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Research Project:
Youtai – Presence and Perception of Jews and Judaism in China

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Research Project together with an International Symposium und Exhibition at the School of Applied Lingustics and Cultural Studies of Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, in Germersheim

Sponsorships for the International Symposium are welcome!

1. Research Project: January 1 – December 31, 2003

According to historical records, a Jewish community with a Jewish Synagogue existed from the 12th (Song-Dynasty) until the middle of the 19th century in the old city of Kaifeng in Henan province, China. The uninterrupted existence of this religious and ethnic group, lasting for more than 700 years in totally different socio-cultural surroundings strongly dominated by Confucian moral and ethical principles, is a unique phenomenon, not only in Chinese history, but also in the thousands of years of Jewish civilisation.

Besides its long history, the Kaifeng Jewish community had another conspicuous feature: Although existing almost in isolation and without any contacts with the Jewish diaspora outside China, it still managed to keep alive Jewish traditions and customs for hundreds of years. However, although it experienced neither discrimination nor persecution on the part of the Chinese, a process of gradual assimilation went on. Up to the 17th century, the assimilation of the Kaifeng Jews intensified and escalated. It resulted in changes in Jewish religious and ritual customs, social and language traditions, as well as intermarriage between Jews and other ethnic groups, such as the Han Chinese and the Hui and Manchu minorities in China. In the 1860’s, the Jewish synagogue in Kaifeng collapsed because it had long been in disrepair. As a consequence, Jewish religious life, together with the Jewish identity in the community, came to an end.

The existence of the Jews in China was unknown to the rest of the world until Matteo Ricci met a Jew from the Kaifeng community by accident at the beginning of the 16th Century. It was then that European research on the Jews in Kaifeng began, mostly carried out by European missionaries. However, the Jews in China remained almost unknown to Chinese society until the beginning of the 20th century, although they had existed in the country for over 700 years. Together with the growing interest in Western cultures among Chinese intellectuals during this time, the presence of the Jews, and Judaism, began to be realized by scholars in China. This subject had gradually developed into an independent field of research by the time the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. Due to the poor conditions for research on religions owing to the political atmosphere in the country, research on the Jews and Judaism in China came to a standstill until the beginning of the 1980s, when political and economic reforms started. The establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel in 1992 accelerated the research work by Chinese scientists in this field. Research on the Jews in China gained new attention around the world through the reappraisal of the experiences of around 25,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai during the Nazi period.

In recent years, research into the history and culture of the Kaifeng Jews has been carried out not only in China, but in other countries as well. Increasing academic interest in related subjects is also expected in the future. This research project will contribute to the international discussions of the questions mentioned above. It will concentrate on the topic of the social status and assimilation of the Kaifeng Jews into Chinese society. On the basis of the latest sources and research results, the following questions will be systematically discussed and analysed:

- The current status of the descendants of the Kaifeng Jews in modern Chinese society, which is now heavily influenced by globalization.
- Presentation of related questions, such as the Chinese perception of the Jews and Judaism, not only in
society itself, but also among scholars, from the historical, sociological, religious, ethnic and ethnological perspectives.
- The self-reflection of the older and the younger generations among the descendents of the Kaifeng Jews.
- Debate on the implications associated with Jews and Judaism as an 'Other', "a distant mirror in the construction of the 'Self'" in the context of an emergent national identity and self-contemplation amongst various social groups in modern China.

This project has the following aims:

- to pursue and process the research findings gained during and after the international symposium From Kaifeng … to Shanghai. Jews in China in Sankt Augustin in 1997. The relevant data which have not hitherto been sufficiently taken into consideration will be evaluated and analysed. New knowledge from several international scholars will be introduced into the discussion.
- to investigate the Chinese image of Jews, designated "Youtai" by the Chinese public and among the descendants of the Kaifeng Jews themselves: Since the beginning of its reform and opening policy in 1979, the Chinese government has pursued a new policy towards the national minorities which does not officially recognize "Jews" as one of its 55 minorities. Nevertheless, the descendants of the Jews in Kaifeng have gained increasing recognition. For example, they are allowed to keep contacts with Jewish communities abroad, to travel to Israel, and to enjoy the same privileges as other minorities. A personal document, which we obtained recently, shows that the term "Youtai" (Jew) was even accepted in the family books of individual descendants. This shows that, in the current relatively liberal conditions, and through encouragement from contacts abroad, the descendants of the Kaifeng Jews may be looking for a new identity. This project envisages an invitation to one or two Chinese scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to participate in the symposium. They shall represent the official Chinese policy towards the nationalities and minorities in China.
- to continue the current debate among Chinese intellectuals and the younger generation of scholars in China on the “Youtai” (Jew) phenomenon within the framework of Chinese history, culture and society. Young scholars who have been doing research on Judaism will take part in the discussions.

2. International Symposium: September 19 – 23, 2003

An International Symposium on this topic is planned for September 19 - 23, 2003 at the Fachbereich Angewandte Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft of Mainz University in Germersheim. International scholars, especially prominent Judaistic scholars from China, will be participating in the symposium and will give lectures on the relevant topics. This event will be based on the latest research results, especially on the state of discussion which was reached during the international colloquiums From Kaifeng … to Shanghai. Jews in China in Sankt Augustin, Germany in 1997 and International Symposium on the History of the Jewish Diaspora in China in May 2002 in Nanjing, China. In addition, scholars of the younger generation will also participate in this symposium to present their research work. The symposium is open not only to students and teachers from the university, but also to the regional public.

3. Exhibition: September 19 – October 10, 2003

Parallel to the symposium, an exhibition on Jewish culture in Kaifeng will be held for three weeks to present the documents and objects from the exhibition in Sankt Augustin in 1997. The opening ceremony of the symposium and exhibition will be held at 6:00 p.m. of September 19, 2003.

This project is being headed by:
- Prof. Dr. Peter Kupfer, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, FB 23 – Fachbereich Angewandte Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft, IK-Chinesisch
- Prof. Dr. Roman Malek, SVD, Institut Monumenta Serica, Theologische Fakultaet, Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule Sankt Augustin

This project is supported by:
- the German Research Foundation (DFG)
- the Center for Intercultural Studies (ZIS) of Mainz University
- the Ministry of Science, Continuing Education, Research and Culture in Rheinland-Pfalz

We would like to express our deep gratitude for all the generous assistance and sponsoring we received so far.

For further information please contact:

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hagalil.com 15-05-03

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