Zhao Yingcheng (1619–1657), known as “The Great Advisor”, is the only Kaifeng Jew who is mentioned both in the synagogal stele of 1663 and in Chinese gazetteers during his lifetime. Zhao, given the Hebrew name of Moshe ben Avram, was fluent in Hebrew but also achieved success as a Confucian scholar familiar with the Chinese classics. He would have witnessed the destruction of his hometown by a catastrophic flood during the 1642 Siege of Kaifeng. In 1645, at the age of 26, he attained the jinshi rank in the Imperial Exams, in which only one in 10,000 candidates was successful. A year later, he was appointed Minister of Justice for the newly installed Qing Dynasty and supervised the controversial decree forcing the Manchu tonsure onto the Han population as a mark of submission. In 1647, he was sent as an envoy to quell the unrest in Fujian province. After defeating bands of violent warlords funded by the notorious pirate Koxinga, Zhao set up a system of public schools to provide greater economic opportunity for the poor. After the death of his father, Zhao returned to Kaifeng for the three-year mourning period; during that time, he funded the restoration of the synagogue, which had been destroyed in the deluge, and the rectification of the Torah scrolls damaged in that catastrophe. Though the biographical facts are sparse, when these are juxtaposed with the dramatic events that unfolded during his short lifetime, the potential for a fascinating historical fictionalization emerges. Moreover, many of those historical events in seventeenth-century China—climate change, elite corruption, populist revolt, xenophobia, terrorism, law and order, etc.—resonate with contemporary tropes. The story of “The Great Advisor” shows how a Jew in seventeenth-century China rose to national prominence at a time when Jews in Europe faced severe discrimination and persecution.
Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences – Springer Journals
Published: Dec 19, 2017
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