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A Great Leap Forward?

Maisie Meyer unravels the complexities of Sino-Jewish relations

Maisie Meyer  |  Spring 2005  -  Number 197


Falafel shops in Beijing and Shanghai? The idea is not that strange when you consider the increasing Israeli presence in China and the fascinating confluence of events that have characterized the relationship between the Jews and the Chinese. A sea change in attitude came about in 1979 when Chairman Mao Zedong’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, opened the Republic of China to global trade, transforming the country into one of the world’s leading industrial powers and projecting it into capitalism, which the communist regime appears to be covertly encouraging. Here I want to offer an historical overview of China’s four Jewish communities and the major themes that are shaping Sino-Israeli relations today.

Historical Overview

Although there were almost no foreign Jews living in China from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s, the relationship between Jews and Chinese goes back centuries. Indeed China has been host to four separate Jewish communities.

1. The Jews of Kaifeng

The Ming Emperor bestowed the name ‘Zhao’, a considerable honour, on the Kaifeng Jews who formed an open, tolerant society in the Henan (Honan) province in east-central China. This community of some 2,000 had come from Persia and India via the Silk Route in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. Remarkably, they retained their identity for almost 1,000 years and were then lost to Judaism through assimilation and intermarriage, becoming indistinguishable from their Chinese neighbours. Yet currently there are several Kaifeng families who, while in no sense practising Jews, still consider themselves Jewish and want to be recognized as a Jewish minority.

In the 1952 census more than 163 families were registered as Jews (Youtai). The next year, the government decided that they could not be treated as a distinctive ethnic group because they had completely assimilated with the Chinese (Han) majority and so did not fulfil the criteria – inter alia, a common language, an area of habitation, a unique set of customs, attitudes and beliefs. However, the authorities stipulated they should not be discriminated against, since ‘This will help gradually ease away the differences they might psychologically or emotionally feel exist between them and the Han’ (quoted in Xu Xin, ‘Chinese Policy towards Judaism’, international symposium on ‘Youtai-Presence and Perception of Jews and Judaism in China’, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany, 2003).

By an oversight, registration books categorizing these people as ‘Jews’ were not amended and in 1986, when China started to issue ID cards, the local authorities merely copied the designation Youtai. But in 1996 the Israel embassy in Beijing refused to provide immigration visas to some of these ‘Jewish descendents’ (the politically correct term for those who identify as Jews but are not officially defined as such) without documentary proof that they were Jewish. On learning of this, the Chinese authorities confiscated their ID cards and issued new ones designating them as either ‘Hui’ (Moslem Chinese) or ‘Han’.

The current official policy is to deny that the ‘descendents’ have any connection with Jews and Israel, and to make Judaism taboo to them. Foreign scholars and tourists are free to meet them and to visit their historical sites; however, the Foreign Affairs Office of Henan provincial government in 2 July 1984 advised officials that donations should be ‘turned down with grace’ if they were ‘religiously oriented or implied “a Jewish nation”’.

In the last two decades a stream of tourists has influenced the way Kaifeng descendents, an estimated 1,000-4,000 people, perceive themselves. The Sino-Judaic Institute, established in California by scholars of Sinology and Judaism, is at the helm of a growing western interest in encouraging them to return to Judaism.

Yet others maintain that they are no longer Jews. In 1992, Dr Ze’ev Sufott, Israel’s first ambassador to China, stated his conviction that they were ‘as Jewish as I am Chinese’. This has determined Israel’s policy towards the ‘Jewish descendents’, who are to be cordially received but not encouraged to expect cooperation from the Israeli embassy. Its cautious approach may well be influenced by reluctance to interfere in China’s internal affairs as much as by the fact that the Law of Return would entitle them to settle in Israel. Since Israel does not recognize them as Jews, China justifiably need not either.

