Saturday, December 17, 2011

How to be as successful as a Jew

One of the most curious and revelatory things about China which my newly acquired ability to read Chinese has allowed me to discover are the Chinese self-help books concerning the Jews.

Wonder into any large bookshop in Beijing (and I guess anywhere else in China), and you can find books in Chinese with titles like: "Discover the secrets of the Jews", "Jewish business wisdom" and "How to be as successful as a Jew". On the back cover you will usually find phrases like: "the Jews are the cleverest, richest and most successful people in the world. Learn the secrets of their success". Books with similar titles would be considered at best very dubious, and at worst downright antisemitic, anywhere in the Western world. But the fact is that here in China, such books can be seen as a sort of distorted compliment to the Jews.

In China most people have never met a Jew, but there is one extremely common stereotype about them: they are very intelligent. The huge number of succesful Jews in every field, from Einstein to Freud, is considered proof enough. Whenever I have told a Chinese person that my mother's family is Jewish, I have almost always been told: "oh, you must be very clever then." (the Chinese, not having our Western notions of political correctness, are quite happy to assume that every single Jew must be intelligent, with no exceptions). The stereotype that Jews are wealthy also exists, but it is not seen as something to be envied or hated, but rather just another proof of the Jews' abilities and intelligence. All the negative stereotypes of the Jews as stingy and clannish which infest Western culture simply haven't made their way here, thank goodness.

In today's extremely competitive and materialistic Chinese society, success in work is an obsession for many, and this coupled with the belief that Jews are inherently successful and smart can produce some curious results: a Chinese girl I once knew had actually read the Talmud (in Chinese of course), because she had heard that reading it could help you to achieve success in life (if the Jews are so succesful there must be a reason after all).
I must say that I can't help but feel ambiguous about these Jewish-themed business success guides in Chinese bookshops. I know there isn't any hostility towards the Jews behind them, but I can't help wondering if it is a good thing to encourage the stereotype of Jewish wealth and success in business which has brought the Jews so much misfortune elsewhere.

(Below, the cover of a Chinese book entitled "the Business Acumen of the Jews")