The Rhetoric of “Civilization” in Chinese–Egyptian Relations
Chinese-Egyptian Relations: A Tale of Ancient Civilizations?

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 Chinese President Xi Jinping wanted to propose a hemisphere-wide outline for development in October 2013, he chose a name that evoked China’s long history of engagement with other societies. The “Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road,” popularly known as “One Belt One Road,” was so named to reinforce modern China’s prestige by reminding the world that China was once also the terminus of the ancient Silk Road. This inclination to refer to past glories is not new. Chinese authorities have a long history of trying to highlight their historical heritage in their interactions with other countries. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in China’s relations with Egypt, another country that can claim descent from ancient heritage. Chinese and Egyptian leaders speak to each other not merely on behalf of their own governments, but also as the representatives of grand civilizations stretching millennia into the past. By tracing how Chinese and Egyptian thinkers and policymakers have discussed one another’s claims about their connections to ancient civilizations since the early twentieth century, it is possible to understand in greater detail the evolution of the rhetoric that facilitates Sino–Egyptian relations.

Civilization in the Age of Imperialism

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many non-Western intellectuals became invested in the discourse of civilization in response to the notion of the mission civilisatrice, or “civilizing mission.” According to the logic of this concept, European countries could be justified in controlling other peoples if they were committed to “civilizing” them. Many anti-imperialist thinkers tried to undermine this rationale by arguing that their societies were already representatives of great civilizations and thus did not require European intervention. In some cases, individuals from different non-Western countries cooperated to try to boost one another’s claims. Perhaps most notable were the contacts between Japanese and Ottoman intellectuals, who depicted their respective empires as the heirs to centuries of Buddhist and Islamic traditions.[1] This focus on religion worked well for two empires that aspired to regional dominance. The situation in China and Egypt during the same period was somewhat different, however, because the paramount goal for their leaders was to ensure national sovereignty. Consequently, they began to emphasize their unique connections to ancient civilizations, aptly symbolized by the Great Wall and the Pyramids of Giza.

In the first three decades of the twentieth century, many Chinese subscribed to a popular theory that civilization had spread to China from Mesopotamia ...

By the early 1920s, Chinese scholars had taken note of the European fascination with ancient Egypt. In 1922, the same year that Howard Carter announced the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, a young Chinese historian named Miao Fenglin published an article decrying China’s apparent inability to capitalize on this wave of interest. Miao complained that Western scholars wrote much more accurate and detailed works about Egypt and Mesopotamia than they did about China. For China to command the same respect, Miao argued, Chinese historians would have to do a better job themselves of presenting ancient Chinese civilization as Egypt’s equal.[2] In the first three decades of the twentieth century, many Chinese subscribed to a popular theory that civilization had spread to China from Mesopotamia, which was a pseudoscientific way of making China seem connected to global civilization.[3] Miao and other nationalist scholars rejected this theory of “Sino-Babylonianism,” arguing instead that Chinese civilization had originated independently from those of Egypt and Mesopotamia and had been every bit as grand.[4] Well before China and Egypt had substantive diplomatic relations with each other, therefore, Chinese intellectuals were already thinking of Egypt both as a model and a rival for historical relevance.

Prior to World War II, most direct contacts between Chinese and Egyptian citizens involved Chinese Muslims who were studying in Cairo. These men tended to be ardent nationalists, and many were concerned by what they perceived as a lack of appreciation for China in the Islamic world. Some prominent Chinese Muslims strategized that they could win respect for China if they could highlight China’s cultural accomplishments in ancient times. The unlikely consequence of this approach was that pious Chinese Muslims writing in Arabic for an audience of Egyptian Muslims had to exalt China’s Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist heritage. In 1934, Ma Jian, a Chinese Muslim who was studying in Cairo, published a volume in Arabic offering his readers a “general view” of the history of Islam in China, including detailed discussions of the literature and cultural practices of other Chinese religions.[5] The following year, Ma took his commitment to promoting appreciation for Chinese learning one step further by publishing an Arabic translation of Confucius’s Analects.[6] Another influential Chinese student in Cairo, Pang Shiqian, also published a popular book about China in Arabic in which he asserted that China and the Islamic world were both descendants of ancient civilizations and would soon be restored to their previous glories.[7] Since Ma, Pang, and their contemporaries established the tone both for discussions about China in Egypt and for discussions about Egypt in China over the course of the next several decades, their emphasis on civilizational rhetoric became ingrained in both countries.

