Far East of Eden, a Scholar’s Fascination With the Jews

By Daniel Treiman

Published February 28, 2003, issue of February 28, 2003.
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China may not be the first place that comes to mind at the mention of “Judaic studies,” but nobody can say that this is due to lack of effort on the part of Xu Xin, China’s homegrown Jewish studies dynamo.

The founder and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Nanjing University and president of the China Judaic Studies Association, Xu is, to the best of his knowledge, the only full-time Jewish studies professor at a Chinese university. He has also written or edited a number of Chinese-language Jewish studies books, including “Anti-Semitism: How and Why,” an abridged, one-volume edition of Encyclopedia Judaica and an anthology of Israeli short stories.

“I believed it was important to introduce Judaism and Jewish culture to Chinese readers,” he told the Forward. “It is one of the major sources of Western civilization.”

The 54-year-old Xu is currently in the midst of a six-week speaking tour of American colleges and synagogues on topics ranging from the history of Jews in China to Chinese-Israeli relations. He is slated to receive an honorary doctorate from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University in May.

Xu, however, said his own work is part of a larger surge in Jewish studies in China since the 1980s. There are now some 60 Chinese scholars who do work in Jewish studies, Xu said, and at least 10 centers in China where research is being conducted in the field. Xu said there are four such centers in Shanghai alone, a city that once saw an influx of thousands of Jews escaping from Hitler’s Europe.

Xu first became interested in Jews during the late 1970s. At the time, China was beginning to open up to the West, and many Chinese academics were studying American literature. After Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, followed by Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978, Xu said, some of these scholars became particularly interested in American Jewish literature, himself included.

Xu’s journey from scholar of American literature to Jewish studies pioneer gained momentum in 1985, the year he first met a Jew: James Friend, a Chicago State University literary scholar visiting Nanjing University, where Xu was then deputy chair of the English department. As Xu tells it, Friend was surprised to find a Chinese scholar teaching a course on American Jewish writers, and the two became fast friends.

The next year, Xu went to Chicago State University as a visiting scholar, living with Friend and his wife Beverly, now executive director of the China Judaic Studies Association, who introduced him to Jewish holidays and observances. During Xu’s first week in the United States, the Friends took him to a family bat mitzvah. Xu, who does not practice any religion, said the ceremony “made a very strong impression” on him, calling it “not only beautiful, but touching.”

“I was so surprised,” he said. “I never thought that religion could be in such a way, because in China we were told that religion was an opiate.”

He was particularly impressed by the aspects of Jewish observance that promoted a connection with the larger expanse of Jewish history, which he sees as an “example” for his own ancient civilization. “In China you have holidays, you feast, you eat good food, have fun times, but not this cultural history education,” he said.

After two years in the United States and a stopover in Israel, Xu returned to China. In 1989, he launched the China Judaic Studies Association. In 1992, shortly after China normalized relations with Israel, he founded Nanjing University’s Center for Jewish Studies.

Xu, who pursued Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College and Harvard University, now teaches classes at Nanjing University on topics such as the Bible, Jewish culture and world civilization, ancient Jewish history and the Holocaust. Enrollment for his classes would make many an American Jewish studies professor envious; Xu said that he has as many as 200 students in a class, a popularity he attributes to a larger interest in the West.

Nanjing University has just enrolled its first doctoral student in Jewish studies, and funds are now being raised for an expanded Jewish studies center, with two additional tenure-track positions, to be named after Xu’s late colleague, James Friend.

Xu noted that this is not the first time Jewish studies have flourished in China. During the early 20th century — another era when China was looking West — scholars who wanted to create a literary culture based on the vernacular rather than classical Chinese admired the then-flourishing Yiddish literature and translated works by Yiddish writers into Chinese, he said. Also, Xu said, the father of modern China, Sun Yat-Sen, was a vocal admirer of Zionism.

Much like the scholars of the first wave of Jewish studies in China — which, Xu said, petered out during the country’s political upheaval of the 1930s — Xu sees the Jews as offering important lessons to today’s China: an example of how a people can engage with the modern world without losing its unique heritage.

“People inevitably will have modern lives, changes, but on the other hand a tradition is important,” he said. “Without tradition you get lost.”

While Xu is by necessity a wide-ranging generalist in his efforts to promote Jewish studies in China, he has found a research specialty in the 1,000-year-old Jewish community of Kaifeng, a once-thriving and religiously observant outpost that, in recent centuries, has lost all but vestiges of its Jewish traditions. Xu has published two books on the community in English, “Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng” (Ktav, 1995) and, this month from Ktav, “The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, Culture, and Religion.”

Xu has not exactly maintained a scholarly detachment from his subject. In the summer of 2002, Nanjing University hosted its third Jewish studies seminar for scholars from all over China to learn from American and Israeli academics. This time, however, the university also hosted 12 descendants of Kaifeng’s Jews, who received a three-week crash-course in Judaism.

“Heritage is not inherited naturally. You have to learn,” Xu said. “Since they’ve lost it, I try to provide the opportunity to help them learn.”

Xu acknowledges that there is a certain irony that he, a non-Jew, is now helping the remnants of a centuries-old Jewish community reconnect with their heritage. But on this issue, as with so much else about his remarkable career, China’s Jewish studies dynamo is understated.

“It just happened in such a way, because they don’t have many other ways to contact people and meet people who understand both cultures,” he said. “I happen to be able to play a role like that.”

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