A Sino-Israeli Literary Axis

A Chinese literary scholar found the same themes appear in Israeli and Chinese literature dealing with the Holocaust and the Japanese occupation, respectively.

BEIJING - It is somewhat surprising to meet a Chinese woman who speaks fluent Hebrew and has encyclopedic knowledge of Holocaust literature in the Israeli Embassy in Beijing. She has read everything from Ka-Tzetnik to Etgar Keret. Her name is Dr. Zhiqing Zhong and she completed her doctorate in comparative literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Zhiqing first came to Israel in 1995 to teach Classical Chinese at Tel Aviv University. For two years she lived in the dorms in Ramat Aviv, taught Confucianism and the philosophy of Lao-Tze, and Chinese poets like Li Bai, Du Fu and Li Yu. Afterward, she continued to study for her doctorate.

Her Ph.D. focused on Israeli and Chinese literature in the wake of the horrors of World War II. She examined how Israeli literature responded to the Holocaust and how Chinese literature responded to the Japanese occupation of China. Zhiqing's research dealt with Israeli Holocaust literature, published after the creation of the state in 1948; and anti-Japanese, Chinese literature, published immediately after the creation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. According to Zhiqing, both literary traditions were part of an attempt to build a new, national identity following the horrors of war. For decades, both traditions were influenced by social and ideological needs, both were part of a process of rehabilitation and construction of nations, and - at least during the early period - both were used as educational tools.

In her work, Zhiqing divides the Holocaust and anti-Japanese literary traditions into three generations of writers: the early writers, who wrote in the 1940s and 1950s; the generation that wrote from 1960 to 1980; and young writers, including the descendants of survivors of both peoples, who entered the arena in the 1980s.

Zhiqing initially focused on Israeli writers who published in the 1950s, like Ka-Tzetnik (the pseudonym of Yehiel De-Nur) and Aharon Megged. She later examined 1960s authors such as Haim Gouri, Yoram Kaniuk, Hanoch Bartov, Dan Ben-Amotz and Yehuda Amichai. When she approached the generation of children of Holocaust survivors, she read books by David Grossman, Nava Semel and Savyon Liebrecht, after which she read books by Etgar Keret and Amir Gutfreund. She read most of these books in English translation.

"Israeli authors of the 1950s were influenced by heroic concepts of the Holocaust," she says. "In response to memories of suffering and humiliation, they sought to glorify the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the partisans. They were influenced by the Zionist ideology of David Ben-Gurion and attempted to provide an example for Israeli youth by fostering a myth of rebellion and power. A good example of this is Aharon Megged's play, 'Hannah Senesh.' That literature also contained elements of negation of the Diaspora."

And what about Chinese literature of that period?

"China, following the establishment of the republic, was also influenced by heroic myths," she says. "Writers then tried to educate the young generation by means of heroes. Most of the heroes in books of that period were strong and they fought foreign invaders. That literature ignored the daily suffering of simple people." Zhiqing points to Li Yang-Ru's "City," "Old Spring Flower," and "Wild Fair," and Feng Deying's "The Bitter Flower," as examples of that genre.

According to Zhiqing, the Eichmann trial greatly influenced second-generation Israeli writers in the 1960s. "It changed their perspective of Holocaust survivors," she says. "Gradually, authors began to recognize the suffering of simple people and began to understand that courage is not limited to fighting but also includes maintaining humanity. They developed more empathy for Holocaust survivors. Haim Gouri wrote about the Eichmann trial. Dan Ben-Amotz and Yehuda Amichai wrote about people who return to Germany after the war to search for their past. A new type of relationship with the past gradually developed."

What happened in China during that period?

"In the 1960s, authors suffered as a result of Mao's Cultural Revolution. There was no good literature then," she says. "The novels of the era were similar to those written in the 1950s, but after the revolution, in the 1970s and later, Chinese literature began to change. Writers tried to describe the other side of history, like Zhou Ir-Fu, who wrote six novels about the war against the Japanese. The first and most famous of these was 'The Fall of Nanking.' He tried to portray the other side of history, what we call 'white history,' rather than the Communist Party's 'red history.' In the 1950s, they only wrote about red history. In the 1980s, Chinese writers were already writing white history and about Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Party. After 1978, there was less censorship of literature and writers attempted to understand what really happened in China."

The Japanese Embassy is visible from the window of the Israeli Embassy in Beijing. It is possible to see any anti-Japanese demonstration from here. "In the 1950s, the Germans began to recognize the injustice they perpetrated against the Jewish people," Zhiqing says. "But the Japanese still do not accept responsibility for their actions, not even the massacre and rape of Nanking. That's what really hurts."

Zhiqing also translates Hebrew literature into Chinese. She recently translated Amos Oz's "A Tale of Love and Darkness," and has translated a long list of Hebrew novels, including Oz's "Black Box" and "After the Holidays," by Yehoshua Kenaz.

How did you become interested in Hebrew literature?

"By accident," she says with a smile. After diplomatic relations were established between Israel and China, she worked in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Soon after, a collaborative agreement was signed between the Academy and Tel Aviv University. "They needed Chinese teachers and people who were familiar with Chinese culture," she explains. After she arrived in Israel, she taught Classical Chinese at Tel Aviv University and continued from there to Ben-Gurion University. She completed her doctorate at the Heksherim Research Center for Jewish and Israeli Literature and Culture, under the supervision of Professor Yigal Schwartz, and in collaboration with the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

In 1977, Zhiqing returned to China and began to work as a literary editor and translator of Hebrew literature into Chinese. In Beijing, she also published many articles about Israeli literature and books by Amos Oz, Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, Meir Shalev and Yaakov Shabtai. Last August, she published a book that includes the results of her research.

You have translated 60 Israeli novels to date. How are they received in China?

"'My Michael' and 'To Know a Woman' [by Amos Oz] each sold 10,000 copies. They were mainly read by literary figures and students. There are two university institutes here that teach the Hebrew language, but there are no Hebrew literature courses yet. Interest in European and American literature is only beginning now. This may be followed by an interest in Jewish and Israeli literature."