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China’s long, colorful Jewish history

Xu XinXU Xin is an affable, energetic and remarkably intelligent fellow who might just be the most knowledgeable person on the planet on the subject of the Jews of China.

To call him a walking encyclopedia on the subject would hardly be an exaggeration. Not long ago, he came up with the idea of translating significant portions of the massive Encyclopedia Judaica into Chinese. He ended up supervising the project, overseeing the work of some 40 Chinese scholars.

Xu (the name is pronounced with a soft ‘x,’ as in zshu, and in Chinese, surnames are traditionally the first part of the name) heads the department of Jewish studies at Nanjing University, located in the ancient eastern Chinese metropolis that was once the capital of the Ming Dynasty.

He can discuss, fluently and confidently, virtually all facets of Jewish religion, culture and history, can hold his own in Hebrew and Yiddish, and knows a great deal about Zionism and the modern State of Israel.

So extensive is his knowledge about Israel, in fact, that he was thoroughly consulted by the official who was appointed to be China’s first ambassador to Israel, shortly before diplomatic relations were established in 1992.

His true passion, however, centers on the communities of Jews who made a home for themselves in China throughout that nation’s history — the community of Kaifeng, believed to have began with Jews from Central Asia about a millennium ago and which took centuries to disappear; the thriving Jewish community in Harbin, near the Russian border, and which was dispersed by the Chinese Civil War (1927-37 and 1945-49); the desperate Jewish refugees who escaped the Holocaust in Shanghai under Japanese occupation (1933-45).

That China and Jewry are not mutually exclusive is a fact which brings apparently endless fascination to Xu, whose initial interest stemmed from his youthful studies of English literature, led into the works of such writers as Below and Roth and blossomed into a lifelong passion for Jews and Judaism.

Although many modern Jews might regard China much like most Westerners do — as a mysterious and still largely unknown land and culture — Xu emphasizes repeatedly that the Chinese have learned a great deal from the Jews who have lived in their midst.

ALONG with his charming and equally learned wife, Defang Kong, Xu has been to Israel eight times, has led various groups of Western scholars on tours of Jewish sites in China and is currently calling for scholars to participate in an international symposium on monotheism and postmodernism which he plans to host in Nanjing this coming June.

It was at another academic conference in 2002 that he met Denverite Eileen Franklin, wife of Rabbi Selwyn Franklin of BMH-BJ, and at the time executive director of the Asia Pacific Jewish Assn.

A fast friendship soon developed between Xu and Kong and the Franklins — who were living in Australia — and the two couples have participated in a number of tours to China.

Now on sabbatical, Xu is in the US to serve as an international fellow at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Last week, the Franklins arranged for Xu to come to Denver, where he delivered a series lectures at BMH-BJ, DU and CU.

He and his wife also visited with the Intermountain Jewish News.

Xu discussed how it was only relatively recently — in the late 19th century — that Chinese first became aware of Jews as a distinct ethno-religious group.

Even though Jews had lived in Kaifeng since roughly 1000 CE, and a community of Jews originally from Baghdad had established itself in Shanghai during the 18th century, Chinese regarded them merely as “part of a much larger group of people who share the same face” — namely, Westerners.

In the 1890s, a Chinese historian who specialized in China’s many ethnic groups discovered the Jews while on a trip to Europe. Recognizing cultural and religious similarities with the Kaifeng Jews, he was the first to describe them as a distinctive group.

The Chinese quickly grew fascinated with the beliefs and characteristics of these people who had been living among them for centuries.

Specifically, Chinese found the nascent Zionist movement then beginning to blossom in Europe particularly interesting. The growing movement of Jewish nationalism appealed to the majority population in China, then chafing under the domination of the Manchu minority.

“The Jewish nationalists really inspired the Chinese,” Xu explains. “It was the first time the Chinese had a sense of nationalism. The leaders of the revolution and the scholars at the time referred to Jews as the model for the Chinese.

“They said we are not the only nation that lost our sovereignty to another power. Jews lost their state 2,000 years ago, but their nationalism never died down. They always wanted to rebuild their home country.”

The Chinese were also interested in the history of the Jews which, like that of the Chinese, had lasted for millennia. That such an ancient culture as Jews had successfully entered “modern times” was also very instructive for Chinese, whose own culture had remained static for centuries.

