A Portrait of the Jews Through Chinese Eyes

It is one of those mornings in Beijing when you can’t tell whether it’s likely to pour or whether the sun is simply behind a blanket of smog. I stuff a rain jacket into the basket of my new $40 bicycle and, from my hotel, pedal west to the 10-level Wangfujing Bookstore on Wangfujing Street.

Along a cramped aisle of the business section, heads are bent over books whose cover art includes stars of David, the word “Talmud” in gilded letters and images of Moses embracing the Ten Commandments. I ask a small, fortyish woman if she can translate one title for me. It’s the “Jewish People’s Bible for Business and Managing the World,” she replies, adding that the book is a bestseller.

I pick up a book whose cover reads, in Chinese and English, The Wisdom of Judaic Trader, and flip through the pages, which are illustrated with big-nosed caricatures. Other tomes that people around me are reading offer morals via spiritual fables; some barely mention religion. In many, the content is simply fabricated, highlighting, for instance, the success of financier J.P. Morgan (who was Episcopalian, not Jewish). I walk upstairs to peruse the broad selection of child-rearing books and notice a Chinese man, a little boy by his side, engrossed in The Jewish Way of Raising Children. I ask why this title interests him. “Because the Jewish people are very clever,” he answers.

In this land of 1.4 billion, the widespread perception of Jews as masters of commerce (and much more) has given rise to an entire genre of Jewish how-to literature. While few Chinese can articulate quite what a Jew is, many believe that if they could emulate, among other things, how Jewish parents raise their children-as though there were a prescription-it would boost their offspring’s chances of growing up to own a bank or win Nobel Prizes. Here’s how one thread goes: Einstein was Jewish, Einstein was smart; therefore, Jews are smart.

These powerful impressions of Jewish accomplishments are common in the most developed regions of China, all of which are in the midst of an economic explosion; more skyscrapers will have been built across China this year than exist in all of Manhattan. But amid the bamboo scaffolding and the accompanying materialism and corruption, people have also begun to search for moral guidance-which some associate with the Jewish mystique-as they sprint down the path to prosperity.

Outside the bookstore I stroll through the old neighborhood where I lived for a year in 1980. Past the vendors hawking roasted corncobs on sticks and steaming sweet potatoes is the hospital where I picked up my adopted daughter more than 20 years ago. Back then my Chinese friends never mentioned Jews; school texts made scant, if any, reference to Jewish history.

Then, as now, the only Chinese who called themselves Jewish-numbering in the hundreds-were the descendants of Persians who traveled the Silk Road a millennium ago. They had arrived with camels, bearing cottons to trade for silks, and many never left. Several thousand settled in Kaifeng, the capital of the Song Dynasty that hummed with teahouses and restaurants. Today the Kaifeng Jews know little about Judaism and look indistinguishable from their neighbors, though some-without understanding exactly why-follow dietary laws that resemble kashrut.

As for the Jewish expatriates I knew in Beijing in 1980, there were barely enough of us to form a minyan. On Yom Kippur, we gathered for makeshift services in our suite overlooking the glazed tile rooftops of the Forbidden City. Now, however, there are many Jewish expatriate communities in China, and some educated Chinese are even studying Hebrew, a practice which began in 1985, when Beijing University first offered a Hebrew language major. Simon Yu, a member of that class of eight, wanted to learn more than the little available in high school history books. “Friends thought it was strange that I was studying Hebrew,” he acknowledges, “but now people think it’s very charming and special.”

Simon Yu, an associate professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Center for Jewish Studies, can speak Hebrew, but he cannot attend Jewish services. Independent religion does not exist in China; even the five sanctioned religions-Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Taoism-are controlled by the government. (The Vatican, for example, does not fully recognize Catholicism in China because, for one thing, China refuses to cede authority over selecting bishops.) It is hard to conceive of Judaism joining the ranks of government-approved religions, considering, for instance, that the government authorities do not allow Chinese citizens to attend religious services led by outsiders.

One night at a Shabbat dinner at the home of Rabbi Avraham Greenberg, his pregnant wife Nechama and their two toddlers, I ask the bearded 26-year-old Israeli rabbi whether Chinese ever show up at his services. “When I arrived, my brother was already a rabbi here,” he says. “After a local Chinese attended his service, the authorities approached my brother, telling him to pack up and leave. But he calmed them down by promising to turn away any such ‘visitors’ in the future. After that, a few tried, but my brother asked them to leave.”

After five days in Beijing, I board an overnight train bound for Shanghai. In my sleeping compartment, I open River Town, Peter Hessler’s memoir about teaching in China from 1996 to 1998. I reach a passage in which Hessler is also on a train, engrossed in a book. A woman approaches and comments on how diligently he is working. “She peered at me,” he writes, “and it was clear that she was thinking hard about something. ‘Are you Jewish?’ she finally asked. ‘No,’ I said, and something in her expression made me want to apologize… I sensed her disappointment as she returned to her berth.”

