Reading Amos Oz in Mandarin: The Chinese Who Adore Hebrew Literature

One day, Prof. Yang Yang decided to learn Hebrew in Peking University because 'enough students were studying Arabic.' He ended up falling in love with it, and now translates and speaks a Hebrew that any Tel Avivian would envy

Hui Rou, a doctoral student in Hebrew literature at the University of Cambridge, Middlebury, Vermont, August 2019.
Tzach Yoked

If Prof. Yang Yang had been born just one year earlier, it might never have been possible to read Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld in Chinese. In 1991, Yang enrolled in Peking University’s Arabic studies program, but a few weeks before the academic year, he received a letter from the university: They were launching a Hebrew studies program.

The timing was no coincidence. In 1992, Israel and China would establish diplomatic relations, and airlines would now fly directly between Beijing and Tel Aviv.

A Chinese translation of a work by Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon.
People's Literature Publishing House

Yang jumped at the university’s offer. “I thought to myself that there are enough students studying Arabic and that there was nothing new in Arabic,” he says. “And Hebrew seemed something a lot more intriguing, a language that very few people in China knew.”

Yang knew very little about Israel. In those days, Israel was largely portrayed in a negative light in the Chinese media, but the Chinese, at least those who grew up in big cities, knew the history of the Jewish people well and learned about the Holocaust in school, Yang says. During World War II, around 25,000 Jewish refugees found sanctuary in Shanghai.

“There was empathy in China over the suffering that the Jews experienced during the Holocaust, particularly because China also suffered considerably in those years, when Japan invaded the country and millions of Chinese civilians were killed,” he says.

But it wasn’t just a sense of a common fate. “As with the Jews, for us, the Chinese mother’s biggest dream is to have a son who’s a doctor,” Yang gibes.

“A lot of Chinese in general admire the Jewish people. In China, Jews have a reputation as a very smart people that knows how to make money and greatly emphasizes education. Everyone in China knows that Israel is a small country with few people that over and over has defeated the large Arab countries that have tried to destroy it.”

In any event, when it comes to mentality, the two peoples are very different. “The Chinese are much more modest people, much quieter,” Yang says, before revealing a slightly embarrassed smile.

“The Israelis, on the other hand, are very extroverted and vocal. When I watch Israeli television shows, it always seems to me that everybody is quarreling with everybody, arguing all the time. I don’t know if it’s chutzpah, but either way we’re dealing with a people that has gone through a considerable amount throughout history.”

Prof. Yang Yang takes a break from lecturing at Middlebury College's Hebrew summer program, Middlebury, Vermont, August 2019.
Tzach Yoked

Hui Rou (or Efrat as she’s known in China’s Hebrew studies community, where it’s common to give students a Hebrew name) is a doctoral student in Hebrew literature at the University of Cambridge. Rou, who also has a bachelor’s degree in Hebrew studies from Peking University, tends to agree with Yang but notes a slightly darker side.

“On the one hand, there is no such thing as anti-Semitism among the Chinese. They very much like the Jews,” she says. “On the other hand, in all of these stereotypes there’s a very clear overtone of anti-Semitism, even if they aren’t aware of it – the entire perception of the Jews as a very smart people, as rich people who are good at business, who control the world from behind the scenes. From an academic standpoint, these are perceptions that represent anti-Semitism.”

Rou notes that successful businesspeople from the city of Wenzhou are called "the Chinese Jews."

“For me, Hebrew literature is a window onto the Western environment and understanding the West’s outlook,” she says in fluent Hebrew. “Modern Hebrew literature is Western literature, so it provides me with a good opportunity to understand Western thought processes.”

A radio station in Hebrew

Yang Yang, who completed his bachelor’s degree in Hebrew 20 years before Rou, went on to do a master’s in political science and doctoral studies in international relations. He also continued studying Hebrew on his own, reading books in the language, watching television, and doing a year at Tel Aviv University.

