Interview

The State of Yiddish Studies in China

Yitzhak Lewis and Anruo Bao

INTRODUCTION

Yiddish studies is a subject that has received some interest in China, but that has followed a unique trajectory due to language barriers and misconceptions about the language that were introduced into Chinese-language scholarship in the field. What follows is a brief history of Yiddish Studies in China, together with interviews conducted by correspondence with scholars of Jewish Studies in China, all of whom also hold some leadership post in related centers and institutions. The goal of this piece is to offer a broad portrait of the state of Yiddish Studies in China today, including its role in the small but growing field of Jewish Studies in China.

This piece is accomanied by a companion piece, a translation from Chinese by Anruo Bao of a 1921 article about Yiddish literature by Chinese scholar Mao Dun, which has served as a foundational piece for Yiddish Studies in China. This is the first English translation of the article, and is accompanied by an introduction offering some context. The translation can be found here.

Yiddish Literature Behind the Red Curtain

There were two modern periods of increased interest in Yiddish literature in China, both of which included significant translation projects. The first occurred in the early twentieth century and increasingly in the interwar period, when Yiddish literature was introduced to China through its Russian, English, and Esperanto proponents. 1 1 Irene Eber, “Translation Literature in Modern China: The Yiddish Author and His Tale,” in The second period of interest began in the late 1970s and continues to this day. In this latter period, Yiddish literature has been introduced to China largely by way of its English language translations.

In the interwar period, Chinese intellectuals increasingly expressed dismay with the cultural and political effects of China’s ongoing colonization. Over the preceding half century or so, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and other Western powers had established colonies in China. Intellectuals who took part in the New Culture Movement (a cultural modernization movement), in their concern for the troubled national existence of China, sought intellectual relations with other “small, weak nations” (as Mao Dun termed them). 2 2 The term he uses is “弱小民族” which means “weak and small peoples.” They began translating literary works from similar “small, weak nations” throughout the world, and Jewish literature of the time seemed a natural partner.

One such influential scholar and translator of Yiddish literature was Shen Yanbing (1896-1981), an important author, critic, and public intellectual of the New Culture Movement. 3 3 Shen Yanbing went on to serve as the first Culture Minister of the People’s Republic of China, from its founding in 1949 until 1964. Writing under the pen name Mao Dun, he published some of the most important writings of the New Culture Movement. In 1921 he published the seminal article “A Survey of New Jewish Literature,” which would introduce Chinese readership to Yiddish literature. 4 4 Mao Dun. “A Survey of New Jewish Literature”《新犹太文学概观》. The Short Story Magazine 《小说月报》 Vol. 12, Issue 10 (1921). In this article, translated into English for the first time for In geveb, Mao Dun extends the parallelism between what he saw as the Chinese and Jewish national predicaments into the realm of national literary language. He describes Hebrew as the counterpart of “classic, written Chinese” which, in the eyes of the cultural reformists, was overly fixed and outmoded. Yiddish, on the other hand, was similar to “modern Chinese” or “oral Chinese,” which was vigorous and full of creativity. The intellectuals of the New Culture Movement advocated for the use of “modern, oral Chinese” to replace the “classic, written Chinese” in order to modernize what they saw as the obdurate traditional Chinese culture. Correspondingly, they paid specific attention to Yiddish literature and translated some short stories of Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz as well as plays by Dovid Pinski, in an effort to relate intellectually and culturally to the kindred “weak national existence” of the Jews. 5 5 An incomplete survey by Israeli Sinologist Irene Eber found “40-odd stories and plays in all,” though she admits some translations have escaped her attention. See: Irene Eber, “Translation Literature in Modern China: The Yiddish Author and His Tale,” in Chinese and Jews: Encounters Between Cultures (London. Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2008), 123 footnote 2.

The equally contemporary “revival” project of modern Hebrew writing remained a blind spot for Mao Dun. The analogy he projected from the traditional/modern divide of Chinese language onto the Hebrew/Yiddish divide of Jewish languages gave rise to a misconception regarding the language of Jewish literature. The perception of contemporary Hebrew as a traditional and outmoded language, which the modern project of Jewish literature strives to replace with the vibrant potential of Yiddish writing, was never wholly debunked, and questions regarding the language of Jewish literature were not addressed again in Chinese scholarship until the end of the century. Following World War II and the inauguration of the Mao Era (1949–1976), China largely closed its doors to such “Western” literary production. Only sporadically were Yiddish literary works translated during this period. One such example is the 1957 publication of Sholem Aleichem’s novel Motl, Peysi the Cantor’s Son, translated from its Russian edition by Yao Yi’en.