Chinese and Egyptian Rhetoric in the Bandung Era

After Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser met for the first time in 1955, the idea of a shared claim to civilization immediately became a staple of how the Chinese and Egyptian governments communicated with one another. Since leaders of the two countries were not able to build on a history of direct diplomatic interactions, they had to adopt a vocabulary that emphasized a different kind of longevity. When the first member of Nasser’s cabinet to visit China, Ahmad Hasan al-Baquri, arrived in Beijing in 1955, the rhetoric of civilization was on full display. China’s Deputy Minister of Culture greeted al-Baquri with a speech about how China and Egypt shared 5,000 years of “cultural development,” and a bureaucrat within the Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately pointed out to his Egyptian guest that they both represented “ancient civilizations and ancient cultures.”[8] Al-Baquri responded with the same vocabulary, summing up his impression of China by declaring it an “amazing civilization.”[9] Even top leaders relied on this type of rhetoric. When Chairman Mao Zedong accepted the credentials of the first Egyptian ambassador to Communist China in 1956, for example, he did so by proclaiming that China and Egypt were the homes of the oldest cultures in the world.[10] For two countries with different political systems and only a sporadic history of cultural contact, celebrating their ancient pasts was a way to find common ground.

For two countries with different political systems and only a sporadic history of cultural contact, celebrating their ancient pasts was a way to find common ground.

Along with the Great Wall and the Pyramids of Giza, two other common symbols of Chinese and Egyptian civilization were the Yellow and Nile Rivers. It took some creativity on the part of the Chinese government to compare the Yellow to the Nile; while the floodplain of the Yellow was the home of China’s earliest dynasties, it was less densely populated than the area around the Yangtze River. One might speculate that what made the Yellow more attractive was that it passed through the parts of China with the most significant Hui Muslim populations, including Gansu and Ningxia. In some cases, Chinese leaders swapped one river for the other depending on their audience. On Zhou’s 1963–1964 tour of Africa, for example, he told Egyptians in Cairo that “the friendship between our two peoples has lasted throughout the ages like the ever-flowing Nile and Yellow Rivers,” but expressed his hope in Bamako that “the friendship between the Chinese and Mali peoples [would] be as eternal as the perpetual flow of the Niger and Yangtze Rivers.”[11] One must be careful of reading too much into a fairly subtle rhetorical difference, but it does seem to be the case that Zhou selected for Egyptian audiences the version that best drew attention to a region of China populated by Muslims.

To be sure, the governments of both China and Egypt have invoked the idea of civilization to promote their relationships with many other countries besides one another. In the first half of the 1950s, for example, Nasser found it particularly advantageous to compare Egyptian civilization to that of India, presumably because he hoped to piggyback on international support for India’s completed struggle against British imperialism.[12] But both Chinese and Egyptian commentators were at least somewhat judicious in choosing which other countries they wanted to legitimize as heirs to great civilizations. For Nasser, who was engaged in rivalries with most other Arab leaders, comparing Egypt to non-Arab countries such as China and India helped elevate Egypt above its regional peers. As the twentieth century wore on, Egyptian writers singled out China more and more often as the only country worthy of the comparison with Egypt. The fact that China and Egypt were on different continents made it easy to frame this assertion, and by the 1980s it was not uncommon for Egyptians to claim that China and Egypt were respectively the historical centers of distinct Asian and African civilizations.[13]

