Xinjiang, the PRC, and Egypt: The Curious Case of Ma Hanbing’s “The Nile River”

[Editor’s note–this short essay was originally published on my previous blog in March 2010.]

Every so often during research, seemingly unrelated threads come together flawlessly.

Portrait of Ma Hanbing included in 马寒冰文集

Take, for instance, my interest in the Deputy Secretary of Xinjiang’s Propaganda Department Ma Hanbing (新疆分局宣传部副部长马寒冰). Ma, from what I gathered, served in that department from 1949 to 1953 before moving onto Beijing to work in the Ministry of Culture (文化部). Ma was a famous lyricist and an often-published journalist. Looking at the titles of his publications, however, I could never understand why in 1956 he had a body of work called “The Nile River” (尼罗河畔). The title “The Nile River” looked out of place next to all of the poems and songs about Xinjiang. But Ma’s “Nile River” made so much more sense after I put together a recent post on Burhan Shahidi (包尔汉).

How does Burhan Shahidi fit in with Ma Hanbing’s poem on the Nile River? Burhan Shahidi led the Chinese Culture and Art Troupe (中国文化艺术代表团) across the Middle East and Africa from February until June 1956, which Ma Hanbing was also a part of. The delegation visited Sudan, Ethiopia, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. Dru Gladney has called delegations like these (led by a Muslim leader who travels to Islamic countries) China’s way of playing the “Islamic card.” Although Ma was not a Muslim, his experience working in Xinjiang undoubtedly factored into the decision to send him abroad with Burhan. Ma Hanbing served as the Troupe’s Deputy Chief and as the Art Director (文化艺术代表团副团长兼艺术指导).

Mao Zedong with Egyptian Ambassador Hassan Ragab on September 17, 1956. Image courtesy of the Chinese Embassy in Egypt.

Burhan’s delegation visited Egypt just as diplomatic relations were established between the PRC and Egypt in May 1956. Only months after establishing diplomatic relations with the PRC, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and the British, French, and Israelis promptly retaliated. The Chinese, for their part, earnestly supported the Egyptians, offering arms and international support. Burhan Shahidi himself became one of the PRC’s most central voice in denouncing the British, French, and Israelis. Ma, too, played an important role in cultivating public support in favor of Egypt within China. His poem ” The Nile River,” which he wrote while on the trip, was a part of the PRC’s cultural diplomacy strategy to support Egypt during and after the Suez Crisis. Some of his other essays related to the delegation’s travels included:

  • “The Egyptian Art of Flowers” (埃及人民的艺术花朵)
  • “Speaking at the Cairo National Opera” (从开罗国家歌剧院说起)
  • “My Heart Flies to the Nile River” (我的心飞向尼罗河畔)
  • “In Sudan” (在苏丹)
  • “We Visited Syria” (我们访问了叙利亚)

Along with Burhan Shahidi and 165 others, Ma was selected as a Member on the Committee of Chinese People who Support Egypt in Fighting Against the Invasion by the British and French (中国人民支援埃及反抗侵略委员会委). On November 5, 1956, one day prior to the Suez cease-fire, Ma wrote an essay for People’s Daily (人民日报) on a famous Egyptian song “Egypt — Our Mother” (埃及–我们的母亲). Ma described the song’s cultural significance after the Suez Canal crisis and how he often overheard members of the public and the army singing the song at events and on the street.

A November 3, 1956, rally in Beijing in support of Egypt. Image courtesy of the Chinese Embassy in Cairo.

On November 8, several of Ma’s poems from Egypt were published (访埃诗抄) in People’s Daily. One of these was the poem about the Nile River, another was about development in Egypt, and the last was a political song Ma helped an Egyptian write, which I’ve attempted to translate below:

Who says the world is quiet,
colonists still run wild,
the war still raging in Cyprus, in Algeria shots ring out.
On our country’s [Egypt’s] soil,
there have been the shadows of demons,
my brothers, my relatives,
again we cannot be fast asleep.
If war is inevitable,
we need not tremble with fear,
pick up our weapons,
use our blood and our heads to fight.

谁 说世界已经平静,
殖民主义 者仍 在横行,
塞浦路斯的战 火熊熊,
阿尔及利亚传 来了枪声。
在我们祖国的 大地上,
如 果战争不可避免,
拿 起一切武器,
用 我们的热血和头胪去作斗争。

In general, I think Ma is a fascinating character. He was a part of an overseas Chinese family and was born in Myanmar. As a youth, he studied in Shanghai but then returned to Myanmar to work for several newspapers, according to a Fujian government website. He returned to the mainland during the war against Japan and soon joined the Communist Party. During the Civil War, he was a member of Wang Zhen’s First Field Army (王震的第一野战军) and marched into Xinjiang in October, 1949. On the journey in, Ma served as a liaison between Wang Zhen and local experts on Xinjiang. As explained in Volume 1 of The Biography of Wang Zhen 王震传 (Beijing: Dangdai Zhongguo chubanshe, 1999):

