The Jews Of China
Chinese scholar presents the little-known history of Far East diaspora.
ESTHER ALLWEISS TSCHIRHART
Special to the Jewish News
ith a world of subjects
to specialize in, why did
native Chinese scholar
Xu Xin become an
expert in Judaic studies?
Xin's attraction to Jewish studies
was sparked in 1988, when he stayed
with a "special Jewish family" in
They helped him realize that
"Judaism is one of the sources of
Western civilization." For China to
grow, he felt his countrymen should
know the history and culture of the
Jewish people, including their settle-
ment in the Chinese diaspora.
On Feb. 6, an attentive audience
nearly filling the spacious sanctuary of
Congregation Shaarey Zedek in
Southfield heard Xin speak on the
centuries-old history of Jews in China.
Xu Xin (pronounced "Shoo Shin")
is professor of Jewish cultural history
and director of the Center for Jewish
Studies at Nanjing University in the
People's Republic of China.
The author of The Jews of Kaifeng,
China: History, Culture and Religion
(KTAV, 2003), Xin estimates his
Jewish educational seminars have
reached "100 professors from 60 dif-
ferent colleges in 20 different
In May, he will receive an honorary
doctorate from Israel's Bar-Ilan
University, whose Midwest Friends
co-sponsored his Detroit appearance.
Other sponsors were Michigan's
Jewish Genealogical and Jewish histor-
ical societies, Greater Detroit Chapter
of Hadassah and B'nai B'rith Great
Lakes Region. Xin's friend, Betty
Starkman of Bloomfield Hills, the
genealogy group's founder, arranged
his local visit.
The Jewish presence in China most
likely began during the Tan Dynasty
(7-10th centuries C.E.), said Xin, who
also is editor in chief of the 1993
Chinese language edition of
Encyclopedia Judaica. Archaeological
evidence indicates that Jewish traders
made their way from Persia along the
famed Silk Road.
They lived meaningful Jewish lives
for hundreds of years in Kaifeng,
China — one of the few communities
with supporting documents. Granted
permission by the Chinese emperor to
settle in this internationally known
city, Xin said the original 17 families
in Kaifeng constructed their syna-
gogue in 1163..It was destroyed by
Chinese author and
Xu Xin signs
As a treat
for visitors, Temple Beth El displayed
its model of the Kaifeng Synagogue,
created by the late Aid Kushner, in
Shaarey Zedek's lobby.
Jews in China enjoyed tolerance and
prosperity. Chinese called them
"People Who Pluck the Sinews" (a ref-
erence to ritual slaughter) among
other names, Xin said. Kaifeng's Jews
peaked at 5,000 in the 17th century.
Chinese society, closed to outsiders
for 150 years, granted access to mis-
sionaries in the late 1600s. Xin said
Jesuits believed European rabbis had
changed the Torah text to delete refer-
ences predicting Christ. The missionar-
ies sought a Torah in China with these
passages to prove the truth of their
messiah, but no such Torah exists.
In time, intermarriage led to the
Jewish community's assimilation.
"The main rabbi in Taifeng died
without a successor in the mid-19th
century," Xin said. Torah scrolls and
other Hebrew manuscripts were sold.
Today, he said, some Chinese of
Jewish heritage register themselves
officially as Jews but don't compre-
More recently, 15,000 Ashkenazic
Jews fleeing pogroms settled in Harbin,
China, at the turn of last century. By
the late 1930s, another vibrant com-
munity of 30,000 Jews existed in
Shanghai — Sephardim from Baghdad,
Bombay and Hong Kong as well as
Russians and newly arriving refugees
from war-threatened Europe. Other
Jewish communities included Tianjin,
Hong Kong and Taiwan. .
Xin said Jewish studies languished
until the 1970s, after the demise of
the Maoist Cultural Revolution.
Judaism now thrives in Shanghai and
Dan Levitsky of Bloomfield
Township found Xin's talk "interest-
ing" because his ancestors left Ukraine
for Harbin, China, in 1900. He
brought with him Russian-language
certificates for his grandparents' mar-
riage in China as well as his father's
and uncle's britot milah (ritual circum-
Another with Harbin roots is
Harvey Brode of Farmington Hills.
His father, Norman, was born there in
1905 and moved with the family 16
years later to join cousins in Detroit.
Brode said the lecture "put into per-
spective how Jews have lived for so
many years across China."