Judaic Scholar in China
By Karen Primack

Why would a non-Jewish English teacher in the Peoples Republic of China study Hebrew and Yiddish and talmud, meet four presidents of Israel, establish a Jewish Studies program at Nanjing University, translate part of the Encyclopedia Judaica into Chinese, and author a book on the Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng?

Prof. Xu Xin's personal story is as fascinating as his lectures about Jews in China.

He modestly claims that he was in the right place at the right time -- when three events coincided. One: having taught himself English with a gramophone and records from the 1940s and '50s, he was able to get into a university and he became a teacher of English in China in 1977. Two: the Cultural Revolution was just ending in 1976, finally allowing the re-introduction of Western subjects, including literature, and the dissemination of "outside" news such as who wins Nobel Prizes. Three: the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to Saul Bellow in 1976 and Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978..

Up to that time, Xu explains, Chinese students in his generation had never learned anything about Judaism except the Bible; a Chinese encyclopedia described Hebrew as a dead language. But after excitedly reading Bellow and Singer -- and then Malamud, Roth, Salinger and others -- he decided to specialize in post-war Jewish American literature. And then he studied Judaism "to have a better understanding of these stories."

Another fortuitous event was the arrival in 1985 of an American professor to teach in Nanjing for a year. The professor was a Jew from Chicago. Xu and the professor became fast friends, and the following year he arranged for Xu to teach English composition at Chicago State University, where his students were 95 percent African-American.

During his two years there, Xu lived with a Reconstructionist Jewish family and "had much contact with Jewish culture." They celebrated all the holidays and he attended a bar mitzvah in Milwaukee. Realizing that Judaism is "one of the sources of Western civilization," Xu resolved to teach about Judaism in China.

In 1988, Xu spent 10 days in Israel -- prior to the time China and Israel had relations -- to speak at Hebrew University. He emphasizes that his trip was not a secret. The Jerusalem Post reported on his talk, and upon leaving Israel he insisted on having his passport stamped.

Back in China, his students wanted him "to talk about Israel." No fewer than 1000 students showed up at one of his lectures. Xu also added modern Hebrew literature (in English translation) to his course list; the course covered the works of Agnon and 50 other writers. He also translated many of these stories into Chinese. He found himself "the sole expert" on modern Hebrew literature in China!

In April of 1989, just two months before the Tienamin Square demonstration, Xu set up the China Judaic Studies Association. Although all exhibits and lectures had to receive prior government approval, Xu argued that the study of Judaism was a foundation for understanding Western civilization, and he was successful in organizing a major exhibit of Judaic Studies in China, as well as a program studying Yiddish writers of the 1920's.

The Association also organized a Holocaust exhibit in China, which attracted 80,000 visitors in seven weeks. The exhibit was covered by Chinese TV and press.

Realizing that there was no Judaic reference book available in Chinese, Xu decided to write a Chinese version of the Encyclopedia Judaica. He and a team of three labored for three years to produce a 1000-page, one-volume encyclopedia with 1600 selected entries. Although his salary in China is only $50 per month, he had to promise his publisher that he would come up with $10,000 to meet publication costs. He supplied a $1000 down payment from his American earnings and raised the additional $10,000 from "donors all over the world."

Xu's academic reputation has been widely recognized both in and outside China. He was invited to participate in a conference on whether China should establish relations with Israel. (He argued that China could play a role in the Mideast conflict; that recognition would improve China's image since Israel had influence in the US; and that ties would improve trade relations between the two countries.)

In 1992 he was invited to speak at a Harvard University conference. He returned to Israel in 1993-94, where he met three Israeli presidents and conferred with the Chinese ambassador to Israel. He was invited to do research at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati this year; he took time out over the summer to study Yiddish with YIVO at Columbia University. Currently he is a visiting scholar at Harvard. He will return to China in April.

Xu attributes Chinese students' interest in Judaism to the fact that both the Jews and the Chinese are ancient, continuous civilizations that have had an important impact on world civilization. And he attributes the lack of anti-Semitism in China to the fact that most Chinese do not have a religion.

He sees his university students as the future leaders of his country and feels it is "important to teach them about Judaism." He would like to give a seminar for professors who teach history so that the story of Jewish civilization can be incorporated into their courses.

A tireless advocate, Xu hopes one day to have a Chair of Judaic Studies so that he can teach about Judaism full time.

He has many plans -- his only limiting factor is funding. He is seeking "a few thousand dollars" to sponsor a Chinese student at Hebrew Union College; the college will waive the tuition, but living expenses are needed. He is also seeking $12,000 for research on the history Jews of Kaifeng. The knowledgeable museum curator emeritus there is getting on in years, and the families are dying out. His new book Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng makes a start, since legends can be an important source of history, but much more study is needed.

Xu will lead a tour of Jewish historical sites in China next April). In addition, he is organizing an international academic conference at Nanjing University in October 1996 on Jewish contributions in world civilization. The conference is being co-sponsored by Tel Aviv University and Hebrew Union College.

Xu has had to become an experienced fundraiser to support his projects. One of his favorite causes is seeking living expenses for Chinese students who want to pursue Judaic scholarship abroad. He notes that only 5 percent of the population has been to college, and that they are the ones who will have a "big voice" in world affairs. Students in China are curious about Jewish culture. He would like to facilitate their studies in the U.S.

Membership in the China Judaic Studies Association promotes this and other remarkable work by Xu Xin. To join and to receive a bi-annual newsletter, checks should be made out to Xu Xin and mailed to Beverly Friend, Ph.D., Oakton Community College, 1600 Golf Rd., Des Plaines, IL 60016.

Membership in the China Judaic Studies Association costs $20. A $35 contribution will pay for a copy of the Chinese version of the Encyclopedia Judaica to be sent to a Chinese university library in your name. A contribution of $5 will pay for a copy of Xu's Chinese-language booklet Anti-Semitism: How and Way to be sent to a university library in China.

To order a copy of Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng (in English) send a check for $20 to Dr. Friend, made payable to Xu Xin.