2. Jews from Baghdad

The second Jewish influx into China came in the wake of the Opium Wars. Around 1845 Elias Sassoon, the son of David Sassoon (1792-1864), patriarch of the Baghdadi Jews in Bombay, pioneered the settlement of Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai, one of the five treaty ports the Treaty of Nanjing opened to trade in 1842. (The term ‘Baghdadi’ encompasses Arabic-speaking Jews from Middle Eastern countries as well as Jews from Persia and Afghanistan who did not speak Arabic.) For a century, these merchants maintained themselves as a distinct Jewish community in the constantly changing and highly diversified social environment of the foreign enclave in Shanghai. A small proportion rose to an unparalleled level of commercial achievement. They influenced finance and dominated the stock exchange and real estate markets. Landmark buildings, conspicuously Sir Victor Sassoon’s Cathay (now Peace) Hotel, are a reminder of their significant contribution to Shanghai’s development. In recognition of their philanthropy to the Chinese people, Silas Hardoon, Sir Victor Sassoon and Sir Eli Kadoorie received awards from the government in the 1930s. Many ‘Baghdadis’ regarded Shanghai as their home; nonetheless, the communist government, when it came to power in 1949, saw them as unwelcome intruders.

3. Jews from Russia in Harbin

Russian Jews escaping press gangs and persecution and in search of economic opportunities began settling in Shanghai, Tianjin (Tientsin) and especially in Manchuria. By 1896, this had in effect become a Russian colony with territorial rights when China granted Russia a concession to build the Chinese Eastern Railway across Manchuria, linking the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok. To encourage minorities to settle there, the Russian authorities created an environment of tolerance. Jews developed communal institutions and became active in commercial, cultural and public life in Harbin, Manchuria’s de facto capital. Their numbers soared to 15,000 in the 1920s with a vast influx of Jewish refugees in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, which also brought into the city large numbers of antisemitic White Guards and Cossacks. The Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria in 1931 led to an increase in lawlessness, prompting an exodus of Jews to Mukden, Dairen, Tianjin, Qingdao and Shanghai. There were already vibrant communities of Russian Jews in Tianjin and Shanghai, mainly subcontractors working in the import-export market; the fur and grain trades were almost exclusively in their hands. By the late 1920s the community in Shanghai numbered between 6,000 and 8,000, while there were around 2,000 Jews in Tianjin.

4. Shanghai as a refuge for Central European Jews

Shanghai became a city of refugee for Central European Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution whose numbers soared to some 20,000 in 1939. The obligation of maintaining them was borne solely by Jewish relief organizations at a time when the war-torn city was in the throes of Sino-Japanese hostilities, which began in 1937. The refugees struggled to earn a living and a few succeeded in setting up businesses. They had a well organized social life, including sporting activities, concerts, art exhibitions, libraries and an abundance of newspapers. In February 1943, all stateless persons who had arrived in Shanghai since 1937 (over 15,300 Central European Jews) were confined to a ‘designated area’ in the overcrowded Chinese section of Hongkou, which became known as the ‘Jewish ghetto’. For the duration of the war they were kept in semi-internment under harsh conditions which steadily worsened.

Contemporary Developments

None of these communities, except the disputed community of Kaifeng Jews, survived the Cultural Revolution (roughly 1966 to 1976). I now turn, therefore, to a number of promising developments which are completely new, without any roots in China’s Jewish past.

1. Trade with Israel

Ehud Olmert, the Trade and Industry Minister, has a particular interest in China. In June 2004, when he led a delegation of 200 Israeli industrial and investment professionals to Beijing, he visited the Harbin Jewish cemetery, where his grandfather was buried. The establishment of diplomatic relations in January 1992 gave additional impetus to Sino-Israeli trade, which had begun in the 1980s with clandestine arms sales and the introduction of irrigation and solar-energy technologies. In 2000, when the US forced Israel to cancel a legally binding contract to sell China the Falcon early-warning aircraft, trade was not affected though political relations were seriously marred.

In October 2004, the Israeli government announced a $1 million programme to encourage export to China, so many Israelis are now penetrating the booming Chinese market. Rumour has it that they are also training Chinese forces in security procedures to be used at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Several Chinese companies are going into partnership with Israeli firms in the field of electronics and pharmaceuticals, forging a powerful combination of Israeli technology and Chinese manufacturing know-how (see Eric Silver and Paul Mooney, ‘Riding the Chinese Dragon’, Jerusalem Report, 15 November 2004). They find common ground in their extensive use of connections - Israeli protektzia and Chinese guanxi. Whereas no one was allowed into China on an Israeli passport in the 1980s, planeloads of Israelis are now visiting the country.

