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Reviewed by:
  • The Jews of China: Historical and Comparative Perspectives
  • Morris Rossabi
The Jews of China: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, edited by Jonathan Goldstein. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1999. 308 pp. $29.95.

With the appearance of this book, studies of the Chinese Jews, specifically on the Jewish community of Kaifeng, have reached their saturation point. Though hundreds of articles, not to mention the two important books by Bishop William White and Donald Leslie, have been published, the available primary sources are few and have been repeatedly examined. Unless substantial new materials are discovered, the story of the Chinese Jews has really been told. As the editor of the book under review points out, at least six symposia (in Antwerp, Beijing, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Minneapolis, and Munich) on the Chinese Jews were held from 1983 to 1992, and most of the publications from these conferences, based on the same limited sources, have contributed little to knowledge of the community. This latest book, which is the product of a conference at Harvard University in 1992, reprises previous works, though from a slightly different perspective, and offers several useful essays on Jews who reached China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The first group of essays focuses on the Kaifeng Jews, who probably reached China in the twelfth century from Persia or West Asia. Never amounting to more than two thousand people, the community built a synagogue in 1163, which was repeatedly damaged, repaired, and rebuilt. Examining a later depiction of the synagogue, Nancy Steinhardt links its architecture to Chinese-style religious buildings. Irene Eber and Andrew Plaks continue in this vein, offering evidence from stelae inscriptions at the synagogue and other sources of the growing sinicization and Confucianization of the community, particularly after the fifteenth century. Michael Pollak and Wendy Abraham document the deterioration of the community, the death of the last rabbi around 1800, and the gradual destruction of the synagogue in the nineteenth century. Abraham records the survival, as late as 1985, of residual memories about the continuance of Jewish practices and rituals earlier in the twentieth century. Though much of this information is well known, it is useful to have it in one volume.

After a section of essays which compare Jewish communities in India with the Kaifeng community, the book then consists of articles on modern Jewish settlements in China. Most are brief sketches, but they yield new information on Jewish life in various areas of the Middle Kingdom. Several descendants write about economic and cultural developments among the Jews in these communities, offering data and vignettes not previously available. Zvia Shickman-Bowman describes the economic contributions of the Harbin community, providing details about the trading companies, sugar refining and flour milling companies, and fur trading firms founded by Jews. She also alludes to the philanthropic and welfare activities of the Jewish community, and Boris Bresler supplements her essay with analysis of the educational and recreational accomplish ments and activities of the Harbin Jews. He attributes the successes of the community [End Page 162] to the fact that “Many leaders . . . in Harbin were well-educated, energetic, and dedicated to the preservation of Jewish national and cultural values . . . [and] the rich social and cultural life was enhanced by the hospitable attitude of the Chinese administration” (p. 214).

The book concludes with several essays about the Jewish refugee community in Shanghai, nearly all of whom fled from Nazi-controlled lands in Europe in the 1930s. Chiara Betta writes a fascinating profile of Silas Aaron Hardoon, a murky figure who reached Shanghai even earlier and “was reputed to be the richest individual in East Asia at the time of his death” (p. 216) in 1931. Hardoon cooperated with both militarists and revolutionaries during the turbulent 1920s in China, and Betta provides tantalizing tidbits about his role in Chinese politics. Her as yet uncompleted doctoral dissertation on Hardoon promises to fill in interesting gaps on this seemingly influential figure. The next two essays, by Xu Buzeng and Harriet Rosenson, shed light on refugee musicians and composers who wound up in Shanghai in the 1930s. Though they were not internationally renowned performers or composers, they still enlivened the musical scene in...

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