Into the belly of the Red Dragon

Making sense of China and its centuries-old Jewish community.

PEOPLE PERFORM with a long dragon lantern as they celebrate the Chinese New Year, in Longyan, Fujian province, last February (photo credit: REUTERS)
PEOPLE PERFORM with a long dragon lantern as they celebrate the Chinese New Year, in Longyan, Fujian province, last February
(photo credit: REUTERS)
China conjures up all kinds of exotic sentiments and imagery – paper lanterns, dragons (red or otherwise), fireworks, fortune cookies. What contributes to its otherworldly mystique? Maybe a bit of history can help shed light.
For centuries, China was the ultimate destination. Europeans saw it – and its rumored treasures – as a land enticingly out of reach, imaginatively the opposite of the Western world. Explorers, traders and missionaries surely did some serious soul-searching before they set off for it, as they could expect treacherously long sea or overland routes, not to mention the countless man-made dangers along the way. It makes one wonder what Venetian explorer Marco Polo and his contemporaries were thinking before he began his famed overland journey in 1271. “Hey, Signor Polo, before you head off to China, enjoy your beloved Venice because this could be your last ride in a gondola!”
Reflections of this nature flashed in my mind upon learning I would be traveling to the country for a conference and some sightseeing. The early-autumn conference was on China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, a massive investment strategy the government has undertaken to boost the economies of countries in its vicinity. Organized by the People’s Daily, China’s largest newspaper, the confab focused on how international media outlets can cooperate in promoting the plan. In another article to appear in The Jerusalem Post, I write about what Israel stands to gain from it all.
The one-week trip included stops in Beijing and Dunhuang. The latter, a provincial city in northwest China, was in medieval times a key trading hub along the old Silk Road. A few years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping refashioned the memory of this road into a model for what he hopes the Belt and Road initiative will achieve: increased economic exchanges with foreign countries through infrastructure development. My mind at this point, however, was somewhat less focused on economics and more on how my first trip to the Far East would unfold.
On the flight, a few hours after departing Tel Aviv on a Chinese airline, I peer out the window and check our location on the screen in front of me. We are fast approaching the Caspian Sea. Surely, we must be over the same route Polo took many years ago. But what a great cheat it is. My flight would take eight hours while his journey through Asia lasted 24 years. Yet here I am, grumbling about legroom and having to choose the lesser of two in-flight evils: “Sir, chicken or beef?”
Upon arriving in Beijing, I transfer to another terminal to catch the three-hour flight to Dunhuang. Walking through the airport, one is quickly reminded of something that is well-known about Asia but not given much thought until you arrive: an entirely different conception of personal space. Suddenly, a tide of bodies rushes at me and I am subsumed in a swelling sea of people. Spotting the signature face mask worn by many Chinese, I begin to understand why people favor it at the airport. Perhaps the Chinese view human exhaust as equally menacing as that let off by vehicles. It reminds you of the country’s great advantage – its people, some 1.41 billion of them – a massive reserve of “human resources” to fuel the country’s formidable economic engines.
Dunhuang sits on the edge of the Gobi Desert. If you Google the location, the computer shows you somewhat impressive sand dunes, but it is nothing like experiencing it in the flesh; you feel minuscule at the base of what are vast mountains of sand, with summits, valleys and countless contours in between. Each peak is layered with bold contrasts of light and shadow at points decreed by the blowing winds.
During the Middle Ages, Dunhuang was a key trading site on Polo’s itinerary and that of other merchants arriving from the West. With its spring-fed oasis, the city was a natural resting stop along the Silk Road.
Aside from the magnificent sand mountains, the area features another point of historical interest. Just south of Dunhuang are the Mogao Caves, otherwise known as the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.” As early as the fourth century CE, Buddhist monks, attracted to the ascetic surroundings, began carving shrines – 492 in all – out of the sides of nearby cliffs. They decorated them with wall frescoes and large statues of the Buddha.
In 1900, a visitor to one of the caves lit a cigarette and noticed as he exhaled that the smoke rose up and made an unexpected exit through a crack in the wall. Behind it lay a literary treasure trove of 40,000 scrolls the monks had collected and stored in the chamber. The discovery aroused such excitement and curiosity that it was hailed as a find on par with the Dead Sea Scrolls.
What’s striking about the cache is its diversity. The scrolls, most of them in Chinese and Tibetan, point to Dunhuang’s cosmopolitan religious fabric, containing Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Manichean, Eastern Christian and Taoist writings.
Curiously, archeologists also uncovered a small Hebrew prayer book from the eighth century. Judging by its creases, its possessor likely kept it folded in a small purse. It contains quotes from the Prophets and Psalms such as: “Gather Your dispersed people, cleanse the sins of Judah, give Your people a banner for rallying, O Builder of Jerusalem!”
