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Chinese Open New Chapter With the People of the Book

The Chinese and Jewish cultures are both great, rich civilizations. These two major societies developed highly civilized forms in ancient times and persist until today, keeping continuous recorded accounts of their origins. Each of them has had a significant impact on world history, although the two cultures seldom met. As a result, not much was known in China about Jews, Jewish culture and Israel until recently. During my first visit to Israel and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in 1988, I made the sweeping statement that

“Chinese find Israel a country even more alien and mysterious than those in the Western Hemisphere.” In order to understand just why, one must examine the Chinese knowledge of, and attitude toward, Jews from a historical viewpoint before the 1948 founding of the State of Israel.

Indeed, the Jewish presence in China can be traced back to at least the eighth century. The well-known Kaifeng Jewish community is believed to have arrived in China in the 11th century and has resided in Kaifeng ever since, continually practicing as an observant Jewish community for at least 700 years. But the fact that Jews resided in China does not mean that the Chinese had any great awareness of their presence. The majority of the Chinese knew very little. In fact, until the middle of the 19th century, Jews were simply referred to as Blue-hat-hui-hui (people who came from the West to China) or Tiao-jin-jiao (sect that plucks out the sinews). Both names are based on customs of the Kaifeng Jews. But no one, not even the most knowledgeable scholars in China, had a glimmer of suspicion that the Jews in Kaifeng might represent a larger religious population who were scattered in many countries, held common beliefs and shared a similar life style.

Historically speaking, Chinese society has been quite ethnocentric. China considered herself the Middle Kingdom, which mediated between heaven and earth and was thereby superior to all other civilizations. Traditional Chinese education, therefore, did not cover the Western world, let alone a small ethnic group like the Jews. Encounters between China and the Western world happened frequently at different times in history; however, academic work concerning Occidental subjects remained unknown for a very long time. The situation began to change at the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th. Western scholarship became very popular among Chinese scholars after they saw the increasing power brought to Japan by her open-door policy to the West. Judaic studies appeared for the first time in Chinese history as an inevitable result of the deepening of Occidental studies in China, since Judaism is one of two main sources of Western civilization. Information about Jews and Judaism was disseminated through China via two main sources: foreigners who now were permitted to enter China for missionary, commercial, trade or diplomatic ventures, and Chinese who had been sent to either study or work abroad and who returned to China with new information gleaned from their exposure to the Western world.

Nevertheless, while some limited knowledge existed among a small number of Chinese intellectuals, the vast Chinese majority still knew very little, if anything, about Jews and Jewish-related matters. The movement to learn from the West was cut short by foreign interference, Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s and civil wars between the communists and the nationalists. So were Jewish studies.

The study of Jewish subjects by Chinese scholars restarted at the end of the 1980s, when China adopted a new open-door policy, which accelerated after the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Israel in 1992. A number of centers for Jewish studies have been established. Among them the Center for Jewish Studies at Nanjing University plays a unique role. It was established shortly after the establishment of full diplomatic relations between China and Israel in January 1992 to meet a growing demand for Judaic studies in China — especially to promote the study of Jewish subjects among Chinese college students and a better understanding between the two peoples.

The center carries out a number of programs and projects to promote the study and teaching of Jewish subjects among Chinese, and it has achieved significant results. The following are some of its far-reaching achievements:

  • The center offers regular courses on Judaism, Jewish history, Jewish culture, and Holocaust studies, etc., and greatly promotes the study of Jewish subjects at the university and college level.

  • The center launched the publication of the first Chinese edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica, with more than 800 pages and more than 1,600 entries. The encyclopedia has become the major reference work for Chinese to study Jewish subjects. Other books written by the center’s faculty include “Anti-Semitism: How and Why” (1996) and “A History of Jewish Culture” (2006).

  • The center organizes international conferences to explore the latest discoveries and development in the field of Judaic studies, and exchange views and achievements among Jewish scholars.

  • In the summers of 1997, 1999 and 2002, the center successfully conducted at Nanjing University three-week workshops on Jewish history and culture. More than 100 Chinese scholars attended. The purpose of these workshops was to present reliable, unprejudiced and accurate information on Jewish history and culture to Chinese professors of world history or Western civilization. This, in turn, would enable them to incorporate relevant information into the courses they teach at their home institutions.

Since 2001, the center has increasingly responded to the needs of its expanding programs through a series of fundraising activities. Thanks to a most generous gift from the Diane and Guilford Glazer Fund and to donations from many individuals, the center has a space of 3,000 square feet in a brand-new building at Nanjing University. In order to express its gratitude and appreciation, the Center was renamed The Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies following its dedication ceremony last November. Due to its great efforts the Institute is increasingly recognized as a leader in its field and as an important resource for information and guidance in China, serving not only locally but also nationally.

The advancement of Jewish studies in China is great, and the impact on Chinese academia is obvious and strong, but there is still a long way to go and much to be done. Chinese scholars need to deepen their study of, and research in, Jewish subjects. It is imperative that Chinese scholars upgrade their studies to meet international standards. How to continue to improve their scholarship in general is a challenge currently faced by Chinese scholars, as is how to make unique contributions to the scholarly study of Jewish subjects in particular.

Now, the institute is taking steps to meet the challenges by establishing both Master of Arts and doctoral programs of Jewish studies to train a new generation of Chinese Jewish scholars. In order to do so, it needs additional support from outside. You can help by engaging in one (or more) of the following:

  • Send books on Jewish history, religion, thought, people and traditions to enrich its library for research and teaching.
  • Provide scholarships for its M.A. or Ph.D. students.
  • Make donations to its lecture and publication fund.

The institute can be reached in the following ways:

Mailing Address:
Institute of Jewish Studies, Department of Religious Studies
Nanjing University, Nanjing, 210093, China

[email protected]

Xu Xin is a professor at Nanjing University, specializing in the history and sociology of Kaifeng Jewry.

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