Fast forward to 1978, the year Deng Xiaoping officially succeede Mao and began opening China’s doors to the world. As luck would have it, that very same year, Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for literature. Chinese intellectuals were very impressed with Bashevis Singer and his narrative art. These intellectuals and translators introduced many of Bashevis Singer’s writings to China. In 1979, the Chinese magazine World Literature published three of his stories along with a brief biography. In the following year, a collection of twenty-two stories by Bashevis Singer was published by The Press of Foreign Literature in a first edition print that ran 90,000 copies.

In fact, from 1979 to this day, the translation of Bashevis Singer’s works into Chinese has continued apace. Most recently, in 2018 his collection The Spinoza of Market Street was translated from the English by Fu Xiaowei, the Director of the Center for Jewish and Israel Studies at Sichuan International Studies University. 6 6 In preparing this article, we have consulted Fu Xiaowei’s article: Fu, Xiaowei and Wang Yi. “The Influence of Jewish Literature in China.” In: The Jewish-Chinese Nexus: A meeting of Civilizations. Routledge Jewish Studies Series, 2008. In 2019 a translation of The Collected Stories of Bashevis Singer was published by the most prestigious and authoritative national publishing house in China, The People’s Literature Publishing House. 7 7 人民文学出版社 As part of the publisher’s vigorous promotion of this new translation, several well-known scholars and translators were invited to write articles on Bashevis Singer. Most notable among these promotional activities was an important public lecture titled “Stubbornness is a Power: Singer and His Short Stories” given by Lu Jiande, the Director of the Institute of Literary Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This was followed by an article titled “Why Should We Read Singer?” which was published in the Beijing Evening News, a major local newspaper in the Chinese capital. 8 8 Xia Duo. “Why should we read Singer?” Beijing Evening News 《北京晚报》, July 18, 2019. In this article, LU commented on the 1978 synchronicity between China’s opening up and Bashevis Singer’s Nobel Prize: “Not only did his works lead literature lovers to the path of writing, but he also ignited a passion for and interest in the Nobel Prize in Chinese publishing circles.” 9 9 Ibid.

As Lu noted in his article on Bashevis Singer, the writer also maintains ongoing popularity and remarkable influence over modern and contemporary Chinese writers. Su Tong, an influential contemporary Chinese writer, has said: “The reason Singer should be respected is due to his exhaustive efforts at creating ‘characters’ and ‘stubbornly’ planting a forest of characters. In depicting these characters, he always strives to exhaust his creativity, like a hard-working peasant. Thus, his characters are so full that you can almost smell their bodies’ odors, and ‘Gimpel the Fool’ is one such example.” 10 10 Ibid. Su Tong is the pen name of Tong Zhonggui (born 1963). Yu Hua, the contemporary Chinese novelist recently shortlisted for the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature, has praised Bashevis Singer’s poetic language: “Just like depicting crests can describe the whole ocean, while Singer’s narration only shines light on a few episodes in Gimpel’s life, it actually makes his whole life glow.” 11 11 Ibid. Besides these comments mentioned by Lu, other writers have also spoken on what they learned from Bashevis Singer in the 1980s. The poet and novelist HE Xiaozhu famously said that Bashevis Singer was the one who led him out of Kafka’s castle. 12 12 Wang Yi and Fu Xiaowei, “From Kafka to Singer: The Turn of Chinese Avant-Garde Literature— Centering on Ma Yuan, Su Tong and Yu Hua.” In: Journal of Social Science Research No. 4 (2005): 165. (王毅,傅晓微,《从卡夫卡到辛格:中国先锋派的转向——以马原、苏童、余华为中心》,载于《社会科学研究》,2005年第4期,第165页.) In addition to these comments, Bashevis Singer’s characters have also made their way into literary worlds created by contemporary Chinese writers. For instance, Ge Fei, one of the most important modern Chinese authors and literary scholars, has implied the influence of Bashevis Singer’s The Magician of Lublin in his famous 1996 novel Yuwang de Qizhi (The Flag of Desire). 13 13 The book appears in the novel itself: “In his memory, Zhang Mo always held a book in her hand, which was Singer’s The Magician of Lublin, but she never finished it. Or, it could be said, she was reluctant to finish reading it all at once […] She told him, this book was one of her two favorite books.” Ge Fei, Yuwang de qizhi (Jiangsu: Jiangsu wenyi chubanshe, 1996), 9. (格非,《欲望的旗帜》,江苏:江苏文艺出版社,2013年.)

Besides Bashevis Singer, the post-Mao era has also seen translations of Sholem Aleichem’s Menakhem-Mendl (1980), Tevye the Dairyman (1983), a collection of Sholem Aleichem short stories (1998), and multiple editions of Motl, the earliest of which was published in 1957. Yao Yi’en is the notable Chinese translator of Sholem Aleichem, who began translating Sholem Aleichem’s works in the 1950s, and whose translation of Tevye the Dairyman has already been published five times in China.

