YouTai: The mythical Jew
Zhou Yun on sterotypes of Jewishness in China. An article from SACU's China in Focus magazine (1998).
In modern China, the term 'Jew' or 'Youtai', can be a symbol for money, deviousness and meanness; it can also represent poverty, trustworthiness and warmheartedness. It has religious as well as secular meanings. While it represents individualism, it also stands for a collective spirit. On the one hand it symbolises tradition, on the other hand it can equally invoke modernity. One day the 'Jew' is a stateless slave, another day is the dominant power in the world. The 'Jew' is nationalist and at the same time cosmopolitan. He can be a filthy capitalist or an ardent communist, a committed revolutionary or a spineless loser. In other words, anything which the Chinese aspire to is Jewish, and, at the same time, anything which they despise is also Jewish.
Although these representations seem to correspond to images of the 'Jew' in Europe, it would be superficial to reduce them purely to 'Western influence'. Representations of the 'Jew' were endowed with indigenous meaning by modernising Elites at the turn of the century. The images of the 'Jews' for instance, were and still are, generated by the difference of the 'Jewish' race, which is marked by its 'non-Chineseness', and more specifically because Jews are seen not to be direct descendants of the Yellow Emperor. As a matter of fact, the animal radical of Youtai, the received character for 'Jew' or 'Jewish' in Chinese, indicates the imagined physical difference between the 'Chinese' and the 'Jews', which is rooted in the tradition of picturing the alien groups living outside the pale of Chinese society as distant savages hovering on the edge of bestiality.
By creating the 'Jews' as a homogeneous group the Chinese were able to project their own anxieties onto outsiders, following the well-known pattern found in other cultures and societies: the fear as well as the need of an 'other'.
With the official banishment of racial discourse by the communist government after 1949, the myth of the 'Jews' as a 'race' seemed no longer to be current in communist China. The notion of 'race', however, did not disappear completely. Mao Zedong, for instance, defined nation as a distinct racial and cultural group. He also conflated the notion of 'class' and race' into a vision of the 'life and death struggle' of the 'coloured people' against 'white imperialism'.
China's political role in Afro-Asian solidarity since the 1960s meant that the Jews in Israel, as the enemy of the oppressed Palestinians, could no longer be defined as oppressed people. Instead their image was reconfigured/reconstructed into the 'instrument' of the 'American imperialists' and into the image of the 'poisoned knife which the American imperialists pushed into the heart of Palestine'. Closely associated with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Communist China terminated all official diplomatic contacts with the state of Israel. By then, the last group of Jewish residents together with the rest of the remaining foreign population had left China.
Generally speaking, largely due to the influence of official media propaganda, the 'Jew' was no more than an imaginary and distant 'enemy', who was associated with one of China's most dangerous enemies the Americans- as well as one of China's closest allies - the PLO.
However, the image of the 'superior Jewish race' continued to fascinate scholars, such as Pan Guangdan. Pan, once China's foremost eugenicist, had become a professor of ethnicity studies, focusing his research on the 'ethnic minorities' of the PRC. His eugenic theories, however, continued to play an important part in his approach to ethnicity studies. In order to build a 'great superior race' (weida youxiu de zhonghua minzu) as commissioned by Mao, Pan pointed out that the 'Han' must live in harmony with other minority groups in order to absorb the 'goodness' (youdian) of these groups and pass on to them the 'superiority (changchu) of the Han, so that they would eventually form a 'great superior Chinese race'. Pan wrote a famous case study on the 'Jewish ethnic group' in ancient China: the assimilation of the 'Jews' into the 'Han' became the example par excellence of his 'ethnic harmony' theory.
After the death of Mao and the collapse of the Cultural Revolution at the end the 1970s, the 'class' hatred between the 'Jewish Israel' and the 'Chinese' people so came to a close. However, the myth of the 'Jew' in China did not stop there. On the contrary, interest in the current state of Israel has reached unprecedented levels since the 1980s. Very recently, President Zemin told a Jerusalem daily: 'I dream about coming to Israel and being a guest in kibbutz.' Numerous Jewish study centres have sprouted up in Chinese cities, and a large number of publications on Jewish subjects, especially in relation to the 'Chinese Jews', have been published and republished.
In general the old myth of the 'Jews' continues to distort the perceptions of many people in China. With the appearance of a new market economy, the symbolic link between the 'Jews' and money has again emerged. Shanghai has eagerly opened its arms to 'Jewish' investments from all over the world, and Kaifeng, the city which had a small Jewish presence in the past, has declared itself to be a 'Jewish economic zone', in order to attract 'Jewish' money. It is even more striking to note that since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between China and the state of Israel in 1992, the latter has become the second most important trading partner of China. The sale of Israeli army and military know-how plays the major part in this ever-growing trade.
However, China's recent interest in Jewish issues is not exclusively economic. In recent years, especially in the post-Tiananmen era, interest in Jewish studies has been a response to efforts to reconfigure indigenous identities of race and nation. Thus, for example, the assimilation of the 'Jewish' community in ancient China is portrayed as a demonstration of the 'traditional magnanimity and the tolerant spirit of the Chinese race'. More recently, the so called 'Jewish' descendants in Kaifeng have been given a monthly allowance from Beijing and have been freed from China's birth control policy. In other words, an entire new 'Jewish minority' is about to be invented in China.
Outside academic communities, for millions of young Chinese who are desperately seeking success and money in a rapidly-changing society, images of 'successful and rich Jews' have become current. A popular series, entitled Revelations on the Jews' superior intelligence, was launched in 1995. It is divided into four books with subtitles such as: 'The romantic and legendary political and business maniacs', 'The extraordinary and unconventional artists and men of letters' and so on. Even more amazing, each back cover is printed with the same statement that 'this is a good book which will probably change your life,. The editor's page tells readers why these books may change their lives:
”The Jews are the smartest, the most mysterious and the richest nation/race in the world. If one does not know anything about the Jews, then one will not understand the world.
When a Jew sneezes at home, every bank in the world will catch a cold.
When three Jews are together they can deal with the global currency market“.
Clearly, to the readership of such popular literature, their interest is beyond the 'Jews'. To them the term 'Jews' represents money, power and success, the things many of them are seeking.
The death of Deng Xiaoping, as well as the handing over of Hong Kong, brings China the opportunity of further, if not greater, changes. Great speculation from both inside and outside is haunting the country. However, no matter what the changes may be, the myth of the 'Jews' will carry on in China as it has done in the West, as well as in other Eastern countries. Although the images and representations of the 'Jews' might transmute from negative to positive, from 'inferior' to 'superior', from 'stateless' to 'nationalistic' and so on, the 'Jews' as the 'other' will always remain. This 'other' may be anybody, from the 'Jew' to the 'Muslim', from the 'black' to the 'homosexual', but the attempt to draw racially-defined boundaries between groups of people has been and still is an important part of many contemporary cultures and societies.
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001, reprinted from SACU's magazine China in Focus, Issue 4, 1998
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
If you have any comments, updates or corrections please let us know via our Contact page.