The child of a Vietnamese father and Chinese mother, Pan Guang developed an interest in Jews that was strictly personal — one of his childhood playmates in Shanghai some five decades ago was the son of a Jewish family that lived in his apartment building.
Then his interest “became academic,” he said. He later became fascinated by Jewish history — in the time of Napoleon, during the Holocaust, in other eras — and wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Jews in China.
Today, Pan is one of China’s leading experts on Jews and Judaism.
Founder of the 28-year-old Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai, which is based at the city’s Academy of Social Sciences, he discussed Jews’ millennia-old history in China last week in a 40-minute lecture at the City University of New York.
Starting with the role of Jewish Silk Road traders during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), Pan told a religiously- and ethnically mixed audience about the ancient Jewish community in Kaifeng, about the Jews who found in China a refuge from persecution during various times of persecution abroad, and about China’s increasingly close ties with Israel.
Illustrating his remarks with slides of Jewish buildings in his homeland, of Jews from abroad who achieved prominence in China in earlier decades and of those who have visited in recent years, he talked about a topic that attracts growing interest in China.
Pan said many Chinese find Jews’ putative financial wizardry particularly fascinating.
Part of an emerging international economy, they “want to know how the Jews became rich,” said Pan, who was here as part of a U.S. lecture series.
Pan, who has studied in Israel and knows “very few words” in Hebrew, said he was not raised in a religious tradition, but follows the humanistic philosophy of Confucius.
His Center (cjss.org.cn) sponsors lectures, museum exhibitions, documentaries, book publishing and Hebrew-language classes.
He said Chinese interest in Jews is reflected in titles of such best-selling Chinese books as “16 Reasons for Jews Getting Wealthy” and “The Secret of Talmud: The Jewish Code of Wealth.”
“Many people want to know how the Jews are so smart,” Pan said.
Dispelling stereotypes, he said he answers with a description of shared traits that the Chinese admire: a devotion to family and education.
Most Chinese people have had no opportunity to meet a Jew (an estimated 20,000 Jews live there, among 1.3 billion people).
Mei Ling Ren, a 21-year-old CUNY student from China who is majoring in bilingual education and did not meet a Jewish person until she came to the U.S. said she learned in Pan’s lecture about the roots that Jews have established around the world. “I thought Jews were only from Europe.”
Pan said he is now working on plans to mark next year’s 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Shanghai Ghetto where more than 20,000 refugees from Nazi Europe found a haven. Shanghai and Franco’s Spain were the only places in the world that were open unconditionally to Jews who were fleeing persecution. “We are trying to keep the memory alive,” Pan said.