Inside China’s Bizarre Obsession With Jews
On a muggy summer day, I happened upon two twentysomething Chinese men bickering over the best angle for a selfie in front of the memorial wall at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. After they declined my offer to help with the photo, I asked why they had come to the museum. They said they were aspiring entrepreneurs, and they had come to learn how to be like the Jews.
“Jews are rich and good at business,” one said.
“And very clever,” the other added.
I told them I was Jewish.
“Jews are great!” said the first. “But you don’t look Jewish.”
“What do Jews look like?” I asked.
“They wear suits and hats and have big beards.”
I pulled up a picture of a Hasidic Jew on my phone.
“Yes, like that,” one said.
As it turns out, Jews have become something of an obsession over the past two decades in China. Stores carry how-to books teaching the business secrets of the Talmud, classes in Shanghai claim to provide a Jewish education, and chatty taxi drivers make the money gesture when they find out their fare is Jewish. In 2014, Chinese recycling tycoon Chen Guangbiao made headlines by publicly announcing his ambitions to buy the New York Times. In a TV interview, Chen claimed he would make an ideal newspaper magnate, saying, “I am very good at working with Jews.”
For Jews in China, the adulation is both lucrative and unsettling. A number of Israeli immigrants have built businesses off selling “Jewishness” to a society keenly interested in wealth and business success. But a token status is always precarious, and members of the Jewish community feel that tension too.
“I know the Chinese think they love Jews,” says James Ross, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and editor of The Image of Jews in Contemporary China. “But a lot of the things they say are misleading stereotypes.”
Though China is home to a small native Jewish population, for most Chinese, Jews are an oddity. The modern Chinese term for “Jew,” youtai, was assigned to Jews in the early 19th century in Protestant missionary translations of the Christian bible. Before it was applied to Jews, youtai was often used to describe a person who is devious or suspicious. In the second half of the 20th century, the Chinese communist government supported Palestine and considered Jews and Israelis to be imperial enemies.
The only other context most Chinese had for Jews was literature. “The first thing I knew about Jewish people was through reading Shakespeare,” says Xun Zhou, a professor of modern history at the University of Essex and the author of Chinese Perceptions of the ‘Jews’ and Judaism: A History of the Youtai. Growing up in Chengdu in the 1980s, Xun had never met a Jewish person. “Shylock the Jew was the image I had,” he says.
In the early 1990s, China opened itself to the free market, and the attitude toward Jews shifted. “When China began embracing neoliberalism and advocating entrepreneurship, the ‘smart Jew’ who was successful at business became a useful model,” Xun says. “With neoliberalism, being smart, successful, and rich like the Jews became desirable for ordinary people on the streets.”
Stores carry how-to books teaching the business secrets of the Talmud, classes in Shanghai claim to provide a Jewish education, and chatty taxi drivers make the money gesture when they find out their fare is Jewish.
“Jewish” became popular shorthand for wealth, education, and business acumen, and Chinese businessmen saw an opportunity to grow a market based in teaching “Jewishness.” James Ross says titles like The Secret of the Talmud: The Jewish Code of Wealth by Jiao Yiyang, Secret of Jewish Success: 10 Commandments of Jewish Success by Li Huizhen, and 101 Business Secrets in Jews’ Notebook by Zhu Xin Yue all claim to have unlocked the Jewish secrets to success. (Myths about moneymaking power of the Jews isn’t limited to China; South Korea shares a similar obsession.)
Of all the Chinese authors offering access to Jewish secrets, no one is more prolific than He Xiongfei. In 1995, He launched a series called Revelations on the Jews’ Superior Intelligence, claimed to be the first popular literature published on the subject. He lists historical icons like Marx, Freud, and Einstein as Jewish success stories, but he also includes definite non-Jews like Beethoven in his index of Jewish people. In The Spirit of Jewish Culture, He Xiongfei writes that Jews “are the most intelligent, mysterious, and the wealthiest people in the world. In a sense, not knowing about Jews equals not knowing the world! When Jews sneeze at home, all the banks in the world would catch a cold one by one.”
(Attempts to contact He were unsuccessful. Links to his publisher’s contact pages were dead, and emails were returned to sender. Even Ross told me that he’s never been able get a hold of him and doesn’t know if He really exists or whether he’s a single author or a group of writers.)
