Offical Blog Entry #10: Judaism in China

Were there Jews in China? This picture testifies to their presence.

It is not only possible, but quite inevitable that Jews were involved in the trade along the Silk Routes.  Working alongside Muslims and Christians, Jews were merchants and traders, and traveled along The Silk Road with their customs and traditions.  Over the centuries, much evidence has been found to conclude that the Jews of the time did reach as far as China, and settled in small communities over there.

Between the 8th and the 13th centuries, Jews could be found on the west coast of India, in Khazaria, east in Afghanistan near Herat in the district of Ghur (tombstones have been excavated), and in Radhan, near Baghdad, present-day Iraq.  In China, Jews were primarily found residing on the east coast at Khanfu, and in Kaifeng, which is in Central China.


Jews in China can mainly be found in Kaifeng.

Jews, in general, according to The Jewish-Chinese Nexus:  A Meeting of Civilizations, edited by M. Avrum Ehrlich, have prided themselves with their ability to assimilate.  As can be seen by the Jews in China, they assimilated with ease to the Han Chinese.  China, though, with its extreme restrictions on minorities, hesitated in giving opportunities to Chinese Jews.  Therefore, the Jews in China nowadays can be found in extreme poverty, who more or less have lost much of their faith and customs due to the restrictions set in place by the majority Han Chinese over the centuries.  There are still a few families in China who claim to be Jewish descendants.  Most of these families reside in Kaifeng, China, with The Gao Clan having migrated to Xian.

In Kaifeng, China, there were seven original clans of Jews.  Out of them, The Gao Clan emigrated as mentioned, and the Zhang Clan converted to Islam at the beginning of the 20th century.  Currently, there are about a thousand Chinese Jews.  The Israeli government has turned almost a blind eye to these Jews mainly due to their number, and that their number is not significant enough to stir Arab-Sino-Israeli unrest.

It is surprising, to say the least, the close intimate ties that Chinese Jews share with Chinese Muslims, in such turbulent political times of today.  Throughout the various articles that were required to be read on Chinese Jews, the common theme of Chinese Jews finding compassionate brothers in fellow Muslims frequently arises.  When wealthy American Jews arrive in Kaifeng to educate the Chinese Jewish descendants on Orthodox Judaism, they most indefinitely advise their co-religionists to prefer eating Muslim-slaughtered meat over others.  The Kaifeng Jewish descendants started celebrating their Shabbat inside a local Muslim restaurant.  Muslims, likewise, found refuge in their fellow monotheistic brothers, and both communities strove to work together despite the harsh conditions imposed on them by the Chinese.  Both communities were far from co-religionists in the main Muslim and Jewish heartlands, and they both found many core elements of their faiths lost over time.

Jews in China - The similarities between Chinese Muslims and Jews can be seen, such as skull caps and beards for men.

Therefore we see today many Muslims and Jews who have done well in foreign countries strive to revive the two religions in the People’s Republic of China.  Yet the Chinese government, under its full command of communism, has proved to be a great obstacle.  If nothing is done to bring the Chinese Muslims and Jews out of the claws of poverty, they will find their customs and traditions being stripped even further, until the final rounds of assimilation have completely rung.


Official Blog Entry #9: The Central Asian Mystique

Central Asia

The region of Central Asia which attracted various explorers

Frances Wood, in her book The Silk Road:  Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia dedicates a good portion to the Great Game and the effects and aftermath on the region and on the people who stimulated the Great Game discourse.  Chapters 10 to 14 focus on the various explorers and surveyors who contributed to the preservation or decimation of Central Asian relics, and on the great appeal for the Central Asian mystique.

What was the Great Game?  It was in essence a struggle for Central Asia by the British and Russian Empires.  The casual reader is aware of the British and Russian struggles for Afghanistan, but what is less known, is the strife between the two for the whole of Central Asia.  Central Asia of the time included the regions of modern day Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and parts of the modern People’s Republic of China such as Xinjiang.

Explorers from Russia, Britain, Sweden, Germany, and the United States dedicated their whole lives to exploring the Central Asian territories, and to chronicle the land, its past and people.  From Nikolai Przhevalsky to Sven Hedin and Sir Aurel Stein, Central Asia witnessed a fair share of explorers who wanted to take a piece amidst its cold embrace back to their lands.

