China Judaic Studies Association
Promoting Judaic Studies in China
Xu Xin's Trip Report
2004 - Second Trip to Great Britain
Reforging Chinese/British Links
with Second Trip to London
By Xu Xin,
In a wonderful reciprocal gesture resulting from a Jewish Heritage
Tour of China, Trudy Gold, Chief Executive of the London Jewish Cultural
Centre (LJCC), invited me to visit London and participate in a truly international
experience. In May, I had guided 55 highly interested British citizens
on a tour of Jewish Life in China, now, in July, I would participate in
a week-long cultural seminar on the "Jewish Experience."
The seminar aimed to provide the local Jewish community with various
topics including "Dimensions of Modern Jewish Identity," "Anti-Semitism,"
"Shoah," and "Israel," presented by an international field of scholars.
I was very impressed both by the quality of presentations and depth of
discussions. In addition to attending the seminar and listening, I gave
two lectures: "China and Jews" and "Israel through Chinese Eyes."
Though it was not my first time in Great Britain (My first
visit July, 1988, was exactly 16 years ago.), this trip was even more colorful,
eventful and enjoyable --- far beyond my expectations
• The British Library.
A wonderful and very pertinent exhibit -- THE SILK ROAD -- was
underway, presenting a colorful glimpse into lives through
the manuscripts, artifacts, paintings, and textiles which lay hidden in
the desert ruins until their discovery in the early 20th century.
Who could miss such an opportunity?
I had a long wished to visit the library as I missed it
during my first visit.
Historians of the Jewish Diaspora in China know that a famous
8th-century letter written in Hebrew script and found along the Silk Road
in the beginning of the 20th Century is in the Library's collection. This
document serves as one of strongest evidences proving that Judaism was
one of several religions from the ancient Near East which traveled thousands
of miles along the Silk Road into China. It is also considered as the earliest
example of a document of any length in New Persian. I was thrilled at the
opportunity to see the original.
When I got to the library, I was surprised and delighted to
be met by three experts, Susan Whitfield, Director of the International
Dunhuang Project and Curator of the exhibition, Ilana Tahan, Curator
of Hebrew Section, and Graham Hutt, Curator of Chinese Collections,
thanks to the arrangement made by my friend, Simon Olswang, a governor
of the Board of the Library.
Dr. Whitfield not only generously gave me a personal, summarized
introduction to the exhibition and pointed out some of most interesting
items displayed, but also kindly presented me with a copy of her book,
The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, especially prepared
for the exhibition, which gave much in depth information.
Not only did I see the original letter during the tour, but
I was also able to view a surviving Torah scroll from the ancient Kaifeng
Jewish community which had been collected by the Library.
According to its recorded history, the scroll was purchased in
Kaifeng by agents of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among
the Jews in 1851 and brought to London by the Society and presented to
the British Museum on December11, 1852. It is a complete set in an excellent
condition, and is actually ranked as the No. 2 scroll among the 13 scrolls
once owned by the community because it is marked with the Hebrew letter
bet on its back, according to Michael Pollak who had examined most
surviving scrolls from the Kaifeng Jewish community and wrote The
Torah Scrolls of the Chinese Jews (published by Southern Methodist
University in 1975). The Torah scroll has two rods, each with a pointed
knob at one end. The 94 parchments (skins) are bound together with silk
thread, a unique feature that distinguishes Torah scrolls made in Kaifeng
from those made elsewhere.
While I had hoped and expected to view the letter during my visit
to the library, I never thought that I would be able to view this Torah.
However, the scroll was pulled out of storage and laid on a viewing desk
before my arrival. Mrs. Tahan kindly told me a brief history and allowed
me to examine it. I felt very happy and privileged when I actually touched
and examined it. Mrs. Tahan also showed me some other Hebrew books printed
in Shanghai during World War II. Obviously all those books testify to the
historical links between the Chinese and Jewish peoples and the long history
of the presence of Judaism in China. Mr. Hutt showed me the scroll of Chinese
version of the Diamond Sutra (printed in 868), the earliest dated printed
document of the world and many other fine Chinese collections of his section.
What a satisfying, enjoyable visit!
• The Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.
