Though China is home to a small native Jewish population, for most Chinese, Jews are an oddity. The modern Chinese term for “Jew,” youtai, was assigned to Jews in the early 19th century in Protestant missionary translations of the Christian bible. Before it was applied to Jews, youtai was often used to describe a person who is devious or suspicious. In the second half of the 20th century, the Chinese communist government supported Palestine and considered Jews and Israelis to be imperial enemies.
The only other context most Chinese had for Jews was literature. “The first thing I knew about Jewish people was through reading Shakespeare,” says Xun Zhou, a professor of modern history at the University of Essex and the author of Chinese Perceptions of the ‘Jews’ and Judaism: A History of the Youtai. Growing up in Chengdu in the 1980s, Xun had never met a Jewish person. “Shylock the Jew was the image I had,” he says.
In the early 1990s, China opened itself to the free market, and the attitude toward Jews shifted. “When China began embracing neoliberalism and advocating entrepreneurship, the ‘smart Jew’ who was successful at business became a useful model,” Xun says. “With neoliberalism, being smart, successful, and rich like the Jews became desirable for ordinary people on the streets.”
Stores carry how-to books teaching the business secrets of the Talmud, classes in Shanghai claim to provide a Jewish education, and chatty taxi drivers make the money gesture when they find out their fare is Jewish.
“Jewish” became popular shorthand for wealth, education, and business acumen, and Chinese businessmen saw an opportunity to grow a market based in teaching “Jewishness.” James Ross says titles like The Secret of the Talmud: The Jewish Code of Wealth by Jiao Yiyang, Secret of Jewish Success: 10 Commandments of Jewish Success by Li Huizhen, and 101 Business Secrets in Jews’ Notebook by Zhu Xin Yue all claim to have unlocked the Jewish secrets to success. (Myths about moneymaking power of the Jews isn’t limited to China; South Korea shares a similar obsession.)
Of all the Chinese authors offering access to Jewish secrets, no one is more prolific than He Xiongfei. In 1995, He launched a series called Revelations on the Jews’ Superior Intelligence, claimed to be the first popular literature published on the subject. He lists historical icons like Marx, Freud, and Einstein as Jewish success stories, but he also includes definite non-Jews like Beethoven in his index of Jewish people. In The Spirit of Jewish Culture, He Xiongfei writes that Jews “are the most intelligent, mysterious, and the wealthiest people in the world. In a sense, not knowing about Jews equals not knowing the world! When Jews sneeze at home, all the banks in the world would catch a cold one by one.”
(Attempts to contact He were unsuccessful. Links to his publisher’s contact pages were dead, and emails were returned to sender. Even Ross told me that he’s never been able get a hold of him and doesn’t know if He really exists or whether he’s a single author or a group of writers.)
“Since most Chinese don’t get to see observant Jews, or even secular Jews, they don’t really know much about them,” Ross says. “Same goes for these Chinese authors.” Ross believes the Chinese use the success of Jews in the business world and in winning Nobel Prizes to promote the values Chinese culture holds in high regard — hard work, education, and, most important, getting rich. To Xun, readers’ interest in this kind of popular literature goes beyond Jews. “To the Chinese, Jews are a distant mirror,” Xun says. “It has nothing to do with reality. It’s really about the Chinese self-image.” To be Jewish, then, is simply to be a model Chinese citizen.
Some Jewish immigrants in China are also capitalizing on the country’s Semite obsession. Meirav Shacked, originally from Tel Aviv, is a co-founder of BetterMe, a parent education platform that teaches “Jewish family education” to Chinese couples and claims that “Israeli parents educate their children using known methods, while family education in China is a new thing.”
He Xiongfei writes that Jews “are the most intelligent, mysterious, and the wealthiest people in the world. In a sense, not knowing about Jews equals not knowing the world!”
Shacked’s education program provides workshops and lectures and uses what she calls a Jewish-Israeli method. “Jewish tradition and religion bring a lot of things into our education,” she says. “The questions we ask in Passover and Yom Kippur, the emphasis on communication, these are all kinds of things that influence our education.” Chinese education, according to Shacked, is bogged down with stress and anxiety, whereas a Jewish-Israeli education focuses on emotional intelligence and creativity.
BetterMe has 18 employees — all of them native Israelis — and has openly marketed itself as a Jewish education platform. “Jewish is something that is good in the mind of China because we are smart—and I’m just saying the things that they say—because we know how to make money,” Shacked says. Tracy Pinshow Navov, a clinical psychologist who is a consultant and lecturer for BetterMe, says, “[The Chinese] look at Israel and what we’ve built as this successful startup nation, and they want to do that too.”