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China’s Golden Age’

In response to:

China's Golden Age from the November 6, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

Eliot Weinberger makes some important factual errors in his essay on T’ang dynasty culture and poetry [NYR, November 6].

First, and most importantly, there were no synagogues in Ch’ang-an. In fact, no one has ever found evidence that there was even a community of Jews in the city. The discovery by the famed explorer Aurel Stein (1862–1943) of early documents in Hebrew and Judeo-Persian, perhaps dating from the eighth century, shows that Jews were in contact with other traders along the borders of the T’ang empire. (The earliest sources of Jewish contact with China are lucidly discussed by Donald Daniel Leslie in The Survival of the Chinese Jews: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng, T’oung Pao Monographie 10, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1972, pp. 5–7.) But that is a far cry from imagining a congregation with its own synagogue in the capital. The earliest Chinese synagogue for which there is any historical evidence whatsoever is the famed synagogue of K’ai-feng, said to have been erected in the year 1163—although a Chinese scholar has recently cast doubt on that one as well (Zhou Xun, “The ‘Kaifeng Jew’ Hoax: Constructing the ‘Chinese Jew,’” in Orientalism and the Jews, edited by Ivan Davidson Kalmar and Derek J. Penslar, Brandeis University Press, 2005, pp. 68–79).

Second, the poet and philosopher Han Yü never led any “campaign against Buddhism” and had no power to do so. To be sure, he was an outspoken critic of Buddhism, and was nearly executed for his famous letter to the emperor deriding the customary veneration of a supposed relic of the Buddha. But Han Yü refused to go any further, as we know from a pair of letters to a friend named Chang Chi (circa 765–830). The Wu-tsung persecutions of the 840s did not take place until well after Han Yü’s death in 824.

Third, it is misleading, when discussing Tu Mu (803–852), to speak of Po Chü-i (772–846) as an “earlier T’ang poet.” The two men died within six years of each other and Po is not considered an early T’ang poet by any of the various scholarly periodizations. Moreover, it needs to be stated that Tu had more than just literary reasons for denigrating Po. In his capacity as a civil servant, Po had censured Tu’s grandfather, Tu Yu (735–812), for remaining in office past the statutory retirement age of seventy. Tu Mu seems to have taken it as a family duty to sling mud at Po for the rest of his life. (See, e.g., Arthur Waley, The Life and Times of Po Chü-i, 772–846 A.D., London: Allen and Unwin, 1949, p. 91.)

Paul R. Goldin
Professor and Chair Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Eliot Weinberger replies:

(1) The standard histories all state that there were Jews in Ch’ang-an, and maps rather ambiguously identify “foreign places of worship (churches, mosques, synagogues)” in the east central part of the city. However, I am not a Chinese historian and will happily assume Professor Goldin is correct, with relief that this is the only error he found.

(2) My use of the word “campaign” to describe Han Yu’s virulent anti-Buddhism was meant in the ideological sense, not that he led any actual military operations.

(3) I did not write that Po Chü-i was an “early T’ang poet”; I said that he was “earlier” than Tu Mu. Po Chü-i began writing in 794; Tu Mu in 827. Thus Po was already a figure well enough established to be rejected by the younger poet.

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