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What Jews and the Chinese have in common

Beijing Image copyright AFP

Like most people on their first trip to China, I felt like an ocean swimmer trying to get back to shore pulling against a particularly vicious riptide, overwhelmed and slightly panicked.

It was not just the gigantism - the number of people, the epic infrastructure projects, the impenetrable air pollution.

It was that the place in many ways looks familiar - but just off-kilter, as in a dream - all those Western brand names on advertising hoardings, but you cannot read the ads because they are all in Chinese.

I had this strange feeling of knowing but not having a clue most intensely when I visited Shandong University in Jinan recently.

Shandong reminded me very much of the University of California at Berkeley in the US, only with 57,000 students - instead of 35,000 - buzzing and biking purposefully around from class to class, and they were much, much more earnest.

At the heart of the campus is a newish 27-storey building with a giant clock on the top, which houses the department of religious studies.

Religion was the reason I had come to Shandong. I was making a programme about the simultaneous origins of Buddhism and Confucianism; Shandong is close to Qufu, Confucius' home town and a centre of modern Confucian scholarship.

The university's religion department also houses the Centre for Judaic Studies, China's one and only department of Jewish studies.

Its existence is one of those off-kilter things. Sure, American and British universities have Jewish study programmes, but in China? I was surprised.

But the man who runs the centre, Professor Fu Youde, told me I should not be. Confucian and Jewish culture have much in common.

"The core of Confucianism and Judaism is ethical," he explained.

"They both stress the importance of the relationship between man and man, and are based on the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you," he added.

The fifth commandment enjoins Jews to honour their fathers and mothers. Confucianism also emphasises filial piety - but in a way Jewish parents can only dream of.

We were seated in Prof Fu's 17th-floor office, the neatest academic environment I have ever visited. The leaning towers of books and papers that characterise most senior academics' habitats were completely absent.

On his surgically sterile desk was a copy of Roget's thesaurus.

The thesaurus is a useful tool for the professor's work as a translator. Among the Jewish classics he has translated into Chinese - via translation into English from the original Hebrew, Latin and Arabic - are Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed as well as Benedict Spinoza's Hebrew Grammar.

It was Spinoza who provided Prof Fu with the connection to Judaism because of "the tolerance and generosity in his work".

The professor himself grew up in a time notably lacking in both qualities. The son of farmers, he was born in a mud-walled agricultural commune in 1956, just as Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward campaign was getting under way.

That disastrous attempt to collectivise Chinese agriculture led to famine and the deaths of anywhere between 20 million and 45 million people.

He graduated from high school in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. Universities were shut, and he spent five years working in a factory for one yuan a day before finally being allowed to attend university.

Prof Fu is an impressive man and had a remarkable grasp of Jewish history and religion but there was one element of Jewishness he seemed not to get: the jokes.

The Chinese are a very serious people but they do laugh. There are stand-up comedy clubs in China and a comedy channel on TV.

I spent an hour watching a television comedy channel. Everything was the same, the behaviour of the comedian at the mic, the cutaway shots of people in the audience laughing - only it was in Chinese, so I do not know what the jokes were about.

Anyway, I wonder if the Chinese can get the core of Jewish humour, its bitter irony. Heinrich Heine, 19th Century poet and essayist, described it best: "I try to tell my grief and it all becomes comic."

Prof Fu does not think humour matters.

"Jokes are important for Jewish literature," he said. "But as a culture, the core of Judaism is the law, as given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai."

"Well, I am not so sure about that," I replied, "Jewish culture is not simply the law. The culture has been shaped by how Jews have responded to persecution over the 2,500 years since the law was first written down in the form we know it."

Which, come to think of it, was in the same century when Confucius was formulating his teachings. So the Jews and Chinese are linked by historical coincidence, in addition to filial piety and the Golden Rule.

Image copyright AP
Image caption A Chinese chicken soup in New Hampshire, inspired by a Jewish recipe

We carried on into the afternoon discussing our people's cultural affinities.

"Jews love Chinese food," I pointed out.

"Also Chinese medicine," Prof Fu added. "I know foreigners who say 'I do not want to take Chinese medicine.' But my Jewish friends, many of them accept Chinese medicine."

This lead me to tell him a story about an Israeli acupuncturist, a Jewish Buddhist, who had treated me in India the previous week. But I will tell you that story another time.

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