Interview with Dr. Yiyi Chen on Hebrew/Jewish Studies in China and Sino-Israel Relations

By Yiyi Chen | Director - Institute for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Peking University | Apr 01, 2013


Question: Dr. Chen, when, where and under what circumstances did you begin to study Hebrew?

Answer: I graduated from high school in 1990. Unlike in the United States, Chinese high school graduates choose their majors before they even enter university. Most top arts and humanities students tend to choose a field that includes the word “international” in its name, such as international economy, international finance, international law, etc. These were the hottest fields of studies at the time in China, a country that had only recently opened up to the world. These fields in the best universities are the hardest to get in. I was admitted to Peking University’s International Law program. In normal circumstances, students are chosen by their college entrance exam scores and once their major is set, it is never changed.

However, 1990 was no normal circumstance ― a year after the infamous Tiananmen Square incident. As punishment for Peking University leaders’ involvement in the demonstrations, freshmen were required to serve in the army for one full year before they set foot on the university campus. In the fall of 1991, after a full year in another city, I returned to Peking University only to discover that I was not among the 15-member international law class, but had been reassigned instead to the 60-member economic law class, albeit still in the same department of law. Whatever had happened, I probably will never know, but that experience sowed the seeds of my leaving the law department.

The year 1991 is unusual in that China was preparing to establish formal diplomatic relations with three countries that had been at odds with its communist ideological tradition: Israel, South Korea, and South Africa. The government of Israel asked the Ministry of Education to suggest a university to train Modern Hebrew speakers. Peking University, which had established a program in 1985, was selected. Therefore, with the efficiency of a centrally planned socialist system, five students (four females and one male) from existing language programs in the Oriental Studies Department were assigned to learn Hebrew in the middle of their first semester. After a few months, the administrator decided ― again, a very unique socialist society phenomenon ― that the class needed to balance its gender composition and thus needed three additional males. A notice was sent to the administrators of the department with the largest body of male students in the Humanities section of the university, the Law Department, seeking three male volunteers to join the Modern Hebrew program.

I saw the notice and applied with 19 other male students — it always intrigues me why there are so many dissatisfied male souls in the Law Department. Three were chosen based on  English assessment scores. I was one of them. In fact, the three of us were the only students from among the over 1,500-member cohort of 1990 allowed to switch majors.

There I was, starting to learn a language I had never heard of ― spoken by a people, the Jews, with whom I was totally unfamiliar ― and instructed by an Ulpan teacher straight from Israel. My Christian friends always tell me it is providence. I know they are not joking, but I always took it with a smile.

Question: Dr. Chen, who or what stimulated your interest in studying the Hebrew Bible?

Answer: As I was finishing my Modern Hebrew Language and Literature degree, I realized that there are not many job choices; I could either enter government to work as an interpreter or diplomat, or join Xinhua News Agency as a journalist. The Jewish culture fascinated me during my three years of Hebrew Language training. I decided to pursue a graduate degree at a US university. I applied for Jewish Studies programs and received several full scholarships. One offer was from the Near Eastern Studies Department at Cornell University. My advisor wrote to me and explicitly said he is specialized in the Hebrew Bible and that I would learn the ancient Near East background of the Hebrew Bible, which is not Jewish Studies per se but a solid start for anything Jewish. I agreed and joined Cornell. Yet another very important reason I chose Cornell is that a colleague of mother who had graduated from Cornell’s engineering school in the 1950s spoke very highly about his alma mater, especially its being a comprehensive university that offers studies in many diverse fields. I never regretted going to Cornell.

Question: Did your early career take you “away” from this field? If so, who or what brought you back?

Answer: During my years at Cornell, my advisor was kind enough to allow me, after having finished my Near Eastern Studies courses and dissertation work, to take as many other classes as I wanted. As I mentioned above, this is the beauty of a comprehensive university. I managed to take over 20 computer science courses, and thereafter received numerous generous offers in the internet sector all across the US right at the height of the internet bubble (early 2000). I decided to take an offer in the “new Wild West” — the Silicon Valley.

After a few years working as an engineer, I realized that most of the code I wrote would not last longer than a year before being replaced, which is the norm in software coding. This is in sharp contrast to the longevity of the ancient texts I had learned to read. A return visit to China in 2003 and a meeting there with my undergraduate mentor convinced me to test teaching and research at my alma mater, although it meant more than a 20-fold drop in income. My wife has been a constant source of encouragement; without her support on all aspects, I could not have lasted in this field.