2. Culture and education

Interaction between Chinese and Jews is also conspicuous in the field of culture and education. Chinese intellectuals find similarities between Confucian and Jewish ethics and in their focus on moral codes rather than on dogma. During the Second World War, while Nazis in Europe were burning Jewish sacred texts, some 200 Jewish religious, literary and historical works in Hebrew, Yiddish, English and Russian were published in Shanghai. With the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 Jewish subjects became taboo. It was only in the late 1950s that Chinese scholars began translating books by Martin Buber, Leo Baeck, Cecil Roth and Mordechai Kaplan or fiction writers such as Shalom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud. In a recent survey entitled China and the Jewish People: Old Civilizations in a New Era (Jerusalem: Gesen/Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, 2004), Dr Shalom Salomon Wald found that over the last decade there has been an increasing number of translations of Jewish philosophical and religious texts, including the Ethics of the Fathers and Maimonides’s Guide to the Perplexed. Some fifteen books on Jewish or Israelis subjects are now published annually. Yet an infinitesimally small number of Chinese, including students in Jewish subjects, according to Dr Wald’s survey, are aware of having met a Jew.

For the tremendous strides he has made in promoting Sino-Israel ties, and establishing an academic framework for teaching Jewish history and culture in China, Professor Xu Xin earned the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Honoris Causa at Bar-Ilan University in May 2003. Xu Xin, whose education was sacrificed on the altar of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, learned English by listening to the Voice of America and gramophone records. He moved on to study Jewish literature and established the China Judaic Studies Association at Nanjing University in April 1989. It has built up the largest Judaic library in the country, with over 6,000 books, and compiled a 1,000-page Chinese edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica (1993). The Association also organizes International symposia on Jewish themes at which both Chinese and Jewish academics participate.

3. Zionism and national aspirations

Many Chinese writers and intellectuals were aware of the political implications of Zionism and were sympathetic to what they regarded as a movement of national renaissance in response to persecution. It is noteworthy that Dr Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the first President of the Chinese Republic, identified with Zionist aspirations:

Though their country was destroyed, the Jewish nation has existed to this day . . . [Zionism] is one of the greatest movements of the present time. All lovers of democracy cannot help but support whole-heartedly and welcome with enthusiasm the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightfully deserve [sic] an honourable place in the family of nations (Israel’s Messenger, the journal of Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai,4 June 1920).

A few foreign Jews befriended revolutionary leaders and joined the communist fight against Japanese occupation in the 1940s and both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai expressed sympathy for Jews. Even at the age of 89, Israel Epstein, a left-wing journalist who grew up in Tientsin as the son of an American Jewish socialist, still supports the Chinese Communist Party and is held in high esteem by the government. Israel was one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China (January 1950) and David Ben-Gurion, its first Prime Minister, was keen to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Even though Presidents Chaim Herzog and Katzav made State visits to China in 1993 and 2003, China supports the Palestinians in the UN - and there is a conspicuous pro-Arab bias in the state-controlled television and press, which give the Palestinian-Israeli conflict wide coverage. (It is expedient for China, now the world’s second-largest oil consumer, to support the political aims of its main suppliers, Saudi Arabia and Iran.) Nonetheless, there is official condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombings, in which Chinese citizens living in Israel have been victims. Stability in the Middle East is of overriding importance to China’s economic stability and, while giving the Palestinians material and military assistance, the country maintains mutually beneficial relations with Israel. At a more popular level, however, chat groups on the Internet in China are overwhelmingly in favour of Israel and critical of the Arabs.

In spite of the state-controlled media’s disparaging references to Israel as ‘the Zionist entity’ in the 1980s, and current pro-Arab stance, antisemitism is as insignificant in contemporary China as it always has been. Foreigners, mainly White Russians and missionaries, tried to import antisemitism into China in the 1920s. In the mid-1930s, with the steadily increasing influx of refugees from Nazi persecution, antisemitic articles translated from Japanese appeared in a Chinese newspaper, the Xin shenbao, which linked Jews with Bolshevism and suggested that their financial power posed a threat to China. Apart from this propaganda, probably influenced by the Nazi press, the Chinese generally were not antagonistic towards Jews.

