Why does China admire the Jews?

By Jordyn Haime | May 7, 2020

Illustration by Derek Zheng

As I sat through Lunar New Year celebrations in China in January 2019, hosted by the family and friends of a Chinese friend of mine, Gen, I began to pick up on a curious pattern. When Gen introduced me to the table, he would often note my Jewish identity. Mention of this sparked conversation about the Holocaust, Israel, and Jewish money. 

Questions fired off in my direction: “Do you feel more Israeli or American?” “Why did Europeans hate you so much?” “How can I educate my child as well as the Jews?” “Is it true that you’re not allowed to open certain types of bank accounts?” 

I was often left flustered, with no answer that could satisfy their curiosity. 

Being greeted with excitement, curiosity, and even admiration can seem like a warm and welcome departure from the fear I’ve felt walking past security guards to take holiday prayer at synagogues in the U.S. But stereotypes about Jewish people are widespread across China: books and blog posts about the wisdom and business smarts of the Jews have emerged across China since the 1980s. In 2014, Chinese tycoon Chen Guangbiao let slip that he is “very good at working with Jews” after announcing his intentions to buy the New York Times.

When I tell people about this phenomenon, they automatically assume that China is anti-Semitic — but that’s not the case. Let me explain.

How long have there been Jews in China?

Our earliest knowledge of Jews in China is of the famed Kaifeng Jews of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), believed to have come to China from the west via the Silk Road. Jews were widely accepted and respected among the Kaifeng government and its people as it was easy for them to assimilate to Chinese life, and they were able to freely practice Judaism without government intervention. A lively Jewish community thrived in Kaifeng, complete with a synagogue, until a combination of natural disasters and wars resulted in the destruction of the synagogue and the fizzling out of Jewish life there. 

While a small Jewish community still exists in Kaifeng today, few are active in religious life, and a government project to rebuild the synagogue as a museum was nixed in the late 1990s, believed to be fueled by fear of a Jewish religious revival in Kaifeng.

Another wave of Jews came in the 19th century after China opened up its trade ports to the West. Jews from Baghdad and Eastern Europe set up their trade businesses there, particularly in Shanghai, where influence from Jewish families like the Sassoons and the Hardoons is still evident: Silas Hardoon once owned half of the properties on today’s Nanjing Road, and the current Shanghai Exhibition center was once the Hardoons’ residence known as Aili Garden. Jewish communities of hundreds of people grew to thousands by World War II, when refugees from Europe found refuge in Shanghai. That history is memorialized today at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and several other marked sites throughout the city.

Where do Jewish stereotypes in China come from?

I recently asked a Chinese friend that I had met while studying at Chengdu University what her impressions were of the Jews.

“I think Jews are smart,” she told me. “They are good at business and inventing things. But at the same time, I pity them because they have been prosecuted. There were wars in China 80 years ago and many people were prosecuted, so I can understand the Jewish grief of losing their home.” She also said she studied the Holocaust in school and was shown films like Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful.

Her response sums up pretty much all of the popular Chinese stereotypes of Jews today. And her positive feelings of admiration and pity are common, too: to China, the Jews represent China’s fears — persecution by the West and statelessness — as well as its desires — for money and power.

These stereotypes can be traced back to the late-19th and early-20th century, as a result of Christian missionaries in China who spread Christian publications and periodicals, which often touted anti-Semitic stereotypes. Chinese diplomats to Europe also returned with stereotypical images of the Jews, who had great power and control in financial centers. The translation of Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic The Merchant of Venice fueled the fire, too.

But the Chinese did not read these stereotypes as negative. At the time, China had experienced recent disasters such as the Taiping Rebellion and the First Sino-Japanese war. Chinese intellectuals saw their country as backwards and in need of a great change. They saw inspiration in the Jews, a people who, despite prosecution and lack of a homeland, were somehow still a wealthy and powerful people. This comparison later amplified with World War II, when both the Jews and the Chinese experienced tragic persecution.

“Chinese culture was once as advanced as the culture of the ancient Israelites, or the ancient culture of the West; therefore, in the constantly changing world, China would one day be powerful again,” wrote Wang Tao, a Chinese reformer of the period who studied the Jewish calendar.

Liang Qichao, an influential revolutionary thinker of the time, took a tour of the United States and saw Jews as “the most powerful and influential group among the immigrants in America. I heard that four tenths of the American banks are Jewish, and more than half the bankers in America are Jewish…In this respect, no other races can compare with the Jews,” he wrote. Of course, he may have picked up that Jews were powerful and rich in the UNited States from an anti-Semitic comment, but like many other Chinese of the time, he did not see these stereotypes as negative, but looked upon them with curiosity.

It was positive views like these that led to the endorsement of Zionism by Sun Yatsen, the Republic of China’s first president and the “father of modern China.”

Study of the Jewish people was generally kept to intellectual and political circles in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It wasn’t until China’s reform and opening up in the 1980s that the stereotype of the rich and powerful Western Jew reemerged. Writers like He Xiongfei – known as one of China’s most influential private publishers – and others published books on Jewish education, doing business like the Jews (which frequently include references to the Talmud), and Jewish wisdom. These writers had a market: everyday Chinese people who were trying to get rich and make it in a rapidly changing and developing market economy. Their model? Western Jews, victim to great hardship and persecution like the Chinese, but who now wielded great power on the international stage.

Scholars consider these books and popular media as the catalyst for popular understanding of the Jewish people — or the idea of the Jewish people — today. The image also doesn’t hurt Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” — to make China a global leader.

How does the Chinese government feel about Jews?

China has five officially “approved” religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam), and Judaism is not one of them. While religious practice is generally allowed in China, religions seen as foreign are heavily regulated. As noted before, Chinese policy toward the Jews throughout history has been mild. Today, I as a foreign Jew can attend religious services led by a foreign rabbi at one of many Chabad Lubavitch centers across China (since Judaism is not one of the five official religions, Chinese natives are presumably not allowed to participate), which are approved and allowed by the government on an individual basis. China has also invested thousands into the restoration of Jewish sites in Shanghai and Harbin, converting them into museums and popular tourist attractions. One of these restored sites, Shanghai’s Ohel Rachel synagogue, was given a $60,000 restoration just ahead of diplomatic relations between Israel and China being established in 1992. 

Unfortunately, the same religious freedom and economic investment has not been extended to the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng. Official Chinese policy does not recognize descendants of the community as Jewish, but as Han Chinese. Like many other religions in China, the government has recently cracked down on the small Jewish community to maintain order and political control: according to reporting from the New York Times’ Chris Buckley in 2016, authorities have recently restricted holiday worship and removed markers of Kaifeng’s Jewish history from public spaces. In January of this year, Bitter Winter reported that the site of the old Kaifeng synagogue is constantly under surveillance and that any evidence of it, including Hebrew signs and Israeli flags, have been removed.

As one anonymous businessman told Buckley, it doesn’t have much to do with anti-Semitism at all: “It’s fear about religion, not just us Jews,” he said.

It’s a strange contradiction: recognizing foreign Jews but suppressing Chinese Jews. Xu Xin, a leading expert on the Kaifeng Jews at Nanjing University, writes that the CCP’s lax policies toward foreign Jews reflects the fact that Jews do not seek out converts, and that honoring Jewish history in China is an important part of maintaining relationships with, say, Americans and Israelis. In other words, allowing foreign Jews to practice in China won’t cause another Taiping Rebellion — at the same time, a resurgence in Jewish life in Kaifeng could attract too much international attention and create political disorder.