Chinese Judaics scholar bridges East and West

Chinese Judaics scholar bridges East and West

Nanjing University’s Xu Xin will lecture at local synagogues

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Prof. Xu Xin says “to understand Western civilization we have to understand Jewish culture.”
Prof. Xu Xin says “to understand Western civilization we have to understand Jewish culture.”

Xu Xin, the first professor of Judaic Studies in China, will give a presentation at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston on Thursday evening, Dec. 9, and will address the congregation of Bnai Keshet in Montclair on Shabbat afternoon, Dec. 11.

Both talks are part of a visit to North America that includes 16 states and Canada and will culminate in March in three weeks of research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Xu is researching anti-Semitism for a book on that subject geared for a Chinese audience, at the request of the Chinese goverment.

His speaking engagements also included one at Montclair State University on Dec. 7, and another in New Jersey, at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, on Dec 16.

Xu has almost single-handedly brought a revolution in Judaic studies to China since becoming interested in the field in the 1980s. Today he runs the Glazer Centre of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University. Dedicated in 2006, the center currently has 18 master’s and doctoral degree students enrolled, with a full-time faculty of three. Xu has already trained 10 PhDs who now teach Judaic studies at universities around China.

“Jewish studies has really come up since the late 1980s,” he told NJJN in a phone interview, and that emergence of interest that he leads is really the country’s second effort. “If we talk about the efforts to bring Jews and Judaism to academic attention,” Xu said, “we can see the first attempt at the beginning of the 20th century, but because of the Japanese invasion — and the Chinese had their own problems — it didn’t take hold.”

He credits the more recent success with his creation of an organization that has helped scholars connect, share their interests, and exchange information, through the sponsorship of conferences and symposia, for example, as well as the large amount of print material on the subject being published in China — more than 800 books and thousands of articles since the ’80s.

Teaching at universities and having an impact on so many young people “who will play an important role in society” has had an enormous influence, he said. So has the opening of diplomatic relations between China and Israel in 1992, a move that has enabled scholars to visit Israel, bringing back more ideas and information.

But the main reason he has been so successful, he said, is that “Chinese people are really interested in the Jews. We understand the role of Jewish culture as a building block of Western civilization and that in order to understand Western civilization we have to understand Jewish culture,” he said.

Xu’s own interest was piqued when Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976 and Isaac Bashevis Singer followed in 1978. He started offering a course on American-Jewish writers.

But it was only after meeting an American-Jewish professor who came to Nanjing University to teach for a year that things fell into place. After that professor, James Friend, left China, Xu was invited to teach at Chicago State University, where Friend was on the faculty. He stayed for two years, met many Jews, and began learning in earnest.

When he returned to his homeland, he started the China Judaic Studies Association, and things took off from there. He has published a version of Encyclopedia Judaica in Chinese, and has translated a number of works of Jewish-American and Hebrew literature into Chinese, including some of the literature of Israeli writer S.Y. Agnon. He also put together China’s first exhibit on anti-Semitism.

Today Xu lectures widely on Jewish history in China and why the Chinese are so interested in Judaism.

He also runs occasional Jewish heritage trips to China with the help of his wife, a travel agent. “Many Jewish people I have met want to go to China,” he said. “The trip was her idea.” In the two-week tours, visitors go to sites of Jewish heritage like Shanghai, Kaifeng, and Harbin. Xu lectures on the Jewish past and present in China as well as on the growth and evolution of Jewish studies in China and China-Israel relations. The tours also include visits to Beijing and the Forbidden City and the Great Wall — the “normal” tourist sites, as Xu put it. He will lead a trip this spring.

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