In addition to the help of books, Wang Zhen also paid a lot of attention to social surveys on the situation [in Xinjiang]. He [Wang] himself not only visited the masses regularly, but also encouraged other comrades to interview and survey the masses. When in Jiuquan, he [Wang] would tell Ma Han Bing, the Vice-Minister of the Regiment’s Propaganda Department that: “Now I give you one task, go to find a few people who understand Xinjiang. No matter if they’ve just been to Xinjiang, or if they just came from Xinjiang, if they are business persons, scholars, drivers, if they pull camels, we want to ask advice from them.” (Page 437)

除了借助于这些书本知识, 王震还很注意对现实情况的调查研究。他不但自己经常访问群众,还常推动其他同志到群众中去访问调查。一到酒泉,他就把兵团宣传部副部长马寒冰找来说:”现在给你一个任务,去找一些了解新疆情况的人来。凡是去过新疆的,刚从新疆出来的,商人、学者、开车的、拉骆驼的都行,我们要向他们请教。” (437页)

Ma assumed a number of roles in the new government/Party structures in Xinjiang in 1949, including:

  • Deputy Secretary of Xinjiang’s Ministry of Propaganda (新疆分局宣传部副部长)
  • Deputy General Secretary of the Xinjiang CCP Sub-Bureau (中共中央新疆分局副秘书长)
  • Minister of both the Xinjiang Military District’s Ministry of Propaganda and the Ministry of Culture (新疆军区宣传部长兼文化部长)
  • Deputy Director of the Xinjiang Provincial Government’s Department of Culture (新疆省政府文化处副处长)
  • Deputy Director of Xinjiang’s Provincial Literary and Art Circle (新疆省文联副主任)
  • The PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Special Appointee for Xinjiang (中华人民共和国外交部的新疆特派员)
From left to right, Hu-sai-yin Mu-la-tuo-fu, Deng Liqun, Chen Xihua, Saypidin Azizi, and Ma Hanbing in Moscow in February 1950. Photo scanned from Shen Zhihua’s 毛泽东、斯大林与朝鲜战争 (Guangzhou, 2004)

Because of negotiations involving Xinjiang taking place between Mao Zedong and Stalin at the Kremlin in February 1950, Beijing requested that a group of delegates from Xinjiang come to Moscow to help smooth the negotiating process. As a result, Ma Hanbing, along with Säypiddin Äzizi (赛福鼎), Deng Liqun (邓力群), Chen Xihua (陈锡华), and Hu-sai-yin Mu-la-tuo-fu (胡赛音木拉托夫), traveled to Moscow for the Sino-Soviet Summit. After the deal to establish the Sino-Soviet Petroleum Joint Stock Company and the Sino-Soviet Rare and Nonferrous Metals Stock Company in Xinjiang was brokered, Ma wrote several important news stories and essays on the 1950 Sino-Soviet Summit for local audiences in China, such as:

  • 《深厚的友谊–苏联见闻录之一》
  • 《莫斯科巡礼–苏联见闻录之二》
  • 《毛泽东在苏联片段–苏联见闻录之三》。

After becoming one  of Xinjiang’s most successful publicists/propagandists,  Ma was recalled to Beijing, where he played an increasingly important role in national (and international) politics. After Ma’s important visit to Egypt, however, he quickly fell out of favor during the Hundred Flowers movement. On January 7, 1957, he and three others published an article (我们对目前文艺工作的几点意见) essentially criticizing the Hundred Flowers movement. Mao Zedong vehemently attacked Ma and his co-authors essays as being too dogmatist. In front of thousands of cadres, Mao made statements like:

“Who’s Ma Hanbing? He’s also some sort of official. Perhaps a cadre of army-commander rank. His article in the Wenhui bao is not well written; it’s dogmatism.”(118)”I will now express my attitude: I do not approve of that article [written by Ma Hanbing], that article is wrong. But there are many different things in this world; different people like what they like.” (169)

“Ma Hanbing’s article is a flower of dogmatism. In Ma Hanbing’s article there is a sense of– Who the hell are you? It’s I who fought and won power; how dare you say whatever you please? (203)

“Just now, as soon as some criticisms have been advanced, Ma Hanbing [and] Chen Qitong issue a statement. [This] is nothing but [an attempt at] restraining [the policy of] ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools contend.'” (221)

(The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao: From the Hundred Flowers to the Great Leap Forward. Edited by Roderick Macfarquhar, Timothy Cheek, and Eugune Wu. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. Google Books introduces it here.)

After being publicly shamed, Ma Hanbing committed suicide in 1957 at the age of 41. In 1989, however, it seems Ma Hanbing’s image was restored. In Urumqi, Ma Hanbing’s Selected Works (马寒冰文集) were published with glowing prefaces written by Deng Liqun, Wang Enmao, and even a few photos of Wang Zhen paying his respects at Ma’s grave. Today Ma is especially well-remembered for the song he wrote, “Xinjiang is Good” (新疆好). “Xinjiang is Good” can be read in translation in Nimrod Baranovitch’s China’s New Voices: Popular Music, Ethnicity, Gender, and Politics, 1978-1997 (University of California Press, 2003), linked here on Google Books.



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