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Here are a few things many Chinese people believe about Jews, according to a piece in Tablet Magazine by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore:
- The Jews run the United States of America.
- The Jews control the international media.
- The Jews control the world’s money.
These tropes are obviously familiar. What makes them unusual in this instance is that the Chinese see these as features, not bugs.
“Scan the shelves in any bookstore in China,” Sebag-Montefiore writes, “and you are likely to find best-selling self-help books based on Jewish knowledge. Most focus on how to make cash. Titles range from 101 Money Earning Secrets From Jews’ Notebooks to Learn To Make Money With the Jews.” She reports, from a place of deep discomfort, that the Chinese
recognize, and embrace, common characteristics between their culture and Jewish culture. Both races have a large diaspora spread across the globe. Both place emphasis on family, tradition, and education. Both boast civilizations that date back thousands of years. In Shanghai, I am often told with nods of approval that I must be intelligent, savvy, and quick-witted, simply because of my ethnicity.
Shortly before Sebag-Montefiore recently visited Nanjing,
the Chinese tycoon Chen Guangbiao made international headlines by publicly announcing his ambitions to buy the New York Times and later the Wall Street Journal. In a TV interview he explained that he would be an ideal newspaper magnate because “I am very good at working with Jews”—who, he said, controlled the media.
Prof. Xu Xin, director of the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute of Jewish and Israel Studies at Nanjing University and the “pioneer of Jewish studies in China,” has made it his mission to challenge the stereotypes and present a more “nuanced” view of Jews to the Chinese — not to undermine Chinese admiration for Jews, but to base that admiration on sound scholarship. He started the Institute of Jewish Studies in 1992, and his students have gone on to open similar programs across China. Judaica has proven a popular subject, with healthy enrollments in classes ranging from Rabbinic Literature to Holocaust Studies to Judaism and the Study of Monotheism. Xu’s History of Jewish Culture is a bestseller.
Xu’s personal history sheds an interesting light on the desire to connect with and understand the Jews:
Like many teenagers at the time, Xu was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, one of the zealous youths who helped destroy much of China’s own heritage. “I participated in the Cultural Revolution. We all went through the Great Leap Forward,” Xu said, referring to Mao’s push for industrialization that helped lead to a famine in which more than 30 million perished. “We started to feel from the bottom heart there is something wrong with society. China needed new ideas.”
As China began to open up again to the West, Xu read Western literature, which had been banned under Mao. He’d soon realized that his favorite writers—J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth—were Jewish (today, many of their works are translated into Chinese and studied by college and graduate students in China). As psychology became popular, Xu delved into Freud; he also held immense respect for Henry Kissinger, who orchestrated the start of American relations with China. Like Salinger, Bellow, Freud, and the godfather of Communism Karl Marx, Kissinger was a Jew. “He was a refugee and an immigrant to the U.S., but within 20 years he had made his way to become secretary of State. How come?” Xu wondered.
The search for an answer to that question became Xu’s mission. He returned from two years in the United States, and a formative official trip to Israel in 1988, convinced that Judaism could provide lessons for a young and hungry new China. “Once we learned, we wanted to teach,” he said. Xu set up university classes, attended international seminars, and translated the Encyclopedia Judaica into Chinese. Eventually, once diplomatic relations between Israel and China were established in 1992, he founded the Institute of Jewish Studies.
China’s official relationship with Israel has grown warmer over the past few years, and that trend is only increasing. Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu visited China last year, a trip widely viewed as a signal that China is interested in Israeli technology to help it “transform itself from a manufacturing to an innovation-and-knowledge-based economy.”
But Sebag-Montefiore suggests that “the geopolitical rationale for greater Chinese-Jewish understanding may pale next to the role that the Jews play in China’s own search to rediscover itself.” Twenty-eight year-old Liu Nanyang, a doctoral student in the Jewish roots of Christianity, found himself wondering several things: first, how it is that Israel is still standing after so many wars?; and second, how have Jews have made so many cultural and scientific advances? Liu believes the key to the Jews’ success is their tolerance of one another and encouragement of debate:
In China, where religion is perceived as a threat to the ruling Communist Party, Christians are routinely persecuted and worship is allowed only in officially sanctioned churches. “Any ideas or philosophy or cultures are controlled. In the past it was controlled by the imperial emperors and now by the party,” said Liu. “But Jewish people don’t have such a strong political power. So, [Judaism] has more pluralism.”
It is this space and allowance—even encouragement—for debate that has helped Jews make cultural and scientific strides in the world, Liu said he believed: “In the Talmud, for one question they have different answers. But in China we have [either] correct or incorrect. If someone has different opinions, it is difficult to live.”
“Do you know how many Chinese Nobel Prize winners there are?” asked Liu, not waiting for an answer. He didn’t have to. The Chinese have long articulated ambitions to win more Nobel prizes. (No Chinese-born scientist, for example, has ever been awarded a Nobel Prize for work in the mainland.) “The Jewish population is very small but the Chinese is big,” Liu said. “Compare that, if you will. When we know that the Jewish people are so successful in both science and human studies, we feel that maybe we can learn from them.”