Home # Journal Entry Vol.106.1: LOST TRIBE FOUND: THE JEWS OF CHINA


by James A. Clapp


Former Jewish residences in Shanghai. Photo by the author, ©1990  UrbisMedia-Ltd.

The synagogue, just a few blocks from where I live, looks at first, with its Paladian architecture and stained-glass windows, like a former Catholic church.  But on closer inspection the Star of David and other Jewish motifs give it away.  Another incongruity the night I went there to hear a Rabbi from New York speak back in 1986 was the number of Asians in attendance, some of them wearing yarmulkes. The speaker was Marvin Tokayer, who had served as a rabbi to the Jewish community in Tokyo after the WWII.  He was speaking about something that I, along with most people, had never heard about before—a plan by the Japanese during WWII, called “the Fugu Plan.”

My collaborator, movie director Denis Sanders, and I were there to assess the prospects for a documentary on the Fugu Plan.  Denis was an Academy Award-winning documentarian, and a Jew from a Sephardic family that dated back to the expulsion from Spain; so, who could know better.  As it happened we never got very far on that project.  Denis died less than a year later.  I had Tokayer’s book, but I had to move on to other projects and activities. The Fugu Plan sat on my shelf for years, but my interest was rekindled when I stumbled on some Jewish motifs on buildings when was travelling in Shanghai a few years ago (photo above).  Shanghai had a large refugee Jewish community up to the Communist revolution, and thousands of that community came from, of all places, Japan.

If that sounds like a strange set-up, it is nothing compared to the saga of the Jews of Eastern Europe in the days leading up to, and during, WWII.  First of all, the Japanese were allies of Nazi Germany, and we know how the Nazis felt about Jews.*  But it would be a mistake to conclude that the Japanese motives derived from a feelings of pro-Semitism.  Rather, the authors of the Fugu Plan were rather calculating and self-interested in rescuing some East European Jews from almost certain extermination at the hands of the Himmler crowd.  It was called the Fugu Plan, named after the puffer fish that is a delicacy in Japan, but must be prepared with great care not to cut into an organ that contains a deadly poison.  People die every year from badly prepared fugu sushi.

Much of the prevailing Japanese attitude about Jews had been shaped by that nasty piece of fiction masquerading as fact authored by the Russian Secret Police, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  This virulently anti-Semitic volume of purported minutes of Zionists plotting to control world finance, and other machinations, was the result of the blame Russians placed on the Jews for the Bolshevik Revolution.  It continues to shape hatred for Jews and also influenced in Japanese anti-Semitic attitudes.  Ironically, it was a New York Jewish financier, Jacob Schiff, who helped finance the Japanese victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war because he detested the Russians for their pogroms against the Jews. The Japanese military establishment liked Jews with money.

That thickens the plot a good deal. Schiff was a hero to some of the Japanese high military command who figured that amicable relations with international Jewish finance was a good thing.  In addition, they were interested in getting Jewish intellectuals, particularly scientists, into their good favor (better weapons through science**).  In fact, they planned to establish their own Jewish colony in their newly-acquired territory in Manchukuo in northern China.

So, how to get the Jews out of the clutches of their allies, the Nazis? One problem was that Japanese immigration policy would not permit the Jews to stay in Japan. But, as it happened, the Japanese hand a consulate in Lithuania and their consul there figured out that, of all places, the Dutch Colony of Curacao did not require an entry visa, so they stamped the Jewish travel documents with “no visa required” and a transit visa throughJapan to the Caribbean. (Maybe that’s what the American-Japanese who were interned during the war should have done.)  Most of the Jews were train-transited to Vladivostok and shipped to Osaka and some other Japanese cities.  Perhaps as many as 10,000 Jews escaped the clutches of the Nazis this way. Later, many were shipped to Shanghai after the Japanese conquered it, joining, not always amicably, a community of Russian Jews who settled in that city after escaping the Bolsheviks in 1917.

During World War II many European Jews found refuge in Shanghai, the only place in the world that immigrants could enter without a visa and without paying an exorbitant amount of money. Most of the refugees lived in the Honku neighborhood and created their own version of Viennese-German culture. In late 1943 the Japanese government succumbed to German pressure and created a ghetto for the city’s 14,000 Jews. When the ghetto was dismantled after the war, the Jews had nowhere to go – some managed to emigrate to North and South America, while others waited helplessly. Once the State of Israel was established, many of the Shanghai refugees finally decided to settle there. Some even used their Curçao visas to head to the Caribbean.

