese people to make dramatic choices, Wang Shiming and four other Azharites chose to stay away from the new Maoist China and continue their services for the Nationalists. Wang and Ding Zhongming (1913-2005) served as ROC diplomats in the Middle East before becoming full-time imams serving the young Muslim community of Taiwan. Ding, much like Ma Jian and Na Zhong on the continent, worked as a university academic, teaching Arabic and heading Chengchi University’s Arabic department from 1979 to 1987.[17]


The ambitious program of sending Chinese Muslim men to study at the Islamic world’s most famous university produced a relatively small but devoted and intellectually active group of scholars. They proved to be not only bridge-builders bringing China and Islam closer together, but also community leaders who helped the Islamic Chinese culture survive through the political upheavals of the twentieth century and emerge strengthened by new links with the wider Muslim world.

[1] As such, the history of the Chinese Azharites has been the subject of intensive scrutiny by scholars— including Western academics—in the past two decades. For an excellent overview of the historical background and the momentous role that Hui graduates of Al-Azhar played in the construction of Chinese Muslim modernity, see Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, “Nine Years in Egypt: Al-Azhar and the Arabization of Chinese Islam,” HAGAR Studies in Culture, Polity and Identities 8 (2008): 1-21; Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, “Taking Abduh to China: Chinese-Egyptian Intellectual Contact in the Early Twentieth Century,” in James L. Gelvin, Nile Green, eds., Global Muslims in the Age of Steel and Print (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014), 249-267; and John T. Chen, “Re-Orientation: The Chinese Azharites between Umma and Third World,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 34, 1 (May 2014): 24-51. See also John T. Chen’s essay in this series.

[2] Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, “Nine Years in Egypt,” 11.

[3] Yao Jide, “Zhongguo Liu'ai Huizu Xuesheng Paiqian Shimo,“ in Wang Yongliang and He Zhiming, eds., Shoujie Huizu Lishi yu Wenhua Guoji Xueshu Taolunhui Lunwenji (Yinchuan: Ningxia Renmin Chubanshe, 2003), 328-335.

[4] Ma Bozhong, “Jinxiandai Zhongguo Liu'ai Huizu Xuesheng Lishi Jianshu,” in Ma Bozhong, Na Jiarui, and Li Jiangong, eds., Licheng: Minguo Liu'ai Huizu Xuesheng Paiqian Shi Yanjiu (Yinchuan: Ningxia Renmin Chubanshe, 2011), 2. The leader and supervisor of the group, Sha Guozhen (1884-1970), used his time in Cairo to pursue studies not only at Al-Azhar but also at the American University, from which he obtained an MA in education.

[5] Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, “Nine Years in Egypt,” 3.

[6] Ma Jian, “Jiaoyi: Renzhuxue Dagang,” Yuehua 5, 27 (1933).

[7] Ma Haiyun, “Patriotic and Pious Muslim Intellectuals in Modern China: The Case of Ma Jian,” The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 23, 3 (2006): 57.

[8] Li Zhenzhong, Xuezhe de Zhuiqiu: Ma Jian Zhuan (Yinchuan: Ningxia Renmin Chubanshe, 2000).

[9] Ma Bozhong and Na Jiarui, “Minguo Liu’Ai Huizu Xuesheng Shengping Shilüe,” in Ma Bozhong, Na Jiarui, and Li Jiangong, eds., Licheng. Minguo Liu'ai Huizu Xuesheng Paiqian Shi Yanjiu, 13-15.

[10] Both the Shanghai and Beijing school had Azharite-influenced imams among their founders. Ha Decheng (1888-1843), who founded the Shanghai school, studied in Cairo in the 1920s. The important reformist Imam Wang Jingzhai (1879-1949), who studied individually at Al-Azhar in 1922-1923, was professionally connected with both schools. Ha, Wang, Ma Songting, and Imam Da Pusheng (1874-1965)— who was another founder of the Shanghai school and maintained close contacts with the Beijing Muslim educators—are collectively known as the “four great imams” of twentieth-century Chinese Islam.

[11] Liu Dongsheng, “Chengda Shifan Xuexiao Xiaoshi Shuyao,” in Ma Bozhong and Chen Hui, eds., Jiqing yu Kundun: Chengda Shifan zhi Xingshuai (Qingzhen Shuju, 2006).

[12] Liu Dongsheng, “Chengda Shifan Xuexiao Xiaoshi Shuyao.”

[13] Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, “Nine Years in Egypt,” 1.

[14] See Pang Shiqian, Aiji Jiunian (Beijing: Zhongguo Yisilanjiao Xiehui, 1988).

[15] Yufeng Mao, “A Muslim Vision for the Chinese Nation: Chinese Pilgrimage Missions to Mecca during World War II,” The Journal of Asian Studies 70 (2011): 373­395.

[16] Yufeng Mao, “A Muslim Vision for the Chinese Nation,” 373­395.

[17] Jia Fukang, Taiwan Huijiao Shi, (Taibei: Yisilan Wenhua Fuwushe, 2005), 293.

Photo credits: Image #1 above is from "Yuehua" magazine, Year 4, No. 10-12 (April 5, 1932). Image #2 is from "Yugong" magazine, Year 5, No. 11 (August 1, 1936). Image #3 is a photograph taken by the author in March 2011.

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