China Liberalizes and in Comes Isaac Bashevis Singer

When Xu Xin graduated from high school, he did the same thing millions of teens across the People’s Republic of China did: He joined the Red Guard. Xu, now 56, joined the paramilitary group and headed to the countryside to stir up fervor for the aging Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. “Everybody had to go with the flow,” Xu said of the days when Mao used bands of students to try to re-establish his fading authority over the country. “An individual can’t change the course.” During this period when so many suffered under a closed and insular system, Xu had no way of knowing that he would one day play a part in opening China to the outside world and, at the same time, bring a little Yiddishkeit to the Far East.

Xu spent several days recently as the scholar-in-residence at the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Judaic Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, discussing how he arrived at his field of study. His journey toward an understanding of Judaism started in typical communist fashion. When Xu graduated from Nanjing University in 1977, he was told that he would teach literature there. “At that time, a job was assigned to you, like it or not,” he said. Mao had died the year before, and Chinese society slowly began to reassess itself. It suddenly was permissible to criticize parts of Mao’s legacy. “We started to believe something was wrong with society, and started to look to other cultures as inspiration,” he explained.

He believes that by understanding Jewish ideas, Chinese society can come to value the individual, as well as the community. “In Judaism, individual life is important, not like Chinese culture. We emphasize the collective. You’re never supposed to say ‘me’; you’re only supposed to say, ‘I’m for other people.'” As intellectual freedom began to expand ever so slightly, Xu was offered the opportunity to choose any area of American literature he liked. And just as China’s relationship to the outside world was thawing, American Jewish authors were receiving international accolades. Saul Bellow had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976, and Isaac Bashevis Singer took home the prize two years later. “Bellow, [Bernard] Malamud, Singer – they create a world in their stories that is so alien to the Chinese,” said Xu. “We don’t have any of the cultural or religious background to understand it.”

So he boned up on Jewish life in 20th-century America and 19th-century Poland, and soon began to delve into Jewish religious texts to better understand Singer’s references. His involvement in Jewish culture deepened even further when he spent 1986 as a visiting professor at Chicago State University. During that time, he lived with a Jewish family and often attended weekly services. But his first visit to Israel in 1988 – four years before China established diplomatic relations with the Jewish state – cemented his fascination. “[That visit] was a total surprise. Whatever knowledge we have about Israel was either negative or superficial,” he recalled. “I saw the society; I talked directly with both Jews and Arabs. I heard their thoughts over the conflict, and started to have some concrete understanding of the country.” When Xu returned to China in 1989, he decided to dedicate himself to teaching Jewish religion, history and culture to the country’s students.

At that time, there were no full-time professors of Jewish studies. Today, there are 20 who are part of the China Judaic Studies Association, which Xu heads. The director of a Jewish studies master’s and doctoral program at Nanjing University, he is currently visiting a series of American universities to raise funds and collect books for his department. (He also hopes to hire a full-time Hebrew instructor.) While at Lehigh, he delivered a lecture to a packed room about the subject that has now become his specialty – the Chinese Jewish community of Kaifeng, which dates back to the 11th century. He told the audience that Jews may have lived in China as early as the talmudic period, adding that, though many Jewish communities have existed in China, the Kaifeng community is studied the most because of the large historical record that was left, including documents written in Judeo-Persian. Kaifeng Jewry more or less ceased to exist as a cohesive community around the turn of the 20th century. Assimilation and intermarriage, he said, finally proved the communities’ undoing. “They established a meaningful Jewish life,” said the professor. “If they hadn’t followed their traditions [for so long], we wouldn’t know anything about them.”

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