There are, in fact, some important similarities between Chinese and Jews. Both are heirs to ancient civilizations with a long history of persecution and suffering. Both, as the Chinese statesman Wu Tin Fan noted a century ago, have been:

despised not on account on their vices but on account of their virtues – their industry, economy, perseverance and thrift (quoted in Shlomo Maital, ‘Dancing with China’, Jerusalem Report, 15 November 2000).

Recent history offers some more concrete parallels. The Chinese make a link between the atrocities they suffered at the hands of the Japanese (notably in Nanjing in 1937) with the Holocaust. And both peoples liberated themselves in 1948-9 from imperial powers and forged national identities as newborn countries.

A vision of the future

What is the significance of these parallels? Decades after communism and the Cultural Revolution pressured Jews to leave, the rise of China as a major trading force has attracted a new wave of Jews. Professionals, businessmen and entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds are lured by lucrative opportunities. Others come to teach English and study Chinese. There are thousands of Jewish visitors annually, among them former residents eager to share their memories with their families. Although Judaism is not one of the five religions officially permitted to cater to foreigners, the authorities turn a blind eye to incipient Jewish communities of some 500-700 permanent residents in Shanghai, 700-900 in Beijing and 50-60 in Guangzhou. Jewish rituals including the slaughter of animals and circumcision are unrestricted. Emissaries of the Chabad-Lubavitcher movement - rabbis Sholomo Greenberg, who arrived in Shanghai in 1998, and Shimon Freundlich, who moved to Harbin in 2001 - have established the infrastructure for vibrant Orthodox communities: synagogue services, kosher café and bakery, library, informal study groups, preschool facilities, Youth Club, Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes. Well attended services and the convivial atmosphere at Sabbath meals are evidence of China’s Jewish revival.

China is also rediscovering its Jewish heritage. Municipal authorities are considering the preservation of some historic buildings from developers eager to transform the former ‘Jewish ghetto’ in Hongkou into a complex of skyscrapers. A small park in the area displays a plaque dedicated to the refugees from Nazi persecution. In 1998, the municipality allocated $60,000 for the restoration of the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, Sir Jacob Sassoon’s gift to the Baghdadi community in 1920. The World Monuments Fund has declared it a building worthy of preservation and plans, sponsored by an American called Seth Kaplan, are afoot to restore and preserve the synagogue as a museum and a site for religious services. A small Jewish museum is housed in the synagogue constructed by the Russian community in 1941.

The Xinhua News Agency recently announced that the Jewish Academy and Research Centre are restoring two synagogues and a Jewish school, at the cost of $3.5 million, with funds provided by the Chinese government. The Harbin municipality is shouldering part of the reconstruction costs of the Jewish New Synagogue (constructed in 1921) to house a Museum of Jewish History and Culture. Harbin’s Jewish cemetery, with over 600 graves, has been fairly well restored and preserved. Shanghai’s four Jewish cemeteries were moved out of the city to Qingpu County in 1956 and 1957. What happened to them between then and the Cultural Revolution is unknown, but today Israeli journalist and tour guide Dvir Bar-Gal has restored some 70 headstones discovered in villages surrounding Shanghai, where they were being used as washboards, floors, tables, steps and house foundations.

Baghdadi Jewish entrepreneurs in the 1920s and 1930s had declared their confidence in Shanghai’s future by investing money in the port and fostering local trade and industry. They developed the three tallest buildings, the Palace Hotel, Sassoon House and Broadway Mansions, which are still standing. Today, Michael Kadoorie, grandson of Sir Eli and an illustrious member of the Shanghai Baghdadi Jewish community, is pleased to be returning to the cosmopolitan city that played such an important role in his family’s history. He is there to develop a landmark hotel, the Peninsula Shanghai, in close proximity to Sir Victor’s Cathay Hotel. In this era of mutually advantageous links between Chinese and Jews, Jewish entrepreneurs worldwide are eagerly taking the opportunity to help build China’s future.

Maisie Meyer was awarded a PhD from the London School of Economics in 1994. She is the author of From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai (2003).

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