“Since most Chinese don’t get to see observant Jews, or even secular Jews, they don’t really know much about them,” Ross says. “Same goes for these Chinese authors.” Ross believes the Chinese use the success of Jews in the business world and in winning Nobel Prizes to promote the values Chinese culture holds in high regard — hard work, education, and, most important, getting rich. To Xun, readers’ interest in this kind of popular literature goes beyond Jews. “To the Chinese, Jews are a distant mirror,” Xun says. “It has nothing to do with reality. It’s really about the Chinese self-image.” To be Jewish, then, is simply to be a model Chinese citizen.
Some Jewish immigrants in China are also capitalizing on the country’s Semite obsession. Meirav Shacked, originally from Tel Aviv, is a co-founder of BetterMe, a parent education platform that teaches “Jewish family education” to Chinese couples and claims that “Israeli parents educate their children using known methods, while family education in China is a new thing.”
He Xiongfei writes that Jews “are the most intelligent, mysterious, and the wealthiest people in the world. In a sense, not knowing about Jews equals not knowing the world!”
Shacked’s education program provides workshops and lectures and uses what she calls a Jewish-Israeli method. “Jewish tradition and religion bring a lot of things into our education,” she says. “The questions we ask in Passover and Yom Kippur, the emphasis on communication, these are all kinds of things that influence our education.” Chinese education, according to Shacked, is bogged down with stress and anxiety, whereas a Jewish-Israeli education focuses on emotional intelligence and creativity.
BetterMe has 18 employees — all of them native Israelis — and has openly marketed itself as a Jewish education platform. “Jewish is something that is good in the mind of China because we are smart—and I’m just saying the things that they say—because we know how to make money,” Shacked says. Tracy Pinshow Navov, a clinical psychologist who is a consultant and lecturer for BetterMe, says, “[The Chinese] look at Israel and what we’ve built as this successful startup nation, and they want to do that too.”
“I love telling people here I’m Jewish,” says Joni Bessler, sipping coffee between bites of pastry at a French-themed café in Shanghai’s Hunan neighborhood. “It’s such a positive experience. I’d never do that in America.” Bessler moved to Shanghai nine years ago and found a vibrant Jewish emigré community — she is one of an estimated 3,000 Jews currently living in the country. Each of her three sons was bar mitzvahed in China. In the near-decade she’s been here, Bessler says the community has grown significantly. Ultimately, she feels safe in China.
But Hannah Frishburg, the community programs manager of Kehilat Shanghai, a progressive Jewish organization, says glowing Chinese myths about Jews can all too easily be flipped on their heads. Speaking over lunch at Boom Boom Bagels in Xuhui, a westernized neighborhood in Shanghai, Frishburg adds that the myths can also be dead wrong. “I’ll tell them, ‘No, not every Jewish person is smart — I know a lot of stupid ones.’”
Back in Chicago, Ross echoes that sentiment. “What seems to be philo-Semitism now could easily be turned in anti-Semitism in the future,” he tells me over the phone. Ross says he sees a lot of “nasty stuff” about Jews on Weibo, China’s microblogging website.
There’s also rising concern around breaking China’s anti-religion laws. China still does not allow the practice, observance, or proselytizing of any religion, and the government doesn’t recognize Judaism as one of the five official religions (Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, Protestantism, and Catholicism). BetterMe’s Shacked recently gave a lecture to more than 500 people that was posted to Tencent, China’s version of YouTube. “They took off all the parts where I talked about Judaism,” she says. The company is now considering shedding some of its Jewish branding. Otherwise, Shacked says, “They can shut me down, just like that, after all the work I did.”
“What seems to be philo-Semitism now could easily be turned in anti-Semitism in the future,”
Rabbi Shlomo Greenberg, the first rabbi to return to China since 1949, runs a Chabad center in Shanghai and has a more cynical take on China’s infatuation with Jews and the business that make money from Jewish culture. “It’s upsetting to me because they’re not selling Judaism,” he says. “They are selling them a bunch of nonsense collected from a bunch of different western cultural ideas and wrapping it up because [in Israeli accent] I’m Israeli. Then they think, ‘I paid $1,000 for this? I got stupid nonsense! Gibberish!’”
Greenberg is concerned that eventually the Chinese will resent the commodification of “Jewishness” when they realize it’s nothing more than a marketing scheme. “Do not confuse love for admiration,” he says. “Chinese people admire the Jewish people for their achievements, for their ability to survive 2,000 years in the diaspora, to build such a strong state economy in a very rough neighborhood. [But] do they love us? Are they going to sacrifice something of themselves for us? No. Some people misunderstand that. There’s no love here.”