Chinese flag 521.
(photo credit: Reuters)
We are all used to the phenomenon of the wandering Jew, and to finding a Jew in
almost every nook and cranny. But who would have imagined that in the 1920s, a
Polish Jewish woman was writing a best-seller in Chinese that was said to be
“going like matza water” because half a million copies had been
Prof. Irene Eber, an eminent scholar of Chinese literature and
history and of Jews in China, was reading a fascinating travelogue by Mejlekh
Ravitch, a Yiddish poet from Warsaw, written while he traveled in China for six
months during 1935. Ravitch mentioned having met a landsman, one of the few
women writers in the country. This discovery set Eber on a search to uncover the
identity of her landsman as well.
Stephanie Rosenthal was born in 1885
and moved to France, most likely with her family around the turn of the century.
She studied biology at the Sorbonne, where her teacher, after noticing her
outstanding writing talent, encouraged her to pursue this avenue. During this
time, she became acquainted with radical Chinese students in Paris and met Hua
Nangui, a Chinese student of architecture and railroad engineering. The two
married in 1908 and went to China in 1910, arriving just prior to the end of the
empire and the establishment of the Chinese Republic.
Her facility with
languages must have been remarkable, for she published in two non-native
tongues, namely French and Chinese. In 1915, this Polish émigré, now known as
Luo Chen, published a book of essays in Chinese dealing with women scholars. She
lived in Shanghai as well as Beijing and consorted with the leading
intellectuals in China. Luo Chen identified with the budding Chinese feminist
movement, whose main goals at the time were to outlaw the binding of feet as
well as arranged marriages.
In the 1920s, she wrote her best-seller, Love
and Duty, in French; in 1926 an English translation appeared under the name
Ho-Ro-se, and the preface of the Chinese version was written by none other than
the chancellor of Peking University.
Eber had inadvertently bought a copy
of this book in a library sale years ago, without knowing who Ho-Ro-se was. The
novel deals with a Chinese woman caught between tradition and modernity. When
the discovery is made that she and a young man she met on the way to school have
done the unthinkable – fallen in love – her parents quickly force her into a
loveless marriage and his parents send him away. When her path crosses with her
beloved later in life, she leaves her husband and children, but her lover is
consumed by guilt, especially when his father falls ill and he, a filial son,
returns home. She bears a child from this union; after her lover dies, she
struggles as a single mother to support herself and their child. Her status
destroys her daughter’s standing in society, so in order to clear the way for
her marriage, the heroine commits suicide as the ultimate sacrifice.
author’s message to Chinese women was that there was a price to be paid for the
education of women, which inevitably included the acceptance of Western ideas
such as love and the right to seek it. Having Chinese women confront modernity
was a daring step; the novel was made into a silent film in
Ho-Ro-se wrote about 15 books, as well as some poetry. She seems to
have lived intermittently in China and France in the 1930s, although her and her
family’s whereabouts during World War II are unclear. Eventually the family,
including her son and his French wife, returned to China in the early 1950s. Her
granddaughter still lives in Beijing.
Luo Chen wrote about the
developments in the Jewish world as well as the Chinese one. In 1964 she
published a book of poetry in French; one poem, “Oh, Israel,” deals with the
Holocaust, while another, “Israel Revived,” relates to the people of Israel and
its suffering, with an uplifting end owing to the fact that a Jewish state now
exists. This Polish-French-Chinese feminist writer chose an unusual path for
herself, but did not relinquish her ties to the Jewish people.
is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute, academic
editor of the journal NASHIM and the author of numerous articles and books on