How, then, to reconcile this reverence for Jews with the appreciation for Adolf Hitler that Hessler mentions elsewhere in his book? Hessler writes that alongside “a deep respect for the Jewish people,” Chinese appreciate the icon of Hitler mainly because of Charlie Chaplain’s portrayal in The Great Dictator, which many have seen multiple times. How are they able to overlook that small matter of the Holocaust? For one thing, until recently, it simply hadn’t been taught. For another, the politically controlled Chinese educational system valued rote learning and discouraged much independent thought. It similarly trained Chinese to revere the revolutionary Chinese leader Mao Zedong: At least a dozen educated Chinese I ask for their view of Mao, give an identical answer, that Mao was “70 percent good and 30 percent bad.” Even though Mao had a major hand in substantially more deaths than Hitler in the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, this has been the Communist Party line since 1981.

But this is changing: Fewer Chinese are ignorant of the dark fate of many Jews of the last century. In Shanghai, the port city to which many Jewish refugees fled the Nazis, I meet Yang Peiming, an avid historian and the proprietor of the Propaganda Poster Art Centre. He shows me his private collection of 70-year-old passports that he acquired at a local flea market. Each is stamped with swastikas and a large red “J,” indicating it had belonged to a European Jew who had made it to Shanghai, one of the few shores open to these refugees. “Shanghai’s history cannot be complete without Jewish history,” he tells me. “We learn from Jewish people.”

Fudan Fuzhong, the school where my daughter Emily teaches English conversation, consists of low-rise dormitory and classroom buildings on a lush campus. Today I am teaching a Jewish culture lesson to five of Emily’s 12 weekly classes. The seeming identicalness of these groups startles me: each a six-by-eight matrix of 10th-graders with shiny black hair, all wearing navy warm-up suits trimmed in orange. Teachers rather than students are the ones to move, so in every classroom 48 girls and boys-some of China’s most promising-remain in the same tight rows from 7:50 a.m. until 3:55 p.m. with breaks only for physical education and lunch. Twice a day they do eye exercises in their seats, five minutes of impassively massaging around the eyes with fingertips per instructions from a sing-song voice on the public address system. In the evenings they return to their rows from 6:30 until 9:00 for enforced study hall.

Emily had alerted me to the students’ reluctance to speak in class so, 15 minutes into the 40-minute session, I hand out paper and ask three questions that I hope will spark discussion: What are your impressions of Jewish people? Where did you get those impressions? What questions do you have for us?

Throughout the week, I repeat this lesson, which yields 576 responses. Around 90 percent of the students write that Jews are clever, and approximately half of those add that Jewish people are good at business. Though the consensus is that Jews are rich, some who have seen the Holocaust movie The Pianist say that Jews are poor. A couple of perceptions of Jews as bullies come from government-controlled TV news, during which reporters often portray Palestinians as victims and refer to Israelis as Jews, as though the two are interchangeable.

Some students question how Jewish people feel about Germans today. A few want to know how you can tell whether someone is Jewish. Several ask how they can get “rich like the Jews,” including a boy who writes, “Jews own 50 percent of the wealth in America. How do they do this?” There are numerous comments along the lines of: “Jews are friendly, because Emily and Susan are friendly.”

The four-hour train ride to Nanjing, a blur of browns and greens, is a welcome contrast to Shanghai’s city skyline reconfigured daily by lofty, dangling cranes. I had emailed the founder of Nanjing University’s Institute for Jewish Studies, Xu Xin (pronounced Shoo Shin), and asked what motivates Chinese students to pursue Jewish studies. He invited me to visit, suggesting a Friday so I could attend his undergraduate Jewish culture class as well as meet his graduate students. Xu Xin greets me in the hotel lobby. At approximately five feet five inches, he walks with a light step in brown leather Docksiders that seem more Nantucket than Nanjing.

“As a scholar of American literature, I became interested in Jewish writers after Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize,” he explains in fluent English. In 1976, Xu began researching Jewish American history and culture, translating works of Norman Mailer, Clifford Odets and others into Chinese and publishing articles such as “Jewish Humor” and “The Image of the Schlemiel in Jewish Literature,” in which he likens the schlemiel to the wise fool in Chinese literature.

“In 1985 an American named James Friend arrived here to teach literature for six months,” he explains as we enter the 105-year-old university’s campus. “I had never known a Jew before.” The two professors formed a bond, and Friend invited Xu to live with his family and teach at Chicago State University, where Friend was chairman of the English department. While in the United States Xu attended a bar mitzvah, seders and even Jewish funerals, including that of Professor Friend, whose untimely death from a heart attack occurred toward the end of Xu’s stay.

“My time with the Friends provided me with a great opportunity to look at Jewish people,” says Xu. He was impressed that Jews follow laws, rather than an individual or just a set of beliefs. “Their way of living and thinking made me aware that Jewish culture has many lessons Chinese people could learn on their way to becoming a responsible part of the international society.”