In 2012 the Center for Sholem Aleichem Studies was established at Nanjing University, one of the most prominent universities in China, and the aforementioned translator Yao Yi’en was the first advisor of the institute. This institute aims broadly to promote the academic study of Yiddish literature in China, and the study of Sholem Aleichem in particular. In 2017 the book Sholem Aleichem in China, edited by Yao Yi’en, was published in Shanghai to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of this great Yiddish writer’s death.

A generation after this renewed interest in Yiddish literature, scholars also began attending to the place of Yiddish within Jewish literature more broadly. In 1995 Xu Xin, the current director of the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute of Jewish and Israel Studies at Nanjing University, published an article titled “A Brief Introduction to Yiddish Literature,” which outlines the historical phases and development of Yiddish literature from the 15th century to the present day. 14 14 Xu Xin, “A Brief Introduction to Yiddish Literature.” In: Journal of Contemporary Foreign Literature No. 4 (1995): 164-169. (徐新,《意第绪语文学简论》,选自《当代外国文学》,1995年04期第164-169页.) Also in the 1990s, Chang Shoou-Huey, the current dean of the Department of German at Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages in Taiwan, wrote a dissertation titled Yiddish Literature in China at Trier University in Germany. Most recently in Mainland China, Bao Anruo, co-author of this article, has published articles on Sh. Ansky’s Der dibek and on I. L. Peretz’s short stories.

Misconceptions introduced by Mao Dun in 1921 regarding the modernizing role of Yiddish in Jewish literature as in opposition to outmoded Hebrew culture, as well as the blind spot towards a modern ongoing Hebrew literary project, have been only partly dispelled. The extent to which the historical perception of Yiddish as the exclusive modern language of Jewish letters persists structurally in Chinese scholarly circles can be seen in some of the more contemporary challenges that have emerged in the field of Jewish literature in China. One central challenge relates to language proficiency. Only a small portion of Chinese scholars can read Hebrew language texts, and an even smaller number of them are able to read Yiddish texts. And yet, due to the history of the reception of Jewish literature in China outlined above, the majority of scholars in the field of “Jewish literature” are in fact still interested in a body of work they understand as “Yiddish literature.” That is to say, while the paradigm of Yiddish as the language of modern Jewish literature has been unsettled intellectually since the 1990s, the methodological conflation of various languages of Jewish literature still persisted throughout the process of broadening “Jewish literature” as a field of Chinese academic inquiry. In other words, the majority of scholarship on “Jewish literature” is purportedly focused on the body of writing labeled as “Yiddish literature.” In fact, however, this scholarship about Yiddish literature, as part of a broadening field of scholarship on Jewish literature, tends to draw more heavily on literature written in languages more familiar to Chinese scholars, especially English.

In direct proportion to his central cultural position among Chinese literary figures, a large part of the study of “Jewish literature” in China is also still dedicated to Bashevis Singer. Access to the study of Bashevis Singer has been facilitated by the author’s own presentation of his English translations as the official, authentic version of his texts, further encouraging Chinese scholars who read English but not Yiddish to engage with Bashevis Singer’s work. Meanwhile, the study of Yiddish literature is facilitated through the broader field of “Jewish literature,” which would bundle authors such as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth (all of whom wrote in English) together with the English translations of Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, and Bashevis Singer. The result is that while interest in Yiddish literature is high, both for methodological and cultural-historical reasons, it is difficult to parse out and assess the amount of scholarship actually produced on Yiddish-language texts. Over the past twenty years, the attempt to grapple with these intellectual and methodological challenges has driven an important reorientation in the field of Jewish literature in China away from “Yiddish literature” and towards “Jewish American literature”—a category and field that more accurately captures what is de facto being studied by scholars of Yiddish and/or Jewish literature in China.

As for the contemporary understanding of “Yiddish literature” among the general readership of these translated works in China, most readers do not know what Yiddish is, and probably take Yiddish, Hebrew, and Jewish American literature together as general “Jewish literature.” Here too, it would seem, Mao Dun’s initial misapprehension of Jewish language politics and the status and meaning of Hebrew and Yiddish has been dissolved, leaving in its place new assumptions concomitant with the collapsing of Jewish languages into one body of literature.

Interviews

The following interviews were conducted by email correspondence with five current directors of Jewish and/or Israel Studies centers and institutes at major Chinese universities. These five academics represent scholars of various ranks, genders, fields, and generations working in China today. Also noteworthy is the prestige of the senior scholars interviewed. Two of the five interviewees hold the prestigious title of Changjiang (Yangtze River) Scholar Distinguished Professor. This title is the highest academic award issued to individuals in higher education by the Ministry of Education of the PRC.

