Despite the long history of Chinese-Arab interactions since the seventh century, modern Chinese scholarship on the Arab world has a much shorter story. The global historical context that led to such a situation is the Western dominance in knowledge production. Most Chinese scholars research on issues related to the West and/or China-Western interactions. Only a small proportion of researchers cast their eyes on the “other East”—the Arab world. Consequently, Arab/Arabic studies occupies a marginal space in Chinese academies. In addition, although Edward Said had fiercely argued more than forty years ago in Orientalism that subtle but persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab-Islamic peoples and their culture perpetrates Western misunderstanding about the region, such biased representations were sometimes uncritically transferred by Chinese scholars when they were acquiring knowledge about the region via translations of Orientalist accounts written in English. Another major obstacle is the inherent linguistic and orthographic difficulties involved. Although some researchers have made great endeavors to overcome such challenges, most publish only in Chinese. As a result, their findings are not widely known. This article, therefore, scrutinizes and contextualizes modern Chinese scholarship on the Arab world in order to introduce it to a wider international audience, especially for those who are keenly observing the increasing Chinese-Arab engagements in the twenty-first century. In addition to providing synoptic overviews of major institutions, scholars, and their representative works, the article also critically analyzes the historical contexts that led to the initial formation, subsequent divergent developments in Chinese-language academies on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and the present challenges of the respective state of the fields.

I argue that due to bigger population, larger geographical size, and more government funding, Arab/Arabic studies in mainland China is more developed than that in Taiwan, though scholars based on the mainland are facing more pressure on censorship and self-censorship. Both fields, however, were pioneered by the same group of Chinese Hui Muslim scholars who went to study at al-Azhar University in Egypt in the 1930s and the 1940s, not unlike cosmopolitan Muslims around the world at the time who traveled to Cairo for multiple and complex reasons. When they returned, institutionalizing Arab/Arabic-Islamic studies in Chinese academies became one of their most visible and long-lasting legacies. Contingencies in their lives, mainly job opportunities upon graduation, played an important role in their later bifurcated career trajectories. The process during which these Hui Azharites ceased to be “cosmopolitan Muslims” and instead became “Chinese Arabists” reflects an important transformation in Chinese-Arab interactions during the Cold War politics. Later generations of scholars developed systematic pedagogies on teaching Arabic to native Chinese speakers by publishing Arabic-Chinese dictionaries as well as textbooks and grammar books. Their role as cross-cultural intermediaries is significant and widely impactful. These little-known scholars deserve to be recognized for their intellectual pursuits.

You do not currently have access to this content.