The Rhetoric of Civilization Today

The rhetoric of civilization has endured into the twenty-first century. When prominent Chinese and Egyptian politicians, intellectuals, and business leaders address one another, they employ the same modes of communication that their two countries established in the mid-1950s. For example, China’s ambassador in Cairo proclaimed in 2013 that China and Egypt, as “the oldest civilizations known to mankind,” shared a “historic mission” to “protect the peace and stability of the world.”[14] In so doing, he was using vocabulary that any observer from six decades earlier would have easily understood as a challenge to the Western-led global order. And when an Egyptian academic asserted in 2006 that Egypt should promote exchange with China in order to repudiate “the Western-centric view that the West is civilization,” he was appealing to a longstanding tradition of rejecting the idea of a civilizing mission.[15] By building on a century of symbolism, a Chinese or Egyptian statesman can invoke a historical legacy with just a few choice words. Yet while the fundamental meaning of the rhetoric of civilization in Sino–Egyptian relations has been maintained, it has also acquired new connotations that expand its relevance for a new century.

In the 1990s, as China was beginning its transformation into a global economic power with a market economy, Egypt remained the benchmark by which Chinese intellectuals could measure their claim to represent an impressive civilization. The obsession with ancient Egypt ran the gamut from practical issues all the way to much thornier questions about how to define a national identity for China. In order to promote China as a destination for Western tourists, some Chinese scholars studied how Egypt had marketed its museums and monuments and advocated adopting similar strategies.[16] When Chinese State Councilor Song Jian toured Egypt in 1995, he was embarrassed to discover that Egyptians could definitively date their history to centuries earlier than Chinese historians and archaeologists could trace Chinese history. At Song’s urging, China’s ninth Five-Year Plan established the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project, which committed state funding to an effort to fix the dates of the earliest Chinese dynasties on a par with those of ancient Egypt.[17] The increasingly strident tone of Chinese nationalism has turned the notion of civilization into a catalyst for international rivalry.

As Beijing’s global ambitions have grown, appeals to civilization have helped to justify a more active role for China in Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. 

As Beijing’s global ambitions have grown, appeals to civilization have helped to justify a more active role for China in Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. By portraying China as the driving force behind the ancient Silk Road, the Chinese government has recast itself as a country with a long history of engagement beyond its own borders. When Xi Jinping first announced his intention to build a “New Silk Road” during a speech in Kazakhstan in September 2013, he explicitly framed the project as a revitalization of cultural and economic ties that thrived during the Han Dynasty.[18] As this concept matured into the more formal outline of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, it emphasized the idea of a “maritime Silk Road” to include countries such as Egypt that have only a tenuous connection to the original land-based Silk Road.

Egypt’s leaders have embraced the maritime Silk Road slogan, which works well for a country that can easily present itself as the opposite terminus from China of a vital shipping lane. Accordingly, Egyptian commentators have called for Egypt and China, by virtue of their common claim to ancient heritage, to share opportunities for leadership. It is common to see Egyptians assert that Egypt is at the “forefront” of the countries that have responded to China’s call to build closer ties.[19] One writer has even tried to position Cairo as the “capital of the new Silk Road.”[20] Egyptians may no longer be in a position to help define the rhetoric by which their country engages with China, but they have proved adept at appropriating and manipulating the vocabulary defined by Beijing to suit their country’s own purposes. In effect, Egyptians who have adopted the framework of the new Silk Road are following the same logic as Xi: they are marshaling the imagery of a glorious heritage to stake a claim to regional leadership.

In general, when members of today’s Egyptian political establishment refer to the ancient civilization they have in common with China, they are seeking to distinguish Egypt from its Arab neighbors. After all, by encouraging Egyptians to take pride in their country’s unique history, they are promoting a patriotic narrative. At a time when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi is trying to delegitimize Islamist opposition to his regime, such rhetoric serves the aims of the Egyptian state. A July 2016 Al-Ahram article by Samir Farag, a longtime military officer who had previously served as governor of Luxor, epitomizes this strategy. Farag described a visit of Chinese dignitaries to Luxor, which offered, in his words, an opportunity for “eternal comparison between the Chinese and Egyptian civilizations.” By describing how impressed the Chinese visitors were with the temples and statues of Luxor, Farag reassured Egyptian readers that they should be proud of Egypt’s history. He then pivoted to moralize about Egypt’s current challenges: it is incumbent upon all Egyptians, he argued, to “preserve” this cultural heritage and “to exploit it to benefit this nation, instead of pursuing each night the wars of the satellite channels.”[21] In other words, Farag hoped that Egypt’s unique history would inspire Egyptians to focus on their own country, rather than getting caught up in divisive conflicts originating elsewhere in the Arab world. By Farag’s logic, the Chinese and Egyptian civilizations are worthy of being compared with one another, in contrast to Egypt’s Arab neighbors.

