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Jewish Wayfarers in Modern China: Tragedy and Splendor

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2014

    Jewish Wayfarers in Modern China is a rewarding book that I high

    Jewish Wayfarers in Modern China is a rewarding book that I highly recommend. It is made up of a collection of short biographies of persons with a Jewish background who spent at least part of their lives in China. The reference to Modern China in the title should not be misinterpreted, as the biographies cover the whole twentieth century, not just the recent period of economic modernization. Also, the book does not presuppose knowledge of Judaism. A great deal of the biographical information is similar to the biographical facts of many Christians or others who visited China. Nor did the people necessarily travel a lot, as some stayed more or less in one location. One can also not expect to learn so very much about Judaism from the book, as this aspect is more a background factor.

    The book contains much information that would not be available elsewhere, as the author searched in archives around the world, interviewed very old people, even in hospitals or retirement, and traveled a great deal collecting his information. The footnotes provide much useful information for scholars interested in further studies. Although the text is translated from an originally longer German language book, it is quite readable and very accessible even to casual readers.

    The book has four chapters comprising eleven sections, each containing several biographies. Thus the longest chapter, the second, deals with Jewish travelers living temporarily and voluntarily in China. The sections are devoted to groups of biographies of: journalists, couriers, advisors and emissaries, adventurers, diplomats, explorers, physicians, and freelancers. I must admit that before reading the book I knew only of Theodore White, the famous American scholar and journalist. However, through reading the biographies, I became interested in many others, such as Emily Hahn, a gifted writer for the New Yorker. She led a colorful and checkered life, which included dabbling in polygamy and writing a book about the famed Soong sisters.

    Some of the people covered belonged to the rich and influential, including Hardoon, Sassoon and Kadoorie. Others earned much more modest incomes. There was the journalist Harold Isaacs, who revealed the truth of the Revolution and changed his views of socialism over the course of his travels. There was the Viennese artist Friedrich Schiff, who left us a legacy of drawings of Chinese life. There was the flamboyant bodyguard Two-Gun Cohen, or the controversial archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein. There were women devoted to China, such as Milly Bennett and Rayna Prohme. And of course there were many medical personnel who worked in China, such as Fritz Jensen and Walter Freudmann and Ludwik Rajchman.

    Karl Blitz was an interesting scholar who developed a system of symbols to enable easier universal communication. Aaron Avshalomov was a composer of Russian background who synthesized Chinese and Western themes in classical forms, including a grandiose Opera based on Chinese history. Klara Blum was a Jewish poet and writer from the Austrian empire who came to China via the Soviet Union, finding refuge in China from the Holocaust. Thus the subjects of the biographies are a diverse group, reflecting many backgrounds.

    Some of the biographies are of people who essentially did not do very well. One was Trebitsch Lincoln, an unfortunate person, indeed. He was not a typical Jew, although one can recognize a not uncommon human type in him. Others never quite got their bearings, such as Sidney Rittenberg, an American who put himself in the service of the Revolution, only to be imprisoned for many years on charges of disloyalty. Others such as Israel Epstein, a Polish Jew, spent their whole lives in China serving the Revolution and never regretted it. But some became disillusioned with aspects of the new system in their adopted homeland, such as Ruth Weiss, an Austrian Jew who became a proud Chinese citizen.

    While the book seems to have no explicit theory or argument, it has what I take to be several themes. For one thing, that there is no generic ‘Jew’, but rather Jewish people come in all shapes and sizes, just as do Christians and others of different backgrounds. Whatever one’s background, one may make a contribution depending on one’s talents and interests. Not everyone can expect to succeed or become successful. The importance of tolerance and an effort to understand the sources of human behavior and changing attitudes in the life course are among the lessons of the author’s studies.

    The author has done a commendable job of selecting and researching a representative selection of persons. Readers with many different interests and tastes will be interested in one person or another. There are many others I did not mention here who are equally interesting. The biographies could be read in random order whenever one has time and interest. Perhaps one could keep a copy on one’s bedside table to read a few biographies before bed.

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