Shanghai between the wars, as many books and films I have read about this city at that time testify, had to be one of the most interesting places of human habitation on the earth—a cosmopolis of “anything goes.” But one of the memoirs I read of that time, appropriately titled A Place in Time, by Georges Spunt, deserves particular mention here because of its detail of well-to-do Jewish life in the inter-bellum years.

Spunt spent that time as a boy and young man in a wealthy Russian Jewish family that settled in the French Concession of Shanghai and lived mostly comfortably in a household of family members and servants, nursemaids, and a chauffeur driven Cadillac automobile. But while millionaire Jewish families were not typical, the author’s descriptions of Shanghai at that time are among the most evocative I have read. The book, first published in 1968, deserves a full reading, but I have selected just two passages.  The first is just a little glimpse into the little universe created by these immigrants. Out for a little ride through French named streets like Avenue Joffre in the French Concession in their Cadillac to divert themselves from a family spat, Spunt writes: “We had discovered a Russian café which made among other things, superlative plombiéres[a French glazed-fruit ice-cream dessert].Grandmama confessed to a yearning for some. The shop is located catty corner to the Café theater, and while Lao Ni was dispatched to fetch the ices, we waited in the car.” (334)

But another passage, at the very end of the book, near the end of the war, has more poignancy than vignette.

It was very late. On the way home the three of us stopped by the banks of the Chinese Bund to watch the dawn. In the river, sampans sleepily bobbed against each other and farther out a junk was silhouetted, its masts like black church spires against the sky now turning citron. And curving northward was the great smile of the city, where the buildings rose in perpendicular thrusts of steel and concrete, their windows hammered by the early sun into solid sheets of gold foil. Aristide jumped on a capstan and turned towards the city. “Look, look at it, Didi.” [a servant]

 Didi walked to the edge of the river, shielding his eyes. After a while he said, “Its a foreign monument.”

 “So now all foreign monuments must be destroyed?”

 “Not physically. The character of this city as it is now, the names. The symbols of foreign imposition must die in order for Shanghai to rise again as a city of its people.”

 “But don’t you understand, Didi? We love Shanghai; it is our home.”

 “No. It is our home. You just rent here.”

 “Then have it! Watch your stinking Phoenix try to rise from our ashes and see if it can fly.”

“It will. It will fly as never before in our history. And for you, this moment in time, this place you call Shanghai, will just be a sentimental memory.”

Life was coming to the river. There was one inpatient final blast from a tender, and along the Quai de France and the International Bund the street lights went off.**

Not much came of the objectives of the Fugu Plan, most of the Jewish refugees were from Eastern Europe were not highly educated, or scientists and financiers, but poor and uneducated rural and village people. The Fugu Plan designers were disappointed.  In any case, the Japanese decided to attack Pearl Harbor, and the rest, as they say, “is history.”  But it might have been very different history (rather than a movie, which nobody would have believed).  Those intrepid Nazis even sent a representative to Japan to try to convince the Japanese to replace the Fugu Plan with the Nazi Final Solution plan, but nothing came of that either (although he Japanese Army had demonstrated such capabilities in its extermination of 300,000 Chinese in the Rape of Nanking).

It is said that war is just an extension of politics, and politics makes strange “bedfellows.”  It would be hard to find a stranger set of relationships than The Fugu Plan.

The Sino-Sidneys

What might be the odds of two American Jewish guys named (given-named) Sidney being taught to speak Chinese by the US Army in World War II who decide to remain in China, become Chinese citizens, and marry Chinese women and write books about it all?

Pretty good actually.

The Man Who Stayed Behind, by Sidney Rittenberg (2001)

I Chose China, Sidney Shapiro (1997)

Sidney Rittenberg had deep leftist credentials: a maternal grandfather who had been a Russian Revolutionary, and he himself, as a Jew growing up in Charleston South Carolina his preoccupation with social oppression led to his joining the US Communist Party and engagement in labor organizing. His was not a candidacy for political efficacy in the American South, but the US Army took care of that when he was drafted on the eve of World War II.  His becoming a language specialist in Mandarin not only reset the course of his life, it thrust him into the midst of one of the most significant and tumultuous historical periods of the 20thCentury, when he was shipped off to Kunming in 1945 as WWII had just concluded and China was turning on itself in civil war. The US had been helping China fight off the Japanese who were now vanquished and gone, and so would most of the Americans.