The Interviewees:

Fu Xiaowei

Fu Xiaowei is a professor of comparative literature and culture, and the director of the Center of Judaic and Chinese Studies at Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, China. She is the author of four books, including What is God: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Creation and his Reception and Influence in China (in Chinese, 2006) and over sixty articles. She has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University and delivered lectures titled “Chinese View of the Jews” and “Jewish Literature and Its Influence in China” at Harvard and Tel Aviv University. Her academic interests include Jewish literature and culture, comparative studies between Chinese and Western cultures, and literary translations. (Interview was conducted in Chinese and translated by Bao Anruo.)


Fu Youde

Fu Youde received his PhD from Peking University. He studied at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and Leo Baeck College. He is a Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professor at Shandong University, where he founded the Center for Judaic and Inter-Religious Studies. He is the vice-president of China Society of Religion, and the editor of the journal Jewish Studies (in Chinese). His recent publications include A History of Jewish Philosophy (Chinese, 2010) and Essays on Jewish Philosophy and Religion (Chinese, 2007). He is also the editor of Translations Series of Classics of the Jewish Culture. (Interview was conducted in Chinese and translated by Bao Anruo.)


Lin Jing

Lin Jing is a Lecturer in the School of Asian and African Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University. She has an MA in Jewish Studies from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is currently a PhD student of the Department of Religious Studies, Peking University. Jing is fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew. She is currently focused on Jewish linguistic history, language policies in Israel, Israeli literature, and Medieval Jewish philosophy. She has published several articles about language policies in Israel and Israeli literature. She is also the Chinese translator of S. Y. Agnon’s “Sand Hill” (2019), David Grossman’s The Zigzag Kid (2015), and Agi Mishol’s Between the Trees and the Non-Trees (2015). (Interview was conducted in Chinese and translated by Bao Anruo.)


Qiao Guoqiang

Qiao Guoqiang received his Ph. D. from the University of Nottingham, U. K. He is a Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professor at Shanghai International Studies University where he serves as Professor of English Language and Literature, Dean of the Institute of Jewish Studies, Director of the Center for British and American Literary Studies, and vice chief-editor of the journal British and American Literary Studies. He is also vice president of the China Association of American Literary Studies and vice president of the China Association of Narrative Studies, as well as vice president and standing member of several other academic associations. To date he has published more than 170 articles and over a dozen of books on American and British literatures, narrative theory, and literary theory. (Original English replies by Qiao with some edits.)


Wang Yu

Wang Yu has an MA in Jewish Studies from Rothberg International School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a PhD in Middle Eastern History from Haifa University. She is currently associate professor in the Department of Western Asia and the director of the Institute of Israeli and Jewish Culture at Peking University. She was also the first Chinese director of the Confucius Institute at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2014-2017). Her academic interests include Israeli history, society, and modern politics. She has published several articles and monographs including Israeli Arabs: Identical Position and Living Situation, 1948–2018 (in Chinese, 2018) and A National Minority in Ethnic Democracy: Arabs in Israel in the Decade of Transition 1967–1977 (in English, 2010). (Interview was conducted in Chinese and translated by Bao Anruo.)

The Interview answers:

In geveb: What is your interest in Jewish Studies? What have you studied and what do you plan to study in the future?

Qiao: About thirty-five years ago when I read Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant and The Fixer, I was deeply moved by the protagonists’ moral strength. Morris [the protagonist of The Assistant] believes “to be a Jew is to be good.” His goodness eventually redeems and converts gentile Frank. Yokov [the protagonist of The Fixer] survives great suffering by reading Spinoza’s Ethics. He learns that the highest principle of morality is to survive and a Jew’s survival can come to fruition provided that he is closely connected with his people. Malamud’s artistic portrayal of these two protagonists presents a daunting set of moral difficulties in a time when Jewishness was called into question.

Philip Roth’s ‘Eli, the Fanatic’ in his novella Goodbye, Columbus encounters another historical divide between a comfortable American Jew and Jews who survived the Holocaust in Europe, exposing again the moral complexities that modern American Jews have to confront. In the same vein, Saul Bellow, E. L. Doctorow, Irving Shaw, and some other American Jewish writers displayed similar concerns. In this sense, my first interest in American Jewish Literature is this moral issue [of suffering and survival] that American Jewish writers are collectively concerned with.

