Several years ago in 1991 I traveled to China and I prayed while touring at the Great Wall outside Beijing.
But that was a sidelight to my China trip. The real purpose of my travel to Beijing was to lecture at the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and conduct other academic meetings throughout China. In Beijing I spoke to the group of fourteen Chinese academics for ninety minutes through a translator. Few of the scholars there spoke much English. I described in some detail my research on the development of Jewish prayer in the time of the Mishnah and Talmud.
Jews: on the Chinese Minds
Who would think that Chinese professors would be interested in Judaism? Professor Kong Fan, director of the Institute, my host, is a specialist in Confucianism. He is also a seventy-fourth generation descendant of that venerable teacher and happy to hear of my admiration for the teachings of Confucius. Professor Zhuo Xinping, deputy director of the Institute and specialist in Christian Studies and Dai Kangshang, specialist in Islamic Studies, and several other scholars and graduate students contributed to the discussion in this seminar.
Interest in the Jews and Judaism in China had skyrocketed in the few years before my trip. I visited China to establish academic contacts and to foster exchange with scholars engaged in Jewish Studies in Shanghai, Beijing and Nanjing.
Shanghaid by the Scholars
In Shanghai I met with a group of academics at the Shanghai Judaic Studies Association, part of the Chinese Institute for Peace and Development Studies, Institute for World History, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. I spoke to them about my research on Judaism in antiquity and engaged them in a lengthy discussion of their respective interests in Jewish Studies.
Professor Pan Guang -- director of the Center -- does research into the Jews of Shanghai during the Second World War. That has taken him to archives in New York, Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He spoke to me about a recent revision of Chinese views on Zionism. He said Zionism was earlier thought to be a tool of British and Western interests. Now after the upheaval and reevaluations following the cultural revolution, Zionism is accepted by many in China as a legitimate form of Jewish nationalism. The Chinese like to see the Israelis take an independent position toward the West, especially toward the U.S., Guang argued.
I also met Professor Gong Fang Zhen of the Institute of Religions, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Fudan University. He does research on the Jews who were merchants in the silk trade of the ninth century and has done comparative studies of Judaism, Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism. He has studied Syriac inscriptions in Xian from the Tang dynasty in the Nestorian monasteries and has done work on the Turkish tombstone inscriptions in Syriac script from Mongolia in the Yuan Dynasty of the twelfth to thirteenth centuries.
How the Jews Advanced Chinese Culture
Professor Xu Buzeng works on the Jewish refugee community in Shanghai. He said he was proud of how the city absorbed the refugee Jews during World War II. He spoke of the 18,000 Jewish musicians and artists, doctors and scientists, scholars and ordinary citizens who contributed to the cultural growth of Shanghai. He also pointed out that many of these refugees eventually emigrated to the United States and achieved prominence here.
Graduate students in the Academy study a variety of subjects. Yu Weidong spoke a fairly good Hebrew that he learned while studying in Beijing. He is working on the ideology of early Zionism. He later served as my guide and guided me in Hebrew through the sites that served formerly as the Synagogues, Jewish schools and community and cultural centers of the Jewish refugees during the 1940s.
Yu Jian-hua is another student studying different forms of Zionism. He was writing a book of brief biographies of great Jews throughout history.
In Beijing I met with Sidney Shapiro. He left his law career in New York and came to China in 1947. Now he is a Chinese citizen and a prominent writer in China. Mr. "Shaboli" received me warmly in his modest house. We spoke of the relations between Israel and China, of his book on the Jews of old China and of mutual friends in the U.S.
I also met Dr. Yoseph Shalhevet, the liaison officer of the Israel Academy of Sciences and the Humanities in Beijing, in his office at the Jianguo Hotel. He expressed optimism about the future of relations between Israel and China and discussed with me the various forms of exchange between the countries. Nevertheless he observed that improving contacts will be a difficult process since China had long supported the Palestinians. A year after I left, Israel established formal relations with China.
Encyclopedia Judaica in Chinese?
In Nanjing, the Southern Capital of China, I spent two days with Professor Xu Xin, president of the China Judaic Studies Association. He is head of the project that translated the Encyclopedia Judaica into Chinese. He is also a professor at Nanjing University and has published articles in Chinese journals on the fiction of Israeli writer S. Y. Agnon. Xu presented me with several technical and factual questions related to the Encyclopedia project. I helped him solve most of them.
Through the initiative of individuals like Pan Guang and Xu Xin, China is developing more of an official interest in Judaic Studies. This of course is part of the slow and complex process of that country moving closer to a more democratic environment, and opening more to the West. [reposted from 2/07]