Be'chol Lashon

Be’chol Lashon

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Jew in Chinese: Group Says a New Word is Needed for Jews

Dan Bloom, Chicago Jewish News, September 20, 2005
The Chinese language comprises thousands of characters and combinations of characters, each composed of various strokes. Now a human rights group in Taiwan is calling on Chinese journalists and academics around the world to stop the "discriminatory" way that the characters for "Jewish people" are written in Mandarin. "There are many Chinese characters for 'you-tai,' or Jew, but the combination that is currently being used refers to an animal of the monkey species and has the connotation of parsimoniousness," Chien Hsi-chieh, the director of the Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan, said recently. Chien's remarks at a news conference in Taipei, complete with illustrations of the offending characters and the new characters he recommends, were widely reported in Chinese-language media across Taiwan and China.

Chien said the biased Chinese characters were devised by Christian missionaries in China around 1830, when they were translating the Hebrew and Christian Bibles into Chinese and needed a term for "Jews." "A better choice for the word 'Jews' in Chinese writing would be one that is pronounced the same but written with a more neutral character," he said. Following the news conference, held in Taiwan's Parliament, a local English- language newspaper quoted Zhou Xun, a Chinese professor at the University of London, as saying that it's not easy to define Jews as a people using a combination of two or three Chinese characters. "In fact, the current way of writing 'you-tai' to mean 'Jews' indicates the imagined physical difference between the Chinese and the Jews, which is rooted in the tradition of picturing all alien groups living outside the pale of Chinese society as distant savages hovering on the edge of bestiality," Zhou said.

Chien first brought the matter to the attention of the Taiwanese government in 2003 and again in October 2004, where it was discussed by officials in the Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs and the Government Information Office, according to Dennis Lin, a public relations official at the Peacetime Foundation. The Taiwanese government under President Chen Shui-bian said it would help promote the new way of writing the term for Jews in books, newspapers and on the Internet if local civic groups continued to put forward the idea. But the government hasn't taken any concrete action yet, Lin said, noting that the government prefers to let the Peacetime Foundation, a private, nonprofit group, lead the international campaign.

Since Taiwan has no official diplomatic ties with Israel due to the Jewish state's "one China" policy, there have been no contacts with Jerusalem about the matter, Chien said, but he added that he has spoken with representatives of the Israeli trade office in Taipei on several occasions. "The Israeli trade office in Taipei has given us its support when we spoke to them about this and said it would be delighted to see this reform succeed," Chien said. Members of Taiwan's Jewish community, some of whom are fluent in Chinese but not in the ancient Mandarin writing system, are following Chien's campaign in the media. None would comment publicly for this article, since "the complex and varied way of writing Chinese characters is beyond most Westerners' comprehension," one longtime Jewish expatriate in Taipei explained. Jews are not the only people that written Chinese discriminates against, Chien added. He also recommended that the Chinese world community replace the current term for Islam, "hui," with a better combination of characters, "yi- si-lan,'' because the current term has a negative connotation of paganism.