My second interest in Jewish Literature is the narrative strategy. Saul Bellow’s new narrative style changed the American narrative tradition established by Ernest Hemingway. Bellow’s humanistic compromise replaces Hemingway’s “grace under pressure.” 15 15 For more on this idea of literary development, see: Qiao Guoqiang, “Commemorating Saul Bellow’s Centenary.” In: Foreign Literature No. 6 (2015): 48-57, 158. (乔国强,《贝娄:一位伟大的跨世纪作家》,载于《外国文学》,2015年第6期,第48-57页及第158页.) Isaac Bashevis Singer is the best story-teller in my mind, especially the irony he employed in his narrative structure and characterization.

I have big plans for my future study of Jewish literature. I’d like to study some more recent authors, for example, Michael Chabon, Allegra Goodman, Tova Mirvis, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, to name but a few, to examine this younger generation’s literary response to such significant issues as post-immigration, post-assimilation, the post-Holocaust, anti-Semitism, intermarriage, Judaism in globalization, and the “mind-body problem” in the new century. In addition, I’d like to formally study Jewish literary representation in their work. What is the position of Jewish culture in Jewish literature? How do they deal with time and space in their literary work to reflect or refract their Jewishness? How do they handle the relationship between the present teller of a story and the story in the distant past? In terms of narration, how do the writers of the older generation differ from those of the younger generation?

Fu Youde: My academic interest lies in Jewish philosophy and comparative studies between Judaism and Confucianism. While I was studying at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and Leo Baeck College in London from 1992 to 1994, I thoroughly studied the Torah, parts of the Mishnah, and works about Jewish history, philosophy, and the reformation of Jewish education. I also learned Hebrew at the summer ulpan held by Hebrew University in 1994 and 1996.

In 1994, after my time in England, I went back to China and established the Institute of Jewish Culture at Shandong University, later the Center for Judaic and Inter-Religious Studies. The institute was selected as one of the Key Research Institutes of Humanities and Social Sciences in China.

I organized Chinese scholars and translators to translate a set of Jewish classics into Chinese, including Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed, Davis Rudavsky’s Modern Jewish Religious Movements: A History of Emancipation and Adjustment, Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption, Martin Buber’s On Judaism, and others. We have published seventeen books in this series, and plan to translate and publish more in the future.

I have also edited and written several books, including The History of Jewish Philosophy (in Chinese, 2 volumes), Modern Jewish Philosophy, On Jewish Philosophy and Religion, Jewish Celebrities (The Volume of Thinkers), and papers in Chinese and English about Jewish thought.

In recent years, I have paid more and more attention to comparative studies between Judaism and Confucianism and have written on “The Hebrew Prophets and Confucian Sages: A Comparative Study” and “Piety in Hebrew Biblical Judaism and Early Confucianism.” From my perspective, the contemporary conversation between Jewish and Confucian cultures will promote mutual understanding and respect.

Lin: I am interested in modern Israeli literature. I learned Hebrew and got my master’s degree of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Now I am in the process of getting my PhD in religious studies from Peking University.

Wang: I read modern Israeli literature, which reflects society and social conflicts in Israel.

Fu Xiaowei: In the past twenty years, one of my research interests has been to explore the commonalities between Jewish writers and Singer’s uniqueness compared to other Jewish writers, especially the well-known Jewish writers in China, such as Franz Kafka, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Isaac Babel, and others. By interpreting the “Ethnic-Anxiety Complex” (a concept that I coined to explain Singer’s literary motivation) hidden in the writings of Bashevis Singer and other Jewish writers, I want to explore the cultural gene that helped Jewish people survive the two-thousand-year Diaspora and its inspiration to the Chinese.

Another interest is to investigate the influence of Jewish literature on the Chinese view of Jews: the positive and negative impacts of Jewish literary translation, the causes for confusing Judaism and Christianity in modern Chinese academia, and the possible solution.

In addition, I am also interested in studying the commonalities between Chinese and Jewish tradition in Jewish and Confucian classics. I published two articles on the idea of immortal life after death in biblical Judaism and Confucianism through a comparative study of the Biblical and Confucian texts.

For what I am doing now and in the future, I plan to finish the translation series of Jewishness and Jewish innovation, aiming to introduce works by Jewish scholars that can be helpful for Chinese readers to understand Jewish wisdom and its cultural roots. I also intend to publish a collection of essays by Chinese and Jewish scholars decoding Jewish innovative thinking by comparing to other cultural traditions, such as Chinese Confucian tradition, Greek, and Christian traditions. And, of course, I will continue translating more Jewish literary works.


In geveb: Is Jewish literature taught at your institution? What do you think attracts students to Jewish literature? What do they find particularly interesting in the field?

