He dare not set his foot on any block no longer than it takes him to leap from one block of ice to the next. Between the breaches, the void looms, the foot slips, danger is close…
– H. N. Bialik, “Revealment and Concealment”
Mutual fascination between Chinese and Jews can lead to delight as well as misunderstanding. Without a journey into complex cultural and linguistic differences, one is left with simplistic assertions about similarities (such as love of family, education, and money) that run the risk of racism. In 19th-century Thailand, Christian missionaries had already poisoned the mind of the king with claims that Chinese immigrants were nothing more than the “Jews of the East” because they kept increasing in wealth (which was often shipped back to the motherland) and could not be trusted to be ultimately loyal to the ruler.
In the same period, missionaries in China were also trying to denigrate Jews with the phrase Youtai — which combines two ideograms connoting bestiality in the classical Chinese lexicon. “You” is composed of the radical for dog and a homonym referring to the chieftain of a barbarian tribe. “Tai” hints at a proclivity for extreme behaviors, which were deemed distasteful in Confucian culture. Despite these prejudicial appellations, the Youtai name endured over time and is currently a badge of honor worn proudly by Chinese Jews in Israel as well as by the descendants of the Kaifeng Jewish community in China.
The etymology of Youtai is but one of several gateways into the distinctive cultural concerns that shape Chinese and Jewish traditions. To understand their linkages, one must traverse a difficult and slippery linguistic terrain much like the one described by Haim Nahman Bialik when he wrote about the mission of the poet. Cultural comparisons often carry the risk of false generalizations — which can become a chilling river that feeds further prejudice. And yet, we must proceed, just as the poet who seeks fresh vistas unto world-creating words. When we try to hear the distinctive cadence of thought in both Hebrew and Chinese, we are nearing some meaningful similarities.
Two examples may serve to encourage travelers across the icy waters. The commitments to “memory” and to “truth” are central to both Chinese and Jewish traditions. Each has defined and embellished these concepts in a lexicon that casts light upon the other. This is precisely what the king of Thailand could not grasp when he took note of his Chinese subjects’ attachment to ancestral lands and traditions. He was as blind and tone deaf as Egypt’s pharaohs.
An emphasis upon textuality and the transmission of memory can be seen as concretely embedded in two expressions: hao gu and zachor. The first comes from the Analects, a collection of Confucius’ teachings, and points toward an intense “love of the ancients” and a desire to build upon their wisdom in times of violent and bewildering change. The second expression is rooted in the Hebrew Bible and the commandment to “remember” the Shabbat as well as the experience of slavery and liberation from Exodus. In both lexicons, remembrance is an active gesture. One turns to the past for the sake of renewal in the present.
Confucius told his disciples that he was not born knowing the past, but merely practiced hao gu — an attachment to the ancients. In this confession may be found the seeds of a quest for genuine knowledge. According to Confucius, only a person firmly anchored in multiple temporalities can be considered a teacher and a sage. Similarly, when Jews are commanded to remember, to practice zachor (for example, during the Passover seder), it is meant as a call to action rather than an act of passive recollection of miracles from ancient times. We are meant to learn as we teach, to recall a painful past in order to be more fully alive in the present.
In both Chinese and Jewish traditions, remembrance demands effort and a constant openness to past and present alike. This same emphasis upon inner struggle characterizes the commitment to truth in both traditions. The Hebrew word “emet” — “truth” — is a phrase that can refer to God as well as to what is most deeply authentic in the human condition. Comprised of three letters that traverse the entire alphabet (alef, mem, tav), this Jewish concept for veracity demands that one investigate a matter thoroughly, from A to Z, as it were. At the same time, as commentators of the Talmud pointed out, an inquiry into emet requires constant vigilance against the self-delusions of the human heart-mind.
In the Chinese tradition, there is no concept of a transcendent God, no supernatural authority upon which to model the quest for truth. Nonetheless, the key concept of zhen links inner and outer self-cultivation by demanding that a person be fully “genuine” both within and without. Zhen, in the classical Chinese lexicon, is a synonym for cheng, “sincerity.” While “truth” in both Chinese and Jewish tradition demands attention to concrete reality, it is also a concept that connotes ceaseless struggle and self-questioning.
Memory and veracity are but two of the more subtle ethical commitments linking Chinese and Jews across time and space. To be sure, it is easier to jest about shared predilections for food and money than to think through ideas that may bind as well as divide us. Without doubt, we are living in an age when Chinese-Jewish comparisons are becoming more common, especially as contemporary civilizations look eastward for some wisdom about anchoring modernity. How can one cope with rapid technological change and still maintain a consistent sense of a distinctive cultural identify? Chinese and Jews seem uniquely skilled in bridging past and present.
Yet such acts of linkage carry considerable risks as well. Turbulent waters of prejudice and misunderstanding swirl all around us. As Israel and China strengthen cultural, diplomatic, and economic ties, we may well encounter once again racist accusations all too familiar from the histories of Europe and Southeast Asia. Bialik’s advice to poets may help in looking into that darkness, as well as to the light beyond.