Jewish studies flourish in China

The last quarter century has witnessed a veritable explosion in the academic field of Jewish studies. During that time, Israel solidified its place as the global center in the field, while in the United States virtually every university and college of note has established its own program, center or chair.
August 15, 2012

The last quarter century has witnessed a veritable explosion in the academic field of Jewish studies. During that time, Israel solidified its place as the global center in the field, while in the United States virtually every university and college of note has established its own program, center or chair. In these two venues, the growth of Jewish studies has been closely linked to the presence of Jews, though in the United States an increasing number of non-Jews have entered the field. In other parts of the world where the field of Jewish studies has been expanding, such as Germany, the field is populated almost exclusively by non-Jews. 

Surely one of the most interesting sites of the new Jewish studies — and one of the most promising in terms of growth — is China.  

Jewish studies in China? Yes, there is a burgeoning Jewish studies presence in the most populous country in the world. The most established program in the country is based at Nanjing University, and it is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The founding director, professor Xu Xin, followed his banishment to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution by undertaking graduate studies in English language and American literature. While engaged in his studies in the late 1970s, he discovered the riches of American Jewish literature, particularly the work of Saul Bellow — and from there developed a wider interest in Jewish studies. Xu Xin has been at the forefront of the growth of Jewish studies in China, raising several generations of students who now direct Jewish studies programs at other Chinese universities. He is a dynamic, passionate and worldly man whose savoir-faire persuaded Los Angeles Jewish philanthropists Diane and Guilford Glazer to endow his program.

[Related: The Jews of Kaifeng]

It was the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies (en.judaic.cn) that invited me to Nanjing to teach a concentrated seminar for its graduate students. I had very little idea of what to expect from my academic experience there before arriving. I asked Xu Xin if it would be possible to visit Kaifeng, and he answered affirmatively. When I arrived in Nanjing, he told me we would be going to Kaifeng later that day and that I’d be giving three lectures there. Little did I know that the lectures would be at a conference on Holocaust studies and Jewish history held at Kaifeng’s Henan University! And not just that, but a conference held at a relatively unknown, regional university of more than 40,000 students, housed on a new campus graced by scores of new, architecturally designed buildings. This calls to mind one of the most striking impressions during my time in China: the frenetic pace of building. There is building everywhere, suggesting not only the rapid growth of the country, but also massive investment by the government in infrastructure and higher education, in stark juxtaposition to the defunding of both in our own country.

Meanwhile, I was stunned to enter the lecture hall in Henan University to see nearly 75 master’s and doctoral candidates in Jewish studies, all of whom were Chinese. Assembling that number of graduate students in Jewish studies in the United States would be nearly impossible. How much more unlikely in China! But the students were eager, curious and attentive. About half of the lectures were given in Chinese by local professors and graduate students, and the other half were given in English by conference organizer Jerry Gotel, a London-based American and patron of Jewish studies in China; Glenn Timmermans, an Anglo-Jewish scholar of English literature and the Holocaust who teaches at the University of Macau; and me. The students whom I met all read English and had a good passive command of spoken English, though they varied considerably in their ability to speak.

Why, one might ask, do these students devote many years of their lives to studying Jewish history? As a number of them told me, they sense an affinity between their people and the Jews. Both peoples possess a noble ancient history, have large dispersions outside their homeland and are marked by an entrepreneurial spirit. Perhaps most centrally, for both, education is an almost sacred pursuit. In fact, one of the most winning features of the Chinese students is their unabashed reverence for the teacher. The Confucian ideal, parallel to the Jewish precept of “kevod ha-moreh,” is alive and well today. Unlike the consumerist approach to education in the United States, where students demand attractively presented products from their teachers, students in China feel happy to receive the pearls of wisdom that issue from their teachers’ mouths. At times, this leads to a certain passivity in the classroom on the students’ part. But the overall effect, especially for a short-term visitor from America, is wondrous.

Following the Kaifeng conference, I had the privilege of teaching a group of 25 graduate students — again, a rather astonishing number — in an intensive seminar on modern Jewish thought at the Glazer Institute in Nanjing. We spent three hours a day exploring thinkers as diverse as Baruch Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, the Hatam Sofer, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Franz Rosenzweig and Hannah Arendt. We did close readings of primary sources together in class. This was a novel experience for most. Graduate students in Jewish studies in China write theses and dissertations on a vast range of subjects, from the Second Temple period to Maimonides’ philosophy to the Holocaust to contemporary Israeli society. But their research is based not on an analysis of archival sources in the original languages, which is the standard in the United States, but on a survey of recent secondary scholarship on a particular theme. In this sense, Chinese students are somewhat behind their American, Israeli and European counterparts. Nevertheless, they are quick learners and exceptionally hard workers. They will catch on soon.

Some already have. Lu Yanming is a postdoctoral fellow at Nanjing University who seems to know everything about Chinese history and virtually everything about modern European history as well. He understands the norms of scholarship in the West and is aiming to meet them in his current research on Jews who returned to Germany after World War II. Meng (Jeremiah) Zhenhua is a fine young professor of ancient Judaism at Nanjing, who has done extensive training in Israel and speaks Hebrew. As it happens, he is also the Communist party representative in the department of philosophy and religion, a curious reminder of the lingering presence of the old regime in new China. And Fu Cong just received her bachelor’s degree and is entering the master’s program in Jewish studies at Nanjing. She was one of the most perceptive, sophisticated and confident of all the students in the seminar, and represents the newest generation who can be expected to do outstanding work in the field, most likely in her case by continuing her graduate studies in the United States.

Encountering these students made clear how remarkable and worthy an enterprise Jewish studies in China is. It’s important for China, it’s important for the field — and, it almost goes without saying, it’s important for Jews that the Chinese develop an informed understanding of their past and present in the 21st century.

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