10,000 Years of Wisdom – Chinese Proverbs and Bubbe Meises

My favorite novels, as my son always points out to me, are the same story: Jewish family in Eastern Europe, persecuted by the Bolsheviks, they flee schlepping their down pillows, brass Shabbat candle sticks and soup pot, to the nearest port to beg to be on the next manifest to America. They endure an excruciating voyage to New York, share a one room flat in a tenement building on Delancey or Orchard Street with another immigrant family, find work that barely feeds everyone, only to make good, become rich and move to Los Angeles. I love it!

Sandy Taradash
Sandy Taradash

I used to spend so much time at Barnes and Noble looking for my next read. Those days are over as Amazon.com is at my finger tips. When I can’t find a new Jewish book, I’m drawn to Chinese titles and find myself reading the first few pages on-line only to be moved by family accounts from China where women were forced to bind their feet, live by the rule of a man, yearned to be educated and to search for their voice. In essence, a similar narrative of the fleeting Jews!

While researching and writing this piece, I realized why the chronicles of Chinese families touch my soul, because they are so similar to Jewish ideals! Why was I so surprised? Both are enduring cultures that date back to almost the same time in history, sharing strong family values, work ethics, respect for the elderly, humility, money, education, achievement and hard work. There are differences, but we share some very basic similarities.

The core of Confucianism and Judaism is ethical, based on the Golden Rule of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Both stress the importance of the relationship between man and man and the fifth commandment enjoins Jews to honor their fathers and mothers while Confucianism also emphases filial piety.

Bringing us to today’s world, diplomatic relations between Israel and China were first established in January 1992 and have since developed their relations steadily. In 2000, Chinese President Jiang Zeming made a historic visit to Israel and since then four Israeli presidents and three prime-ministers, most recently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May 2013, have made diplomatic and trade visits to Beijing. Simple economics is the basis for expanded Israel-Chinese relations as Israel is a world leader in technology that can achieve scale with China as a global economic power with a population over one billion.

Since relations were officially established between the two countries, the two-way trade volume has increased almost 200 times from only a little more than $50 million in 1992 to $9.91 billion in 2012 making the bilateral trade of two days in 2013 equal to that of the whole year of 1992. Trade has expanded from agricultural to almost all areas, including science, technology, education, academia, culture, arts and tourism.

According to Jeremy Goldkorn,a South African blogger and editor who has lived in Beijing since 1995, the Chinese have a fascination with Jewish people, with a belief that Jews are intelligent and good at business, which has resulted in a mini-industry of books that attempt to teach Chinese people the secrets of Jewish culture, for example, Selling the Talmud as a Business Guide.

He shares the difference between the way Jews and Chinese do business:

A Jew opens a gas station and business is very good. Then a second Jew comes along and opens a restaurant, and then third Jew opens a supermarket, and the community very quickly prospers. When a Chinese person opens a gas station and business is very good, the second Chinese will definitely open a second gas station, and then the third will open another gas station! Competition is vicious and it’s no fun for anybody.

He continues with:

What was totally missing between Chinese and Jews, and still is, was anti-semitism. A documentary called Shanghai Ghetto details the 1940s and what the lives of those Jews, who were thrown into a very different culture and place, endured. There was poverty, there was disease, there were harsh living conditions, but it turned out to be a paradise compared to life (mostly death) for those who stayed behind. And the Jews interviewed in the film gave due credit to the local Chinese who had so little themselves, but accepted them as fellow humans and neighbors.  The Jews created newspapers and cultural events, Jewish and Chinese children played together, and vendors bought and sold to each other.

One of my most cherished relationships is with an 86 year old Woman of Valor who was born in Harbin, China and describes her early life there:

My parents migrated from Russia in 1918 during the pogroms, they were lucky to leave Russia alive! I grew up in a loving home, always comfortable. I was surrounded by many cultures. I was educated in a British school. While under the Japanese occupation, I was able to learn Japanese and speak it fluently and could converse in Chinese. I had tutors come to my home and teach me Russian and French. My childhood was full of fun and I took part in a lot of outside activities and was very popular. We moved to Shanghai after my father passed away when I was 14, where I continued my education and at 16. I went to secretarial school and earned a degree in steno, typing, etc. Life in Shanghai was very exciting, lots of socializing. Even though I was happy living in China, my dream always was to go to Israel and when the State of Israel was established in May of 1948, we picked ourselves up, left everything behind and went to Israel.

China had been the ONLY country that offered open sanctuary to the Jews escaping Hitler’s rampages without any passport or visa requirements.  America didn’t; Britain didn’t; no country other than China.

I started this article because I was curious about the commonality of Chinese proverbs/wisdom and Jewish bubbe meises/wisdom and was pleased to learn more along the way while putting the history in context.

