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Globalization, Translation and Transmission: Sino-Judaic Cultural Identity in Kaifeng, China

Moshe Y. Bernstein

Around the tenth century Jewish merchants from Central Asia arrived in Kaifeng. Welcomed by the Emperor, they integrated into China’s economy, society and culture. They intermarried with their hosts, following patrilocal custom with Chinese wives adopting their husbands’ Jewish traditions. In 1163 they built a synagogue, where the group, numbering 5,000 at its apex in the sixteenth century, continued to conduct Jewish rituals for seven centuries. Despite the loss of this building in 1849 by flooding, the families and clans of Jewish descent continued to recall their ancestral identity and preserved a few basic customs. In 1978 with the "opening-up" of China, foreign visitors to Kaifeng generated both a renewed interest in the group and a communal revival of its Jewish identification. This cultural revival has created both opportunities and risks, due largely to an ambivalent Chinese policy denying ethnic status to the Kaifeng Jews while allowing them limited cultural expression. This book explores how a small minority was able to transmit its blend of Sino-Judaic culture over the centuries and how their descendants are striving to revitalise that cultural heritage today.

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Appendix 2: Excerpt from The Chinese Repository (1835)


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Appendix 2: Report from an 1835 edition of the Catholic publication The Chinese Repository* citing Père Charles le Gobien’s Lettres édifiantes (1707)

From Welch, Ian Hamilton. 2013. “In the Forest of the Light:” Christians and Jews in nineteenth century China. Australian National University Open Access Research. 11–13.

The Romish missionaries, soon after they entered this country, found a synagogue of Jews in some of the northern provinces. “Father Ricci who made this discovery,” says a writer in the Asiatic Journal, “was not able to draw from it those advantages which he had desired. Confined to the city of Peking, by the duties of his mission, he could not undertake a journey to Kaefung foo, the capital of Honan, which is distant therefrom about two hundred leagues. He contented himself with interrogating a young Jew of this synagogue, whom he met at Peking. He learned from him, that at Kaefung foo there were ten or twelve families of Israelites; that they had come thither to rear again their synagogue; and that they had preserved, with the greatest care, for five or six hundred years, a very ancient copy of the Pentateuch. Father Ricci immediately showed him a Hebrew Bible. The young Jew recognised the character, but could not read it, because he had devoted himself solely to the study of Chinese books, from the time that he aspired to the degree of a scholar. The weighty occupations...

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