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 ...

When Na Zhong, Professor of Arabic at Beijing Foreign Studies University, passed away in 2008, his funeral at the headquarters of China’s Islamic Association was attended by many notable Muslims and scholars of Islam. Biographies and reminiscences characterize him as both an accomplished Muslim scholar and a Chinese patriot. Indeed, Na Zhong’s accomplishments are impressive. He was among the founders of Arabic programs at National Central University (later Nanjing University), Yunnan University, and Foreign Affairs University (which later merged with Beijing Foreign Studies University). During his lifetime, he published dozens of volumes of original and translated works on Islamic civilization, the history of the Arab world, and the Arabic language. He was also patriotic, participating in many activities seen as advancing Chinese national interests in the Islamic world.

But this description of Na Zhong fits too neatly into an official narrative that tends to gloss over tensions Sino-Muslims experience between the different aspects of their identity. This paper looks beyond this narrative to show that Na Zhong’s visions and ambitions did not always harmonize with the official account. Though now widely portrayed as an unquestioning patriot, in reality Na Zhong negotiated a complex ethno-religious identity and an equally complicated relationship with the Chinese state, under both Nationalist and Communist rule.

Na Zhong was born in 1909 in Na Jiaying, a small town in Yunnan province, where the Na family claims to be descendants of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a central Asian Muslim governor of Yunnan during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). When Na Zhong was one year old, his mother took him to Kunming to join his father, a peddler. His family being very poor, Na Zhong was sent to study at two different mosques, where education for Muslim children was free. At the mosques, he studied Islamic scriptures in Arabic. Not satisfied with pure religious education, Na Zhong managed to enroll in a secular elementary school and later a French school, where he studied diverse subjects that included Chinese, French, mathematics, botany, and drawing.[1]

At the age of 20, Na Zhong became involved in editing Qingzhen Duobao, a journal published by a few educated Muslims in Kunming to promote a range of ideas associated with the ongoing Islamic modernist program. By this time, Na Zhong had published a few dozen articles on both religious and secular subjects. One of these contained sharp criticism of a novel written by Guo Moruo, the famous Communist writer and leader.[2] The young Na Zhong had thus come to see himself as a scholar with opinions that included but also ranged beyond religious affairs. However, he was particularly concerned with issues facing his predominantly Muslim Hui community in Yunnan. Like many other Muslim modernist reformers at the time, Na Zhong was dissatisfied with the instruction he received at the mosque and formed strong opinions about the poor education available to Muslim children. One of the articles he contributed to Qingzhen Duobao reflected on this topic.

Na Zhong’s desire to strengthen education for Muslims grew out of his personal experience as a Hui Muslim boy raised in a largely non-Muslim society. In 1932, three months after arriving in Cairo as a member of the first official delegation of students from China to study at al-Azhar University, he published a letter in Yuehua magazine explaining that he was studying abroad with the aim of improving Islamic education in China.

At that time he did not elaborate further, but in an interview given much later in his life, he described a difficult personal experience that had motivated him to pursue this goal. During an outing when he was a young teenager, non-Muslim classmates put pork on his plate when he was not paying attention. After he had finished his meal, they laughed and teased him with derogatory chanting, resulting in a fistfight between Na Zhong and his tormentors. He could not understand why they hated him simply for not eating pork, but he also felt deeply frustrated because he himself did not know the reason for the taboo.[3]

The experience fueled a determination to learn more about his religion and his heritage. After hearing a history teacher describe Arab Islamic culture as both famous throughout the world and highly advanced, Na Zhong made up his mind to go abroad and learn even more about the history and heritage of Islam.[4] Behind these watershed moments was a desire to feel proud of, and more grounded in, his religion and his ethno-religious community.

At age 22, having just settled in Cairo, Na Zhong looked for introductory books on the basics of Islam. The first thing he found and read was a middle school textbook, which taught him many basics of the religion, including why Muslims did not eat pork.[5] At the age of 22, he found such information gratifying, but it also saddened him to grasp how ignorant his community in China was about aspects of their religion considered common knowledge among middle school students in Egypt.[6] This anecdote demonstrates why Muslim modernists in China were eager to improve religious education for Muslims. Na Zhong’s desire for respect from his non-Muslim Chinese compatriots had provoked him to seek out in-depth knowledge about Islamic culture and heritage, and he planned to introduce it to the broader Chinese public.

