In Search of Jewish Heritage in China: A Visit with Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion to Kaifeng

  • fiLi
Posted: Sat, 11/10/2007 - 09:26

In Search of Jewish Heritage in China:

A Visit with Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion to Kaifeng

April 14-16, 2007

Da Hsuan Feng

The University of Texas at Dallas

Nearly twenty years ago, my good friend Professor Joseph Birman of City University of New York, a prominent theoretical physicist, mentioned to me in passing that “there is a Jewish legacy” in a city called Kaifeng (?封), which is in Henan Province (河南 ) of China.  Having never heard of it throughout my life until then, I thought he was kidding. His comment prompted me to find out more about this unusual legacy (to say the least) and to my surprise, it was indeed true.  However, since I have had no connection to Kaifeng, nor to Henan Province, throughout my 102 trips to China, I never thought of visiting the city.

The opportunity came when the following two serendipity occurrences happen all at once.

First, I was invited to be the Vice Chairman of the Britton Chance Center for Biomedical Photonics of Huazhong University of Science and Technology at Wuhan. Wuhan is the Provincial Capitol of Hubei Province, a province which is directly south of Henan Province, and is 400 miles south of Keifang. It was planned since the fall of 2006 that on April 12 and 13 of 2007, the Board will hold its meeting in Wuhan. The proximity from Keifeng to Wuhan spurred my interest in trying to visit the city.

Second, what really tip me over was one of the Board members is Professor Aaron Ciechanover, who is not only 2004 Nobel laureate in chemistry, but in this context it is more important that he is professor from Technion, Israel Institute of Technology.  Aaron is a man who profoundly holds his Jewishness.  Apparently he, like me, has heard about the Kaifeng legacy.  This legacy is just too much for him not to explore more about it.  Thus in trying to set up his trip to Wuhan, he informed me and Professor Qingming Luo, the Director of Britton Chance Center, that despite his unbelievably stressed schedule, he absolutely wanted to spend a few days in Kaifeng in order to explore this Jewish legacy.

Qingming, who is almost a “magician” when comes to organizational ability, was able to assist us to connect with the leadership of Henan University in Kaifeng. Thus, our visit to Kaifeng was officially hosted by Henan University, one of the best comprehensive universities with 40,000 students in Henan Province.  Qingming even asked two of his most able assistances, Hua Shi and Dawson Han to accompany us to Kaifeng.  In fact, Dawson went to Kaifeng two days earlier to make sure that all the logistics be organized perfectly, and indeed it was perfect.

There is another important component in our visit to Kaifeng and that is Professor Xu Xin (徐新), of Nanjing University.  Since March of 2004, when I became an Honorary Trustee of Nanjing University, I became very sensitive to the information coming out of that university. About 3 months ago, when I realized that we were about to go to Kaifeng, I recalled vaguely about a year ago one of Nanjing University’s (南京大?) faculty members received an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University in Israel. While I was fascinated by that information then, I did not act on it. Now I was and did. Thus, by Googling “Nanjing, Bar Ilan University,” I immediately was able to learn that that individual is Xu Xin, a distinguished professor and director of the Institute of Judaic Studies of Nanjing University.  In the past 18 years, Xu became unquestionably a top authority if Judaic studies in China. His extensive visits to United States have made him many friends, and many of them are truly prominent Jewish leaders, such as Diana and Guilford Glazers of Los Angeles.  In fact the institute in Nanjing is named after the Glazer’s. What is even more interesting is that one of his former postdoctoral fellows in this “unusual” area of research in China  is Professor Zhang Qianhong (?倩?), who is Dean of the College of History and Culture of Henan University in Kaifeng, and herself now a distinguished researcher in Jewish culture in China.

According to Xu, there are now 11 Judaic Research Centers scattered in Chinese universities.

On April 14, Aaron, myself and Hua Shi arrived in Kaifeng after a 7 hour drive from Wuhan. We were met by Professor Xu Xin who took time out from a Conference he was attending in Beijing and came specifically to meet with Aaron and me, and also Dawson.

Thus the stage is set for the visit.

Jewish legacy

There is absolute certainty from historic relics that via the silk route Jews traveled arduously all the way from the holy land to China in the 10th century and settled in Kaifeng.  At that time, China was ruled by the all powerful Sung Dynasty, and the Capitol City was Kaifeng. It was a time where great commercial and technology were developed.  In fact, it was that time that gun power was invented and it was for the first time, paper money was used. Presumably because of the great commercial activities, and Jews were truly outstanding entrepreneurs, that they found Kaifeng most liking to them and thus stayed.