This is the oldest synagogue in England and still in regular
use. Beautifully built with a distinguishing Sephardic style, it
opened in 1701. I was given a special personal tour and there that I met
a London celebrity, Aubrey Rose, who was giving a Jewish tour for a reporter
from Germany. I took some pictures and brought back a few post cards as
one of our Ph.D. candidates is doing his thesis on Jews in England at Nanjing
• Shabbat Service at New North London
As a Chinese scholar studying the history of Jewish Diaspora
in China, I felt grateful and privileged to attend, and even more so when
I was invited by the rabbi to speak in front of the congregation before
the end of the service. In a very short time, I explained the early ties
between the London Jews and China. History shows that Jews from London
are actually the first group of Jews who came to do business and live in
China around 1840, which marks the beginning of the history of Jewish Diaspora
in Modern China. Moreover, most of members who belonged to the early Jewish
communities established in Chinese cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai
around 1900 were subjects of Great Britain. It is such a link that makes
me feel so close to the London Jews.
Twenty Jewish children from Chernobyl also attended the service.
Later, I was told that the congregation brings in 20 children from surviving
families of Chernobyl disaster for two months each summer in order to give
them a chance to experience a Jewish life. With shining eyes, they sang
a very beautiful Jewish song together. It was quite touching.
• Hospitable British Hosts
During my stay I enjoyed enormous hospitality extended to me
by those who had visited China the previous May as they liberally opened
up their homes
Trudy Gold, who invited me and made all arrangements, told me
that she had to move me from home to home as so many wanted to have me.
As a result I was honored to move four times during my 12-day visit.
Marvelous hosts and hostesses included Haggit Inbar-Litta and Robert Litta,
Clive and Adrianne Marks, Simon and Susie Olswang, and David and Joyce
Many others visited or ate dinner or lunch with me. Thanks to
their hospitality, I enjoyed a great opportunity to taste Jewish English
life and to relax and broaden my experiences.
For instance, Haggit Inbar-Litta and Robert Litta gave me a great
tour of London on a beautiful Sunday. They walked with me for five hours
in downtown London.
Clive and Adrianne Marks took me to a finest restaurant for dinner
with Mrs. Gold.
Simon and Susie Olswang made special arrangements not only for
me to have dinner each night with their friends and also for me to
spend a weekend with their friends, Steven Nathan and Colleen Toomey, who
temporarily rented the Purston Manor, an estate originally owned
by Knight Frank and Rutley. It lies near Banbury, England, the most beautiful
place I have ever seen. It was my first time to live in such a manor and
enjoy the pleasant English countryside. Many of their friends arrived to
share the weekend. It was a great experience!
David and Joyce Kustow took me to see the play Democracy
by Michael Frayn at Wyndhams Theatre in London. Joyce also accompanied
me to visit Oxford University the day before my departure.
I was honored to meet a number of people fascinating people,
including Dame Jessica Rawson, Warden of Merton College, who
is an expert on Chinese art, Melanie Phillips, a well-known columnist
for The Daily Telegraph, and Stephen Feinberg, Director of National
Outreach Education of The United States Holocaust Museum. All provided
• English Judical System
I also had a chance visit the Haringey Magistrates court thanks to
Susie Olswang, who is a magistrate of the court. She explained the system
to me and showed me the court in action.
I left England, after several newspapers such as The Guardian
and The Jewish Chronicle interviewed me for potential future
articles, and filled with plans for future connections between the two
countries. During the visit, I had a chance to brief the LJCC on
our various Judaic Studies programs. Clive Marks, President of the LJCC,
pledged that the organization will do its best to help transfer funding
for our Jewish projects. Trudy Gold and Jerry Gotel, Director of Overseas
program of the LJCC held many discussions with me about a possible
seminar on Holocaust Education to be held in China in August 2005
with the support from the Task Force of the European Union on Holocaust
Studies. The LJCC is also planning to send another delegation to visit
China in 2005.
I cannot thank the people I met enough for their friendship and the
ways in which they made my visit most enjoyable. I would never have experienced
this overwhelming joy, had I not undertaken the field of Jewish studies
-- and it reinforced my firm belief that I truly made a right choice!