Judaic studies, common history enthrall UA Chinese students

(L-R) University of Arizona students Liao Dong, Jing Xia, Hao Jun Yang and Ming Xuan Xiao on University Boulevard in Tucson, Nov. 7, at the start of homecoming weekend. (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)
(L-R) University of Arizona students Liao Dong, Jing Xia, Hao Jun Yang and Ming Xuan Xiao on University Boulevard in Tucson, Nov. 7, at the start of homecoming weekend. (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)

Do stereotypes vary based on traditional socialization in any given country? Yes, if you’re talking about China, at least according to four Chinese students at the University of Arizona who attribute characteristics such as intelligence, success and business acumen to being Jewish.

“I didn’t know why Jews are so smart, like Einstein and so many others,” Hao Jun Yang, 21, told the AJP. To learn more about Jewish culture, Yang and the other students have taken modern and/or medieval Jewish history with Deborah Kaye, Ph.D., an adjunct instructor at the UA. A business major whose father is a beer agent in southern China, Yang has discovered other reasons for empathy with Jews. “Not everyone had equal rights in Jewish history. That’s like in Chinese history,” he says. Also, both the Chinese and Jewish peoples are firmly rooted in ancient cultures.

The origin of Jews in China goes back as early as 92 C.E., when some Jews lived under the Han Dynasty in what was called the Western Region, roughly Xinjiang today. During the Song Dynasty, from its capital of Kaifeng (from 960 C.E. and for the next 166 years), commerce linking the Silk Road to the West was established, which brought Israelites to meet the emperor.

Considering more recent world history, “Hitler killed Jewish people because they were rich and smart,” says Liao Dong, 22, an economics major.

But some Jews found refuge in China during the Holocaust.  “When the world closed its borders to the desperate Jews of Europe, Shanghai, an open port in East Asia, which could be entered without visas or documents, became a last haven for Jewish refugees,” writes Gao Bei in “Shanghai Sanctuary: Chinese and Japanese Policy toward European Jewish Refugees during World War II” (Oxford University Press, 2013). Between 1933 and 1941, around 30,000 European Jews fled to Shanghai, and the great majority survived the war.

Post World War II, Shanghai offered a neutral place for Jews and others who didn’t have a passport. “Both Chinese and Jewish people needed protection from the Japanese,” notes Dong.

“My grandfather knew Jewish people in Shanghai. There’s a Jewish museum there,” says Ming Xuan Xiao, 21, a business major from Shanghai, where the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum was built in 1907.  In 1985, scholars and academics met in Palo Alto, Calif., to establish the Sino-Judaic Institute in Kaifeng, which traces the ancient history of Jews in China.

The practice and beliefs of Judaism can be confusing to the Chinese.  “I’m Chinese, I don’t really have a religion, so I’m curious about it,” says Jing Xia, 23, an economics major who graduated from the UA in July and still lives in Tucson. One of her cousins who came to study at the UA married a Jewish Tucsonan.

“I have a friend who came here and became a Christian. I found out that the Jewish people don’t celebrate Christmas,” she says.  “I thought that Jews and Christians were pretty much the same.”

Xia intends to stay in Tucson for now. Yang also wants to live in Tucson after he graduates. “My parents pushed me into studying business. I don’t really like it,” he says, “but I was born with a head for business. I get apartments ready for Chinese students, make money from referrals. I pick them up at the airport and take them to buy what they need.”

Dong notes that studying Judaism — his minor is in Judaic studies — reminds him of a fond experience: “My parents read a book about different intelligent Jews to me in my childhood.”