Each explorer was unique in his own way.  Sven Hedin’s tendency to leaving corpses behind on his journeys let them be animal or human, clearly contrasts with that of the French Paul Pelliot.  Each explorer had experiences that amaze the modern reader.  Sven Hedin met with Adolf Hitler who was surprisingly a vegetarian and quite accepting of Sven Hedin, even in the light of his partial Jewish ancestry.  Sir Aurel Stein, during his traversing of the area between the Lop Desert and Bactria found Sven Hedin’s tape measure.  Paul Pelliot re-traced the steps of his predecessors and saw the removal of many manuscripts from the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas in Dun Huang.  Thus, there experiences were quite unique but were greatly entwined.

Everything in Central Asia, from artifacts to plants and animals was greatly cherished in England and Russia and elsewhere in the world for that matter.  Carl Hagenbeck asked for the Przhevalsky’s horse, and received about two hundred of them even though more than that amount perished on the way.  He also spent £5000 for the Ovis Poli, of which sixty were caught, but they all perished on the way due to diarrhea.  Hence, Central Asian specialties were in high demand, and many explorers sought the fame that would inevitably move them up amongst the classes if they supplied the demand.  Undoubtedly, there were some who just longed for the Central Asian landscape and the mountain breeze and flowers, as we can see by the diaries of Sir Aurel Stein in particular.

What I find a bit disturbing from reading all that is present on the great explorers of Central Asia, is the lack of understanding and concern for the local inhabitants.  From the removal of the recently deceased Parsi adult’s head in secret, to hunting down sixty Ovis Poli or hundreds of Przhevalsky’s horses to satisfy the European desire for Central Asian specialties, there does seem to be a constant disregard for the local inhabitants and their wishes.  Yet perhaps this was the only way to document Central Asia, to chronicle the mysterious Orient for the European.  If Langdon Warner had not attempted to rescue the remaining frescoes and wall paintings that were severely brutalized by the White Russian soldiers or the modernizing of Buddhist caves to appeal to the modern generation at the expense of the old artifacts, would they still have survived to the present day?  I am not one of those who hold an affirmative answer to that question.

Ellsworth Huntington stated that the people of Central Asia appear to have been molded by their physiographical environment.  It’s an interesting notion.  Perhaps such a change was evident in light of the constant determination that white explorers showed in the region.  How could the local inhabitants protect their lands if not by a total change of attitude?  Like the Chinese farmers who rallied against Langdon Warner and eventually drove him out of Chinese occupied territories, the inhabitants of Central Asia may have resorted to similar means to stop the extrapolation of their cultural antiquities from their lands.  And perhaps the statement of Ellsworth Huntington is nothing but a justification for the drastic change in attitude of the Central Asian peoples.  This is just a hypothesis, but a sound one nonetheless.  Take the quote of Arthur Daley in 1931 who wrote “Imagine how we should feel if a Chinese archaeologist were to come to England, discover a cache of medieval manuscripts at a ruined monastery, bribe the custodian to part with them and carry them off to Peking”.  Would this not lead to a change in attitude?

Overall, Central Asia attracted many and acted as home to countless more foreigners.  Each explorer wrote of the fascinating beauties of the land, even on the harshness yet surreal cruelty of the deserts.  Central Asia remains quite as fascinating as it ever was.  Perhaps the Great Game has finally dwindled down, yet the desire for the Central Asian touch still flourishes in our modern times.

The Tien Shan Mountains - The mountain breeze and fresh air appeals to many

Official Blog Entry #8: A Clash of Ignorance Indeed

Islamic fundamentalism is an issue that comes up time and time again and will most likely continue to do so as the West continues to get riled up about the Islamic world.  Edward Said’s article “The Clash of Ignorance”, and Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood’s article “Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency” come as relief in light of all the one-sided opinion that western media constantly bombards on us.

In relation to Said’s article, I have to say that I agree entirely with his labeling of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations Theory as “Clash of Ignorance”.  Viewing the world as consisting of seven to eight civilizations with each pitting against each other trying to come out victorious is the most inhumane way to perceive the human race.  Homo sapiens did not mysteriously emerge out of seven to eight distinct areas; moreover we have shaped each other’s customs, traditions, and morals throughout the passage of time.