Luckily for me, during the past decade, China’s economy has soared. As a result, China has become interested in the modern Middle East. In fact, China needs as many experts on the region as it can find. So I am facing another transition in my academic career, switching my focus from the ancient Near East to the modern Middle East. Thanks to the solid foundation built at Cornell’s NES department, my transition has not been overwhelming.

Question: How has the field of Hebrew/Jewish studies changed since your career began, in terms of the focus of interests, the number of students, and/or the types of interactions?

Answer: Before 1992, other than in the army intelligence, Chinese college students could only find one place to learn Modern Hebrew ― Peking University’s Modern Hebrew Program. Today, there are at least a dozen Jewish/Hebrew Studies programs in China, including Peking University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Beijing University of Communications, Shanghai Foreign Studies University, Fudan University (Biblical Hebrew only), Nanjing University, Nanjing Jinling Theological Seminary (Biblical Hebrew only), Sichuan Foreign Studies University, Sichuan University (Biblical Hebrew only), Shandong University, Henan University, Luoyang Foreign Studies University, and The Central University for Nationalities (Biblical Hebrew only). There are also several small Israel Studies programs, though as yet no notable ones.

Question: What have been your priorities, accomplishments, and future plans as Director of the Institute?

Answer: At the present time, the Institute has one single focus: to provide policy papers to the Chinese government on issues related to the Middle East, especially those related to the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. Therefore, we are seeking all possible partners from around the world, especially from the Western world, including the United States.

Question: Have you noticed any interesting changes in élite or popular Chinese attitudes towards Israel over the years?

Answer: Chinese authors have taken it upon themselves to explain Jewish civilization to their Chinese compatriots by penning books with titles such as, Crack the Talmud: 101 Jewish Business Rules and The Illustrated Jewish Wisdom. As a Jewish state, Israel’s national image in China has suffered some damage due to the import of stock Western Anti-Semitic stereotypes. At the same time, however, the growing popularity of Christianity among ordinary Chinese, has brought more knowledge about the evangelical version of the “Promised Land,” which is “pro-Israel.” In general, Israeli visitors receive a warm welcome in China today.

Question: What are some of the less well known but most interesting aspects of the Sino-Israeli relationship?

Answer: First, some might find it surprising to learn that China was never hostile or belligerent towards Israel. China never rejected or even questioned the State of Israel’s right to exist. Premier Zhou En Lai criticized Palestinian terrorism and categorically rejected the idea of ‘throwing the Israelis into the sea.’

Second, some might be unaware of the fact that the final establishment of Sino-Israeli diplomatic relations on January 24, 1992 represented the culmination of a careful and deliberate five-year process that included, importantly the liberalization of China’s restrictions against Israeli passport holders and the establishment of a variety of mechanisms for academic, scientific, and tourist exchanges.

Third, some might assume that the Sino-Israeli arms trade today is as robust as it once was. It is now generally known that clandestine military exchanges between the Israeli Defense Forces and the People’s Liberation Army began as early as 1975. It is also widely known that Israel later became a valuable source of defense hardware. But US pressure on Israel over the past decade has resulted in the severe curtailment of Israeli weapons transfers to China.

Fourth, it is easy to underestimate the significance of Sino-Israeli economic cooperation across a wide range of civilian sectors. In fact, Israeli foreign investment and technology transfer have played an important role in the fields of agriculture, solar energy, and construction during China’s modernization. Indeed, China has become a big purchaser of Israeli agro-technology, water purification, and telecommunications systems while Israel has imported a variety of mechanical, electronic, chemical, and textile goods from China.

Finally, cultural exchanges are perhaps more extensive than commonly recognized. Since 2007, Tel Aviv University has been home to one of China’s Confucius Institutes, a government-sponsored organization that promotes the Chinese language and culture through a variety of programs. Tourism has also grown exponentially since 1992, especially after the easing of visa restrictions, the establishment of a direct Tel Aviv–Beijing flight, and the opening of an Israeli tourism bureau in China. And, there is considerable cooperation between Israeli and Chinese universities, research institutes, and scientific academies in all areas.

Given this positive trajectory, there is every reason to expect that Sino-Israeli relations will have a bright future.

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