Common traits bind Jews and Chinese
(Cross-posted from Asia Times Online)
JERUSALEM – The Chinese are connoisseurs of civilization. For thousands of years they have absorbed ethnicities into their own culture, eliminating on occasion tribes that proved too troublesome. They have watched other civilizations come and go; they have seen their younger neighbors adopt parts of their culture and then try to assert their superiority, and ultimately fail. They are the last people on earth to accept the liberal Western dogma that every culture is valid within its own terms of reference, for they have seen too many civilizations fail of their own flaws.
There is no greater compliment to any culture than to be admired
by Chinese, who with some justification regard their civilization as the world’s most ancient and, in the long run, most successful. The high regard that the Chinese have for Jews should be a source of pride to the latter. In fact, it is very pleasant indeed for a Jew to spend time in China. The sad history of Jew-hatred has left scars on every European nation, but it is entirely absent in the world’s largest country. On the contrary, to the extent that Chinese people know something of the Jews, their response to us is instinctively sympathetic.
“I am always surprised by the expressions of affection that the Chinese show for the Jews. Both cultures, the Chinese emphasize, share respect for family, learning and, yes, money,” wrote the journalist Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore last year. ‘”Most Chinese will think Jews are smart, clever or good at making money, and that they have achieved a great deal,’ Professor Xu Xin, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University (one of over half a dozen centers in China dedicated to studying Judaism) told me last week,” she wrote. “This logic — that the Jews are admired for their success despite their small numbers and historical oppression — has also led to a burgeoning industry of self-help books that use Jewish culture and the Talmud to preach business tips.”
Family, learning, respect for tradition, business acumen: these are Jewish traits that the Chinese also consider to be their virtues. All this is true as far as it goes. One might also mention that China never has had reason to view the Jews as competitors for legitimacy.
Christianity began as a Jewish sect and has vacillated between the claim that is has superseded Judaism and the view that it is a daughter religion that should honor its parent. Islam claims that Jews and Christians falsified the revelations given to them and that their scriptures are a perversion of God’s true message, which Mohammed restored to its original integrity. But by no stretch of the imagination could China view the Jews as a threat to the legitimacy of its civilization.
The Chinese, in short, have no reasons to dislike or fear the Jews, and a number of reasons to admire them simply because Jews display traits that Chinese admire among themselves. A Jew visiting China, though, senses an affinity with Chinese people, more than can be explained by the commonality of traits. There is a common attitude towards life, and especially toward adversity.
A Chinese friend explained it to me this way: If you suffer a setback, even if through no fault of your own, and even if through the malicious acts of malevolent people, you must not feel sorry for yourself or blame others for your troubles. It is you who must take responsibility for overcoming them. You are required to redouble your efforts and work all the harder. Perseverance in the face of adversity is something Jews understand very well. Through two millennia of exile in the West, Jews maintained an autonomous high culture while succeeding at the highest level within Western culture, often despite persecution.
Civilizations fail when they become despondent, when they lose confidence in their history and their future, when their citizens cease to feel pride in and draw inspiration from their culture. Somehow, for thousands of years, Jews and Chinese kept their confidence in their civilization and preserved it through war and foreign conquest. Surely that helps explain their present success. The confidence to redouble one’s efforts in the face of adversity, even malevolence, cannot be explained by simple stubbornness. The grit required to excel even when the game is rigged against you is not only a cultural trait, but the trait of a culture, that is, a personal characteristic that draws on a culture’s self-confidence.
It may seem odd to compare the largest of peoples with one of the world’s smallest, but Chinese and Jews have something in common that helps explain their success and longevity. That is the ability to rise above ethnic conflicts.
Tribal warfare is the bane of human society. During the 40,000 years before the dawn of civilization, some anthropologists estimate, two-fifths of males who survived infancy died in warfare. The great empires of the Near East and the West failed because they enslaved the peoples they conquered rather than integrate them. European Christianity offered a compromise: the ethnicities that occupied Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire would join a universal Church in the spirit, but keep their ethnic nature in the flesh. Ultimately the flesh overwhelmed the spirit, and ethnocentric nationalism provoked the terrible wars of the 20th century.
Chinese civilization offered a different model: it integrated innumerable ethnic minorities into a unified culture centered on a written language and literary tradition, and offered the opportunity for advancement to everyone who came under the umbrella of this culture. Unlike Rome, it did not enslave subject populations to work giant estates, but emphasized the extended family as the fundamental unit of society.
Unlike Christianity, where the unifying language of Europe (Latin) was understood by a tiny elite, Chinese culture propagated a unifying written language. Literacy in ancient China was extremely high in comparison to the ancient and medieval West, between 20% and 30% by most estimates. China still has 55 ethnic minorities and a wide variety of spoken languages. The only people with a higher literacy rate in the ancient world were the Jews, who began a program of compulsory universal education during the 1st century BCE.
What distinguishes Israel from all the other peoples of the ancient world west of the Indus River? Uniquely, the ancient Hebrews believed that their nation was defined not by ethnicity and geographic origin but rather by a code of practice given by divine mandate.
Jewish Scripture describes the founding father of the Jewish people, Abraham, as a wandering Babylonian summoned by the single Creator God to leave his homeland and come to a land–the present-day Israel–where his descendants would multiply and endure forever. The generation of his great-grandchildren migrated to Egypt, and their descendants were enslaved. God’s intervention freed the Hebrews from slavery, and gave them the Torah (“teachings”) at Mount Sinai, instructing them to conquer the future Land of Israel.