Family Histories

Although I’ve known my husband for four years, there are still a number of topics we’ve only treaded lightly on discussing. The Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward are two of them.

I recently plowed through Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy, a novel that primarily takes place in Shanghai and Green Dragon Village in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. It culminates in covering the Great Chinese Famine, where government statistics estimated more than 15 million excess deaths (scholarly estimates gander between 20 and 45 million). Although See’s novel is a work of fiction, the historical references, sadly, are not.

Dreams of Joy inspired me to pry ZJ a bit more about those times. His parents and grandparents both grew up in the Shaanxi countryside during all three periods in contemporary Chinese history. Much like the characters in Dreams of Joy, 老爸和老妈’s childhood meant surviving with very little sustenance, eating sorghum and other edible, yet undesirable food items. His grandfather, a Kuomintang sympathizer, was sent to a labor camp.

ZJ noted the similarities that exist in our families’ histories when we first met. My father’s father was also sent to a labor camp, in Siberia though, albeit for being Jewish. Judaism also has a very intriguing history in China. Kaifeng in Henan was home to a thriving community during the Northern Song Dynasty, though some arrived as early as the Tang (618-907). In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jewish merchants arrived in Chinese ports like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Harbin. Jewish refugees escaping the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Holocaust settled in China. The Jewish Quarter of Shanghai remains with its synagogue serving as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. On my sister’s first visit to China, we visited the museum and what remains of the Jewish Quarter.


Exhibit at the Shanghai Refugees’ Museum


Jewish Quarter

Being Jewish during the last four years in Xi’an always managed to pique someone’s interest: students, strangers, ZJ’s family and friends. I’d always receive a “oh that makes sense” nod as my students would embarrassingly equate my intelligence with my religious/cultural background. ZJ’s friends, when meeting me in person for the first time, would tell us that I looked like or seemed like I was Jewish, although they’d base this on never having met a Jew in the flesh before. The first Chinese New Year I celebrated at ZJ’s childhood home, his parents paid the usual compliment about Jewish intellect. I also heard from any of the previously mentioned parties about Jews and money, our cunningness, exceptional entrepreneurial skills, and political sphere of influence. Israel came up when covered in the news and was often referred to as America’s little brother, in the same way that the American media once considered China as Russia’s younger brother.

I’m certain our families’ histories, a particularly compelling topic, will find its way onto Xiananigans again and might be worthwhile for ZJ (he’s a bit of a history buff) and I to look into together as a side project/hobby.

Are there any coincidental, compelling, or overlapping personal narratives between you and your partner’s family trees?  

14 thoughts on “Family Histories

  1. laowhynot says:

    My husband is Jewish and my Chinese friends, upon learning this usually make similar comments about how smart he must be (he’s pretty smart), but I often also hear “Lucky girl! Your husband must be very rich!”
    I didn’t know that there was a Jewish quarter in Shanghai. I’ll have to go check that out sometime.

    • maklu001 says:

      The Jewish Quarter is around the corner from the Shanghai Refugees’ Museum. You’ll see plaques that indicate where Jewish residents once lived.

  2. Suigetsu says:

    The Chinese perception of Jewish people is an interesting combination of parallel and contrast with that of the West. On the one hand, both the Chinese and (white) Westerners have a stereotypical view of Jewish people as being intelligent, entrepreneurial, and devious and cunning. On the other hand, while the response of Westerners has been to hate/fear Jewish people, the Chinese response is like, “Hey, you guys are so cool, we should try to be more like you!”

    Another interesting thing to note here is that the stereotypical traits that are attributed to Jewish people are also attributed to Chinese people, and the Chinese have been disparagingly referred to as the “Jews of Asia”.

    • maklu001 says:

      Growing up in a predominantly Jewish area, I never really heard the stereotypical view that parallels and contracts the Chinese one, but giving it a bit more thought, yes the response of Westerners does mimic what you’ve mentioned. That’s interesting that the Chinese are referred as the “Jews of Asia.” Any reference for that?

  3. CrazyChineseFamily says:

    My wife’s and my family trees, or stories have thus far I could understand, nothing in common. It is also very hard to get to know more about my wife’s past has she has nearly zero knowledge about it and her parents are not willing to talk about it. Both of her parents come from Shaanxi countryside as well, though different parts.
    In China it is often very odd when people ask you where you are from and of course they ask first “Are you Russian?”. I think I have been asked most often wether I am Russian, American or Jewish, however non of them are correct. When my answer is either German or Finnish they say usually “Oh, I see that makes sense”.

    • maklu001 says:

      Yes, there is always a reluctance to talk about such things and that’s why I don’t have a whole lot of detailed information in this post. I was often mistaken for Russian, especially when my husband came up. Many have only heard of Russian women marrying Chinese men. I love the “Oh, that makes sense” comment, haha.

      • CrazyChineseFamily says:

        Oh well, most Chinese even react confused when they hear I have two nationalities. Our son has now 2 nationalities and will get in a few months even his Chinese travel document, sure it is no Chinese passport but it will allow him to travel to China without visa 🙂

  4. Eileen黃愛玲 says:

    My husband and I when it comes to our family history have something in common – our families had to escape due to politics and discrimination.

    We both went to the Jewish Museum in Shanghai. I am fascinated with the brief Jewish history in Shanghai. 🙂

    • maklu001 says:

      I agree, the Jewish history in Shanghai is fascinating. The family history you and your husband have in common is also intriguing. My husband said his family would have been better off if they had moved to Taiwan, along with many who supported the Kuomintang.

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