Chinese scholar traces history of Sino-Jewish relations

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This early interest in the subject was one of the factors that led him to become a scholar of Chinese-Jewish history, Pan told an audience of around 40 in San Francisco last Friday.

Organized by the Bay Area chapter of the American Jewish Committee, Pan's lecture was the occasion for a truly Sino-Judaic event. Guests included Chinese Deputy Consul General Gu Sieong and Vice Consul Zhang Lizhong, as well as George Chang, president-elect of the Organization of Chinese-Americans.

Also present at the Jewish Community Federation building were several members of the former Shanghai Jewish community who now live in the Bay Area.

"Chinese and Jewish cultures have a lot in common," Pan told the audience. "Both cultures highly emphasize the family and education. Both have great capabilities for subsistence under difficult conditions. Both have absorbed various exotic cultures."

He traced the history of the Jews in China back to the 9th century, when several thousand Jews emigrated from Persia to the Chinese city of Kaifeng. Cut off from the outside world, most of Kaifeng's Jews assimilated into Chinese culture.

But traces of Jewish culture can still be found in the city. The professor recalled a recent visit in which he'd seen a mezuzah on the door of one household. "Inside was empty, so it wasn't really a mezuzah," he said. "But the family told me that this was from their great-great grandfather, so they wanted to keep it."

In modern times, the first wave of Jewish immigration to China began in the mid-19th century, and consisted largely of Sephardic Jews from Baghdad, Bombay and Hong Kong. Beginning around 1900, Jews from Russia began to arrive in the city, and from 1937 to 1941, the city's open-door policy made it a magnet for Eastern European Jewish refugees.

"There were so many outstanding intellectuals and professionals among the Jews coming to Shanghai that they infused the Shanghai Jewish community with a singular level of creativity and variety," said Pan. As well as several synagogues, the city had Jewish schools, hospitals, clubs, newspapers and even a small Jewish fighting unit.

One thing Shanghai Jewish residents didn't have was citizenship, and after the war most left for Israel, Europe and the United States.

Though persecuted by the Nazis and the Japanese during World War II, Jews in China enjoyed "a very good relationship" with the Chinese, said the professor. There was no native anti-Semitism, and Jews and Confucianists found much in common in their values and traditions.

Japan's persecution of China during World War II also "made Chinese people have a deep sympathy for Jews, and oppose any kind of anti-Semitism." In 1948, the communist-run Chinese media welcomed the establishment of the state of Israel, and in 1950, Israel reciprocated by becoming the first Mideast nation to acknowledge the People's Republic of China.

In the last 50 years, relations between the two countries have been somewhat more erratic, Pan said. In 1950, the two countries almost reached an agreement to establish diplomatic relations — but the advent of the Korean War and the Cold War resulted in "a frozen period, with no contact between China and Israel."

In 1992, China and Israel finally established diplomatic relations and thus "opened a new page in the history of the relationship between the two oldest civilizations in the world."

Since then, said the professor, "Sino-Judaic relations have developed very rapidly and smoothly," and the history of the Jews in China has become "a hot-point of academic interest."

Books, videos and exhibitions on the subject have been very popular, and even Steven Spielberg has expressed an interest in the story.

"He's thinking of a film that could be a sort of Chinese `Schindler's List', and I'd really like to see that," said Pan.

With Spielberg's clout, expect the story of Shanghai's Jews to be known worldwide before long. Only one thing is holding the famous filmmaker back, said Pan.

"So far, he doesn't have a very good script."