Sold on a Stereotype
In China, a genre of self-help books purports to tell the secrets of making money 'the Jewish way.'

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

SHANGHAI -- Showcased in bookstores between biographies of Andrew Carnegie and the newest treatise by China's president are stacks of works built on a stereotype.

One promises "The Eight Most Valuable Business Secrets of the Jewish."

Another title teases readers with "The Legend of Jewish Wealth." A third provides a look at "Jewish People and Business: The Bible of How to Live Their Lives."

In the United States, where making broad generalizations about races, cultures or religions has become unacceptable in most circles, the titles of some of these books might make people cringe. Throughout history and around the world, even outwardly innocuous and broadly accepted characterizations of Jews have sometimes formed the basis for eventual campaigns of violent anti-Semitism.

In Shanghai, which prides itself on having provided a safe haven for Jewish refugees fleeing Europe since the 1930s, some members of the city's small Jewish community are uneasy about the books' message.

These Jewish success books are "very dangerous," said Audrie Ohana, 30, who works at her family's import-export company and attended China's prestigious Fudan University. "What they say -- it's not true. In our community, it's not everybody that succeeds. We're like everyone else. Some are rich, but there are others that are very, very poor."

Nonetheless, in China, a country where glossy pictures of new billionaires have become as common as images of Mao Zedong, aspiring Chinese entrepreneurs are obsessed with getting their hands on anything they think can help them get an edge on the competition.

In the past few years, sales of "success" books have skyrocketed, publishers say, and now make up nearly a third of the works published in China, and perhaps no type of success book has been as well marketed or well received as those that purport to unveil the secrets of Jewish entrepreneurs. Many of these tomes sell upward of 30,000 copies a year and are thought of in the same inspirational way as many Americans view the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series.

Among this booming genre's most popular books is William Hampton's "Jewish Entrepreneurial Experience and Business Wisdom." It comes packaged in a red-and-gold cover, and a banner along the top brags that it was a "gold list" bestseller in the United States. Among Hampton's credentials, according to his biography: "Business Week editor," part of the "pioneer batch of Harvard DBAs," "professor in business strategy and philosophy" with "many years of experience in Jewish studies."

More on that set of claims in a moment.

China is the fastest-growing book market in the world, with 130,000 new titles published in 2005. Sales that year reached $8.3 billion, a 50 percent jump from 2003, according to China National Publications Import and Export's data research arm.

The business success books provide idealized notions of what Chinese people should strive to become and serve as templates for teaching people who have been working at communist, state-owned enterprises for a generation how to transform themselves as capitalists.

Several of the books, despite their covers, focus on basic business acumen that has little to do with religion or culture. But others focus on explaining how Judaism has ostensibly helped Jewish people's success, even quoting extensively from the Talmud.

Practically every book features one or more case studies of the success of the Lehman brothers, the Rothschilds and other Jewish "titans of industry and captains of finance," as one author put it.

Some works incorrectly refer to J.P. Morgan (an influential Episcopalian leader) and John D. Rockefeller (a devout Baptist) as Jewish businessmen.

Yin Ri Shuai, a 29-year-old from Henan province, west of Shanghai, who is opening a cosmetics franchise, has purchased and read two such success books. Recently, he was back at the Shanghai City of Books, flipping through some recent titles.

"I feel they are interesting not only because they teach about business but because they teach about family and education and other values," Yin said.

Most Chinese people have never met a Jew -- they number fewer than 10,000 in a country of 1.3 billion people. But several of the most successful businessmen in the nation's financial capital, Shanghai, have been Jewish. The Sassoon brothers, for instance, were real-estate moguls of British descent from Baghdad who constructed the landmark Peace Hotel.

Today, one of the deans of the Jewish community in Shanghai is Ohana's father, Maurice, 57, who has lived in China for more than 10 years.

Maurice Ohana has mixed feelings about the Jewish business books. On the one hand, he believes that the books' assertions that many Jewish people value punctuality and never go back on their promises are "absolutely correct."

But the books' tendency to mix religious scripture with business lessons makes him uncomfortable. "I know very well the Talmud," he said. "They don't talk about business."

Positive stereotypes about Jews and their supposed business prowess have given the Jewish community iconic status in the eyes of the Chinese public.

The cover of January's Shanghai and Hong Kong Economy magazine wonders, "Where does Jewish people's wisdom come from?"

Jewish entrepreneurs say they are bombarded with invitations to give seminars on how to make money "the Jewish way."

Last year, a Jewish businessman's family was featured on a popular TV show. As the husband and wife gave viewers an introduction to the Jewish faith, the cameramen went around filming the family in action as they performed mundane household tasks. Reporters asked them what they ate.

Zhou Guojian, deputy dean of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said people in China may be so fascinated by Jews because they feel both cultures share a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

In his opinion, though, there is one big difference. Many Chinese businessmen have "Chinese restaurant syndrome," Zhou said. "They are content with small-scale enterprises; they are happy just to make a living. But Jewish people want to be the best and make a huge company."

Wang Zhen, a researcher at the Center for Jewish Studies, also says he recognizes that the stereotypes can be considered anti-Semitic but thinks it's important that "even if people in China have the wrong impressions of Jewish people, the Chinese are very kind to them."

One puzzling phenomenon about the Jewish business books is that it's often unclear who wrote them. More than 50 titles are sold in China's bookstores, chain stores and other outlets.

He Xiong Fe, a visiting professor in Nankai University's literature department, estimates that more than half of the books are fakes, written by people who are not familiar with Judaism or Jewish history and who have made up their qualifications.

"There are only a few books that have value," said He, who has lectured on such topics as "Why are Jewish people so smart?" and "The mystery of the Jews."

When asked for contact information for William Hampton, author of "Jewish Entrepreneurial Experience and Business Wisdom," a representative for the book's publisher, Harbin Press, said the company obtained the manuscript from a translator and had never met the author. Several days later, the publisher said she had trouble reaching the translator so she could not provide more details about the origin of the book.

A search of international ISBNs -- the 10-digit codes that identify books published in the United States and other countries -- pulled up no hits for books by a William Hampton with a title similar to "Jewish Entrepreneurial Experience and Business Wisdom."

Harvard Business School has no record of a William Hampton in the first class of its doctorate of business administration program. Officials at Business Week magazine said there was a former employee with that name. William Hampton publishes an automobile newsletter.

Reached at his home near Detroit, Hampton said he was a former bureau chief and auto writer for the magazine, working there from 1977 to 1984, but had never served as an editor.

Moreover, he said he had no idea where the book came from. "I can confidently tell you that this is not something that I did," he said. "This would not be a topic I would be knowledgeable about in any way. It would be helpful to be Jewish, for one thing."

Staff researcher Ai Ghee Ong contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company