Beating Stereotypes in China


By Mike Levy

Published November 14, 2007, issue of November 16, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Three percent of all Americans are Jews. They have left themselves to be a minority. Although they are very clever and have much control over America, it is still considered almost impossible that a Jew could be elected President of the United States, because of Protestant prejudice that they are too sneaky…

The sentences above come from “A Survey of America and Britain,” a popular textbook in Chinese universities. The passage could be considered amusing if not for the fact that China is a rising world power.

I ran across “A Survey of America and Britain” while serving with my wife as a Peace Corps volunteer in China. We taught at Guizhou University, the largest school in a province of roughly 40 million people. My wife was required to use the text when she taught a sophomore-level course on Western culture. The paragraph above is the sum of its commentary on Jews in America.

This is not to say that the Chinese have no interest in Jews. On the contrary — whenever I told colleagues or students that I was Jewish, they were quick to praise me for sharing something in common with Karl Marx. “Comrade Marx was the greatest Jew,” my school’s vice-dean told me in a typical comment. “I hope you can teach us more about this topic.”

Whenever the subject of Jews came up at Guizhou University, Marx was mentioned first. The second thing mentioned was usually money. Last April, a student who had chosen the English name Jackie (in honor of the kung fu film star Jackie Chan) came to my office. He wanted my advice. “You must be very clever,” he said with a big smile, “because Einstein was also a Jew.” Jackie was short, pudgy and exceedingly polite. I hoped to create a teachable moment, though my ineffectual reply began with, “Believe me, I’m not very clever.”

Jackie proceeded to ask me if I had ever heard of the Talmud. “Fantastic!” I thought with surprise. “This will actually be a substantive conversation.” At that moment, Jackie reached into his backpack and pulled out a book he told me was a runaway bestseller in China. He translated the title for me: “Secrets from the Talmud: How to Get Rich Like a Jew.”

“Can you teach me how to be rich,” he asked as he caressed the cover of the book, “like the famous Jews I have read about, Rockefeller and Bill Gates?”

The textbook, the request from my vice-dean and my meeting with Jackie fell on the amusing — rather than threatening — side of ignorance. The community treated me kindly, and I assumed the problem in all of these cases was simply a lack of information. On the basis of this assumption, I prepared an open lecture on Judaism that I hoped would disabuse the community of its misconceptions. On a warm spring evening, I delivered the lecture to about 200 students and teachers. Afterward, I fielded questions from the audience. It was during the question-and-answer session that I moved from being amused to being alarmed.

The first question of the evening set the tone: “Do you support the Israeli imperialist oppression of the Palestinian people?” The question came from a scrawny young man sitting in the back of the room. I was taken aback. What happened to questions about Comrade Marx and the Talmud?

For over an hour, it was more of the same. Everything came back to “imperialist” Israel and China’s sympathy for anyone who stands against “Western aggression.” Student after student stood and, in one way or another, espoused a Manichean view of the world in which America (“the West”) and its satellites (including Israel) exploit and oppress the third world for the sake of profit and power. Jackie summed things up near the end of the lecture: “China has never oppressed anyone, so we always seek peace. That is why we support the Palestinian people.”

When the lecture ended and the students filed out, I slumped in my chair. I was struck with the realization that while my students live with open markets, they also lived with closed history. Chinese schools have succeeded in pounding home a narrow, inaccurate, slogan-filled summary of the 20th century. Thus, while my students exhibited a total lack of commitment to socialist economic policies, they unfailingly expressed a rigidly Maoist historical narrative.

We should be concerned about what China’s kids are learning. When they run Beijing, it is likely that China will be a superpower. It would be one thing if they merely thought Jews were clever and good at making money; it is quite another when they are being taught that Israel is — by definition — an imperialist aggressor. This is particularly troublesome since China — spurred by its voracious appetite for oil — is playing an increasingly large role in the Middle East.

Not all, however, is bleak. A small but growing group of Chinese scholars now focus on Judaic studies. American Jews should do what they can to support the work of these scholars, as well as other outreach programs. In doing so, we can help the Chinese learn something about Jews beyond the shibboleths they currently find in their textbooks.

Mike Levy is a freelance writer who served as a United States Peace Corps volunteer in China from 2005 to 2007. He is currently working on a memoir about the experience.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.