Our selection in English

Georges Hatem: Mao Zedong’s personal physician


The Lebanese-American was the first foreigner to get Chinese citizenship in the 1950’s

This unlikely story begins in 1902 in Hammana, a Lebanese village in the Metn region of Mount Lebanon. A young man from the village named Nahoum Salama Hatem decided to emigrate to the United States where he found work in a textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Seven years later, he returned to Lebanon to visit family and met Thamam Joseph Milane from the town of Bhannes-Dahr el-Sowan.

The young couple married immediately and returned together to Buffalo, New York. Their first child, Georges Hatem, was born in 1910, and 13 years later, the family moved to Greenville, South Carolina and opened a new business. Living conditions were difficult, and in 1929, Georges decided to return to Lebanon to study medicine at the American University of Beirut (AUB) before moving to Switzerland where he obtained his medical degree from the University of Geneva in 1933. While studying at the university, he met several students from East Asia and began to take an interest in China.

Joining the Communist Party

After graduating, Georges moved to Shanghai where he opened a medical clinic. He was fascinated with China and met many people, including Soong Ching-ling, the widow of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary leader who played a vital role in the overthrow of the Chinese empire in 1911. Soong Ching-ling was close to Mao Zedong who was looking to hire a competent, foreign doctor to work at the Communist Party headquarters in Yan’an, northwest China. She arranged an introduction, and Georges soon became Mao Zedong’s private physician.

Georges also became friends with Zhou Enlai, the prime minister of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and joined the Chinese Communist Party. He became a senior advisor to the Red army, and Zhou Enlai recommended his take a Chinese name. Georges chose Ma Haide (the one who came from overseas). Ma Haide spoke Mandarin and met the Chinese actress Sufei. The two married and had two children, a son named Yuma and a girl named Liang Bi.

Eradicating leprosy in China

In the 1950s, Ma, aka Georges, became a naturalized Chinese citizen. He was the first foreigner to receive Chinese nationality in Communist China. Ma travelled a lot, and in 1974, visited Lebanon with his wife, participating in an acupuncture congress in Beirut. His return was greeted with ceremony, especially in Hammana.

Farid Samaha, Lebanon’s ambassador to China from 1985-1998, recounts Ma’s career in China in his book ‘Ma Trajectoire Diplomatique’ (My diplomatic journey), published in 2009 by An-Nahar’s publishing house: "Ma Haide accompanied Mao during his ‘Long March’, up until his arrival in Beijing in 1949 and the proclamation of the People's Republic of China. During the twelve years of struggle, Ma treated more than forty thousand wounded and was rewarded by Mao, who appointed him senior adviser of the Ministry of Public Health, overseeing the ministries of health of all provinces of China... Proud of his Lebanese origins, as well as his career at AUB, where he was also a member of the basketball team, Ma accomplished significant work in medicine through his research, his treatments and his health reforms aimed at eradicating leprosy in China before the end of the 20th century, as he had promised Mao. When he died in 1988, the disease had already been officially eliminated with a prevalence of less than one in 100,000."

Ma received the "Lasker Medical Award" in 1986 for this achievement. One year early, he was awarded the National Order of the Cedar Medal at the rank of commander during a major official ceremony held at the Lebanese Embassy in Beijing in the presence of Chinese political and scientific leaders. Two years later, Georges died of cancer in Beijing at the age of 78. He was buried at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery after receiving an official and popular funeral. A bust with his effigy was placed in one of the public squares of Hammana in 2003.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 19th of August)

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