The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions Revisited
By Tiberiu Weisz
Abstract: Our knowledge of the Chinese Jews derives from two primary sources: one is the stone inscriptions, carved in grey limestone by the Jews and the other the eyewitness reports of missionaries, travelers and adventures who encountered Jews in Kaifeng in the 18th century and later. Scholars scrutinized both sources and reported many inconsistencies in the eyewitness reports. The inscriptions, however, were a source of puzzlement. The Chinese text posed particular challenges, and scholars had to rely on the translation of Bishop Charles White, a missionary who resided in China for forty years and had a good command of the Chinese language but little knowledge of Judaism. Weisz's new annotated translation of the Chinese text identifies many biblical sources veiled in the intricacies of the Chinese language. This article is a summary of his findings.
What are the Kaifeng stone inscriptions and why are they important? Why the need for a new translation? And most important of all, is there anything that the inscriptions tell us about ancient Judaism that can serve as a lesson for today? These are just some of the questions that any sophisticated reader today has on his or her mind when thinking of the ancient stone carvings that the Jews in China engraved over five hundred years ago. For one thing, after living in China for over fifteen hundred years devoid of any contact with other Jewish communities, the Chinese Jews felt that their community was on the verge of extinction. They were determined to record their existence in China and remind future generations that at one time some Jews played an important role in Chinese society: some acquired an education and competed in the examination system to become scholars; others earned the highest academic degrees to become officials and gained respect in the society. There were also prominent shopkeepers, artisans, traders and military officers.
But acceptance into Chinese society came at the expense of Judaism. Though the Chinese had never exerted any pressure on the Jews, or on any other minorities to convert, the social structure of Chinese society put enormous demands on the Jews and required them to accept and act according to local customs. The Confucian ethical code may have seemed to be compatible with many tenets of the Torah, but it was so inflexible as to accept nothing less than complete compliance. In addition, the rigid administrative system caused further erosion of the Jewish lifestyle. To climb the administrative and social ladder, Jews needed to devote considerable time and effort to the study of the Chinese classics. All this came at the expense of study of the Torah. When the Jews felt that the end was near, they pooled their resources and inscribed their religious beliefs on a stele that was erected in the second year of the Hongzhi period, the equivalent of 1489. This was perhaps the most comprehensive and informative of the inscriptions, but to our disappointment it was long on rituals and short on historical details. This stele can be seen today encased in glass in the Kaifeng Museum of Jewish History. It is five feet tall, about thirty inches wide and about five inches thick, made of dark grey limestone and sits on a base that is about twenty inches high. Some of the Chinese characters are still decipherable; others are so faded that it is hard to read them. This inscription contains about 1800 characters. Its content is divided into three sections, the first telling us about the Chinese version of the biblical story of Abraham and how the religion was born. The second section tells us about the rituals and worship of the Chinese Jews at that time. The third segment recounts the imperial audience that was handed down in oral tradition. Each segment seems to be composed by someone knowledgeable in his field. On the back of this stele is another inscription dated the Chinese equivalent of 1512, consisting of over 1000 characters. This inscription was composed by a Jew or someone who knew about Judaism. He stated that Judaism would not exist without the Torah. This inscription was perhaps the most puzzling to scholars as it appeared to contain no historical indicators and therefore was considered of very limited historical value. But from a Jewish perspective, it provided a wealth of information about the life of the Jews at the time. It constantly compared Judaism with Confucianism, perhaps the first ever attempt to compare the two cultures.
Continued here The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions Revisited
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