Qiao: Yes. I have taught American Jewish literature for about 20 years to undergraduate students, graduate students, and postgraduate students. I have supervised more than 50 PhD students, most of them committed to the studies of Jewish literature. My students’ interests in Jewishliterature are varied. It seems to me they are attracted mostly by Jewish culture, Jewish faith, Jewish humor, and Jewish literary devices. They are also amazed at and highly respect what they perceive as Jewish faithfulness and endurance in the face of historical disasters.

Fu Youde: We do not have classes on Jewish literature at our center, but we always have courses on Hebrew grammar, the Tanakh, Mishnah, Introduction to Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish philosophy. In these classes, we read the Torah, Song of Songs, The Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Jeremiah. What attracts the students most are the Jewish classics, such as the Torah and Jewish history, especially modern Judaism, because they have the impression of Jews as outstanding and are interested in ideas of Jewish exceptionalism as well as the history of the Holocaust.

Lin: We offer optional courses on Modern Hebrew Literature for the four-year students who majored in Hebrew. These students can find more language materials by learning Hebrew literature and learn Israeli culture and society.

Fu Xiaowei: Our institute does not provide specific courses about Jewish literature, but some of the graduate students whom I am supervising do research on Jewish history and culture in the English-speaking countries. During the process of supervision, I would ask them to read and translate literary or theoretical works of Jewish writers or scholars. Recently, a translation company is organizing translators to translate all the English works of Bashevis Singer. Besides, I am working on translating Singer’s short story collection A Crown of Feathers from English to Chinese and supervising the graduate students to translate other works of Bashevis Singer.


In geveb: What does it mean for you to study Jewish Studies in the Chinese context?

Qiao: Many globally known Jewish writers enjoy enormous popularity in China, for example, I. B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, E. L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, Irving Shaw, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Michael Chabon, Amos Oz, to name but a few. We treasure their works as our soul food, or nourishment for our minds. The study of Jewish literature is a very important area for Chinese academia, from which we get to know the intellectual, political, religious, and cultural possibilities of human development, the recurrent features of human history, and the Jewish heritage.

Fu Youde: Judaism and its classics greatly contributed to human civilization. But for a long time people in China knew very little about Jews, and some of us even held some bias. Due to this situation, it is a big event to introduce the classics of Judaism to China. Nowadays, after 20 years of effort, Chinese audiences know much more about Jews and Judaism in different aspects.

Second, China and the world are experiencing a historical opportunity, in which communication between different civilizations is inevitable and cultural adaptation is necessary to meet people’s needs. The introduction of Jewish civilization and the subsequent Chinese-Jewish cultural communication is good for Chinese cultural development, and Jews can also learn from Chinese wisdom. For instance, Chinese culture inclines to conservatism and lacks the spirit of innovation [which many Chinese perceive in the State of Israel], as well as the pursuit of difference and spirit of argument in Judaism (especially the Talmud). This communication could stimulate the Chinese innovative spirit in different fields. Modern Judaism’s engagement with experiences of reform can also speak to contemporary Chinese cultural questions, and that cultural engagement can flow both ways.

Lin: I hope to understand Jewish culture better so that I can communicate with Jews more.

Wang: It is a tool for me to understand the Jewish culture and the Israeli people.

Fu Xiaowei: I was first attracted to literary works written by Jewish writers, then formed a keen interest in Jewish culture, history, and philosophy, and turned to academic research in this specific field. My academic interests, such as comparative research between Chinese and Jewish cultures and the translation and introduction of Jewish culture, are all pertinent to the initial interest in the cultural elements in Jewish literature.


In geveb: To understand the context of your center for Jewish Studies, could you please describe the place of Jewish Studies in Chinese academia in general, and in your university/institute in particular?

Qiao: To my knowledge, Jewish literary studies as an academic research area started in the late 1970s when the Chinese government set off to “reform” and “open.” As one of the major academic “dynamics,” Jewish literary studies initiated the development of foreign literature studies in China. My books titled The Jewishness of Isaac Bashevis Singer (2003), American Jewish Literature (2008) and Studies of Saul Bellow (2014), together with many articles on American Jewish writings, won awards from the Shanghai Municipal government and eventually earned me the title of “Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professor,” from China’s Ministry of Education. To date there are seven such named professors in foreign literature, foreign languages, linguistics, translation, and comparative literature, which perhaps indirectly illustrates the place of Jewish literature studies in China.

Fu Youde: There are now five members of our faculty group who engage in Jewish Studies, two of whom are professors. We also hope to introduce foreign scholars to our center.

The Chinese academy has paid more and more attention to Jewish Studies in recent years. Our center’s main research field is comparative studies between Jewish philosophy and Confucian studies—a field that is highly valued in the Chinese academy and is granted an important position in Chinese universities.