The West would not be as we know it had it not been for the works of great Muslim thinkers such as Al-Farabi or Ibn Sina (Avicenna).  It is also important to keep in mind that these were not just Arabs, they were themselves very diverse.  Equating Arab with Muslim is a great misconception and needs to be adjusted in western mentality.  The mystic and poet Jalal-ul-Din-al Rumi was himself a Persian, and so was Ibn Sina.  It is through the works of Muslims, through Arabic translations, that the West first came to know of Aristotle.  All this is to say that the West that we know would not have been as we know it had it not been for the Golden Age of Islam (during the times of the Abbasid Empire).

Instead of summarizing Said’s article, I would like to focus in on something that he did not elaborate much into, and that is Western Muslims.  Muslims living in the west are an integral part of western society.  They are in every field, working side by side with their non-Muslim colleagues.  Would Mavis Leno like to say that the Western Muslim females are oppressed?  That the choice of an American Muslim to don the religious head scarf as ordained by her Lord to be oppressive?

"Afghanistan has become increasingly militarized. Is this the 'freedom' Afghans longed for?"

What does it mean to be a Western Muslim then?  To become Western, does one have to “openly kiss in public”, “eat bacon sandwiches”, and wear “mini skirts”, as Salman Rushdie states in his quote in the article by Hirschkind and Mahmood?  I would like to believe that this western supremacist view is not something embedded in western thought, it is more of a political nature, part of a political agenda to stray the public’s focus from the things that matter, the faults of their peers.  Why has the American public not raised criticism on the fact that the American government supplied $3 billion dollars to the mujahideen in Afghanistan?  Why is the fact of Afghan women and children being raped all over the country today not an issue that célèbre figures like to voice?  Political agendas?  Western Media?  Propaganda?

Under the Taliban regime, there was safety.  A woman was free to walk without the fear of being raped out on the streets knowing that the rapist would be heavily condemned.  Indeed, there was the issue of them being reprimanded for breaking religious rules, but the safe environment was definitely there.  The women of Afghanistan today are by no means safer than under the Taliban regime?  They live in a country greatly controlled by the United States, a country that has become increasingly militarized thanks to our neighbours to the south (their government at least).  It is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world which came to that condition due to the dramatic reduction of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.  My point in this is to highlight that Islam is not to blame.  Even the Taliban are not to blame entirely.  There were systems set in place to bring the country down to its knees.  Afghanistan was and is a deliberate attempt to show the Muslim world who is in charge.

Hence, we as westerners, Muslims and non-Muslims, must rise up to the challenge to dismantle this theory of the Clash of Civilizations, because if we do not, this “cultural warfare” will continue and will result in great destruction on all sides.  There is no victor in a war.  Let’s band together as brothers and sisters in one human race to banish the seeds of ignorance from our times.

Official Blog Entry #7: The Islamic Tradition

Before I comment on the readings for this week, I would like to point out an amazing series of lectures that will take place at the University of Toronto (yes here!) this month.  They are very relevant to the readings that were required.

The course is called The Lost Kingdom:  History of Andalus (Andalusia or Islamic Spain).  I will be going myself!  Here is the trailer:

Islam is a religion that has increasingly become more prevalent in day-to-day discussions and has, in modern times, started to emerge outside of the realm of academia.  There is evidently a great amount of literature present in the Islamic world regarding the religion, its philosophy, and thought.  On the contrary, the non-Muslim literati and what we now call Orientalists (Arabic:  Al-Mostashriqoon), tended to produce literature that demonized Islam and enforced negative stereotypes.  It is, again only in modern times, that Orientalists have emerged who have attempted to understand Islam as within the Islamic tradition, rather than a separate, inherently violent, identity.

Mahmoud M. Ayoub, in his The Spread of Islam depicted the spread of Islam in a manner that was easily comprehensible and definitely not reprehensible as many authors do.  He demonstrated that Islam is more than just a politicized ideology, as some fundamentalists have made it about to be, and it definitely did not spread only by the sword.  Yes the Prophet Muhammad (ص) was a military man, and Islam initially expanded with the Umayyad Empire through warfare, but the mass conversions only took place because the religion of Islam appealed to the masses and allowed them to make their respective cultures Islamic au lieu de Arab.  Ayoub overall depicts how Islam spread throughout the ages, with victories such as that of Ayn Jalut against the Mongol Hulagu Khan, and such defeats as the expulsion of the Spanish Moors from Granada and Cordoba, Spain, the heart land of Islam in the western hemisphere.  He proves that Muslim and Arab are not synonymous, and that the quarter of the World’s population that professes to the Islamic faith are just mere humans, and nothing less.

