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Book Reviews

Reprinted from the July, 1996 issue of the China/Judaic Connection, the newsletter of the China Judaic Studies Association. Editor: Beverly Friend


Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, by Xu Xin with Beverly Friend (KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 900 Jefferson St, Hoboken, NJ 07030 (201-963-9524), $20.

By Mark Krupnick, Professor at the Divinity School and in the English Department, University of Chicago.

Present-day Kaifeng, located near the Yellow River in Eastern Henan Province of Central China, is a city of some 600,000, according to my 1990 China guidebook. It is known for its fine silks and embroidery and among its historic sites is the Dong Da Mosque, a very active Muslim religious center. But in general Kaifeng will be a fairly low priority visit for most Western tourists, who are likely to want to see Nanjing, which is about 300 miles to the southeast, and Beijing 470 miles north.

But a thousand years ago Kaifeng was the greatest city of China and one of the beautiful and prosperous cities in the world. During that time of the Northern Song Dynasty(960-1127), 500 or so Jews came to Kaifeng. Unlike the Jewish traders, who had traveled back and forth on the famous Silk Road for centuries, these Jews were here in Kaifeng to stay. And so they did, maintaining a visible presence up to the 19th century.

These Jews have been the subject of historical research in China, Israel, and the West. But the documentation that scholars rely on has been slight. Archives and artifacts, including the synagogue, have been repeatedly lost in wars and flooding of the Yellow River. The Kaifeng Jews themselves, isolated as they were from Jews in the rest of the world and treated with great tolerance by their Chinese hosts, gradually lost contact with their own traditions and customs.That is not to say, however, that the story of China’s Jews has been lost. As Professor Xu Xin writes in his preface to Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, the Jewish past has remained alive in the stories that have been passed on from one generation to the next, even up to the present. For, as he says, the Jewish presence remains even today, in however attenuated a form. The lesson of this wonderful book is one of Jewish continuity and survival, of what Xu refers to as “the tenacity of tradition.”

The former curator of the Kaifeng Museum, Wang Yisha, collected some of these traditional tales in a book published in Chinese in 1993. Xu Xin has supplemented that collection with the work of other scholars and with his own interviews with living scions of the original Kaifeng Jews. His greatest contribution, however, has been his retelling of these stories in idiomatic English. He brings alive the Jewish patriarchs of Kaifeng in something of the spirit of the Hebrew Bible itself. In this task of writing and making vividly human his cast of characters, Xu Xin has been helped by Professor Beverly Friend.

These legends start with the great trek itself, thousands of miles from Bodrum on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast across the Gobi Desert to the fabled imperial city. From the beginning events occur as in fairy tale, or as if through divine intervention. When the Jewish wayfarers nearly drown in trying to cross a flooding river, they are saved by a Chinese merchant whose own life a doctor in their group had saved. The Emperor of the Song Dynasty is so moved by this story that he joins in marriage the doctor’s daughter and the Chinese merchant’s son.

The emperor’s gesture proves an augury of unprecedented Jewish good fortune. Driven from Turkey by the familiar diaspora experience of anti-Semitism, the Jews of Kaifeng learn that in China the greatest danger to their survival as a recognizably Jewish people is the tolerance and openness of Chinese society. They honor the emperor with tribute from the West, multicolored cotton cloth, which did not exist in China. In turn the emperor grants full rights of citizenship on his guests. He holds a huge imperial banquet in their honor and confers on the Jews seven surnames, one of which is his own, by which Jews might be recognized through the hundreds of years of their presence.

Their neighbors, we learn in another of these stories, have other names for the Jews. One is “The Sect that Plucks Out the Sinews,” based on the Jewish law that forbids eating the sinew of the nerve in the hollow of the animal’s thigh. That law, of course, derives from Jacob’s famous wrestle with the angel, who could not defeat him but left Jacob marked with a limp. Another name is “The Sect That Carries the Torah,” based on the Chinese observation that the Jews seemed always to carry their sacred scroll wherever they went.

Another legend suggests the Biblical story of wise Solomon. Gao Nian passes the imperial examinations and becomes a county magistrate. It is the 15th century, and the Jews have truly arrived. But Gao must deal with the case of a man he believes to have been wrongfully convicted of robbery and murder, and scheduled for imminent execution. When Gao frees the man, the people suspect that he has been paid off. So, to preserve his good name, Gao proceeds to discover the actual killers. But he has been so depressed by the corruption he has discovered in high places that he resigns as judge, whereupon in his absence from home his neighbors decorate his house with lanterns and festoons and honor him with sign over the front gate: “Hall of the Gao Who Highly Values Morality.” This isn’t the end. Gao returns to Kaifeng and becomes a brilliant physician renowned for his miracle cures.

The years of Gao’s renown, around 1400, and of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in general, are the high point of the Jewish presence in Kaifeng. From this point we hear more and more of Jewish men marrying Chinese women. Attendance at the synagogue falls off, as does the honoring of the Sabbath. The Jews of Kaifeng begin to have difficulty reading Hebrew, and the Jewish elders decide to erect monumental inscriptions, stelae, so that the history of their community will not die. These stelae, erected in the courtyard of the synagogue, have remained, even though the synagogue was washed down the Yellow River on several occasions of its flooding.

But Xu Xin has more good stories to tell, as of the comedy of errors in which a Kaifeng Jew meets the Jesuit missionary, Mattteo Ricci, and is quite sure that Ricci the monotheist must be a Jew like himself. It is Ricci who carries news of the Kaifeng Jews to the West, whereupon new missions start out with the aim, now, of converting these Jews to Christianity. Again, in a pattern familiar among acculturated Jews in the United States, the missions fail. The Jews are more and more integrated into Chinese society, in the civil service and the army, as well as more traditional Jewish occupations (banking and commerce), but they stop at conversion.

One of the nicest stories in this collection is the story of Yehuda, the manufacturer of textiles. Perhaps I like it so much because it reminds me of the bolts of cloth, for drapery and slipcovers, in my own father’s place of business where I was a sometime not-very-apt apprentice nearly a half-century ago. Yehuda is doing well enough weaving silk, satin, and brocade. But he dreams of building a big silk mill to increase his output. The problem is that he has no money. He dreams every night of 12 golden calves. He buys some land adjoining his current place of business and one day discovers a depression in the land where the 12 golden calves had disappeared in his dream. He puts his arm into that hollow and, lo and behold, comes up with 12 gold ingots. With that buried treasure he builds his big silk mill, where he produces cloth of surpassing beauty. When the emperor himself visits the mill and declares Yehuda’s “The Number One Silk Mill in the World,” Yehuda has become that magnifico that poor Jews of the shtetl dream of becoming in the Yiddish stories so much more familiar to us than these legends out of the East. Yehuda becomes a kind of Oriental Rothschild. His yellow brocade, according to this legend, is more valuable than gold itself.

Xu Xin winds up telling us that although there are no Yehudas in present-day Kaifeng, there are 500-1,000 persons who pride themselves on being descended from Kaifeng Jews. There are still Chinese with those seven magical names bestowed on Abrahams and Sarahs of a thousand years ago. These are lovely stories, well told, in a book beautifully produced by KTAV Publishing House, with attractive full-page illustrations by Mrs. Ting Cheng. We talk a lot these days about expanding “The canon.” Xu Xin and Beverly Friend have done just that.

Mark Krupnick's reviews and review essays have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The London Times, The Nation, The New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review.