Unofficial Ambassador : Sidney Shapiro’s Unique Viewpoint on ‘His’ China

Times Staff Writer

Sidney Shapiro is a Jew, a Chinese and an American. From Brooklyn.

It’s probably as contradictory a mix of blood and culture as can be found, yet this 38-year resident of Peking wears his paradoxes lightly. In America he treads surely through corporate board rooms, wowing the powerful with tales of life behind what was once the Bamboo Curtain. In China he has been an anomaly and a survivor--a Westerner who became a citizen of the People’s Republic and weathered the madness of the Cultural Revolution.

And lately, “because I’m both Jewish and Chinese,” Shapiro has begun to see himself as an unofficial ambassador between China and Jews. He wants “to stress the point that the Chinese people have the friendliest feeling toward the Jewish people all over the world,” he said on a recent visit to Los Angeles.

Circuitous Routes One tool of his mission is his new book, “Jews in Old China: Studies by Chinese Scholars” (Hippocrene Books: $15.95), which he compiled, translated and edited. It’s the result of his persuasion of Chinese historians to include Judaism in their researches of foreign religions in their country. And it records the entry and assimilation of the Jews into Chinese society beginning about AD 700. Most, it seems, drifted into China by circuitous routes over the centuries, mainly as consequences of upheavals such as the Diaspora, the Russian Revolution and World War II. The book concentrates on Jews in China before the 17th Century, the time when the discovery of a Jewish community in Kaifeng excited great interest in the West. Today the Jews, as a separate culture and religion, have disappeared from China, but one scholar contends that 140 families retain awareness of their Jewish ancestry.


Shapiro decided to compile the book, he said, because he has been constantly questioned about the Jews of China ever since Western visitors began to flock to his adopted country in the early 1970s. It’s his way of shedding the “embarrassment” he felt from his lack of knowledge, he said. (Many of these visitors have asked their questions while nibbling on the homemade bagels Shapiro serves. Or they have asked them on one of Shapiro’s seven trips to the United States since the diplomatic thaw.)

“What I did in order to persuade Chinese scholars to write on this subject was to go physically and beard them in their dens and beg them to do research,” Shapiro recalled. “I was happy to find a response. They all were busy researching that period of Chinese history with regard to foreign religions--Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Islam--and when I mentioned Judaism, they all said, ‘By God, that’s one we missed.’ . . . They were grateful to me.”

Although he is a sort of ultimate minority in modern Peking, Shapiro shrugs off the exoticness of his life, partly because his American friends have made him recount it so many times. He also has been widely interviewed and invited into the inner sanctums of the American media, where he handles himself with the calm and grace of a veteran executive. In fact, sometimes he sounds as if his relocation to China in 1947 was a move across the block in his native Brooklyn.

“I find an enormous similarity between the Chinese people and the Jewish people,” he said. “The Chinese have been known as the Jews of the Orient for many, many years. And with good reason, because they were discriminated against in other countries, they lived in virtual ghettoes, were limited in the types of endeavor in which they could engage, there were quotas for them in schools, etc., etc. So that, of course, struck a familiar note in me when I began living in China.


“At the same time the human relationships within the Chinese society, within the Chinese family particularly, are strikingly similar to the Jewish family. The moral obligation, to say nothing of the legal obligation, of children or grandchildren to care for their parents and grandparents and the very warm, charming relationships between grandparents and grandchildren impressed me very much.”

His own experience when he settled in Shanghai to practice law was one of welcome, he said. “The Chinese as a traditional policy had always welcomed people of all races and religions. . . . I didn’t really understand that so thoroughly, particularly at times like the Korean War. I thought, ‘Gee, these people are not going to be very happy with me around because Chinese and American boys are killing each other only a few hundred miles away.’ But they took a very rational and calm and friendly attitude as far as I was concerned. They said, ‘You are an individual and our argument is with the Administration in Washington, D.C.’ ”

Even during the xenophobia of the Cultural Revolution he experienced little harassment directed at him personally, he said. However, his Chinese wife, Fengi (Phoenix), was detained for four years, apparently because as an actress she was well acquainted with the lurid past of Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Tse-tung, member of the Gang of Four and a former actress.

He remained in China throughout this period, he said, because “I could not believe that this obviously stupid and wrong approach that was being taken in China could continue for very long.

As for himself, Shapiro said his motivation in transplanting himself was a postwar boredom with the possibilities of life in the United States.

“I left America partly because I was running away from a situation I couldn’t solve,” he said. “I think I was perhaps typical of the ex-GI. It takes quite a while to readjust to normal life and normal society. I just felt I couldn’t go back to being a lawyer and being engaged in commercial hassles. So I knew what I didn’t want but I didn’t know what I did want. It so happened that I’d been trained in Chinese and learned a little about China in the Army. So that suggested one avenue I could approach as a possible solution. But I had no idea how it would turn out. This was more or less in keeping with my earlier exploit of running off and riding freight trains with another guy. . . .”

At age 69, Shapiro, the former Roosevelt Democrat who now describes himself as a Chinese Marxist, gives the impression that he would not change the way he has lived his life, chancy as it was. “I am what I am,” he said. “I’m a man who was born and raised in America who’s maintained cultural contacts with America all my life. I don’t see why there should be any contradiction in the way I’ve lived. In fact, it seems to me the ideal thing would be if all of us had a greater blending within ourselves of all the best that every country in the world has to offer.”