RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Now to the beginning of this week's series, a series we're calling China Rising. It will follow China's role in Africa, and today, Sudan. That relationship is widely believed to be a marriage anointed with oil. China needs it. Sudan has it. They've been doing business for years, but as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, the Sudanese say their bond with China runs deeper than any oil well. The story goes back more than 100 years to a man who proved the adage: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
GWEN THOMPKINS: His name was Charles Gordon, Major General Charles Gordon - Chinese Gordon to his fans, and they weren't Chinese, not even a little bit. In the 1860s, Gordon was a star in the firmament of the British armed forces, the go-to guy who made for China to help secure Britain's trading rights there.
Ms. MAYMOUNA MIRGHANI HAMZA (History Teacher, Nileen University, Khartoum): Charles Gordon spent seven years in China as a British representative during this Imperialistic era.
THOMPKINS: Maymouna Mirghani Hamza teaches history here at Nileen University in Khartoum. Gordon is well known in Sudan because he came this way after making a name for himself among the Chinese. She says Gordon went to great lengths to force British influence in China, apparently at great expense to the Chinese people.
Ms. HAMZA: Maybe he did it in excess.
THOMPKINS: In the 1860s, a then-Captain Gordon, all five-foot-five of him, helped promote the crown's interests in China at a time when Britain was itching to sell opium there. Imperial China had outlawed the opium trade. But the Opium Wars, as they were called, humbled the emperor and won lavish trading privileges for Britain and other Western powers.
It was a humiliating era for the Chinese, made all the more bitter on the day that Gordon personally oversaw the burning of the emperor's summer palace. Gordon later fought in one of history's bloodiest rebellions, in which tens of millions of Chinese died.
Mr. EL SAID AHMED ABDULRAHMAN AL MAHADI (Grandson of Muhammad Ahmed Al Mahadi, The Sudan): He troubled the Chinese very much, and so they were watching what happened to him and his fate, and his fate was here, in the Sudan.
(Soundbite of laughter)
THOMPKINS: El Said Ahmed Abdulrahman Al Mahadi is the grandson of the man who, years later, received Gordon's head on a pike. He was called Muhammad Ahmed Al Mahadi, and in Sudan, he's a bona fide hero. The Mahadi was a self-proclaimed descendant of the prophet Muhammad, and he raised an Islamist anti-colonial army that brought the British low.
He and Gordon, a former governor of the Sudan, reportedly held one another in high esteem. But on January 26th, 1885, the Mahadists ran their swords through Gordon on the steps of a palace in Khartoum, and then they cut his head off. The Mahadi army was fighting for Sudan's independence from all foreign influence. Again, historian Maymouna Hamza.
Ms. HAMZA: For three days, the city was at their mercy. Many people also was killed, you know, Egyptians, Turks, Greeks.
THOMPKINS: It remains Sudan's most astounding military victory. News of Gordon's death and the fall of Khartoum raced across Africa like a brush fire in a high wind.
The Mahadi did not live long enough to see the British exact revenge. Within months, he was dead, probably of typhoid. Here at the grandson's opulent home, there is a portrait of the Mahadi in a white turban, his serious face in three-quarter light, black eyes staring quietly into the middle distance. He has aquiline nose of Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte, a thing so regal, it could be minted on a coin.
His grandson, Abdulrahman, says the Mahadi's achievement cannot be underestimated. It led to a crisis in Britain that brought down the government, a psychic injury almost as painful as when the Yankees handed them their hats in the New World.
Mr. AL MAHADI: The Mahadist movement awakened the peoples who have been colonized and governed by the Europeans and so on. It affected all the Arab world, all the Eastern World. People from China heard. The Chinese, in fact, know very much about the Mahadist movement.
THOMPKINS: Ali Abdullah Ali says that today, Chinese visitors to Khartoum want to see exactly where Gordon fell. Ali is an economist in downtown Khartoum who has written a book on Sudanese-Chinese relations. He, like everyone else here, says the story begins on the day General Gordon expired, and so far, it has no ending.
Mr. ALI ABDULLAH ALI (Economist, Khartoum, The Sudan): The Chinese feel we have executed a vendetta for them, you see. We have revenge for the Chinese, you know, by killing Gordon.
THOMPKINS: Today, China is Sudan's number-one trading partner, but Gordon didn't seal that deal - oil did. The Bank of Sudan estimates that the country sells well more than 80 percent of its crude to Beijing, but what gives the relationship flair is the tale of the Mahadi and old Chinese Gordon.
It is widely believed that the Mahadi had wanted Gordon captured alive. Historians say he had plans to convert the general to Islam or to trade him to Britain in a prisoner exchange. But perhaps even in defeat, Gordon would have preferred to remain in Sudan. In his writings, Gordon said he would sooner follow the Mahadi than go out to dinner every night in London. Maybe that's why the folks here call him Gordon of Khartoum. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Khartoum.
MONTAGNE: Now if Gwen's history has gotten you interested, and it certainly has me, tomorrow you can hear about China's economic power in Sudan and Beijing's reluctance to put political pressure on the government there.