We have also collaborated with universities and publications in Israel, Europe, and North America for many years, and our center has been featured in The Chronicle of American Higher Education, publications of Brandeis University, Boston University, Jewish Chronicle in London, the Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Jerusalem Post, BBC and ABC, and more. I was also twice invited by President Shimon Peres of Israel to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem.

Lin: My university specializes in teaching languages, and Hebrew is one of the over ninety languages we teach here.

Wang: Jewish Studies is quite new in China; it started only in the 1990s. Most of the researchers working in this field rely on secondary sources because of the language difficulty. So it is still at the stage of “introducing” this topic to Chinese audiences.

The Hebrew program at my university focuses on modern Hebrew language learning and more on Israel studies than on Jewish Studies, because of the lack of proper teaching staff.

Fu Xiaowei: Over a decade ago, we established the Center for Judaic and Chinese Studies at Sichuan International Studies University (SISU), and the establishment of this center originated in my interest in Jewish culture. At that time, not so many scholars were involved in Jewish studies, and my experience on this path was quite unique.

Before 1997, my views on Jews were not so different from other Chinese: they are smart, good at making money, and have not been assimilated in the two-thousand-year Diaspora. Moreover, they were also hated by other European nations, and this hatred was presented by the literary image of Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the historical persecutions of “Blood Libel” (which was not known by Chinese at that time), and the Holocaust. For the past thirty to forty years, the Chinese impression of Jews has been like this.

But after I began to research Bashevis Singer in 1997, my impression of Jews changed. In the early phase of my research, in order to better understand the Jewish characters and themes of Bashevis Singer’s works, I read some introductory writings about Jewish history and culture. While reading these writings, I formed a keen interest in the specific unquenchable spirit that gathered Jewish people throughout two thousand years. I wanted to know the answers to the following questions. What on earth agglomerated these people together? Why were there so many Jewish scholars among the modern Western thinkers? What Jewish elements were contained in their thoughts? The path to look for the answers to these questions formed my academic interest in Judaism and Jewish philosophy.

To be specific, my current work is composed of two aspects. The first aspect is about Jewish culture. In this field, I am focusing on Jewish wisdom’s cultural roots and in what way could Jewish cultural elements influence Chinese culture. (As a matter of fact, other Chinese scholars hold similar thoughts. For instance, Professor FU Youde from Shandong University does comparative research between Jewish and Chinese cultures. He hopes to reinvigorate the Confucian tradition by borrowing the experience of reforming Judaism.) One of the major achievements of this aspect is the publication of the translated series of books themed “Jewish Wisdom and Jewish Creative Thoughts.” The second aspect lies in the field of literary studies, in which I am conducting research on Jewish cohesion and its influence on traditional Jewish life and faith presented in Bashevis Singer’s writings. The major achievement in this field is the publication of my monograph, titled The Ethnic-Anxiety Complex of Bashevis Singer and Jewish Literary Tradition, which is supported by the National Social Science Fund. In this book, I argue that the commonalities between Bashevis Singer’s and other Jewish writers’ writings, such as Hayim Nahman Bialik and Elie Wiesel, lies in the writers’ “tortured-anxious” complex about the whole Jewish people’s living condition and the solution to their problems. This complex could be retrospectively projected onto the Biblical writings.


In geveb: What is the place of Jewish literature in the center for Jewish Studies in your university/ institute?

Qiao: Currently, there are many research areas in the Institute of Jewish Studies with a focus on Jewish Literature, including American Jewish Literature and Israeli Literature. Besides these, Jewish culture, Jewish history, and Jewish philosophy are also studied in the Institute.

Fu Youde: Unfortunately, we do not have a specific class on Jewish literature yet, but we will set up relevant courses and do research in this field in the future if we have faculty in this field.

Lin: We have a Hebrew language program, but we do not have a specific center or institute for Jewish Studies.

Wang: Except the Bible study, currently we do not have special courses on Jewish literature.

Fu Xiaowei: The Center for Judaic and Chinese Studies at SISU focuses on Jewish literature and culture, and the comparative studies between Chinese and Jewish cultures. The faculty of the center is composed of four scholars, three of whom are specialized in American Jewish literature and one in Maimonides philosophy.


In geveb: In geveb is a Yiddish Studies journal. What is the place of Yiddish Studies in Chinese academia? In the study of Jewish literature? At your center?

Qiao: Honestly, except some Yiddish words, I know little Yiddish. But we have a Department of Oriental Languages in my university. My colleagues there can read and write in Yiddish and Hebrew. I can ask their advice when I have some questions.