The owner of the book was likely a Jew of either Iranian or Indian descent and a trader or middleman. Scholars believe that the Jews who made China their base of operations did not allow women to accompany them, fearing for their safety. They tended to take Chinese wives, some of whom converted, and based their Jewish lineage on patrilineal descent, mirroring the broader assumptions of Chinese society that held men superior to women.
It is difficult to determine how many Jews lived in China at that time. We know that during the Song dynasty, around a millennium ago, its capital of Kaifeng was home to a community of some 10,000 Jews. Most scholars believe they arrived in the 10th century, but some have argued they came much earlier.
In 1163, the community erected a synagogue near the banks of the Yellow River. Despite the visible Hebrew lettering on its pillars, visitors often mistook it for a mosque. Tellingly, the Chinese used the word "qingzhen si" to describe both mosques and synagogues. Unfortunately, over the ensuing centuries, bandits and floods reduced the synagogue and town to ruins.
NOT FAR from the historical sites, one can visit the modern city of Dunhuang. What immediately stood out about it, as well as Beijing, was the cleanliness. There was not one piece of trash to be found. What you did see were plenty of workers with large witches’ brooms scouring the streets and sidewalks. In the last few years, municipalities have cracked down on what used to be a littering epidemic.
The country is also making similar strides to reduce air and noise pollution. In Dunhuang and Beijing, scooters must use a special lane. When you get close up to the steady flow of two-wheeled traffic, you don’t hear engines, just the whooshing of the tires on the pavement, as all the scooters are electric.
Along with the street sweepers and traffic police – seemingly one cop on every corner – one also sees many workers tending flowerbeds alongside the roads. Strangely, the workers were fully shielded from the sun, wearing pants, long-sleeved shirts, white gloves, a hat or visor, a black face mask and sunglasses. After noticing many cars with tinted windows on all sides, especially in Beijing, I did a quick Internet search. It turns out the Chinese, as well as other Asians, are obsessed with maintaining as fair a complexion as possible, as darker skin shades indicate a lower social status.
Perhaps the Chinese are right to fear melanoma or a life of street sweeping. Yet workers in our hotel – though roofed – did not seem better off. There were many staff members whose sole job seemed to be directing guests to the bathroom or lobby. Seeing such menial jobs amid the incredible wealth of Beijing raises a vexing question: Is China communist, socialist, capitalist or some unusual amalgam of the three? In his book China in Ten Words, native journalist Yu Hua writes, “‘Better a socialist weed than a capitalist seedling,’ we used to say… Today we can’t tell the difference between what is capitalist and what is socialist – weeds and seedlings come from one and the same plant.” This confusion, he adds, breeds ever-growing disparities between rich and poor, city and village, and from region to region.
To illustrate the point, Yu Hua recounts a story about his visit to a rural village in China’s southwest in 2006. He was touring the country with a news crew to gather footage for a documentary. To celebrate the ongoing World Cup games, the crew organized a soccer match for local schoolchildren, but nobody in the village had a ball, so someone was sent to buy one in the neighboring city. That wasn’t the least of it. Nobody in the village had a clear grasp of the rules. So, the cameraman stood up before 1,000 children sitting patiently on the grass and began Soccer 101 with a demonstration of the penalty kick. Too eager to impress, he kicked the ball high. It sailed over the goal and landed in a pile of cow dung. He ran over to the ball, plucked it out of the sticky poop, and rinsed it off in a nearby pond. When it came time for the schoolchildren to try some penalty shots, each one gave the ball a good kick, ran after it, picked it up, and then promptly carried it off to the pond for cleaning. For the children, such were the rules of the game.
At the same time, Yu Hua explains, kids in urban centers were fiercely competitive over who had the most expensive attire. They all had to wear school uniforms, which meant they could gain an edge only by getting their feet into the latest Kobes or Jordans. Meanwhile, children in rural areas have never even heard of soccer. How do the Chinese address such glaring contractions? One way is through ambitious public campaigns. Picking up the Global Times, a local newspaper published in English, my eye fell on the article, “China pushes socialist values knowledge” (September 15). The author reports that students and teachers will soon ramp up “ideological education.” The plan will require pupils “to read the socialist core values textbook every day before the first morning class for three minutes.”
What are these core socialist values? According to the author, they “summarize the nation, society and individual” and “are a set of moral principles defined by the central authorities.” They include “prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity and friendship.”
Can moral principles be truly moral if they are “defined” for you by the central authorities? And do they reflect the values of the Chinese generally?
Educator Michael Levy is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion (2011). He wrote the book after spending several years in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer. On the question of Chinese values, he cites Orville Schell, a well-known American scholar of China. “Schell wrote a brilliant book a few years ago called Wealth and Power,” Levy says. “That’s it. Those are the values, wealth and power.”
The Chinese are trying to remedy this, he explains. For example, Xi is aiming to revive classic works and philosophers like Confucius to give citizens sources for a more meaningful life. “That comes out of a screaming worry from top to bottom in Chinese culture and the Communist Party that it’s a nihilistic country. There is nothing other than money,” Levy explains.
