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Discovering the Jews of China

ct cover 12-2-11By Cindy Mindell

Biblical archeologist Prof. Richard Freund has dug up a lot of earth. From Bethsaida, Qumran, and other historic sites in Israel, to the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland, to the possible location of Atlantis-Tarshish, the director of the University of Hartford Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies uses traditional and cutting-edge techniques to discover past worlds. Now he hopes to turn his attention to the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng, China. Freund spoke with the Ledger about his recent visit to China, his findings so far, and his future plans along the southern banks of the Yellow River.

Prof. Richard Freund with two “descendants” of the Kaifeng jews.

Prof. Richard Freund
with two “descendants” of the Kaifeng jews.

Q: How did you develop an interest in the Jews of China?
A: I have been researching for most of my career the movement and artifacts of the Jews from Israel following the Bar Kokhba rebellion in the 2nd century CE – to the west in the direction of Spain and North Africa and to the east in Babylonia, Persia, and Afghanistan. A couple of years ago, a Chinese scholar contacted me with information regarding the movement of Jews in the 5th century CE to China. This was about 200 to 300 years earlier than what I knew from research. My source in China, who apparently had found articles on the Internet about our work, presented me with a series of documents and artifacts that started me thinking about a research project. That ultimately led me to visit the sites associated with the Jews of China and to follow up on some of the connections that had been forged for me from colleagues in the field.
In universities all over China today there are Jewish-studies departments populated with students and faculty who are non-Jewish ethnic Chinese interested in Jewish history and modern Israel. This appeared to be a great new frontier for the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies and the University of Hartford. The university also has recently created a “sister institution” in Shanghai and lectures were arranged for me in Beijing and Shanghai with students interested in the type of work we do at the Greenberg Center.
Coincidences played an important part in my deciding to visit China. Last January, while I was in Israel, it was announced that new Jewish documents had been recovered from caves in and around Afghanistan that resembled Jewish documents found in caves in western China by famed Jewish archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein more than a century ago. Jews had pioneered economic opportunities along what would later become the Silk Road in the first millennium and settled in China permanently. This is one of the great stories from Jewish history and it is a story that should be told in Judaic studies research and coursework.

The first Shanghai Jewish Film Festival in 2012 featured the premiere of an animated film about the friendships between ethnic Chines and Jewish refugees.

The first Shanghai Jewish Film Festival in 2012 featured the premiere of an
animated film about the friendships between ethnic Chines and Jewish refugees.

Q: Where did your travels take you?
A: I visited Beijing, Xi’an, the site of perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of China, the so-called “terra-cotta warriors,” and the ancient tomb of the emperor; Kaifeng; and Shanghai. My most profound encounters were with scholars, students, and ethnic Chinese who were intensely interested in Jewish history, even some who are searching for a new connection with Judaism that existed for more than 1,000 years in China.
Archaeology has always been a significant part of modern China and, since the 1980s, many religious institutions have been restored. There is even now a movement afoot to rediscover what might be left of abandoned Jewish areas and the famous synagogue of Kaifeng. The synagogue had been destroyed many times by flooding of the Yellow River and was rebuilt many times until the 19th century, when it was abandoned for the last time.

Q: Is there a modern-day Jewish community with connections to the ancient one?
A: The “descendants” of the Kaifeng Jews, some of whom still live in the area, are excited to have their heritage researched in a new way. The Greenberg Center’s geophysical mapping projects that have been carried out in Spain, Poland, and Israel were recognized by each of the groups I spoke with in China as a way of providing data about what remains of these institutions. I submitted a research proposal to work with Chinese archaeologists, who were all very interested; it is still in the approval process.
“Descendants” is in quotations because of the complex identity issues associated with the Jews of China and especially in Kaifeng.  One source I am working with traces his roots back 70 generations to the 5th century CE. Most of the descendants trace their roots back to the 15th century, as well as a group who trace their roots back to the last generations of an active community in the 19th century. It is complex because, on the one hand, you have people who are intensely interested in and venerate genealogy, and on the other, have been cut off from the main Jewish communities for the past 70 years without religious leadership. Intermarriage, no Jewish institutional life, education, etc. all contribute to the complexity. The people I met were still living near the original Kaifeng synagogue neighborhood, shared an interest in their roots, have had recent opportunities to study in Israel – but their identity is similar to descendants of the “Marranos” exiles from 1492 Spain in the New World. They maintain small remnants of traditions – for example, they tend not to eat pork, despite the Chinese veneration for pork in festive events, and know that they are different and do have a “unique” identity that is not Jewish period se but rather “descendants” of Jews.
What we know about the Kaifeng Jews is only one part of a long history of the Jews in China that I think extends from the 5th century CE until today. Now there are no synagogues as in the past, but there are Jewish and Israeli merchants and intellectuals who spend varying amounts of time living and working in China.
One of the most exciting moments in my trip was the Saturday-night opening of the first Shanghai Jewish Film Festival which premiered a new animated film. “A Jewish Girl in Shanghai” is the story of the friendships between ethnic Chinese and Jewish refugees in the city during the Holocaust. It is one of the most heart-warming episodes during the dark days of 1941 to1945, when Jews were saved through the brave actions of Chinese diplomats when China itself felt threatened by Japan. I met the Chinese writer, Wu Lin, who was fascinated by the real-life stories of people who lived through the period and went to Jerusalem to meet with the person upon whom the story is based.