Shortly after he arrived in Cairo, Na Zhong made a decision to focus on the history of Arab and Islamic civilization. In 1934, he published his translation of the middle school textbook noted above, titled Islam.[7] In 1936, after one year of preparation, Na Zhong passed a day-long exam to become the first and only Chinese student to obtain the “scholar” degree at the old campus of al-Azhar University,[8] an achievement that remained a point of pride for him throughout his life.[9] He then went on to study at the College of History at al-Azhar, where he specialized in Arab and Islamic history. He translated more works on Arab and Islamic culture, including Kudi Ali’s Islamic Arab Civilization, parts of which appeared in Yuehua in 1936.[10] Due to his acquaintance with Ahmed Amin, a well-known Egyptian scholar, Na Zhong received permission to attend classes at Cairo University,[11] and this relationship would later lead to Na Zhong’s translation of Ahmed Amin’s eight-volume History of Arab Islamic Culture.

Na Zhong’s experience in Egypt helped him develop an identity as a representative of the Chinese Muslim community in the broader Islamic world. In 1932, he described how embarrassed he and his fellow Chinese students were when, attending the World Islamic Conference in Palestine, they were asked by a Russian representative why China had not sent representatives to the conference. “We had no answer to that,” Na Zhong wrote to his readers in China in 1932.[12]

In October 1938, Na Zhong participated in the Conference of the World Congress of Arab and Islamic Countries for the Defense of Palestine,[13] and this time he spoke as the representative of China:

Gentlemen, I announce in the name of all Chinese Muslims, whose number exceeds 50 million, our identification with Muslims of the world, and our support for every resolution of this conference together with Muslims of the world, because the resolutions are for successful defense of the Palestinian cause.

I also announce in the name of my Muslim countrymen our denunciation of colonial policies aimed at eliminating Arab Islamic Palestine. And I reiterate in the name of Chinese Muslims our readiness to make effort and sacrifice for Palestine.[14]

It is worth pondering Na Zhong’s repeated claim that he was speaking in the name of all Muslims in China. He did not doubt that he was representing all Chinese Muslims, and that they were all one body. Indeed, his conviction that “50 million” Chinese Muslims were behind the cause would have been a great boost to the morale of the conference, whose organizers printed Na Zhong’s speech in the collection of conference speeches under the title “Word of China.”[15] Both sides were therefore complicit in constructing Na Zhong as representative of the entire “Chinese Muslim community.”

Like other Hui students at al-Azhar, Na Zhong saw the advantages of maintaining a strong relationship with the Chinese state. While in Egypt, he maintained close contacts with the Chinese consulate in Cairo, working part time as a secretary at the consulate.[16] During the war with Japan, he and other students cooperated with nationalist officials to rally support for China in the Islamic world. Their efforts included a pilgrimage to Mecca, paid for by the Nationalist government, aimed at containing the influence of a delegation sent by the puppet regime in northeast China. Being genuine Chinese patriots, the students were eager to serve China’s cause. As Muslim modernists, they also hoped that by demonstrating their patriotism, they would help to create a place for Chinese Muslims in the Chinese nation state.

The hajj mission demonstrated the intimate relationship between Hui intellectuals, who initiated the mission, and the Chinese state, which supported it. Most of the participants were interested in forging just such a relationship. Some, such as Wang Zengshan, Xue Wenbo, Ma Tianying, Zhang Zhaoli, and Wang Shiming, were members of the Nationalist Party and had aspirations for political careers in the Chinese government. Others, such as Na Zhong and Ma Jian, were young scholars interested in seeing the ongoing Islamic modernist program succeed through an infusion of state resources. The state, meanwhile, provided support for such activities in order to co-opt Muslim elites and exploit their Islamic connections to serve national interests.[17]

After spending nine years in Cairo, Na Zhong returned to China in 1940, and over the next decade or so sought upward mobility inside the Nationalist state. In 1942, he joined the Nationalist Party and started teaching Arabic and Islamic history and culture at National Central University. He took up the task of translating the “Three Principles of the People”—a text outlining the ideological basis of the Nationalist Party—into Arabic and during the process met once with Chiang Kai-shek. During a meeting with Bai Chongxi, a Muslim and renowned Nationalist leader, Na Zhong inquired about the possibility of working in the Nationalist government.[18]

In 1947, Na Zhong started his tenure at Yunnan University in Kunming. He continued to cultivate opportunities to work in the government, landing a position in the provincial Bureau of Education.[19] Yunnan University was taken over by the PRC government in 1949, but this did not affect Na Zhong’s position there.

In 1958, Na Zhong was asked by the Foreign Ministry to move to Beijing to develop an Arabic program at Foreign Affairs University. Under the Chinese Communist Party, he continued to participate in international Islamic events, in the belief that promoting closer Chinese ties with the Islamic world was in the interest of Muslims in China. Never again, however, did he pursue a career in the government, content now to be a scholar and professor.

