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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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Chapter Four: Deconstructing the Kaifeng Construction Office and the reconstruction of culture


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CHAPTER FOURDeconstructing the Kaifeng Construction Office and the reconstruction of culture

The second part of this thesis examines the revival and transmission of Sino-Judaic cultural identity beginning with Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 policy of “Reform and Openness”. In the remaining decades of the twentieth century, the effects of this policy would catapult China into the ranks of the world’s economic powers. (Nederveen Pieterse’s 21C globalization, a periodization that not only refers to increased technological, informational and cultural interconnectedness but also to the ascendancy of China as a major international player, is a reflection of these effects.) Domestically, “Reform and Openness” also represented a shift from the Maoist period in which traditional cultures were viewed through the prism of “class analysis” and exemplars of tangible culture deemed to be “backward” or “feudal” were destroyed. It brought about a turnaround in which “the direct attacks on material culture cease and the prohibitions against many forms of non-material culture are lifted” (Sigley 2015, 5). This new approach and its implications were reflected in a speech delivered by Deng on October 15, 1979:

The policy of religious freedom has been in practice since 1949 […] In China, the policy of religious freedom is related to our policy to ethnic minorities, who usually have the most problems in religious affairs. Therefore, the policy of religious freedom must be implemented if we want to carry out a right policy to our ethnic minorities.

Because it had already rejected...

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