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From the Newsletter of the China Judaic Studies Association, Jan. 1997
Editor: Beverly Friend


Noted Scholar,
First Winner of the Friend Memorial Award (in 1992),
Dies in Kaifeng


A Tribute by Wendy Abraham, Stanford University

With deep sadness, I report news of the passing of Wang Yisha, retired curator of the Kaifeng Municipal Museum and indefatigable researcher of the Chinese Jewish descendants in Kaifeng for over a quarter century. Prior to his succumbing to cancer on December 2, 1996, I had the honor of corresponding with him for over a decade, even though I met him only once, in August 1985, through the introduction of the Chinese Jewish descendant Shi Zhongyu.

This is as much a testimony to Shi and the entire older generation of Chinese Jewish descendants, as it is about Wang himself, for through his persistent efforts to research and record their histories, he left the most accurate records and detailed information of them in the 20th Century since Canadian Bishop William Charles White who lived with them for 25 years in the early part of this century and whose book, Chinese Jews, published in 1942, was the first major work on the subject. Preceding my meeting with Wang, I had spend each day in Kaifeng speaking with as many Chinese Jewish descendants as I could find and recording their stories on tape for posterity.

The night before I met Wang, Shi had told me to come to his home early the next morning for a surprise. I had no idea he meant that I should return around 7 a.m., rather than the 10 a.m. I finally arrived. He took me outside and pointed to beautifully colored wreaths of flowers and ribbons hanging on the front door of his neighbor’s house. He asked if I knew what they were for, and I told him I assumed was for a wedding or some other happy occasion. He let out a peal of laughter and quickly brought me up to snuff about the funeral practice of laying gaily colored wreathes outside the home of the deceased.

Unfortunately, I had missed the entire 7 a.m. funeral procession Then came the real surprise. He grabbed his daughter’s bicycle, nervously inquired over his shoulder if I knew how to ride, hopped on his own, and led the way to some predetermined mystery location. It was truly the most memorable day of my life, being given a grand tour of the city by one of the few remaining descendants who could still recall Jewish ceremonies, even if they were mixed with Chinese ones by the early 1900’s.

Finally, we arrived at a concrete apartment building. Shi said I would now be meeting a man who was working with him on researching his ancestors, the respected scholar, Wang Yisha. We were ushered into a inner room by a female family member.

I knew immediately it was the dwelling of a scholar. Books aligned all four walls, papers were strewn on the simple desk, little else was in the room save a few hard chairs and a sofa. Wang spoke of his extreme interest in the genealogies of the Chinese Jews and in particular in translating White’s book so that the Chinese could have access to it.

Three years later, after mailing him one of the few copies left of Chinese Jews, he told me in a letter about the book he had written: Annals of the Chinese Jews, written in three volumes, as White’s book had originally been. One of these was called Objections to White’s Chinese Jews, and he took great pains to mention he had found 123 particular errors or misleading statements in White’s book. Indeed, in one of my own conversations with Shi, unrelated to our visit to Wang, Shi mentioned the event billed by White as a reunion of many members of the Seven Surnames, Eight Families, as the Chinese Jews have been known, only with different emphasis that that of a reunion. Shi said of the May 1919 event: “I heard my aunt talk of it. At that time she spoke of Westerners. These old Westerners invited my aunt, my father’s brother’s wife and my older sister [to eat}. This White complied a book. If I remember correctly on the left side of page 130...was a photo of a kind of long bench. On the left side were three men. On the right side were three women....You will see my aunt, my father’s brother’s wife and my older sister. “While they were eating, at that time she heard it was a conference of Jews [in other words, perhaps none of them knew beforehand the purpose of the meeting]....When they went, the synagogue was no longer a building. It was just a piece of land. There was no longer any structure on the earth, but it still had Jewish relics. Zhau Pingyu’s second uncle sold these things. Even though he sold them, he didn’t dare use the money he got for himself so he invited Shi, Li, Gao, Ai, Jin and Zhang, all the older ones, to sign their names. After he asked them to sign their names to this agreement, this Westerner said that the Jews sold it to him”

“Did these others agree to it in the end?” I asked. “I heard that probably they had no money so this Westerner invited them to eat [to get them to agree].” All of the above parts of my own taped conversation with Shi lend credence to the possibility that all was not as White had recorded. Surely Wang uncovered discrepancies in his own interviews. He simply wanted to set the record straight, from the point of view of the Chinese themselves.

