Found Through Translation

Chinese Seek Jewish Food for Thought

Visiting his native China, Professor Zhang Ping, 45, of Tel Aviv University sought out his Chinese translation of the mishnah tractate Derech Eretz Zuta in Beijing’s largest bookstore. Instead, he found a pirated version that “took my book and added a lot of things to teach people how to do business.” The book was located in the “Jewish Wisdom” section, otherwise known as: how to get rich.

The Chinese perception that Jews are adept at business, coupled with Israel’s rising economic presence, has resulted in a niche market within the Chinese “self-help” genre devoted to the secrets behind Jewish entrepreneurial success. A 2007 Washington Post article reported that Chinese bookstores are packed with works titled, The Eight Most Valuable Business Secrets of the Jewish, Legend of Jewish Wealth, and Jewish People and Business: The Bible of How to Live Their Lives. Although the plethora of sophistic publications are reminiscent of hateful trends of the past, it is noteworthy that communist China appears to be permitting foreign religious sources, especially ones relating to the attainment of personal wealth.

China was geographically isolated for much of its history, unlike the Jews, who, since the destruction of the Second Temple, have lived only amidst foreigners. This could lead one to assume the Chinese and Jews hold strikingly different philosophies concerning the fabric of society and governance. Yet, according to Ping, the societies’ philosophies are remarkably similar, a conclusion he reached 15 years ago after setting out to translate his first rabbinic work into Chinese.

To complete his Master’s degree in Oriental Literature at Beijing University, Ping was required to learn an additional foreign language. “So,” he explained, “I went to the language department and the secretaries were talking about a new language program, a Hebrew program. It was the first Hebrew program in a Chinese university.” When asked why his university had decided to open such a program, Ping speculated, “Well, it was around 1985, and I think China was preparing to start diplomatic relations with Israel.” (Official relations were established in ’92.) Realizing he would be one of the only people in China to know the language, a concept he admits gave him “a really good feeling,” Ping decided to pursue Hebrew. After graduating, Ping came to Tel Aviv University to further hone his linguistic skills.

It was here that Ping was approached by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a figure dedicated to Talmudic translations. He wanted to translate the mishnah tractate Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) into Chinese and approached Ping to see if he knew anyone who would be interested. Thomas Nisell, 57, who works for Rabbi Steinsaltz’s foundation and was involved in this project, remembers, “Steinsaltz wanted to give a document to the Chinese that explained ‘This is who I am.’ We didn’t know anything about them; they didn’t know anything about us. He wanted to make a small bridge between two peoples.”

Ping eventually agreed to do the project himself and devoted an entire summer to the translation. “It’s not a big book but it’s a very difficult book. And when I translated, I always thought one thing: How to make Chinese understand this book? This is something totally new to them and there were no other references [to this material] in Chinese literature. Everything had to be within this book.”

Confucianism became Ping’s Rosetta Stone. Its philosophy and principles are deeply embedded within Chinese culture, Ping explained. Everyone is aware of them even if they do not identify as religious per se. For example, there is no actual word for God in Chinese. “It is not that the Chinese do not have a conception of God,” Ping clairified. “It’s just that we don’t talk about him.” Nisell further remembered, “We decided to use the Chinese word for heaven instead of God because on one hand we wanted the Chinese to [linguistically] understand what the text says, but we also wanted to make it clear what our text said [metaphorically]. We decided on heaven because it’s something you can see but you can’t touch, it’s abstract and tangible at the same time.” Ping added, “It made Chinese people feel, ‘Oh yes, I can understand this from my own culture.’”

Ping admits the book contained “a lot of footnotes” with explanations and further comparisons between the two philosophies, additions that further confirmed their similarities. For example, both rabbinic Judaism and Confucianism focus on the individual’s life rather than the World-to-Come (known in Chinese as “the Perfect Society”). Both also value education and believe that an individual should always study within a master/ disciple framework. In short, as Nisell explains, “Confucianism is not a religion but a way of living. Because of this, it has been able to survive for so long.” The same can be said for rabbinic Judaism.

After completing the translation for Rabbi Steinsaltz, Ping decided to stay at Tel Aviv University and pursue a PhD in Comparative Philosophy between Rabbinic Judaism and Confucianism. He currently teaches in the East Asian Studies department and is embarking upon a translation of the Mishnah in its entirety, an effort he admits is designed to help “establish a textual dialogue between Chinese tradition and the Jewish tradition.” He explains, “I think a more solid foundation can be built [between the Chinese and Jewish people] only by improving the cultural understanding between the two peoples.”

Erin Kopelow currently lives in Israel and works for the Sofaer International Business School at Tel Aviv University.

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