Uncovering “Jewish” China: Historic Memories and Emerging New Realities

Windmueller_ChinaBy Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Certainly there have been periods within China’s rich and varied history where Jews have lived and thrived in this society, whether one speaks about the historic Jewish community of Kaifeng or the presence of an important community of Jews in Harbin.

The Jews of Shanghai who would arrive in the 19th Century would be instrumental in the development of that city. During the Nazi era, Shanghai would open its doors to European refugees providing them a safe haven.

The Chinese take great pride in referencing the presence and contributions of Jews to their society and culture for over 1000 years. Their curiosity about the role and place of Jews in Western Civilization has propelled this modern society to continue its inquiry into the exploration of Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people. For many in China, Jews reflect the other great ancient civilization, sparking a unique and particular interest in the study of Jewish culture and history. Some of their perceptions and understandings of Jews are unfortunately reflective of particular stereotypes and negative historical images, requiring such outreach and exposure.

The China-Israel connection, which deserves more serious consideration than one can offer here, represents in some measure the current expression of this nation’s engagement with the Jewish story. But even more telling has been the growth of Jewish and Israeli studies centers at China’s leading universities. Today, ten such institutes of Jewish studies are educating China’s next generation of leaders about the contributions, traditions, and importance of Judaism to the world.

Systematically, the Chinese academic community is expanding its arena of Jewish learning opportunities. Academics, some trained in Israel, Europe, and the United States, are heading these graduate programs. Today, these educational centers are fostering serious research in a wide range of disciplines, covering ancient texts to modern Jewish history. Their publications record is both impressive and extensive. A number of Chinese scholars are also contributing to Jewish intellectual publications abroad, serving as visiting faculty in prominent institutions across the Jewish world, and possibly more important, sending their students to study at such centers of learning as Brandeis, Harvard, and Penn within the United States and to such premier research universities as Hebrew, Bar Ilan, and Tel Aviv in Israel. In recent years, an impressive group of Israeli, European, and American Jewish scholars have been invited to teach in China at these various centers of Jewish study. Nanjing University has probably taken the institutional lead under the auspices of the Diane and Guilford Glazer Center of Jewish and Israel Studies, which was formerly initiated in 2002, to effectively raise significant support in promoting such intellectual pursuits. Possibly no other academic figure in China has been responsible for pioneering these vital educational initiatives than has Nanjing University Professor Xu Xin, who first launched the Jewish studies classes in 1989, the same year as the founding of the China Jewish Studies Association.

It was therefore not surprising to meet with Ph.D. and M.A. students at such premier universities as Nanjing, Shandong, and Henan, all of whom are pursuing Jewish studies in an array of different areas of concentration. Many of these graduate students had either already returned from semester abroad programs in Israel or the United States, with others set to travel to these destinations over the course of their academic training programs. The research focus of these students encompass such topics as a comparative analysis of Biblical ideas with Chinese Confucius principles; the contrasts between early Zionist ideology and modern Chinese political thinking; and a study of the role and importance of Jewish women in the Biblical period. Other initiatives include a study of contemporary anti-Semitism, an examination of various American Jewish organizations, and an analysis of the impact of the socialist roots of Zionism on Israeli society.

For those individuals involved in this field of study, such research opportunities afford them unique opportunities to interface with their academic counterparts across the Jewish world. These connections provide important and essential links to the outside world, frequently not available to most Chinese. Beyond the benefits of growing a knowledgeable cadre of scholars of Judaism, their exposure to the larger Jewish world affords them opportunities to extend their connections and relationships well beyond China.

Just as China is expanding its outreach efforts related to Jewish studies, many Jewish institutions within the West have discovered China as an important destination. Beyond synagogue and organizational tours coming on a regular basis to the Peoples Republic, various national agencies including the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations have identified China as an essential international partner for the Jewish people. For some time Israel has understood the strategic military and political importance of China, and over the past decade has expanded its trade and business connections ten fold. No doubt, as China’s role on the global scene continues to grow, it will accelerate its educational, cultural, and economic ties with both Israel and American Jewry.

As I complete a twelve-day visit to the Peoples Republic involving five public lectures at three of this nation’s premier universities, I have been privileged to meet with more than one hundred graduate students, share meals with key faculty members at each of my host campuses, and tour major historic and cultural sites, including a particularly moving visit to the museum memorializing the Nanjing Massacre, where the images of the Holocaust are strikingly present. Among the other impressive sites connected with our visit was a personal tour of the home and sacred burial site of Confucius. Our hosts arranged for us to visit the beautiful and symbolic burial site of Dr. Sun Yet-sen, who was directly responsible for bring down the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and leading the way forward for China by ending 2000 years of feudal rule.

China’s past contains important Jewish elements that continue to interest and inspire its scholars and students. Tomorrow’s China will no doubt forge new links with the Jewish people, as this nation emerges as the world’s largest economy and as it positions itself to play a more significant role on the international scene.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles. See www.theWindreport for a list of other articles written by Dr. Windmueller.