In a May 9, 1988 letter, he wrote, “Your letter said you possess in America a Chinese Hebrew genealogy of the seven surnames, handwritten, and want to send a copy. This news is too good to be true. According to what I now know, the ancient Chinese Jews altogether had 10 or 11 works....In order for me systematically, completely and sequentially study the history of the Chinese Jews, it is necessary for me to study the history of the seven families, so I must therefore study the handwritten genealogy”

The Sino-Judaic Institute later was able to send a copy of this to him. In 1992, a paper submitted by Wang to the Harvard conference on Jewish Diasporas in China was read by Professor Xu Xin, noting that Wang had been collecting oral histories for the past 20 years. Not until that time did anyone, including myself, realize the precious material he had quietly been gathering, combining his academic research with personal discussions with the Jewish descendants themselves.

I will never understand what possessed a man with no personal historical connection to the Jewish people to devote the better part of his life to a study and careful recording of details of their daily lives lived in the latter part of the 20th Century. In his last letter to me, just a month before he died, he was eager to know how the translation of his book was coming, and asked that I write the Preface to it.

When this project is complete, I will be sure to mention that only through Wang’s dedicated work do we have in our possession the most valuable and credible information about the Chinese Jewish descendants in the 20th Century ever before gathered. With his death, truly comes the end of an era, as most of the other older generation descendants have passed on as well since my meeting with them in the 1980’s. Through Wang’ Yisha’s works, though, both he and they live on. 

Editor’s Note: My Memory of Wang Yisha:

It was nearly 11 p.m. when the phone rang, and I was almost ready for bed after a grueling day of travel. The plane had been late, as usual in China, and we had spent many hours in the airport before boarding the flight from Beijing to Kaifeng. It was time to rest.

The voice on the other end was my friend, colleague, and national guide while in China, Professor Xu Xin. “Bev,” he said. “Can you come downstairs. Wang Yisha is here to meet you. He has been coming back and forth to the hotel all day on his bicycle waiting for your arrival and now has made a special trip to see you.”

I jumped into my clothes, eager to meet the Emeritus Director of the Kaifeng Museum who had spent 20 years gathering information for the first Chinese publication on the subject: The Spring and Autumn of the Kaifeng Jews, and equally eager to meet the first recipient of the award named for my late husband. I dashed downstairs to the lobby where Wang and Xu were waiting.

After the first words of welcome and greeting, they said they had bad news. The Kaifeng Museum had been robbed four months earlier, and because of that the museum was now boarded up, closed to the public. We would not be able to enter and see the most important Jewish artifact—a stele which documents the history of the Jews of Kaifeng with inscriptions on from 1489 relating the history of the Kaifeng Jews from the time of Abraham the Patriarch, and from 1512 describing Jewish customs. Tears came to my eyes.

We had traveled so far. Xu and I were leading a group of 10 Americans who had come to China specifically to visit Jewish historical sites. We would be in Kaifeng only two days and would never in our lives make this trip again. Couldn’t something be done?

And it was done!

Wang spent the entire night on the phone, pulling strings, calling in favors, using what we call “clout” in this country (and they term “Guanxi” in Chinese). We would be allowed to enter through the back door of the museum —its only visitors—allowed to climb to the 4th floor and view the room stele. Our trip would not be in vain. This visit to the museum was one highlights of our short stay in Kaifeng. We will forever be grateful for Wang’s diligence and kindness in arranging it. ---Beverly Friend