Does China Still Need Ancient Egypt?

By at least one measure, Chinese interest in Egyptian civilization is at an all-time high. In February 2017, Egypt ranked as the 14th most popular destination for Chinese tourists traveling abroad over the Chinese New Year holiday, higher than any other country outside the Asia-Pacific region.[22] In the year 2015 alone, the number of Chinese traveling to Egypt more than doubled.[23] It is not much of a stretch to assume that the rapid increase in Chinese tourism to Egypt is fueled in part by a century of fetishization of ancient Egypt that has made ordinary Chinese excited to glimpse the Pyramids in person. But the boom in China’s outbound tourism is also a reminder that circumstances have changed dramatically from the days when China and Egypt were both scrambling for international prestige. Today, China is a global superpower with a thriving economy. Accordingly, it has become possible to discern a bit more eagerness in the attempts of Egyptians to compare their civilization to China than the other way around. How much longer will Chinese citizens be willing to share a pedigree with a nation whose fortunes they have so obviously eclipsed?

For now, however, many Chinese seem remarkably willing to defer to Egypt as the preeminent ancient culture. This debate was reignited in September 2015, when a Chinese archaeologist and geochemist, Sun Weidong, published research findings in which he suggested that Bronze Age technology came to China by sea, probably from the Hyksos people who ruled Egypt in the second millennium BCE.[24] Sun had been forbidden to publish this research as a graduate student in the 1990s because it challenged accepted ideas about the development of ancient China. Today, although some patriotic netizens continue to lambaste Sun for denying the independent origin of Chinese culture, many people are excited by his ideas and willing to embrace a historical connection to Egypt—even one that puts Egypt in a place of greater prominence than China. Nearly a century after Miao Fenglin lamented the lack of respect for Chinese history, the idea of a special bond between the Chinese and Egyptian civilizations has become firmly lodged in the Chinese imagination.

[1] Cemil Aydin, The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

[2] Miao Fenglin, “Zhongguo shi zhi xuanchuan [The dissemination of Chinese history],” Shidi xuebao [The journal of history and geography] 1 (1922): 2–3.

[3] Tze-Ki Hon, The Allure of the Nation: The Cultural and Historical Debates in Late Qing and Republican China (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2015), Ch. 3.

[4] Fa-ti Fan, “How Did the Chinese Become Native? Science and the Search for National Origins in the May Fourth Era,” in Kai-Wing Chow et al., eds., Beyond the May Fourth Paradigm: In Search of Chinese Modernity (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008) 190–193.

[5] Muhammad Makin (Ma Jian), Nazrah jami‘ah ila tarikh al-islam fi al-sin wa-ahwal al-muslimin fiha [A general view of the history of Islam in China and the conditions of its Muslims] (Cairo: Al-Matba‘ah al-salafiyyah, 1934], 25–26.

[6] Muhammad Makin (Ma Jian), trans., Kitab al-Hiwar [The Analects of Confucius] (Cairo: Al-Matba‘ah al-salafiyyah, 1935).

[7] Muhammad Tawadu‘ Pang (Pang Shiqian), Al-Sin wa-l-islam [China and Islam] (Cairo: Muslim Brotherhood Islamic Printing and Publishing House, 1945), preface. The civilizational discourse in Pang’s China and Islam is discussed at length in John Chen, “Re-Orientation: The Chinese Azharites between Umma and Third World, 1938–55,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 34, 1 (2014): 24-51. Chen even points out a passage in the book in which Pang appears to have drawn from the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

[8] Welcome speech for al-Baquri, May 31, 1955, Chinese Foreign Ministry (henceforth CFMA), 107-0007-02; Transcript of al-Baquri’s conversations, 28? May 1955, CFMA, 107-0007-04.