To that end, with one room and a few books, he created a Jewish studies center at Nanjing University in 1992, shortly after China and Israel established diplomatic relations. Xu – who at age 18 was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution – was a pioneer; today at least ten other academic institutions offer Judaic studies.

Xu leads the way into a tall, new building and into an elevator which opens only a few steps from a brass wall plaque that says Institute for Jewish Studies in Chinese, English and Hebrew. “Each year we add two M.A. and two Ph.D. students. And we try to provide a scholarship for our Ph.D. candidates to study in Israel,” explains Xu, motioning for me to follow him into the library. The students want to understand, he says, how Jewish culture has survived, indeed flourished, often in the face of adversity. With a sweep of his arm, Xu shows off more than 10,000 titles that range from Encyclopedia of Midrash to Jewish Wit for all Occasions. The stacks also hold volumes Xu has written or translated, including an abridged version of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Down a spotless hallway is a conference room where glass cabinets display assorted Judaica – a Kiddush cup, a tallit, a small Torah – evoking the quiet ambience of an upscale temple gift shop. Professor Song Lihong and six of the program’s 12 graduate students are waiting for us.
After easing into a chair at the head of the long, rectangular table, Xu leans forward and folds his hands in front of him. “Once Western studies became part of the curriculum in Chinese universities,” he says, “in literature, philosophy, science – inevitably you came across a Jewish name.” He notes the disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel Prize recipients and adds, “You don’t see that many Norwegians with Nobel Prizes.”

Xu seems to delight in the shared aspects of our two cultures, saying, “Both have had a great impact in the world, both have suffered and in both cases, parents do anything they could to give their children better education. Jewish and Chinese are the only major cultures to retain their traditions unbroken for thousands of years.”

We board a crowded bus that takes us across the Yangtze River to a satellite campus for Xu’s freshman Jewish Culture class. He tells me that I will be the first Jew most of the undergraduates have ever met.

In the spacious classroom, Xu introduces me and hands me the microphone and the 100 students applaud vigorously. They then become utterly silent, riveted before I say a word. In English, I tell them about my semi-secular style of Judaism, a slice of life unlikely to show up in their textbooks. They seem to follow, smiling appropriately when I mention my teenage struggle with my father, who forbade me to date a non-Jewish football player from my school. Their attention is so focused that I wonder if they are scrutinizing me to figure out what distinguishes my Jewishness. Forty-five minutes later, I invite them to ask questions.

A slender girl wearing glasses and a ponytail approaches and says, “The biggest difference between Chinese and Jewish culture is that you believe in religion.” I ask about Confucius, and she answers, “He was an educator, not in your heart.” Another adds, “For us, spirituality does not exist.”

Later on, at a nearby restaurant. I sit beside Professor Song, a.k.a. Akiba, at the round table where Moshe, Yam, Gal, Omer and Alon, the graduate students I met earlier, have already gathered. Just as the Chinese infatuation with the West has led many to take English names, these students have assumed Hebrew names.

The bespectacled Akiba, uses his chopsticks to place a mound of spicy pork with vegetables on my plate. “We don’t have Judeophobia, we have Judeophilia,” he says with a smile. It was the Roman historian and warrior, Flavius Josephus, who inspired his interest in Jewish studies. “There were many renegade Chinese; Josephus was the first renegade Jew I discovered,” he explains.

The students join in, explaining the origins of their fascination. One student tells me that she “became interested because of a special year, 135 A.D., when most of the people left Palestine and began diaspora. In spite of anti-Semitism, the Jewish people survived and kept their traditions.” Another is interested in the parallels between the Holocaust and the Nanjing massacre, during which Japanese troops killed as many as 300,000 Chinese, including thousands of women and children. Akiba adds, “The Japanese still have not pled guilty to this crime. In Germany the president knelt at Auschwitz; this is a sharp contrast.”

As I survey the table, it’s evident how comfortable these students are in sharing their passion for Judaism. And though each has a different focus, I am struck that I am witnessing such a deep appreciation of Jewish culture.

I think of a remark Xu made earlier that although he is proud of the similarities that Chinese culture shares with Jewish culture, he believes Jews have exceeded the Chinese in one valuable quality: Morality. He cited the pirated DVDs sold openly on China’s streets as an example of shamelessness that he finds all too prevalent in his country. I suggested that Xu’s conception of Jews might be a tad idealistic, since I imagined that I myself would willingly buy such DVDs – though I admitted I would feel guilty. “When you buy, you feel guilty,” Xu told me. “You have this moral sense; when Chinese buy it, they never feel guilty. That’s the moral challenge.” He grew solemn and, with the conviction of a rabbi, added, “We could learn to achieve a moral society from Jewish people.”

The day winds down and we emerge into the humid air. The aroma of fresh fruit wafts from the back of a faded green pickup truck where students have lined up to buy whole neatly peeled pineapples for around 30 cents apiece. Back at the main campus, I walk with Xu to his bicycle along a tree-lined path. It is the end of the workweek, and a teacher heading the other way nods and says, “Ni hao. Shabbat shalom.”