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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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First and foremost, I would like to acknowledge the assistance, support and inspiration offered by supervisors, Professors Gary Sigley and Debra McDougall. Not unlike the complementarity of yang and yin, the contrasting approaches of both of these mentors mirror the theory of paradox—critical holism—upon which this dissertation is grounded.

When I first met Gary in 2010 in his capacity as supervisor for my Honours thesis, I had proposed as my topic the contradiction between didacticism and debauchery prevalent in the Late-Ming erotic novellas. Citing practical and logistical reasons, Gary succeeded in dissuading me from this topic. When later during that conversation I incidentally touched on the subject of the Kaifeng Jews, he was duly intrigued. Having conducted considerable fieldwork in Yunnan Province with its high level of ethnic diversity, he was familiar with many of China’s minorities yet had never heard of the Kaifeng Jews. His initial encouragement to pursue Sino-Judaic identity as a focus of my research, his comprehensive knowledge of Chinese politics and his suggestions of sources which contextualised a potentially narrow topic within broader issues of historical and contemporary China have all augmented this dissertation with greater scope and depth. Additionally, Gary’s elegant tea ceremonies during our meetings in his office functioned as a meditative palliative to the tensions often associated with the dissertation process.

Because she is not a China specialist, Debra was initially somewhat hesitant to accept the position as supervisor. I count myself very fortunate that...

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