Dumplings and Matzahball Soup: China and the Jews Examining the Idea of Diaspora for Two Ancient Civilizations

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

In the fall of 2014 I will be traveling to China to meet with academic leaders and others who are interested in exploring the idea of Diaspora. China, which today may have as many as 50 million of its people residing outside of their homeland, is exploring ways to engage and connect with its expanding communities of ex-patriots. Residing in nearby nation-states including Vietnam and Singapore and in more distant locations that encompass North and South America, Africa, and the European continent, this presents a major opportunity and challenge for China.

The Chinese view our story as representing the other great ancient civilization in human history. As a result, Beijing has an interest in the Israel-Diaspora connection. Beyond the elements of Jewish tradition and culture, there appears to be a particular fascination with the structural framework of how Jews have organized themselves across the Diaspora in both sustaining their individual communities and in building economic, cultural, and political ties to the State of Israel. The People’s Republic has an interest as well in understanding the ideological threads that have bound Jews together, both across the centuries and in the context of their being a part of different cultures and civilizations.

What might we offer the Chinese by way of insights into the Jewish experience that would align with both its culture and history? In the most recent issue of Sh’ma, one finds a series of articles related to China and its involvement with Jews and the State of Israel, several of which touch upon the historic and cultural connections that have evolved between our two peoples.

As we know there are many elements that explain these long-standing Jewish connections. In this context one is reminded of the Dali Lama’s engagement with eight Jewish leaders in 1990, where this religious figure would entertain the question of Jewish survival. Among the factors that have come to inform the Jewish story include the concept of “community”, the place of language and literature, the importance of tradition and liturgy, the idea of memory, and the power of history. The age-old focus on returning to Zion certainly has served as a key thread in the continuity of the Jewish message.

Defining Diaspora:

William Safran has set out a series of principles to distinguish “Diasporas” from migrant communities:

  1. The group maintains a myth or collective memory of their homeland.
  2. A Diaspora people regard their ancestral homeland as their true home, to which they will eventually return.
  3. They remain committed to the restoration or maintenance of that homeland.
  4. They relate “personally or vicariously” to the homeland to a point where it shapes their identity.

In recent times the term “Diaspora” has been applied to a broader segment of groups and nationalities. Most books on this subject during much of the 20th century were centered on the Jewish experience. Yet in more recent times, the literature is reflective of a broader segment of communities who have taken on these characteristics.

Initially, other Diaspora groups were represented by the Armenians and Greeks. Today the term is readily applied to such constituencies as Albanians, Basques, Hindu Indians, Irish, Japanese, Kashmiri, Koreans, Kurds, Palestinians, and Tamils. As significant, has been the recent referencing of different forms of trans-ethnic and trans-national communities as well as religiously separated communities including Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and others.

China in the World:

The Chinese Diaspora has evolved over different stages of its long history. From as early 210 BCE there is evidence of Chinese military and agricultural colonies being established at various times outside of the mainland. During the 7-8th century, Arab writers recorded that large numbers of Chinese traders were residing in the Tigris and Euphrates region. Many Chinese merchants chose to settle down in the Southeast Asian ports. Early Chinese mariners apparently operated on the East African coast. To support this notion, archeologists have found Chinese porcelains made during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in various Kenyan villages.

The mass emigration known as the Chinese Diaspora, which took place over a period of some 150 years, ending in 1949, was mainly the result of wars and starvation. Chinese workers during this period emigrated to the Americas, Austria, South Africa, and Southeast Asia.

More liberalized emigration policies enacted in the 1980s facilitated the legal departure of increasing numbers of Chinese who joined their overseas Chinese relatives and friends. During its various “Modernization” programs, Chinese students and scholars were afforded the opportunity to gain a foreign education and to collaborate in research; this has brought about an increased level of contact with the outside world, particularly with the industrialized nations.

The signing of the United States-China Consular Convention in 1983 demonstrated a commitment to more liberal emigration policies. Both sides at that time agreed to permit travel for the purpose of family reunification and to facilitate travel for individuals who claim both Chinese and United States citizenship.

Unpacking the Story:

So, what can one offer the Chinese concerning the 2000 year-old saga of the Jewish dispersion? Our complex story is not easily unraveled. Beyond trying to extract elements that have sustained the Jewish people, how transferable is the experience of one people to another? As with other Diaspora cultures, each national piece represented for Jews a distinctive story of how they were or were not able to operate within these societies. In many ways there is no single Diaspora tale, only a long historical pathway of individual cultural encounters, yet, collectively sharing in both symbolic and real terms the dream of “next year in Jerusalem.”

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor at the Jack H.Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. You can find more of his writings at: www.thewindreport.