   –A proverb (from Latin: proverbium) is a simple and concrete saying, popularly known and repeated, that expresses a truth based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity. They are often metaphorical and describe a basic rule of conduct. They are often borrowed from similar languages and cultures and sometimes come down to the present through more than one language. Almost every culture has examples of its own unique proverbs.

   -A bubbe-meise is a grandmother‘s fable, although very close to the idea of an old wives’ tale and a shade more serious.It oftenis a derogatory epithet used to indicate that a supposed truth is actually a superstition or something untrue, to be ridiculed. The phrase comes with the assumption that a story told by old women could not have credibility, regardless of the particulars of the story, and is used in the context of unvalued women’s knowledge. It can be said, sometimes, to be a type of urban legend, to be passed down by older women to a younger generation. Such “tales” are considered superstition, folkloreor unverified claims with exaggerated and/or inaccurate details. Today, some “old wives’ tales” have proven to be valid and often center on women’s traditional concerns, pregnancy, puberty, social relations, health, natural medications and nutrition.

Whether it’s a proverb or a bubbe-meise, they date back thousands of years when scholars collected the pithy wise sayings of all people, young and old. Over time more proverbs have been added to the great collection of cultural wisdom. But whether ancient or contemporary, the sharpness and insight of these words of wisdom are still very meaningful.

Chinese Proverb:

-10,000 years of wisdom: My grandmother taught my mother who taught me and I taught my daughter who will teach my granddaughter who will teach my great granddaughter and when you add up all the generations you have almost 10,000 years of wisdom.

Bubbe Meise/Jewish Wisdom:

-Who is ignorant? He who does not educate his children.

Chinese Proverb:

-There are only three reasons a girl wants to become a nun: before she meets the right man, after she has met the wrong one, or worse, after the right one has turned out to be the wrong one!

Bubbe Meise/Jewish Wisdom:

-The only true love is love at first sight. Second sight dispels it.

Chinese Proverb:

– If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.
Bubbe Meise/Jewish Wisdom:

-In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence; the second, listening; the third, remembering; the fourth, practicing; the fifth, teaching others.

Chinese Proverb:

-A rumor goes in one ear and out many mouths.
Bubbe Meise/Jewish Wisdom:

-A wise man hears one word and understands two.

Chinese Proverb:

-Climb mountains to see lowlands.

Bubbe Meise/Jewish Wisdom:

Success has made failures of many men.

Chinese Proverb:

-Deal with the faults of others as gently as with your own.

Bubbe Meise/Jewish Wisdom:

-He that can’t endure the bad will not live to see the good.

A Jewish man and a Chinese man were talking. The Jewish man commented upon what a wise people the Chinese are. “Yes,” replied the Chinese man, “Our culture is over 4,000 years old, but, you Jews are a very wise people too.” The Jewish man replied, “Yes, our culture is over 5,000 years old.” The Chinese man was incredulous, “That’s impossible,” he replied. “Where did your people eat for a thousand years?”

Since there’s not much else to do on Christmas, the Chinese-food-and-a-movie-for-Christmas tradition has kept its place in Jewish families along with shtick in pop culture, showing up in comedy routines and movies. The Chinese do not celebrate Christmas any more than we do, so most Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas. In New York and Philadelphia, there are several kosher-certified Chinese restaurants to choose from, so that even the most observant Jew can eat Chinese food on Christmas! In 2010, the tradition even reached the Supreme Court, when, during her confirmation hearings, Judge Elena Kagan was asked how she spent Christmas Day, “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

So I couldn’t resist!

-Cracking knuckles gives you arthritis.

-Don’t go outside with your hair wet or you’ll catch cold!

-Don’t make silly faces or you’ll always have that face!

-Chocolate gives you pimples!

Shaving makes the hair grow back thicker.

-It’s bad luck to open an umbrella in the house.

-You can’t go swimming for one hour after you’ve eaten or you’ll drown!

-You have a headache? Go to the bathroom and you’ll feel better!

-I told you you’d get a stomach ache if you ate that goisha food!

-Don’t cross your eyes! You’ll be cross-eyed forever!

-I knew that marriage wouldn’t last! Did you see her mother?

-I told you that guy was a goniff! I could see it in his eyes!

-There’s starving children in Europe! Eat all your food!

-Keep your money under the mattress, the banks are thieves!

-Ask the rabbi, he knows everything!

-Don’t give me a kine-ahora!


-Hundred flowers in spring and a moon in autumn

Cool breeze in summer and snow in winter

If there’s no worry in your mind

That’s your good time on earth.


-To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the sun.


As we say “L’Chaim!” the Chinese say “10,000 Years!” with both meaning “To Life!”


So to 10,000 Years I say “L’Chaim!”

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