But Sidney Rittenberg remained behind. Some of the Americans would remain a presence in China, presumably to establish a relationship with whatever government would emerge from the chaos. They had been allies to both the KMT and the Communists against the Japanese, but now the choice was made to make an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek and his forces which had been the recipient of the best and the bulk of American military aid. Both sides were now competing for the leftover weapons of the Japanese and eventually they claim to be the legitimate government of China. Rittenberg began his tenure with the KMT, but eventually, both physically and ideologically, made his way to the other side. It was the beginning of a fascinating thirty-five-year tenure in China during which he would earn the friendship of Zhou En-lai, become a broadcaster for the Communist Party, become one of the only Western members of the Chinese Communist Party, become a translator of the works of Mao Zedong into English, and be twice accused as a spy and jailed for a total of sixteen years.

Rittenberg would also marry a Chinese coworker who would become his wife of over fifty years and mother of his four children.  The Rittenbergs would eventually repatriate to the USA where, at this writing, the nonagenarian remains active as a respected sinologist, consultant, and professor.

There are many “takeaways” from Rittenberg’s first-person account of his witness and participation in the tumultuous early years of the Chinese Communist revolution, but one of the central facts is the very internal terror of that movement. How Rittenberg managed to remain loyal to that movement is astounding. Only after his second, ten-year, incarceration, during which the Cultural Revolution visited havoc on his family, did he admit that political realities had drifted far from his ideological moorings.

It is only near the end of this five-hundred-page memoir that Rittenberg is able to admit to the corruption that had undermined the Party.

Yulin [his wife]and I toured the country and I found it the same wherever I went. Corruption had seeped into the marrow of the party structure there were statues of Mao everywhere, but the legacy of Mao was far from noble. There was so much pain, so much disillusionment, so much of a sense of betrayal. … I found that the party I had known was dead and gone. It had been destroyed by its creator, Mao Zedong, in the Cultural Revolution. Its prestige had vanished. No one believed in it anymore, including those who were using it to advance their own power and comfort. … Just as it had with the Kuomintang, the rot had set in with the Communists, and even those at the very bottom of the pyramid were groping to find something to replace their loss idealism.”

Despite these words, and typical of the ever-shifting currents of Chinese politics, Rittenberg remained well enough connected to China after his repatriation to function as a successful consultant to that country for American corporations and organizations.

The second Sidney arrived in China a couple of years after Rittenberg, at age 32, and after having been practicing successfully, but without existential satisfaction, as a corporate lawyer in New York.  It was smack in the middle of the Chinese Civil War but Shapiro wanted to perfect and employ his Yale University-learned Chinese.  He took up in legal work in Shanghai for Chinese companies that wanted to be registered as American corporations under a US federal statute called the China Trade Act. While the American government was inclined to favor the KMT, Shapiro writes that:

Americans in China had nothing but contempt for the Kuomintang.” Peanut!” Was the episode for Chiang Kai-shek of “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, Commanding General of the US Armed Forces in the China–Burma–India theater. State Department advisers like John S. Service recommended close operation with the Communists, who were leading the fight against the Japanese. This was never done. In fact men like service were subsequently hounded for their honesty by the McCarthy Committee [HUAC]. When the Japanese surrendered, the Kuomintang moved into the cities like a swarm of locusts, seizing the best apartment houses, the best office buildings, handing out spoils to their friends, imposing the same dirty regime they had before. Whoever harbored any hopes the government would improve was quickly disillusioned.

This was also the time when Schapiro met Phoenix, a rebellious and energetic youngest daughter of a large family from Hankou.  By the time he had met her she had finished her studies at Fudan University, gotten involved in writing and editing for left-wing Communist magazines, and had also become an actress. She introduced Sidney, who at least had always voted Democrat, to a circle of left-wing intellectuals.  These were risky behaviors at the time in Shanghai, but that did not deter him from proposing marriage to Phoenix in 1948. Like Rittenberg’s relationship with Yulin it became a lifelong East–West union.

In 1963, Shapiro became a Chinese citizen. Phoenix traveled and continued with her political work while Shapiro attended to the upbringing of their daughter, who also attended college in the U.S. He worked for the Foreign Language Press, wrote about Jews in China and witnessed many major events, such as the Cultural Revolution, the purge of the Gang of Four and the Tiananmen Square crackdown on democracy, glossing over their horrors and disasters in his memoir about “choosing” China. Contrasting with many Chinese expatriates who have returned home with reports of their disappointment and disillusionment with the PRC, he retained the idealistic fervor that enthralled many Western radicals in the 1960s.  He wrote: “Certainly the influence of the Chinese revolution on China and the world is beyond question. It has brought a better life for the Chinese people, a better chance of peace and prosperity for people of other lands.” He decided to remain, at age 84, even after the death of Phoenix in 1996.

