Comparing Chinese and Jewish Culture

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As a child of Chinese and Jewish parents, I’ve had the experience of growing up under the roof of a culturally diverse family. But the differences between these two seemingly unrelated cultures might not be as stark as one might think. In fact, over the years, I’ve come to see my Chinese and Jewish heritages less as two separate cultures and more as two complementing ones.

I still remember how surprised I was when I first heard Rabbi Schnitzer of Bethesda Jewish Congregation say something along the lines of, “Treat others the way you’d want them to treat you. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary.” I remember this because of how foolish I felt after devoting extensive time to studying the Torah in Hebrew school when there was apparently only one lesson to learn.


However, this wasn’t the first time I’d heard the expression. While touring Confucius’ home in Shandong, China, I remember a similar statement being made, “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” Other versions of this same principle can also be found in religions ranging from Zoroastrianism to Hinduism.

Who was the first to come up with this golden rule and how did it spread? How did sentiments expressed in the Torah in 1312 BCE reach Confucius who lived in 5th-6th century BC China? While the Torah’s “Love your neighbor as yourself” implies acting graciously towards others, Confucius’ “Do not impose on others” emphasizes not harming others. The subtle difference suggests that these cultures may have simply reached a similar conclusion that reflected their own values. Should we be surprised that those made in God’s image should eventually stumble upon the same unequivocal moral truths? Even though the Chinese and Jewish belief systems may seem remarkably different at first glance, they both revolve around similar universal values.

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Beyond religion, Chinese and Jewish people both share another, possibly even stronger, bond to tie their people together: food. One thing that always strikes me as unique on my trips to China is the infinite variety of foods. I’ve never been to a Chinese banquet where there wasn’t a new dish to try: fried grasshoppers, chicken feet, snake soup, etc. Although Jewish cuisine may not be as exotic, it certainly is as diverse as Chinese food. Jews’ unique history of moving around a lot has resulted in a truly international cuisine. Wherever Jews have traveled, they’ve been able to mix their recipes and kosher diets with local food traditions. From the shawarma, falafels, and hummus of Sephardic cuisine (in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and North Africa) to the bagels, chopped liver, and gefilte fish of Ashkenazi cuisine (in Russia, Germany, and Poland), there are no limits to the regional diversity of “Jewish food.” With the numbers of Jews eating in Chinese restaurants today, we might soon see Chinese food become yet another subset of Jewish cuisine.

But a really special aspect of both Jewish and Chinese culture is not just the diversity of their cuisines, but their ability to unify over food. Both my Chinese and Jewish families stay strongly connected through the hosting of frequent family banquets. These banquets are far more than small gatherings; they are a way of reaching out and staying in touch with extended family. In the United States, my Jewish cousins are like siblings to me because of my frequent interactions with them. In China, my family banquets are attended by a minimum of 30 people. This emphasis on family and staying connected is no doubt a major factor in how these two cultures have been able to endure thousands of years.


Even though they developed in two different parts of the world, both Chinese and Jewish cultures share basic core values. Having grown up with these two ancient cultures has given me a broad perspective of the world. In a time of strife in the international community, it is important to remember that most cultures have more that links them together than tears them apart.

Matthew will be entering his senior year at Walt Whitman HS this fall. 

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. I totally agree with you. I am Chinese but I love Jewish culture and try to learn more about Torah. I was thinking we should have a Jewish and Chinese culture exchange festival of which the highlight is FOOD :) Thanks for the article.

  2. Thank you for a fine article! May I add that also similar between the two ancient nations were: 1) the idea of Kingship: for the Jews, God anointed Saul (via Samuel) as King; for the Chinese their kings had (or, lost) the Mandate of Heaven. And 2), identity: for the Jews, they are God’s chosen people–all others are Gentiles; for the Chinese, they are the Middle Kingdom–all others are Barbarians.

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