He adds that if you express something out of a sense of moral obligation, many Chinese see it as an absurdity. “People will say you’re an idiot,” he says. “My Chinese friends say this but then add, ‘I wish we had more of that.’”
How much more is needed to alter ingrained ideas and practices? Touching on what Yu Hua has called China’s “copycat” phenomenon – the pirating of officially produced goods, among other illicit activities – Levy says that the underlying assumption is caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware.” The Chinese think, “If someone is stupid enough to buy something fake, well, they bought it.”
Levy spots a similar modus operandi at work in schools. As an educator at a Mandarin immersion school in San Francisco, he works with young Chinese students regularly. “From the beginning, they are told over and over again, ‘One and a half billion people here are all competing against you. You cannot think about anything except the goal. Get there by any means necessary, shove everyone aside or you’ll be destroyed.’”
However, on a positive note Levy says Jews and Chinese have one thing in common – flexibility.
“Jews have had to survive everywhere in the world for thousands of years... and the Chinese have had the same experience. The 20th century was a mess for China.”
He explains that Chinese individuals, unlike the government, are admirably non-ideological and pragmatic. “They listen to every idea, take a good one and run with it.” The middle-of-the-road Israeli or Jew around the world is similar, Levy contends.
Throughout Kosher Chinese, he offers entertaining anecdotes such as what Chinese told him when they learned of his Jewish origins. “They would get this big look in their eyes, and the next line, 100% of the time was, ‘like comrade Marx.’” On one occasion, Levy uses the excuse of keeping kosher (a commitment he never kept fully) to get out of eating deep-fried millipedes in a rural village. The villagers were confused and likely offended. He writes, “The group stared on in silence as the village leader looked from me to the millipedes and back to me... ‘Eat the food,’ he grunted.”
After some indecision Levy retorts, “‘Jews can’t eat insects... I don’t want to get into it, but there are a lot of rules for us.’”
Although he failed that test of cross-cultural adaptability, Levy explains that the Chinese were forgiving, especially when it came to the Jews. They were deeply impressed and perhaps a bit jealous that Jews have vigorously maintained their cultural traditions throughout the centuries, while the Chinese lost touch with theirs in a depressing way. “That’s because Mao Zedong deliberately uprooted them in order to modernize the country.”
MY TIME in China was winding down. One annoyance weighed heavily on members of our group throughout the trip. Facebook and Gmail were not accessible on our computers and devices. The Chinese government has blocked these sites since 2009 when independence activists in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwest China, used social media to fuel unrest against Beijing. The government has since allowed the use of alternative sites, but ones that comply with certain regulations.
This begs the question: Does freedom of expression exist in China? A professor who has lived there as a guest lecturer told me that one can certainly speak his or her mind in private, but broadcasting ideas that sharply diverge from the party line is another matter. The same holds for religious groups. Beyond the five religions formally recognized by the government (Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism), members of other faiths can exercise freedom of conscience and believe whatever they choose, but again, in private.
This bring us back to China’s Jews. What happened to Kaifeng’s historic Jewish community?  Where are their descendants today?
While a small community of Jews remains in China, its numbers have dwindled as intermarriage throughout the centuries has taken a toll on Jewish life. A more recent blow occurred in the ’60s when China’s Cultural Revolution nearly quashed all signs of Jewish practice. Recent years have seen a revival of Jewish life in Kaifeng. According to an article published in The New York Times (“Chinese Jews of ancient lineage huddle under pressure”) a few hundred residents are trying to recover their Jewishness through classes, services and proposals to rebuild the lost synagogue. Some even made aliya after a lengthy process, as the Law of Return does not automatically guarantee it to Chinese Jews on account of their diluted ancestry.
The government initially supported the revival, seeing it as a plus for tourist revenue, but has recently backtracked. It closed down a historic mikve (ritual bath) as well as organizations helping residents reconnect with their Jewish roots. It also prohibited open worship on Passover and removed signs and other traces of the city’s Jewish past.
Few believe antisemitism is to blame. More likely, it is the Communist Party’s overall anxiety about religious movements it cannot control. Just last year, according to the same article, Xi carried out a “campaign against unapproved religion and foreign influence.” In addition to closing unauthorized Buddhist monasteries and taking down church crosses, his government targeted Kaifeng’s Jewish revival. During the Communist Party’s 19th Congress last month, Xi reaffirmed his commitment to exert strict control over these matters. These policies have crystallized the perception of the president, who easily secured his second five-year term, as China’s next Mao Zedong.
How does it all bode for China’s Jews? Unless Xi softens his heart for them, they might lose what little remains of their heritage.
The writer was a guest of the 2017 Media Cooperation Forum on the “Belt and Road” hosted by the People’s Daily.