The stories of the two Sidneys gets even more interesting at the point where they intersect. It is not clear from their books whether they ever did  meet in person, but while Rittenberg makes no mention of Shapiro in his book, Schapiro devotes three pages in his account denigrating Rittenberg as a doctrinaire political climber and a “slippery liar.” He writes that he tried to get China Daily (the Chinese propaganda newspaper for Western audience) to retract a positive review it had given to Rittenberg’s book, and he managed to get the editor to print an apology.  Rittenberg had even considered suing the newspaper.

What provoked such enmity between these two men who followed the same path is not entirely clear from the one-sided account. Rittenberg was clearly closer to the center of the Party’s decision-making and to its major decision-makers and, amazingly remained faithful even after having a decade and a half of this life spent in prison on false accusations. Nevertheless, Shapiro seems to find some reason to see Rittenberg is a turncoat.

The answer may lie somewhere in the account that Rittenberg gives of one of the frequent interrogations he endured during his second imprisonment at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Rittenberg’s account of it is much longer, but this segment captures the essence of it.

 “How can you prove you’re not a spy?” asked the Colonel, mockingly.

“I can’t,” I replied. “No one can prove he is not something like that. But I think I have proved it and will continue to prove it by the whole course of my life. I can’t imagine anyone who could so deceive the people who are close to them for a very long period of time.”

“You are not only leading a double life,” the Colonel taunted, “you have a whole theory to cover up for people like you who need double lives.”

One day when I walked into the grilling room, the Manchurian announced, “We have decided to forbid you to deny that you are a secret agent. This will be good for you, because it will keep you from lying so much and adding to your guilt. From now on when we say you are a spy, you are not to deny it! Do you understand?”

 I nodded.” I understand, but I have to deny it. Because you have charged me with telling the truth, and warn me that my failure to tell the truth will add to my crimes. I must answer any questions or accusations truthfully, must I not?”

“Just leave off the sophistry and do as we tell you!” The Mandarin demanded.

So over and over we repeated the same dialogue. “You are a spy and you stubbornly refused to confess. You are a diehard spy.”

“No, I am not a spy.”

“I told you that you are not allowed to deny it!”

“But you told me first that I must always tell the truth in here. Isn’t that my first obligation?”

“Shut up!”

I wrote a similar exchange of this kind of Catch 22 “logic” in a reeducation camp seen in my novel, The River Dragon’s Daughters. In reality, these must have been unnerving experiences for anyone being interrogated by party members determined to get the “truth” they wanted. When I have read of them or seen them acted in motion pictures they have always reminded me of Groucho Marx’s facetious conundrum “I never tell the truth.” Perhaps had Shapiro had the same experience he might not have been so critical of Rittenberg. In any case, their relationship seems to have become a microcosm of the quicksand of Chinese politics.

Wotuo and Zhuzu

Well before the British anchored their frigates beside Canton in the 1830s and threatened to blow the town to a pile of splinters if the Emperor refused to open it up to trade, Arabians had been doing business with the Chinese for some time.  There is evidence for this, I discovered as a member of a Ford Foundation-sponsored team working on a scheme for the revitalization of an old section of the Guangzhou (formerly Canton) old waterfront. Excavations there had turned up remnants of old Arab dhows that were the vehicles of commerce Muslims established on less bellicose terms than the later British and American Christians.

The Muslims might well have brought Jews with them as well. They were active in trade with the Indian subcontinent, to which they might also have transported Jews. Today, there is an area of Cochin called “Jewtown,” with an active synagogue. My visits to these areas are as close as I have gotten to at least one of the directions by which Jews made their way to China. But when, and by what routes, Jews migrated to a land they called at one time “Sinim” (Isaiah  49:12), that presumably meant China, is not settled.

Once you jump into the subject you could be in for a Talmudic-length speculative adventure. A 17thCentury rabbi in Amsterdam argued that the Chinese Jews were a part of the ten lost tribes of Israel, which would place their arrival in Zhou times (11thto third Century BC), which is even older than the Isaiah dating. From there, speculation with varying degrees of evidence and documentation makes its way up through various periods of Chinese dynasties. These migrations, both overland and by sea, are assigned prompting by various periods of Hebrew captivity, enslavement, and persecution, all the way to the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D. and the diaspora.