Not only did they stay, but they stayed for a very long time.  According to Xu, at the height, there were more then 5000 Jews living in Kaifeng.  There were synagogues and flourishing Jewish traditions and active cultural life in this city. What is most interesting is that despite of the fact that they had very different ways of life from local Chinese, there was no hint, according to Professor Xu, that there was the slightest sense of anti-Semitism in China. Chinese completely accepted the Jews, their ways of life and their culture. Thus, for 700 years, until Qing dynasty shut the door of China to the outside world, Jews from the middle-East continue to come to China, especially Kaifeng. Indeed, they flourished in China.

Unfortunately, since the close-door policy was instituted, number of Jews in China began to dwindle.  Coupled with the fact that great turmoil occurred in China in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Jewish community virtually disappeared from Kaifeng. Indeed, if one were to take a nonchalant visit to Kaifeng today, without expert guidances by Xu and Zhang, there is no way that one would know that deeply buried in this city, there was once a flourishing Jewish cultural life, community and heritage.

In fact, by now, there is at best only very thin evidence that Jews were here at all at one time. Aaron and I saw a little bit of that when on the evening when we arrived in Kaifeng, we were invited to dinner by a Zhao family (whom Dawson knew) who was one of the 10 or so families with direct Jewish lineage.  This family lives a Spartan life-style and is obvious that they are not well-to-do.  Yet, Aaron and I, especially Aaron, were so overwhelmed by their hospitality, and dinner consisted of 10 courses, with one of them akin to mazos.  This was simply because when they realized that Aaron came from the holy land.  Interestingly, it was not until when we were ready to depart that they found out Aaron was a Nobel laureate!  That apparently was less important to them then the fact that Aaron was a Jew.

By the way, it is interesting that this Jewish family has the family name Zhao.  This was because Sung Dynasty was ruled by the Zhao family (the first emperor of the Sung Dynasty was Zhao Kuan-Yin).  The Jews were allowed seven Chinese family names and one of the is Zhao!

Although nowadays the Zhao family does celebrate Jewish holidays, such as Passover, we suspect that they were taught more recently by Jews visiting them from the West in recent pass.  Still, their desire to identify themselves as “Jewish” was indeed palpable!

Henan University

As a Nobel laureate in chemistry, Henan University, our host, naturally did not let the opportunity slip by.  They organized a public lecture by Aaron.  Even though our visit was a Sunday, the lecture was attended by well over 500 enthusiastic students and faculty.  Aaron could be a rock concert star!

Still, I would say that the highlight of our visit was to the Jewish Research Center of Professor Zhang Qianhong. Both Aaron and I were impressed by the fact that there are 11 graduate students studying for the master degree.  As in most Chinese universities, these students were very shy.  When Aaron and I were taken to the library of the Center (which has only several thousand books about Judaism), this group of students, who were very interested in meeting Aaron, were quietly standing in the hallway hoping to get a glimpse of this great scientist.  Once I noticed them, I invited them in to meet with Aaron.  Aaron took the opportunity to ask each and everyone what they were working on.  One of them, for example, is working on the “displaced Jews after the holocaust!”   However, all were a little on the dismayed side because they do not have access to sufficient literature to carry out their research.  For this reason, one of them told us, with sparkle in her eyes, that she won a scholarship to go to “the Hebrew University” for 8 months in the Fall of 2007!

To say that the meeting with Aaron “made their day, or year” would be an understatement!

I took the opportunity to tell them that without knowing it, they could be an extremely important group of intellectuals in China in the 21st century.  This is because China and United States will be two of the most important nations in this century.  The influence of the Jewish community in the United States, albeit intellectually, economically or politically, is profound.  Therefore understanding the Jewish heritage could be exceedingly important for China in order to appreciate the mood of United States, directly or indirectly, as a nation.  Since this group of students, for whatever reason or reasons, have chosen to study in an area where few are doing so in China, their appreciation and understanding of the Jewish heritage can and will have profound impact in the relationship between China and the United States.

I could see they all lit up after my comment.

Our visit to Kaifeng was, as Aaron would say, “unbelievable and unforgettable!”

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