From reading the selections of Carl W. Ernst in Following Muhammad, I can confidently say that Ernst, a non-Muslim, approaches Islam from an un-biased point of view.  He rejects the idea born out of Samuel Huntington’s book:  The Clash of Civilizations, and points out that one religion does not need to come out triumphant.  He rejects the notion that it will be a fight to the death between Christianity and Islam, and highlights that the West needs to discard the idea that it constantly has to confront the rest.  Ernst attempts to dismantle all the stereotypes that non-Muslims maintain about Islam, and provides sensible, common-sense rebuttals to all of them.

I personally do not agree with the Clash of the Civilizations theory.  Surely there must be a more humane way to settle our disputes.  It should not be a fight to the finish with only one triumphant.  History has proven to us time after time that war will never settle differences.  It will only create bloodshed, horror, and result in many lives lost.  Perhaps its time that we started learning from history, the various instances where people lived in harmony regardless of religious affiliation, and made an attempt to settle the age-long conflicts that bring this world closer each day to Armageddon.  Then, and only then perhaps, the Armageddon that we might one day witness, might not result from the hands of none other than our own.

The Dome of the Rock overlooks the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been a contested place for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

The following clip is the account of the Conquest of Spain (Al-Andalus) from the Muslim perspective.

Group Topic: Manichaeism & Syncretism

The concept of syncretism is a major issue that requires some significant thought.  Syncretism is a fusion of already existing different cultures, thoughts, and ideas, into a new distinct entity.  One that completely alters set lineages and linkages to form an ideology that is completely distinct from the originals.  According to the Encyclopedia of Religion, “the term syncretism usually refers to connections of a special kind between languages, cultures, or religions. This term is most frequently used in the history of religions, where a special effort has been made to give it a more precise meaning”.

The prime example of a syncretic religion is Manichaeism.  Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, fused already existing Christian, Judaic, Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist, and even Zoroastrian principles, to found a completely new religion.  Therefore Mani borrowed a whole set of terminology from Abbasid Islam, western Christianity, and Central Asian Taoism and Buddhism.  Mani himself came from a Jewish Christian Baptist sect in southern Babylonia.  As it is stated in the Encylopedia of Religion, “syncretisms that were part Babylonian, part Iranian, part Christian Hellenism were presupposed by Manichaeism”, and continuing, “to a certain extent, therefore, Manichaeism was the supreme syncretism”.

Examples of syncretic traditions are Manichaeism and some pseudo-Islamic sects (such as Ahl i Haqq, the Druze, and the Yesids).

If one reads selected texts of the Mani codex, one can clearly observe the syncretism of cultures.  Jesus is referred to as the Messiah Buddha, and the coming Messiah as Maitreya.  Such as there will be a true or false Jesus, there will be a true or false Maitreya.  Furthermore Jesus is referred to as the son of god, while Satan as the son of demon.  Thus, one can clearly see the radical linkages that are made that are completely foreign to the religion at point.  It can be understood why at the same, anything heretical would be referred to as neo-manichaeism.

What scholars of religion have to come to terms with is how to distinguish Manichaeism as a distinct separate religion and not just regard it as something already existing and just plain heresy.  Our task is not to judge the validity of the religion itself, but how that religion came to affect peoples and societies, and how it molded the framework of logic and thought in its time.  Indeed one should acknowledge the syncretism present, but rather than simply dismissing all the syncretic components, one should acknowledge them and study the effects that they had in the contribution of a new religion.