The sign on the wall of the Kaifeng Jewish History Center

The sign on the wall of the Kaifeng Jewish History Center

Q: How does Chinese language reflect a Jewish presence in the country?
A: The contemporary word for Jews in use among modern Chinese is “Youtai” or the fuller version, “Youtairen,” an obvious borrowed word from the Hebrew, “Yehudah” (Judah). I have also seen how most do not distinguish fully between “Youtairen” and often use “Israel Yourtairen” to make the connection with the modern State of Israel. These are not the only terms used to describe the Jews. The Chinese have a few historical terms for the Jews and the Muslims that overlap. One of the major immigrations of Jewish merchants occurred when they continued from Afghanistan, where there were significant groups of Jews, across the Incense Route to China with early Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. Ethnic Chinese referred to the Muslims as “Daishi Jiao,” “the teaching of the Arabs;” the “Tianfang Jiao,” another reference to the area of Arabia where the merchants were coming from. The area in Central Asia where the Jews and Muslims settled became known as “Qingchen Jiao,” “a pure and true teaching.” This last term, “pure and true,” was a very meaningful designation for the Chinese and came to designate a common term for both a mosque and the synagogue, which, in China, look very similar architecturally to Buddhist and Taoist temples. In Kaifeng, standing stones [steles] dating to the 15th and 16th centuries associated with the local synagogue refer to the synagogue with the designation, “Pure and True,” the same designation used for mosques.
It is not a deeply profound faith statement but rather an attempt to present to ethnic Chinese a reference point for the group inside the building where the steles stood. It is possible that this was an attempt by the Jews to give an easy and positive presentation in the context of a much larger Muslim population which would have been more familiar to the ethnic Chinese.

Q: What do you hope to discover in your research?
A: “Stratigraphy” is the archeological term for the layering effect created by successive groups of inhabitants at a site. The archeological site has layers that are superimposed upon one another and yet form the web that links all of the layers from earliest to latest. There are multiple time periods and distinctive groups in the history of the Jews of China.  Among them are merchants who moved back and forth between China and the major communities of the Jews to the west in Persia and Babylonia along the ancient Incense Route; the permanent settlements of the Jews in Kaifeng and other cities along the Silk Road in the 11th and 12th centuries; and communities in Beijing and in port cities in medieval China. The pre-modern period brought Sephardic traders and merchants to Shanghai, and the tumultuous period of European Jews in the 20th century brought Jews from central and eastern Europe to China as a place of refuge.
There are now over two dozen Jewish studies programs at Chinese universities, including Henan University in Kaifeng; a number of Jewish and Israeli cooperative institutes; a museum collection on the synagogue in Kaifeng; and thanks to good 18th-century records, lots of information to help pin down mapping possibilities. But our project, which still needs government approval, is to determine if there is anything there to excavate. Twelve major riverine inundations is a lot but sedimentation and the conditions suggest that at least one of the many incarnations of the synagogue will be excavatable. It may be preserved under the hospital. After it is approved by the government, we will need to find my own team’s funding for our initial project to insure a level of scientific objectivity that just cannot be insured when the whole project is government-funded.

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

An 19th centiury illustration of the reading of the Torah.

An 19th centiury illustration of the reading of the Torah.

An 18th century rendering of the sanctuary of the Kaifeng synagogue

An 18th century rendering of the sanctuary of the Kaifeng synagogue

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