Fu Youde: Up until now, very few Chinese academics have been able to do research in Yiddish Studies, which has not drawn enough attention from Chinese academia. In 2005, I invited a professor of Yiddish Studies from Ohio State University to give a lecture about Bashevis Singer. And there are scholars who did research on Bashevis Singer’s novels at Shandong University, Shanghai International Studies University, and Sichuan International Studies University.

Wang: Very little. But some colleagues from the German Department are interested in Yiddish, as colleagues from Spanish Department are interested in Ladino.

Fu Xiaowei: Chinese academia has not started Yiddish Studies yet, because we do not have any scholar that can research Yiddish literature through original Yiddish texts. But, in recent years, the graduate students of the Center at SISU went to learn Yiddish at the Summer Program held by Tel Aviv University. Learning Yiddish not only allows them to know more about Yiddish language and culture but it also greatly helps them with translating the writings of Bashevis Singer and other Jewish writers.


In geveb: Could you comment on Yiddish literature as world literature and the place you see for such world literature in Chinese academia?

Qiao: I prefer to define world literature as a kind of cosmopolitan literature rather than Goethe’s concept of world literature. In this sense, world literature “attempts to cross the boundaries and frontiers of nations and nationalism; it stresses the global nature of everyday life and tries to depict societies and individuals as globally representative.” Some Yiddish writers, for instance, I. B. Singer, also made such an attempt to cross boundaries and frontiers. Singer was well received in the world and won the Nobel Prize in Literature. His harrowing description of the Jewish past and Jewish redemption gives a passionate voice to human suffering.

I would also say that Yiddish literature already possesses the major characteristics of world literature. Its thematic concerns include not only liturgical and political matters or the interplay between politics and culture, but also universal, humanistic issues. However, there are not many people in China who know the Yiddish language. In terms of the reception of Yiddish literature, it would take a long time to make it a world literature through translation or teaching people Yiddish.

Fu Youde: Most Chinese scholars and students engaging in Jewish studies believe that modern Jewish literature is a part of Jewish Studies, but not as important as the classics (such as the Tanakh), Judaism, or history. Therefore, in the predictable future, Jewish literature, especially Yiddish literature, will not be greatly developed in China.

Fu Xiaowei: Chinese academics only have some general knowledge about Yiddish literature, and except Anruo Bao, a Ph.D. candidate majoring in Yiddish Studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, no one could read Yiddish in China. Up until now, the Chinese translation of Yiddish works was done through Russian and Yiddish writers were taken as Russian writers or Jewish writers. Scholars of Jewish studies might dip into a few Yiddish writers, but very few of them would specifically research Yiddish literature since it requires them to spend a large amount of time on learning Yiddish. It is quite impossible to foresee the research on Yiddish literature on a large scale since scholars have to consider their academic future. In China, no matter universities or institutes, no place sets the publication of articles about Jewish literature as the standard for professional evaluation. This means that, even though a researcher is interested in Jewish literature or Yiddish literature, he or she must categorize it into national literatures, such as French literature, English literature, American literature, and Israeli literature. Thus it is also more difficult for scholars to publish articles on Jewish literature (including Yiddish literature) than the articles of other fields of national literatures in China.


In geveb: What do people usually have in mind when they think of or study “Jewish literature”?

Wang: Based on my impression,the Bible… since people could not tell the difference between Jewish literature, Hebrew literature, and Israeli literature.

Fu Xiaowei: In 2005, I initiated a questionnaire survey in over ten universities in the major cities, such as Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, throughout China, aiming at investigating college students’ views on Jewish literature. As this survey showed, most college students took “Jewish literature” as the literary works that were written by Jewish writers and had features of Jewish culture. As this survey did not ask students with other language backgrounds, most students’ primary foreign language was English. Since their English proficiency was only enough for them to pass the English proficiency tests in college, most of the works they read were Chinese translations, and they did not think much about the original language that had been used to compose these works. Of course, many readers who were interested in Jewish culture believed that to read the works of Jewish literature would help them to understand Jewish culture since these works showed many Jewish characteristics. Among the most welcomed Jewish writers, Bashevis Singer triggered the most profound influence on contemporary Chinese literature.

MLA STYLE
Lewis, Yitzhak, and Anruo Bao. “The State of Yiddish Studies in China.” In geveb, March 2020: https://ingeveb.org/blog/the-state-of-yiddish-studies-in-china.
CHICAGO STYLE
Lewis, Yitzhak, and Anruo Bao. “The State of Yiddish Studies in China.” In geveb (March 2020): Accessed May 25, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Yitzhak Lewis

Yitzhak Lewis is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Duke Kunshan University, in China.

Anruo Bao

Anruo Bao is a Ph.D. candidate in Yiddish studies and comparative literature of the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University.