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