The People's Republic of China did not establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992. But Yiyi Chen, a Chinese national conducting graduate work in Biblical studies at Cornell University, sees connections reaching back much, much further. Chen's adviser believes Chen is the first person to directly translate an Israeli novel into Chinese. "The works of other Israeli novelists have been translated into Chinese, but indirectly -- through English," he said.
"Both the Jewish and Chinese cultures have a long and glorious past spanning 3,000 years," Chen said. More recently, there was a thriving Jewish community in Kai Feng, China, until the 19th century, and many Jewish refugees entered China during and after World War II, he added. Still, growing up in Beijing and Tianjin, Chen learned little about Israel or the Jewish people. "The Chinese were not exposed to Israel and Judaism," he said. "There were no cultural exchange programs between the two countries. From the news, we had the impression that Israel was a country that had invaded a lot of Arab countries." But with the recent thawing of relations, a select few Chinese undergraduate students have been studying Hebrew language and literature in a fledgling program at Peking University. Chen is a member of the second class to graduate from that program, in July 1994.
Now he is one of five graduate students at Cornell pursuing doctoral work in Biblical studies, a program offered through the Department of Near Eastern Studies.
"It was quite remarkable," recalled Chen's adviser, Near Eastern studies Professor Gary Rendsburg, of their first meeting. "This was a gentleman who had never been out of China, and when he got out of the plane in Ithaca he was speaking fluent Hebrew and fairly good English."
It was at Peking University that Chen learned Hebrew and discovered the works of Avraham B. Yehoshua, one of Israel's leading novelists. Chen's Hebrew teacher, an Israeli native, suggested that Chen translate one of Yehoshua's short novels, Shalosh Yamim wa-Yeled (Three Days and a Child), for credit in a translation course.
For that effort, Chen received a prize from the Israel-based Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, and the translated work was published in Beijing in August 1994 by the China Social Science Publishing House.
In the summer of 1995, on a graduate travel grant from Cornell's Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Chen made his first visit to Israel, where he took a course on the history of Jerusalem at Hebrew University and where he met, for the first time, Yehoshua.
"It was exciting, especially knowing that his works appear in the Hebrew textbooks used in every school in Israel," Chen said of the meeting. When my roommate in Jerusalem heard that I met A.B. Yehoshua, he said, 'You must be kidding!'"
Yehoshua recently asked Chen to translate a much longer work, Mar Mani (Mr. Mani), but Chen has put that prospect on hold until after he completes his graduate work. He did, however, recently translate a short story by another Israeli writer, about Israel's small Chinese community.
Eventually, Chen would like to translate other modern Hebrew literary works into Chinese. "I would hope to choose works that general Chinese readers would like to read," he said, "and therefore cultivate their interest in knowing more about Israel and the Jewish people. After that, I might consider translating some of the masterpieces."
One of his greatest ambitions is to translate the Hebrew Bible.
"There are already Chinese translations of the Bible," he said, "but they were done around the beginning of this century, and none of them reflects the progress of biblical study since then. Also, the Chinese used is too remote from today's language. I realize that this could be a huge project, but the Chinese people deserve to have an updated Chinese translation of the work, and somebody needs to take the initiative."
To better understand the Bible, Chen's topics of study in the Department of Near Eastern Studies have included the ancient cuneiform languages of Sumerian, Babylonian, hieroglyphic Egyptian, Aramaic, Ugaritic and Phoenician, with professors Rendsburg and David I. Owen; and medieval Hebrew writers and biblical commentators, with Ross Brann, professor and department chair. Chen also may study biblical archaeology while at Cornell.
"Yiyi will be well grounded in the languages and literatures of the biblical world," Owen said. "He thus should be admirably equipped to tackle the daunting task of undertaking a modern Chinese translation of the Hebrew Bible, with skills and knowledge that no other Chinese translator has ever had before."