The Magazine


The History of the Jews in China

Apr 19, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 29 • By CHARLES HORNER
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The founders of the great Jewish families that thrived under British protection, we are assured, were observant and devout, but the rising generation less so. In writing about Silas Hardoon, a colorful figure in early-twentieth-century Chinese history, Joan Roland describes a multiculturalist ahead of his time. Hardoon, who had worked for the Sassoons in Hong Kong and Shanghai, later established his own company. Though the financed the construction of a synagogue in Shanghai, he later married a Eurasian woman, became a reowned collector of Chinese art, and endowed a Buddhist university. At his funeral in 1931, Roland tells us, Hardoon was buried with both Jewish and Buddhist rites, perhaps befitting a person who had become famous as the "richest man East of Suez."

The next significant group of Jews to appear in China were of European, not Middle Eastern, origin. In the early twentieth century, Russian Jews fleeing increasingly virulent anti-Semitism, made their way through Siberia to Manchuria. But this was hardly an opportune time to arrive in the Middle Kingdom. As Professor Boris Bressler (himself a Russian Jew born in Manchuria) notes, though the Russian Jewish community in China lasted only until about 1958, it saw in its sixty years two world wars, two major local wars, the collapse of the Chinese dynasty, a warlord era, another major international war, and then the decisive civil war which established Communist rule.

Refugees from the Nazis established yet another outpost of European Jewry in China. This Community was based in Shanghai, which was governed by Japan from 1937 to 1945. The Japanese practiced a kind of wary toleration, and many of the exiles managed to survive and prosper in a small way. Indeed, the city was a far better sanctuary than many other places, and the Jewish population reached about twenty-five thousand in its heyday.

The United States now contains the world's most influential Jewish community, and it is thus Americans who are at the forefront of renewed efforts to reestablish ties between China and the Jews. Israel has foreign policy and commercial interests which it pursues through trade and diplomacy, but in the newly reopened China, a more permanent presence has been established by younger American Jews now resident there. This past summer, first lady Hillary Clinton and secretary of state Madeleine Albright visited the Ohel Rachel Synagogue (originally built in 1920 but abandoned in 1952), whose renovation was financed by the municipal authorities, almost certainly in response to ongoing criticism of the Chinese government's suppression of religious freedom. The building is still a "historic site," though its reconsecration is anticipated.

Professor Emeritus Benjamin Schwartz of Harvard, one of America's greatest sinologists, noted at the 1992 conference that "some of the most meaningful encounters between the Jews and China have occurred only in recent years as the number of scholars of Jewish origin who are interested in both traditional and modern China has grown significantly." And, as Schwartz also astutely pointed out, the mere existence of such scholars has prompted a growing interest in Judaism in the Chinese academic world, which, in turn, is bound to influence the West's perception of China.



The Jews of China

Historical and Comparative Perspectives

M. E. Sharpe, 352 pp., $ 29.95

Charles Horner is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and adjunct professor of politics at Washington and Lee University.