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Ma Haide (George Hatem)

Wikipedia/ November 18, 2005

Ma Haide (George Hatem)

The First Foreign Citizen

During the War of Resistance against Japan, a number of foreign friends came to China to support China's fight. They developed profound relationships with China. After the war, some of them left China either because they were homesick, or they had to go back to work. Others chose to remain in China and eventually became Chinese citizens. George Hatem, an American doctor, was one of those who decided to remain in China, and the first foreigner to obtain Chinese citizenship.

Hatem (Ma Haide in Chinese) was born to an Arab immigrant family in Buffalo, New York, on September 26, 1910. He obtained his medical degree in 1933, and came to China in November the same year.

He succumbed to his ailing health and died on October 3, 1988. His life was characterized by international humanitarianism.

Family background

Shafick George Hatem was born into a Lebanese-American family in upstate New York. His father Nahoum Salaama Hatem moved to the United States from the village of Hamana in the Metn mountains of Lebanon in 1902, to take a job at a textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In 1909, on a trip to Lebanon, Nahoum married Thamam Joseph, a woman two years younger from the village of Bahannes.

George Hatem's parents were of Maronite background.Some older sources claim that the family was of Syrian Jewish extraction,but according to modern biographers, that was a misconception, although quite common even during George Hatem's life.

Soon after being married, the Hatem family moved to Buffalo, New York, where Nahoum took a job at a steel mill. It was in Buffalo where their first child, George, was born on September 26, 1910.

Early life

George Hatem attended pre-med classes at the University of North Carolina and medicine at the American University in Beirut and the University of Geneva. While in Geneva, he, called by friends Shag, became acquainted with students from East Asia, and learned much about China. With financial help from the parents of one of his friends, he and several others set off to Shanghai to establish a medical practice to concentrate on venereal diseases, as well as basic health care for the needy. On August 3, 1933, he with colleagues, Lazar Katz and Robert Levinson, boarded a ship in Triest that took him to several ports in Asia, including Singapore and Hong Kong. On September 5, the three young American doctors landed in Shanghai.


Hatem set up the practice in Shanghai, and changed his name to Ma Hai-te (Ma Haide). It was in Shanghai that he met the well known journalist, Agnes Smedley, who introduced him to Liu Ting, a member of the Communist Party of China. Disgusted by the corruption of Shanghai and the Chinese Nationalists, he closed his practice there three years later, and, with the help of the earlier established Communist contacts, was smuggled across Kuomintang lines to provide medical service to Mao Zedong's Communist troops in Xi'an (Sian).


In the summer of 1936, Ma travelled to the Communist headquarters at Bao'an, temporary capital of the Communist-controlled Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia Border Region. He was accompanied by the pioneering American journalist Edgar Snow. At Hatem's request, he was not explicitly mentioned in the first edition of Snow's famous book, Red Star Over China. He is there anonymously as a western-trained doctor who had examined Mao and determined he was not dying of some mysterious disease, which was the rumour at the time. He also became the first foreign member of the Chinese Communist Party.

As the war with Japan in started for real in 1937, Ma Heide sent requests to Soong Ching-ling, Agnes Smedley, and other notables to organize recruitment of foreign medical personnel for the communists' troops fighting the Japanese armies in northern China. He was among those meeting Norman Bethune when Bethune arrived to Yan'an in late March 1938, and was instrumental in helping Bethune get started at his task of organizing medical services for the front and the region.

He was present at Yan'an, when the Dixie Mission, an American civilian and military group, arrived in July 1944. Ma was a source of surprise and comfort for many of the Americans when they met the American born physician. Many accounts of the mission make reference to Haide. Known commonly to the group as "Doc Ma," Ma periodically assisted Major Melvin Casberg in studies of the state of medical treatment in the Communist territories.

Post War Life

He remained a doctor with the Communists until their victory in 1949, and then became a public health official. He is credited with helping to eliminate leprosy and many venereal diseases in post-war China, for which he received the Lasker Medical Award in 1986. He was one of the few non-Chinese persons to hold a position of trust and authority in the People's Republic of China. His Chinese name can be loosely translated to mean "Horse" and "Virtue From the Sea".

He died in China in 1988 and was buried at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery.

During his lifetime, he was honored in his city Hammana in Lebanon, where the main square of the city is named after him.

There is an extensive interview with him in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's groundbreaking ninety minute documentary by Patrick Watson, The Seven Hundred Million (1964).

A film about him, showing an American doctor affirming Communist ideology, is broadcast frequently in the People's Republic of China. Consequently, his story is widely known among Mainland Chinese.