Globalization, Translation and Transmission: Sino-Judaic Cultural Identity in Kaifeng, China

Moshe Bernstein

Research output: Book/ReportBookpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


This dissertation examines the reproduction of Sino-Judaic cultural identity in both its historical and contemporary forms. In the tenth century, a group of Jewish traders from Central Asia arrived in Kaifeng, then the Northern Song capital and world’s largest metropolis. Unlike their European contemporaries, these Jews enjoyed a seamless integration into China’s multi-ethnic society. Never numbering more than a few thousand at its apex, the small group gradually lost their native Judeo-Persian language skills. When in 1163 they erected their synagogue, their heritage was translated into Chinese linguistic, cultural and architectural symbols. Despite recurrent floods, the Kaifeng Jewish descendants managed to maintain a functional synagogue until it was finally ravaged by a severe deluge in 1849. The congregation—diminished in size, impoverished, and increasingly assimilated—could then no longer afford the repair costs. The synagogue’s demise signified the end of tangible Sino-Judaic culture; yet, a thin notion of that cultural identity persisted within familial structures through the traditions of ancestral veneration, clan lineage and historical memory. Following China’s 1978 policy of “reform and openness”, the influx of various actors and organizations interested in the Kaifeng Jews revived Sino-Judaic identity from its dormancy. This dissertation juxtaposes the group’s claims of cultural authenticity with the dominant constructs of authentication refuting them. Applying a theory of critical holism, it envisions culture as a dynamic flux between external processes of social, political and economic exchange and internal ones of shared symbols and meanings. The first part presents a historiographic analysis of external representations of the early Chinese Jews followed by an epigraphic exploration of the internal symbols generating the unique melange of Sino-Judaic culture. Through unstructured interviews and participant observation in fieldwork, the second part surveys the contemporary resurgence of Kaifeng Jewish identity in both the cultural politics spurring that revival and the communal activism proceeding from it. This thesis explores the reasons why the Kaifeng Jews consider themselves to be Jews knowing they are not recognized as such; it argues that only by situating their claims of Jewish identity outside the boundaries of authentication and within the contexts of Confucian culture can their claims be properly comprehended. Its conclusion suggests that the Kaifeng Jews’ cultural identity is valid and their distinct, translated heritage has contributed significantly to both Diasporic and Chinese histories.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationBern, Switzerland
PublisherPeter Lang Publishing
Number of pages252
ISBN (Electronic)9783034325448
ISBN (Print)9783034325431., 9783034325462
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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