Beijing: Researchers in China's northwestern Gansu province have found a handwritten copy of Quran completed in 1912 which is said to be the earliest Chinese language version of the Muslim holy book.

The Quran, found among old archives by researchers with the Muslim Culture Institute of Lanzhou University, is believed to have been translated into Chinese by Sha Zhong and Ma Fulu, two noted imams and Arabic calligraphers in Lanzhou, Ding Shiren, head of the institute said.

Sha and Ma began translating the Quran in 1909 and completed their work in 1912, Ding said.

Sha then copied out the Chinese text and made three handwritten books, which were widely used in Lanzhou, sate run Xinhua reported on Saturday.

China has about 20 million Muslims spread out in Xinjiang and Ningxia Autonomous provinces. While the Muslim of Xinjiang were largely Uygurs of Turkik origin, Ningixa Muslims belonged to Hui community.

Ding said two other Chinese versions of the Quran were finished in Gansu in the 20th century. Ding and his colleagues are still making a comparative study of the three versions.

He said the translation by Sha and Ma is faithful to the Arabic version, though parts of the Chinese text used Lanzhou dialect.

Experts say Islam was introduced to China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). But ancient Chinese scholars did not translate the Quran, out of fear they might misinterpret its text, Ding said.

Before the 1912 version was found, experts believed the earliest complete Chinese version of the Quran was published in Beijing in 1927.