But it was the accidental discovery of the Jewish community in the 17th-century in the city of Kaifeng, supplemented by the detections of corroborating artifacts by local Jesuit missionaries, that marked the beginning of the interests of sinologists in the subject of Jews in China. Kaifeng once contained the largest and longest-settled Jewish community in China, who mostly had come from Persia and India. Foreigners visiting during the Ming and Chang reported observing Chinese Jews praying in their synagogue, and the practice of other Jewish customs. There were also Hebrew scriptures and records of their history that they had inscribed in stone.

At the time there were various names for the Jews:  Yicileye (Israelites) was used, but there was also Zhuhu, Zhuhe, and Zhuwu, all derived from “Jew, and Wotuo has also appeared in the documents and records to mean Jews, although it is mooted since its derivation is unknown (although one scholar has advanced hypothesis that it is derived from a Mongol word for horse, since apparently, Jews engaged in horse-trading with Mongols along the Silk Road). As we shall see below, names for foreign religionists in China have been derived in interesting ways.

Although Kaifeng stands out as a prominent locus of Chinese Jews, so also does Hangzhou. There is an account that is repeated from Sydney Shapiro’s expanded edition of Jews in Old China(2001) [P. 195-7] that he, in turn, obtained from Pan Guangdan’s Jews in Ancient China––A Historical Survey(1983), and appears to have been originally sourced from Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta, that is particularly interesting for its commercial detail and religious misunderstandings between Christians and Jews.

According to Batuta there was a large number of Jews in Hangzhou in the 14thcentury, some of which were involved in the manufacture of a high-quality white sugar that, in addition to satisfying local sweet tooths, became a valuable export to India. Mention of this turns up again in an account by the Italian Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci.  Ricci had arrived in Beijing in 1601, and in the Summer of 1605 he met a Chinese Jew named Ai Tian who told the Jesuit that had even more Jewish families than Kaifeng and that they were likely descendants of the merchants who operated the sugar factories during the Yuan dynasty.  This encounter prompted Ricci to write a long letter home in July 1605 about the Ai Tian encounter.

He came to our house during the octave of St. John the Baptist we had placed a large and beautiful image of the Madonna with the infant on one side of the altar and, on the other, St. John the Baptist.

This man did not know the designation of Jew, but called himself an Israelite. When he saw the image he thought it represented the two children, Jacob and Esau, with Rebecca.

He said: “Although I do not worship images, I want to do reverence to my earliest ancestors.” And so he knelt and bowed. He had told me that the head of his sect had twelve sons, and so I thought he was a Christian and was talking of the twelve apostles.

Ultimately, I discovered he was not a Christian, but was not much opposed to Christianity. He admitted to me that they (the Jews) were not able to uphold their laws because circumcision, the purification, the (not eating of) pork, and other things impeded their relations with others, especially for those who wanted to become officials.

He also gave us to understand that factus erat extra synogogam (he had been excluded from the synagogue) and did not know much [about Judaism]. But he told many Old Testament tales, from the Twelve Tribes, to Moses, to the story of Haman and Mordecai.

He said the general belief was that many Moors (Muslims), Christians, and Jews had come [to China] with the King Tamerlane when he conquered the whole of Persia and also China 800 years ago.

The Muslims are the majority in China, the Christians and Jews are only a few in number.

Elsewhere, in Ricci’s diary there is this interesting entry:

The Chinese call these foreigners [Chinese Jews]“Hui Hui.” They call the Muslims the “Hui Hui of the three laws” (san jiao). The Jews they call the “Hui Hui who extract the sinews” (from the meat they eat). The Christians they call the “Hui Hui of the word for ten” (which in Chinese is written as a cross).

One can only wonder at what kinds of myths and stories of various religions were exchanged in these times.  Today, there is only a small community of Chinese Jews, around 1000, in Kaifeng. There are many more Muslims in western China, and Christian converts continue to rise ubiquitously. But the Jews can claim to have been the first Hui-Hui. The lost tribe has been found. Sorry about that, Mormons.


©2019, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.21.2019)

*Some of the European Jews did quite well in setting up businesses in Shanghai,

** At this writing Georges Spunt, aged 95, is living in San Francisco.

***See Hal Gold, Unit 731(2004)


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bob 2019-08-25 - 5:05 pm

Very interesting, it would make a great documentary.

James A. Clapp 2019-08-26 - 9:04 am

It almost was.

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