The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, Culture, and Religion, by Xu Xin

By Pollak, Michael | Shofar, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, Culture, and Religion, by Xu Xin


Pollak, Michael, Shofar


Jersey City, N.J.: KTAV Publishing House, 2003/193 pp. $29.50.

In the preface to this work, Xu Xin, Professor of the History of Jewish Culture at Nanjing University, asserts quite correctly that a great deal of what "has been written about the Jews of China is fantasy, much is polemic, and much is, at best, pseudo-history." What is puzzling, however, is that he promptly follows this statement with the claim that "little if any attention has been paid to charting the life of the Kaifeng community from a historical standpoint," and caps this with a sentence reading, "This study undertakes to fill the gap."

The problem here is that the publication in 1966 of the second edition of Bishop William Charles Whites 1942 Chinese Jews, together with the appearances in the first half of the 1970s of works by Hyman Kublin and Donald Daniel Leslie, sufficiently awakened the dormant interest in the history of the Jewish people of dynastic China to encourage the writing of at least two dozen additional books on the subject, as well as a hundred or two pertinent academic studies. Accordingly, Prof. Xu's complaint that there has been no more than a sketchy interest in investigating and writing "from a historical standpoint" about the way of life of the forty or more generations of Jews who made their homes in the Chinese Empire must be judged as greatly exaggerated. Although this large outpouring of print concerning the saga of these far-flung members of the Judaic Diaspora varies greatly in quality and reliability, I submit that much of it has already succeeded in attaining the goal that Prof. Xu aspires to in the writing of his book. In fact, the knowledgeable reader will quickly discover that Xu repeatedly cites and paraphrases portions of the texts in the existing literature as he compiles his own work on the subject.

This is not to say that Xu has failed to provide any worthwhile or innovative data and interpretations that have hitherto been unknown to other historians in the field of Sino-Judaica. A native of China, where he was reared and educated, he attained professorial rank as a specialist in English literature at a major Chinese university, and in time received several grants from various Jewish organizations that made it feasible for him to study Judaic history and thought in institutions of learning located in the United States and in Israel (where he also studied Hebrew at the Ulpan Akiva). He has, moreover, visited Kaifeng on numerous occasions, thereby enabling himself to earn the friendship and confidence of many of the descendants of the members of the city's old Jewish community. In 1997 he organized a seminar for Chinese academics that led to the introduction of courses in Jewish studies in several of the attendees' universities and provided a more realistic understanding and appreciation of Judaism's nature and development to the educated lay reader. He also found the time and energy to translate a single-volume abridgement of the Encyclopaedia Judaica into Chinese. This was published in China and was distributed to Chinese libraries, whose holdings of Judaic texts tend in almost all cases to be miniscule, and to academics and others who might find it of interest.

It is obvious, accordingly, that Xu Xin is eminently qualified to investigate the historical experience of the kehillah of Kaifeng, Given his extensive exposure to both the Chinese and Jewish aspects of the subject he was exploring, it is therefore discouraging to note that he appears to be unfamiliar with much of the relatively recent additions to the literature of Sino-Judaica, and that he is inadvertently guilty of making a series of errors of omission and commission in a work that is in many ways deserving of commendation. These errors, for the most part of minor significance, may understandably cause the reader to wonder how much confidence to place in those pages of the text containing materials that are entirely new to him. …

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