“So the Chinese thought that we could learn from what you had done, especially when you take into consideration that Jewish people had already become modern man while the Chinese were still, in my opinion, in medieval times.”

The Jewish debate over the use of Yiddish and Hebrew for national and literary purposes also resonated with the Chinese, who had a similar debate over which ethnic tongue would best serve the new China.

Such issues played a vital role in the 1911 revolution in China, often referred to as the Xinhai or Hsinhai Revolution, the first in a series of political and social upheavals that led to the formation of modern China.

“From a cultural point of view,” Xu says, “this revolution was known as a new cultural revolution. When you do something, you need a model. The Jews provided models.”

CHINA’S best-known Jewish community was based in Kaifeng. Over the course of 10 centuries, assimilation gradually absorbed its members. Its last vestiges of communal life could be glimpsed in the early 20th century.

Today, only a few physical legacies remain — a family cemetery, the site of a synagogue, a home with an intact mezuzzah, thoroughfares with names like “Learning Torah Street.”

There may be no community leaders or rabbis, Xu says, “but that doesn’t mean that individuals don’t have a sense of identity or their roots. Chinese culture emphasizes roots a great deal. Who are you? Where are you from? Your family is important.”

He notes, with considerable pride, that his wife is a direct descendant, 77 generations ago, of Confucius.

Descendants of Kaifeng Jews have a similar sense of pride. Today, although they have lost much if not all of their ancestral Jewish customs, people in Kaifeng are beginning to explore that past. Some have even formally converted to Judaism and returned to Israel.

“A revival of conscious identity is obvious,” Xu says.

Both Xu and Rabbi Franklin share excitement at this evidence of the spark of Judaism being reignited.

These Kaifeng descendants are the only people whom Xu considers to be “Chinese Jews” today, since they are actual Chinese citizens. Other than these, the last three Jewish citizens — one from Shanghai and two from the old Harbin community — died in the 1980s.

There are, however, some 10,000 non-citizen Jews currently living in China, including Hong Kong, Xu says. Most of them are in China on government or business-related tasks and remain only for a few years.

XU, like most modern Chinese, is not religious at all.

Simply put, he considers himself a scholar interested in Jewish culture and includes the religious dimensions of Judaism as part of that culture.

Although his passion for Judaism has not made him a believer, he admits that his scholarship in more recent years has focused ever more heavily on religion.

“It has made me speak more in favor of religion, including advocating study of it among Chinese students,” he says

While the communist government of today is still officially atheistic, Xin says that in the post-Mao era this stance has softened considerably.

The Chinese government no longer uses such Marxist phrases as that which defined religion as the “opiate of the masses.”

“They no longer say it anymore,” Xu says. “They believe there should be room for religion even in socialist countries.

“It used to be that if a member of the Communist party became religious, they would kick you out. Now there are people who believe in religion and they tolerate it.”

Without openly acknowledging it, it is clear that Xu must use caution in discussing human rights issues in China. He is clearly uncomfortable speaking about his government’s oppression and persecution of Christian groups and adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual movement

“In some ways, it’s much more tolerant today,” he says, “but still communism is not in favor of religion. Let’s put it this way. They’re not against it. Religions are allowed certain activities.”

He adds that the sometimes violent tension between Tibetans and Chinese is not a conflict based on the Tibetans’ Buddhist religion, but on nationalistic issues. Without offering a personal opinion, Xu says that the Chinese do not want to deal with a Tibetan independence movement.

“With the Dalai Llama, it’s another issue because in the West this is treated as religion — as part of Buddhism — but in China it’s considered a political issue. They’re worried about separation, independence. In China, unification is a number one issue.”

He contends that his upcoming symposium on monotheism — for which he received permission from national authorities — is tangible evidence that China is slowly but surely warming up to the idea of religion.

“I teach and I can say whatever I believe,” Xu says. “Students don’t have to agree with me. I make it clear that I’m not trying to convince anybody, I just want to teach based on my understanding.”

He smiles widely and looks his interviewer directly in the eye.

“Of course, I wouldn’t be so stupid as to write an article that says religion is everything. You have to understand the environment that you live in. Do you know what I’m saying?”

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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