Are Jewish people part of the Chinese culture?

Mr. Xu, you are engaged in Jewish studies in China and have published the Encyclopaedia Judaica in Chinese. Where does the interest come from in your country?
At the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese intellectuals began to be very interested in foreign literature as they sought new ideas to reform the land ruled by the unloved Manchus. This was the first time you came into contact with Jewish topics. In addition, the first Chinese students went abroad and had direct contact with Jews there. Many Chinese saw parallels between themselves and the Jews.

What parallels do you mean?
Over the course of history, China has suffered under foreign rule again and again. Many therefore followed Zionist ideas with interest. Yiddish was also used as a model to fight against the exclusive use of classical Chinese in literature and administration. They saw a good example in the fact that Hebrew was used by many for religious purposes only. And later, in the 1980s, after the country's policy of opening up, when Chinese intellectuals were looking for new ideas, interest in the Jewish reignited.

What image do the Chinese have of the Jews?
Since the Jewish people are an ancient culture as well as the Chinese, they are very respected. Many are of the opinion that one can learn a lot from Judaism. Although the Jews are a minority and have stuck to their traditions, they have managed to participate successfully in society almost always and everywhere.

How did Jews originally come to China?
The first came into the country as traders via the Silk Road in the 8th century and were looking for suitable business opportunities. They settled in larger cities, the best known was probably the community in Kaifeng, the then imperial capital. Much later, in the 20th century, many Russian Jews who were persecuted in their homeland settled in Harbin, northeast China.

At the same time, some Jewish families came to Shanghai and Hong Kong via Iraq and India.
Yes, and during the Second World War, many Jewish refugees came to Shanghai, where they were later forced to stay in a ghetto by the Japanese occupiers.

How did China receive the Jews?
During the difficult period of World War II, Jews and Chinese helped each other. Interestingly enough, Jews in China were only ever perceived as foreigners and not as Jews. The Chinese had no relation to this type of religion. In this respect there was never any anti-Jewish discrimination.

And is there anti-Semitism in China today?
No, on the contrary, the Chinese admire the Jews and try to learn from them. One should only look at the list of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, or that of the world's most important politicians, economists and writers. That impresses the people in China. And if stereotypical statements are sometimes made about Jews anyway, it has only to do with Western influence.

How do political events in Israel influence Chinese attitudes towards Jews?
If anything, they have no negative impact. The Chinese admire Israel's strength and success over its neighbors.

How would you describe the current relationship between Israel and China?
For geopolitical reasons, the People's Republic of China stands behind the Palestinians and also has good relations with Iran. But since the Chinese generally have a positive attitude towards Israel, it is not a paradox to have bilateral trade relations at the same time.

How is the Holocaust being dealt with in China?
The topic only became known about 20 years ago with the opening policy in China. The first exhibition about it took place in 1991 in Shanghai. Since then there have been regular media reports. Every year I also hold a workshop on the Shoah with international experts in my institute. Against the backdrop of the Nanjing massacre, many Chinese are very sensitive to this issue.

There are some Jewish communities in China today that are largely made up of foreigners. How does the Chinese government see these communities?
In contrast to Christian churches, Jewish communities are allowed to establish themselves in China, rabbis can come into the country without any problems. The reason is that Judaism is not a missionary religion. Unlike Christianity, it does not pose a political threat to the government.

Michelle Berger spoke to the director of the Diana and Guilford Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University.