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The Chinese and the Jews

May 6th, 2014 - 8:13 pm

Over the past couple of decades the Chinese have become more interested in the Jews.  Of late the Chinese regime has been bringing Jewish scholars and theologians to the People’s Republic to discuss Torah, Talmud, Mishnah and even some of the more mystical tracts.

Why?

It’s no surprise that China-Israel trade is increasing, nor that the China-Israel relationship has grown and deepened.  Israel may well be the most dynamic country in the world, bursting at the seams with high-tech startups, dazzling inventions–especially in military and medical technologies–and highly educated and talented people.

But I’m not talking about Israel here.  This is about the Chinese fascination with the Jews and Judaism, the religion and the People of the Book.

I’ve got a theory.  It’s based on some real history, some anecdotes from participants in those ongoing conversations, and my own views of how the Chinese think about the world.  Some of it will likely turn out to be fanciful, but it’s an important subject and it behooves us to ponder it.  David Goldman has done some first-class pondering already, as is his wont, and I’m hoping to add some context.

Back when the country’s greatest modern man, Deng Xiaoping, converted the PRC economy to capitalism, Chinese “social scientists” went to work trying to figure out what makes capitalists tick.  They were quickly baffled.  They kept running into problems; that “knack” we’ve got somehow eluded their new system.  After a while, they figured out that the capitalists’ success couldn’t be entirely explained by the nuts and bolts of the marketplace, or by institutions like private property, important though they were.  Yes, it would have been easier just to read Michael Novak’s magnum opus, but they got to his end place:  religion is an essential part of successful capitalism.

In their amazing way of organizing most anything, the Chinese launched churches, and of course millions upon millions of them attended Christian (mostly Catholic) services.  To be sure, the Party kept a suspicious eye wide open, and some of the churches were deemed too dangerous, even in the cause of Communism.  But on they went, convinced they were on the right path.  If anyone doubted it, they had mountains of research and even Tocqueville to justify the turn to religion.

After a couple of decades of this, there were still problems, and their social scientists took another look.  This time around, they found–surprise!–lots of Jews involved in capitalist enterprises, from banks to stock exchanges to corporations.  Indeed, the Jews had a history of doing it.  Maybe the Jews knew something the others didn’t?  Well, look at Israel…or New York…

And so they’re talking to Jews, not about capitalism but about Judaism.  State radio now broadcasts in Hebrew.  The Jewish experts who are brought to China find themselves speaking Hebrew with their Chinese interlocutors.  Chinese students can now learn Hebrew, and immerse themselves in Jewish studies (maybe they’ll give Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree sometime soon?).

Top Rated Comments   
With the recent knife attack on Chinese citizens by radical Islam, the Chinese are looking for ways to reason with Muslims and to form a peaceful coexistence.

After studying the possible solutions, they naturally turned to a people who have spent centuries talking to a wall.
11 weeks ago
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Funny thing: while Chinese Communists are
Converting to Judaism most, secular-reform
Jews have been converting to Communism!
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
There is an interesting tendency in both western and eastern classical thinking, "Dualism," which may go far as a gateway to understanding this phenomenon (if it really exists).

Michael, when I read the headline, the first thought I had was tied to this, your words:

"Chinese students can now learn Hebrew, and immerse themselves in Jewish studies (maybe they’ll give Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree sometime soon?)."

I should guess "there's a whole lotta thinkin' goin' on," dualistically speaking, in the minds of China-at-large. Xinjiang is attracting more and more attention these days, and not in a good way. It borders a lot of places with the surname "...stan." It's fair to say that "Stan" isn't real big on Jews or Israel.
Also, Stan has a problem of late with anyone who doesn't see the world his way. Look at the recent "muslim success story" and compare it to the Jewish one.

China, for all its faults, is still so steeped in its classical culture that it can't escape the dualism which reveals itself daily. This is the culture which named
"Yin and Yang." For aeons China was the most technologically
enlightened culture on the planet. It didn't achieve that by turning its back on achievement.

You have, in front of you, two of the three extant cultures from our earliest recorded history, the third being Hinduism (seeing a pattern developing?). China is nothing if not pragmatic, and they are masters of the long game.

11 weeks ago
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Hell will freeze over before Chinese convert to Judaism in any significant numbers. Mr Ledeen should know this as anyone knows who has travelled China. I have doubts in this though: it has been a long time since I read anything compelling from him. Pïty.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hopefully they'll discover kosher delis. After all Jews have been major supporters of Chinese takeout for decades!
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
If I recall Chinese history correctly, Kublai Khan was interested in Christianity, and Marco Polo, his father, and uncle made their way to his capital (Marco for the first time, and his father & uncle for the second time). Some missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church accompanied them.

Then, in "Paris 1919" we see some Chinese looking at Communism, because of the raw deal (according to them), they received vis a vie the Japanese, from the Paris peace conference.

So, given the overlap between all expressions of the Christian faith tradition, and all expressions of the Jewish Faith tradition, this is a way for the Beijing Politburo to apply some centripetal force to counter act everything flying into pieces.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
While the chinese are doing all this looking, maybe they should take a real look at the USA secret, liberty and entrepenourship. The cruel irony though is while china may discover that USA secret to success, Obama and the dems are now doing their best to stamp it out.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
But look at all the Jews who have converted to Buddhism. It is widespread.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
Aside from admiring the success of the Jews, China appreciates Jews as a fellow "ancient civilization".

That has lead some Chinese research into curious places. Some time ago, I came across a Chinese paper on phylacteries - in Hebrew, 'tefillin' - worn by religious Jewish men. They noted that the contact points on the head and arm matched almost precisely the Chinese acupressure points associated with psychic well-being. Who knew!
11 weeks ago
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I wonder what Israel will do about the "right of return" policy? Oh, my!
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
Two thoughts from a heathen...
I love the idea of a religion that is a "search for the right questions rather than a canon of correct answers", and it would be wonderful to see mass conversions of Chinese to Judaism.
Wish I could have the popcorn concession for watching the haters react to that.
11 weeks ago
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What will be really great is when they learn how to drive and park an automobile and stop abandoning their baby girls.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
In "Civilization", Niall Ferguson relates the story that the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences were charged with answering the following question: China was ahead of the West in virtually every field up to the 15th century. Thereafter, the West zoomed ahead. What was it that the West had that we didn't have that cause this to happen?

At first, the Academy thought it was the West's guns. The West had better weapons.

Then, the Academy did some more research and decided it was the political system of the West. The West had democracy and China didn't.

After a bit more study, the Academy decided it was the West's economic system. The West had the market economy and China didn't.

But, for the past 20 years, we've known the simple answer that lies behind all the other answers and namely, it was the West's religion.

By that, the Chinese Academy meant that the Judeo-Christian heritage conferred on the West it its perennial restlessness between the world that is and the world that ought to be which set in motion all of the creative developments of the last 5 centuries.
11 weeks ago
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