Mani, the founder of Manichaeism

jesus “the messiah buddha”
the coming jesus “maitreya”
true vs false maitreya
son of god vs son of demon

Official Blog Entry #6: Nestorian Christianity – Religious Tolerance in Chang’an China

After doing the readings on cosmopolitan Chang’an, one can really understand the diversity that flourished in Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty.  The Tang capital Chang’an was highly tolerant and different peoples lived openly celebrating their religions and customs of their homelands.  A Nestorian Church could be easily found next to a Buddhist temple.  During the time when Nestorian Christianity first came into China, there was also an influx of various other “exotic” peoples.  Armenian, Jacobite, and Byzantine Christians came into the area along with Zoroastrians, Manichaeans (Uighurs), and Jews.

It was immensely exciting to read the translation of the Nestorian tablet of the Syriac Church, and to visualize how Chinese characters along with Syriac script adorned the tablet with a cross at the top signifying its Christian origin.  Even though it is true that Nestorian Christianity has now been forgotten in China, the way the early Nestorian Christians infiltrated (positively) Chinese society is unique and deserves attention.  The Nestorian Antiochian Christians, after the divide from the Alexandrian Church, went into China and excelled in their knowledge of the Chinese script along with the Chinese culture and norms.  They preached Christianity from the viewpoint of a Chinese and not from a foreign westerner, so as to normalize the new religion and make it seem as already their own.  The foreign Christians wore Chinese garments and ate their food and lived like a regular Chinese, so as to create familiar bonds.  In the long run, this may have exactly been the reason why Nestorian Christianity disappeared from Chinese lands, but at the time, it allowed them the freedom to openly practice their religion without much opposition, and even to erect their own religious institutions (churches).  In Tang China, Assyrian churches were allowed to be built in every province in China!  But gradually, over time, Nestorian Christianity fell in a huge decline due to the lack of communication with centers in Mesopotamia, especially due to the rise of Islam and the Abbasid Caliphate between the two regions.  We can learn much from the history of religious tolerance in Chang’an, and a lot as well from the plight of Nestorian Christians in the Tang capital.

Assyrians in tradition garb in Arbil, Iraq

Present day Nestorians do not refer to themselves as such, but rather as Assyrians, belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East, or more officially to the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East (in Arabic: كنيسة المشرق الآشورية الرسولية الكاثوليكية المقدّسة).

The Assyrians refer to themselves as Christians, and maintain the theological difference with the Alexandrian Church, but at the same time, they completely dismiss the term Nestorianism, and anything to do with Nestorius, considering the term pejorative.

There are currently 4.5 million Assyrians in the world, and 1 million live in present-day Iraq.

Group Topic: Dun Huang & The Buddhist Tradition

Map of Dun Huang

Dun Huang, was initially established as a military garrison by the Chinese empire.  The first cave temples of Dun Huang were excavated in the fifth century and we came to know soon of Qianfodong or ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas’.  From being a semi-autonomous region, to witnessing the rise and fall of many empires, Dun Huang experienced diversity and was exposed to customs and cultures of many parts of the world.  Highly multi-cultural due to having experienced different peoples from the silk road, the languages of the manuscripts and inscriptions and the artistic styles of the paintings reflect the diversity at Dun Huang.

Buddhist traditions travelled along the Silk Road and became manifested in Dun Huang.  There were at least seventeen Buddhist monasteries and nunneries in Dun Huang during the prime time of Buddhism.  This was Indian Buddhism at the peak of its practice with many followers and a rich history of literature and documents that revolved around Buddhist life.

From the Dun Huang region, we learn a lot regarding Indian Buddhism.  We learn how Buddhism was practiced in the region, and the influence it had through the various paintings and statues that remain. We learn of their theological viewpoints and significant figures in Buddhist history such as Maitreya or Siddhartha.

In a way, the one thing that we definitely cannot explore from the Dun Huang region is how it would have fared to time, to our present time.  Had the various explorers not come in and rampaged the area looking and ‘looting’ treasure, this region would still be rich with its precious artifacts.  But that also begs the question:  If Stein and other explorers had not pillaged the region, would the changing of peoples and beliefs let these artifacts go undisturbed?  It does seem highly unlikely.  It would also be quite interesting to witness how Dun Huang fared to the rise of Islam.

Regardless, Dun Huang still exists as a prime example of Indian Buddhism at its best.  I found it extremely fascinating to learn how various items had come into Dun Huang, these included games, foods, and clothing.  It shows how diverse Dun Huang was, and the extent of the mélange of customs and culture that co-existed within it.  Lessons that can be  learnt?  Perhaps!