When speaking to non-Muslim interviewers, Na Zhong never elaborated on his religious faith. Nor did he reflect on Islam in any of his works published in China. But memoirs and biographies written by family members and other Muslim scholars portray him as a pious Muslim. In the last few years of his life, Na Zhong suffered a stroke and caught pneumonia several times. His memory faded and at times he could not recognize even close relatives. Curiously, however, he did not lose his familiarity with Arabic and the Qur’an. When his son said to him, “I am your son Jiade,” he would not respond, but when Jiade said the same words in Arabic, Na Zhong reportedly understood immediately and tearfully embraced his son.

During these last years, Na Zhong often recited the Qur’an, although his Egyptian accent was now replaced by the accent he had acquired as a little Hui boy in Yunnan. According to his family, in the last hours and minutes of his life, Na Zhong kept reciting the Qur’an with such passion and in such a loud voice that he startled the doctors.[20]Throughout his life, Na Zhong made pragmatic choices, negotiating a space for himself between the Hui and the Han, between China and the Islamic world, and between scholarship and religious faith. When he passed away, admirers celebrated his life with different emphases. For the secular Chinese state, he was a patriotic “Huizu” scholar, an informal diplomat who faithfully represented Chinese interests in the Islamic world. For his fa[

mily, he was foremost a Muslim who devotedly fulfilled responsibilities assigned to him by God.

Na Zhong’s personal history illustrates the trajectory of a broader Islamic modernist movement in twentieth-century China, as Sino-Muslim intellectuals actively promoted reforms for their community. His biography not only provides a glimpse of the diverse backgrounds, complex identities, and varied goals of the movement’s activists but also reveals how they envisioned their community’s place in the non-Muslim Chinese nation state and managed their relationship with the Islamic world.

[1] Gao Fayuan, Musheng Houyi (Descendant of Prophet Muhammad) (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 2004), 53.

[2] Gao, Musheng Houyi, 63.

[3] Na Zhong, Audio Interview by Xue Qingguo.

[4] Na Zhong, Audio Interview by Xue Qingguo.

[5] Na Zhong, Audio Interview by Xue Qingguo.

[6] Na Zhong, Audio Interview by Xue Qingguo.

[7] Gao, Musheng Houyi, 125.

[8] Gao, Musheng Houyi, 100.

[9] Na Zhong, Audio Interview by Xue Qingguo.

[10] Na Zhong, “Shizijun zhanzheng zhong zhi huijiaoren yu xifangren (Muslims and Westerners in the Crusades),” Yuehua 8, 26 (September 20, 1936).

[11] Gao, Musheng Houyi, 90.

[12] Na Zhong, “Na Zijia jun zhi laihan (Letter from Mr. Na Zijia [Na Zhong]),” Yuehua 4, 10-12 (April 5, 1932): 38.

[13] Gao, Musheng Houyi, 105-107.

[14] Na Zhong, “Kalimatu as-Sini (Word of China),” in Hutab Haflatu Liftitaha al Kubra li-Muatamar al-Baralmani al-Alami li-l-Bilad al-Arabiya wa-l-Islamiya li-Difaa an Filasteen (Speeches at the Grand Opening Ceremony of the Conference for the World Arab Islamic Parliament for the Defense of Palestine) (Cairo: Hibasi Habda al-Rahman, 1938), reprinted in Gao, Musheng Houyi, 107.

[15] Na Zhong, “Kalimatu as-Sini (Word of China).”

[16] Gao, Musheng Houyi, 101. Having a good relationship with the state helped Chinese Azhar students achieve their personal goals. Upon return, many of these students became state employees or scholars at national universities. Some played pivotal roles in the Chinese government’s relations with the Arab Islamic world. For example, both Ma Jian and Na Zhong obtained positions in national universities; Zhang Binduo was appointed to start an Arabic broadcast program aimed at a Near Eastern audience; Wang Shiming was appointed in 1939 to be the R.O.C. Vice Consul in Saudi Arabia; and Hai Weiliang obtained a position at the Chinese Embassy in Tehran.

[17] Yufeng Mao, “A Muslim Vision for the Chinese Nation: Chinese Pilgrimage Missions to Mecca during WWII,” The Journal of Asian Studies 70, 2 (May 2011): 373-395.

[18] Gao, Musheng Houyi, 127-128

[19] Gao, Musheng Houyi, 128.

[20] Na Jiahua, “Ji bofu nazhong de zangli,”, February 14, 2008,

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