Jewish Wayfarers in Modern China: Tragedy and Splendorby Matthias Messmer
Jewish Wayfarers in Modern China: Tragedy and Splendor focuses on the many extraordinary contacts between East and West in China during the 20th century. Through a collection of short biographies situated in the context of Chinese and Western history, it offers a panoramic view of China as experienced by many different persons of Jewish origins during their sojourn
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Jewish Wayfarers in Modern China: Tragedy and Splendor focuses on the many extraordinary contacts between East and West in China during the 20th century. Through a collection of short biographies situated in the context of Chinese and Western history, it offers a panoramic view of China as experienced by many different persons of Jewish origins during their sojourn in the Middle Kingdom.
With their Western talents, skills, desires, hopes and expectations they tried to master their individual fates. There is the iconoclastic young woman journalist who enjoys breaking taboos at home in the USA. There is the swindler, the scoundrel known from novels by Mark Twain or Charles Dickens. There is the revolutionary, the man of thought and deed who thinks he knows what the Chinese need better than the Chinese themselves. There is the poetess loyal to her lost Chinese lover, the admirer of Chinese culture. There is the artist, fascinated by the exotic surroundings, portraying them with archetypes that merge East and West. There is the doctor, anxious to help. There is the archaeologist, desiring to make a name by discovering and returning with Chinese treasures. – By showing us these characters in action, working for their own ambition or survival, employing their talents and previous experience, we find a distant mirror of our own society.
One cannot return in a time machine to the past, but literature is a sort of virtual time machine, carrying us to distant periods of the past and exotic surroundings. The present book offers such a magical journey across vast reaches of space and back through time. Our impressions of visits to China have often been biased by sensationalistic journalism, Hollywood films and literary entertainment that have distorted the reality of this vast country. In the present book, we are shown the reality of life in Twentieth Century China for many Westerners through carefully-researched biographies of a wide variety of typical and less typical Western visitors to the Middle Kingdom.
“Divided into four chapters the book deals with Jewish old China hands, such as the Sasoon and Kadoorie families and the Russian Jews from Czarist Empire. It then focuses on the travelers, journalists, couriers, emissaries, explorers, physicians, the refugees and ‘foreign experts’.”
“The book offers a magical journey back through time using carefully-researched biographies in a wide variety of typical and less typical Western visitors”
- Lexington Books
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What People are Saying About This
"In the pages of this amazing and unique book men and women come alive who arrived in China for longer or shorter periods of time. Hailing from Europe and elsewhere, there were merchants and journalists, physicians and writers, adventurers and communists, and refugees from Nazi Germany. They witnessed one of the most turbulent periods in Chinese history, their lives forever affected by what they saw and experienced. In vivid portrayals the author masterfully allows us glimpses of such women as Emily Hahn and Ruth Weiss, or men like Harold Isaacs and Theodore White and how they viewed "their" China. Many like Willy Tonn regretfully left the China they had come to consider their own. Others like Israel Epstein and Sidney Shapiro remained in the country which they loved and where they felt they belonged. This is a superbly stimulating book." Irene Eber, Louis Frieberg Professor of East Asian Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Meet the Author
Matthias Messmer was born 1967 in St. Gallen, Switzerland. He received his M.A. in Political Science, Law and Economics (St. Gallen) and Ph.D. in Social Sciences (Konstanz). His research is focused on intercultural subjects and topics related to China and Chinese culture. Dr. Messmer is also affiliated with the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) as Senior Research Fellow and his projects include cultural documentation and criticism in the form of writing and photography. He has previously published books (in German) such as Soviet and Post-Communist Antisemitism (1997) and China – West-Eastern Encounters (2007).
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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. .