Chinese scholar Xu Xin didn't set out to become one of his nation's leading experts on Judaism and Jewish culture.
But one thing led to another, said the 50-year-old professor, a visiting academic at Florida Community College at Jacksonville.
In the late 1970s, he made a fortuitous decision to translate the works of American Nobel laureate Saul Bellow into Chinese.
Then came an encouraging encounter with a visiting American scholar, who turned out to be Jewish.
Still later, Xu's work received a boost from the thaw in Sino-Israeli relations, a diplomatic freeze that ended in the late 1980s.
One "cannot overestimate his importance" in bringing knowledge of Jews, Judaism and Jewish history to China, said Beverly Oberfeld Friend, executive director of the China Judaic Studies Association.
Xu began the first course on American Jewish authors at a Chinese university, published the first Chinese anthology of Israeli authors and created the major Chinese-language reference work on Jews and Judaism, she said.
Reflecting on his career, Xu (pronounced Zh-oo) and those who know him still express a measure of real surprise.
But more than good fortune produced Xu's success, said Friend.
Xu is absolutely focused, highly productive and insatiable in his thirst for knowledge, said Friend.
Xu puts it more modestly: "I never thought I would jump into the broader study of Jewish culture, but when you start something, your interest grows."
Though Jewish history and culture may seem unrelated to Chinese civilization, for Xu, the parallels exist.
The Chinese, like the Jews, find themselves grappling with the difficulty of retaining tradition in the face of the often inhospitable incentives of the modern world, he said.
The Jewish experience, born of exile, provides lessons.
"My generation went through much," said Xu, a former member of the Red Guard during the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution. "What I have been doing is for the Chinese. . . . What the Jews have achieved can be used for Chinese revival and survival."
Xu started his work in the late 1970s, a time of new-found openness to Western culture that sprang up in China in the years following Mao Tse-tung's death.
Until then, Communist authorities ruled post-war American fiction offlimits, Xu said.
Once they lifted their ban, a generation of English-fluent translators, like Xu, dug into what was then an unexplored literary terrain, he said.
Anxious to make a good start, Xu, who is affiliated with Nanjing University, began with the work of Saul Bellow, the American who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Xu quickly discovered Bellow's writings belonged to a body of work by American Jewish authors, such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller and Isaac Bashevis Singer, he said.
To better grasp this work, Xu found himself pushed to bone up on the Jewish religious and cultural world from which these authors came. …