[9] Ahmad Hasan al-Baquri, Baqaya dhikrayat [Remains of memories] (Cairo: Markaz al-ahram li-l-tarjamah wa-l-nashr, mu’assasat al-ahram, 1988), 175.

[10] Letter from Mao Zedong to Hasan Ragab accepting his credentials, 9 September 1956, CFMA, 107-00056-03.

[11] “Premier Chou En-lai’s Written Statement at Cairo Airport” and “Premier Chou En-lai’s Speech at Bamako Airport,” in Afro–Asian Solidarity Against Imperialism: A Collection of Documents, Speeches and Press Interviews from the Visits of Chinese Leaders to Thirteen African and Asian Countries (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1964) 3, 168.

[12] Gamal Abdel Nasser, “Khitab ulqiya fi al-barlaman al-hindi [Speech to the Indian Parliament],” April 14, 1955, in Al-Majmu‘ah al-kamilah li-khutab wa-ahadith wa-tasrihat Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir [The complete collection of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s addresses, speeches, and statements], vol. 2 (Cairo: Maktabat al-akadimiyyah, 2005) 63.

[13] See for example Anouar Abdel-Malek, Rih al-sharq [Wind of the East] (Cairo: Dar al-mustaqbal al-‘arabi, 1983) 224.

[14]. Song Aiguo, “Al-hilm al-sini…wa-intilaq al-hilm al-misri [The Chinese dream…and the starting point for the Egyptian dream],” Al-Ahram, April 9, 2013.

[15] Shawqi Galal, “Aiji he zhongguo jiqi wenhua jiaoliu de biaozhi [Egypt and China and the symbolism of their cultural exchange],” in Muhammad Nu‘man Jalal, ed., Aijiren yan zhong de zhongguo [China through Egyptian eyes], trans. Wang Youyong (Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2006) 40.

[16] Mareike Svea Ohlberg, “Creating a Favorable International Public Opinion Environment: External Propaganda (duiwai xuanchuan) as a Global Concept with Chinese Characteristics” (Ph.D. diss., University of Heidelberg, 2013) 208. Ohlberg cites a 1990 analysis of Egypt’s tourism industry by Li Xin.

[17] Song Jian, Chaoyue yigu zouchu mimang: huhuan xia shang zhou duandai gongcheng [Transcending doubt about the ancient and emerging from confusion: a call for a Xia–Shang–Zhou chronology project] (Shanghai: Shanghai Keji Jiaoyu Press, 1990), 21–22; Yun Kuen Lee, “Building the Chronology of Early Chinese History,” Asian Perspectives 41 (2002): 16–17.

[18] “Xi Jinping fabiao zhongyao yanjiang, xu gong jian ‘sichou zhilu jingji dai’ [Xi Jinping delivers an important speech, calls for the building of a ‘Silk Road Economic Zone’],” Xinhua, September 7, 2013.

[19] Mahmud Murad, “Tariq al-harir…yaghzil bi-l-ma‘arifa hilm al-janub [The Silk Road…is weaving with knowledge the dream of the south],” Al-Ahram, September 16, 2016.

[20] Ashraf Aboul-Yazid, “Egypt and the New Silk Road,” Al-Ahram Weekly 1248, May 28, 2015.

[21] Samir Farag, “Al-Sin…wa-l-aqsar min khilal misr [China…and Luxor by way of Egypt],” Al-Ahram, July 7, 2016.

[22]. China Tourism Academy, “Zhongguo lüyou yanjiuyuan, xiecheng lüxing wang lianhe fabu ‘2017 chunjie lüyou qushi baogao yu renqi paihang bang” [China Tourism Academy, Ctrip cooperate to release ‘2017 Spring Festival tourism trends report and popularity rankings’], January 25, 2017, accessed July 8, 2017, .

[23] Wang Xue and Mahmoud Fouly, “Egypt’s Tourism Sector Turns Read more Attention to Chinese Market,” Xinhua, August 16, 2016.

[24] Ricardo Lewis, “Does Chinese Civilization Come from Ancient Egypt?” Foreign Policy, September 2, 2016.