When he returned to China, he was appointed head of the Middle Eastern studies institute at Shanghai University. In 2007, the university opened a Hebrew department and asked him to head it.

Since 1991, only Peking University had taught Hebrew. But in 2007, three other Chinese universities began offering Hebrew studies, additional testimony to the closer ties between China and Israel.

A library in Tianjin, China, 2018.
Wu Jingdan / Xinhua / AFP

In 2009, China Radio International launched a Hebrew-language station with a good website featuring news reports and features about China. The Hebrew channel is one of 61 that China Radio International offers in various languages for a total of 290 broadcast hours a day.

Three years ago, Shanghai City Hall asked Yang to teach Hebrew at a high school in the city. “The school’s location was no coincidence,” he says. “It’s in the Hongkou district, near the area that we call the Shanghai Ghetto, where the Jewish refugees fled during World War II.”

Yang has also translated from Hebrew to Chinese, including Aharon Appelfeld’s “The Age of Wonders,” Yoram Kaniuk’s “Another Love Story” and S.Y. Agnon’s “Ido and Einam,” which is being published in Chinese in a short-story collection by the Nobel Prize-winning Israeli author. The Agnon story is the only one in the forthcoming book that was translated directly from Hebrew.

“It took me almost a year to translate the story,” Yang says. “There’s something almost biblical in Agnon’s writing; mythological, historical writing. It’s an entirely different style from the books of Appelfeld or Kaniuk, which are much more modern.”

It’s unusual in China for works to be translated directly into Chinese from Hebrew, but plenty of Hebrew literature is in translation. “Amos Oz is a familiar name for almost any Chinese fan of literature,” Yang says.

Not long ago one of the country’s major newspapers published a list of foreign books that are most highly regarded in China, and Oz made the cut.

“Today you can buy his books at almost any large bookstore in China,” Yang says. Another successful Israeli author in China is Etgar Keret – “He’s very much liked in China, especially among young readers, even though his books are very Israeli.”

Reading the Bible in the original

This summer, Yang visited Vermont as a guest of Middlebury College's seven-week summer program in Hebrew, at which this reporter teaches. The centerpiece is the students’ pledge to speak Hebrew throughout the day.

Yang came for just a few days as a guest of Prof. Vardit Ringvald, the director of Middlebury’s Hebrew program. Last year, Ringvald went to China to take part in a conference that the Hebrew department organized on teaching Hebrew and Israeli culture.

A Chinese translation of a work by Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld.
People's Literature Publishing House

The conference was held at Peking University and was attended by about 20 lecturers in modern and classical Hebrew, along with local students who were interested in studying the teaching of the Hebrew language, Ringvald says.

So what’s the source of the attraction of the Chinese to Hebrew? “A first reason is the connection to Israel or admiration for Israel. They think that the people behind this enterprise, the State of Israel, are very smart, people who are very successful,” Ringvald says.

“Someone approached me at the conference who calls himself ‘the Chinese Itzik’ – he speaks fluent Hebrew. And he said to me: ‘My mom told me to study Hebrew because the Jews are very smart.’ There are also those who are attracted to Hebrew for religious reasons, who want to read the Bible in Hebrew,” she adds.

“The second focus of attraction is more utilitarian. It’s hard today to be accepted to study at Peking University because of the high demand, so some people register for Hebrew studies, which is easier to get into, and from there they continue on to other departments. The third reason is people I call ‘very passionate’ – people like Yang Yang in Shanghai who promote Hebrew with all their strength.”

According to Ringvald, in recent years, the number of Chinese students in the summer program at Middlebury has grown. And it looks like cooperation with China will grow and expand to neighboring countries. “We’re currently working on another conference on teaching Hebrew that’s expected to be held in Singapore and include representatives from all over East Asia,” she says.

While at Middlebury, Yang has spent his evenings with students in the Hebrew program, speaking to them in a Hebrew that inspires awe and amazement. Just think that if he had been born a year earlier, there wouldn’t have been a Hebrew program at his university when he applied, and he’d be speaking Arabic instead.