Is Judaism the Yang to China’s Yin?
Exploring the meeting of two ancient cultures
by Tiberiu Weisz
I can barely walk nowadays in the streets of Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing or even Kaifeng without meeting another Jew or an Israeli. Jews have “invaded” the Middle Kingdom, followed by the Israelis who found that China is one of the few countries that still welcomes Jews, or at least, they do not perceive the Chinese to be anti-Semitic or prejudiced. Back home, when I open a Jewish paper, I increasingly find more articles of the adventure of an Israeli, another Jew or a story of a Chabadnic in the land of the Middle Kingdom. The common theme is that the Chinese think that the Jews are rich, smart and good at business. One blogger, however, pointed out that this attitude comes more from misinformation, lack of knowledge and ignorance, which historically has turned into an anti Jewish attitude and ultimately anti-Semitism.
There is some truth in the blogger’sobservation. While reading the Chineselanguage media, I can hardly say thatthey publish entirely positive articlesabout the Jews or Israel. While it is truethat the English language media praisesthe Jews and writes what (foreign)readers want to hear, the coverage inthe local media is a different story. TheChinese use the same phrases but withnegative connotation.
The general Chinese press oftenportrays the Jews as agents of thecorrupt Western system, and Israel asa puppet of the United States. Moretroubling to me personally is that articlespublished in the Chinese academicmedia often contain a paragraph or twoinserted clearly by someone other thanthe original writer. These “additions” arenot flattering to the Jews nor to Judaism,they rather leave a bitter taste in thereaders’ mouth.
As a Jew, I can relate to thesecontroversial writings. Jews, on the onehand, are used to airing sharply differentopinions and having heated debates.Such arguments have defined Judaismsince the time of the sages in earlyTalmudic period. On the other hand, as ascholar of China of over 35 years, I knowthat contradiction, especially betweenthe old and the new, shapes the Chineseattitude towards the rest of the world.Traditionally, the Chinese believe thatopposing forces of positive and negativework in tandem to create a balance, oras the Chinese say nothing happenswithout the interaction of yin and yang.Such interaction (between yin and yang)has also created a Chinese culturethat practices Confucian ethics. Within those ethical standards changes occurdue to conflicts, contradictions, andopposites. Accordingly, Chinese cultureis the yin part of the cultural equation,yet there must be another culture equalin endurance, sustainability and depth tocomplement the equation. Is Judaismthe yang to China’s yin?
Meeting in Biblical Times
One of the most basic and fascinatingquestions is, was there any connectionbetween Judaism and China in biblicaltimes?
Both Jews and Chinese scholars havetried to answer this question, witheach side emphasizing their point ofview. Jewish scholars relied on theJudaic sources, while the Chinesedrew inspiration from Chinese sources.Evidently, these studies were toolopsided, either too partial to Judaismor China. What is lacking is a study thatweights both sources equally. Thatwould require a facilitator well versedin both languages and cultures, andequally important, to be able to elucidatethe events in dual historical context.With my background in both Judaism(raised in the orthodox tradition), and aprofessor of Classical Chinese, I tookit upon myself to try to answer thisquestion. I must admit, that at times Ihad my own reservations. Thanks toone of my colleagues who encouragedme to embark on this study, and to mywife who was with me all these years thatI spent on this research.
Knowledge of the Other
Secondly, did the Israelites know about China and vice versa China about the Israelites in biblical times? First, let’s look at this question from a Jewish point of view. The most common and simple answer would be that the Prophet Isaiah (8th century BCE) was the first to mention China: “Behold, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these fromthe land of Sinim” (49:12). Since Biblicalscholars could not find additional biblicalreference to China, they placed the landof Sinim somewhere in central Turkey oftoday. Others translated Sinim as “fromthe East”. Unsatisfactory as they were,these explanations were accepted. Imust admit that I was uneasy about theseinterpretations (especially the latter one)but due to lack of a better alternative, Iput the issue to rest.
What changed my mind was that I came across a Chinese text that located the place where the Chinese military brought the finest warhorses. So you could ask: What is the connection between horses and Judaism? The answer is simple, both the Chinese and King Solomon (10th century BCE) bought the finest warhorses in the small kingdom of Ferghana, (Northern Afghanistan today) at a place called Kucha. The people of Ferghana were the prime breeders of warhorses and they brought their horses to Kucha, the marketplace for “heavenly horses” in ancient times to sell them to traders from far away places.
Initially Kucha was a small post off themain Silk Road but due to the horsetrade it gradually became a geographiccrossroad of the Silk Route. The finestwarhorses of Kucha were in greatdemand and when King Solomonreceived fine horses as gifts from visitingforeigners (I Kings 10:24; 2 Chr. 9:28) hewas so fond of them (I Kings 4:26) thathe dispatched traders to Kveh (Kua)where the horses came with a high price(I Kings 10:28).
Where was Kveh/Kua (Hebrew lettersof Qof, Vav, Hey)? Was it in CentralAnatolia (Turkey) as most Biblicalscholars believed or was it the Hebrewname of Kucha? Incidentally, bothbiblical literature and Chinese literaturerefer to the same market place bearing the same name. I attribute the differentpronunciation to the difference betweenChinese and Hebrew languages.Linguistically, Kucha and Kveh/Kuacontain the same syllables
peculiar totheir own language.
Considering the myriad of traders,travelers, adventures, monks and othersof different background, speakingdifferent dialects, communicating inany way they could to make themselvesunderstood, the Chinese word of Kuchacould have been easily been heard andtransliterated as Kveh/Kua in Hebrew.Kucha or Kveh/Kua was the place whereChinese horse buyers and traders fromthe Israelite Kingdom of Solomon hadprobably come in the earliest contact.Gradually it became a very importanttrading post where people of every creed,traders, pilgrims, adventurers and monksmet and exchanged goods and stories.By the second century CE, Kucha had apopulation of 150,000 people, and threecenturies later its population doubled.
In essence Chinese annals had solveda biblical mystery! The Chinese recordscomplemented the biblical information,and in addition, provided us a timeframe ofwhen and where the Israelites could havecome in contact with the Chinese. Basedon this information, the Israelites couldhave heard about the land of China sometwo hundred years before the ProphetIsaiah mentioned “the land of Sinim”.
|Tiberiu Weisz, is author of TheCovenant and the Mandate ofHeaven: An In-depth ComparativeCultural Study of Judaism and China.This is the first in a series of articleshe will write for Asian Jewish Life all drawn from his research forThe Covenant and the Mandate ofHeaven, which includes a much morecomprehensive look at these topics.Next issue will feature an explorationof the biblical influence in the Chineseclassics.|