Kaifeng Jews

Kaifeng Jews

Jews of Kaifeng, late 19th or early 20th century
Regions with significant populations
Mandarin Chinese and some Hebrew (modern)
Judeo-Persian (historic)
Judaism and Native religions of China
Related ethnic groups
Han Chinese, Persian Jews.

The Kaifeng Jews are members of a small Jewish community in Kaifeng, in the Henan province of China who have assimilated into Chinese society while preserving some Jewish traditions and customs. Their origin and time of arrival in Kaifeng are a matter of debate among experts.


Most scholars agree that a Jewish community has existed in Kaifeng since the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127), though some date their arrival to the Tang Dynasty (618–907) or earlier.[1] Kaifeng, then the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, was a cosmopolitan city on a branch of the Silk Road. It is surmised that a small community of Jews, most likely from Persia or India, arrived either overland or by a sea route, and settled in the city, building a synagogue in 1163.[2]

During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), a Ming emperor conferred eight surnames upon the Jews, by which they are identifiable today: Ai, Shi, Gao, Gan, Jin, Li, Zhang, and Zhao. By the beginning of the 20th century one of these Kaifeng clans, the Zhang, had largely converted to Islam.[3]

The Jews who managed the Kaifeng synagogue were called "mullahs". Floods and fire repeatedly destroyed the books of the Kaifeng synagogue; they obtained some from Ningxia and Ningbo to replace them, and another Hebrew Torah scroll was bought from a Muslim in Ning-keang-chow in Shen-se (Shanxi), who acquired it from a dying Jew at Canton.[4]

A model of the Kaifeng synagogue at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv
Interior of the Kaifeng synagogue, 18th century

The existence of Jews in China was unknown to Europeans until 1605, when Matteo Ricci, then established in Beijing, was visited by a Jew from Kaifeng, who had come to Beijing to take examinations for his jinshi degree. According to his account in De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas,[5][6] his visitor, named Ai Tian (Ai T'ien; 艾田) explained that he worshipped one God. It is recorded that when he saw a Christian image of Mary with Jesus, he believed it to be a picture of Rebecca with Esau or Jacob. Ai said that many other Jews resided in Kaifeng; they had a splendid synagogue (礼拜寺 libai si) and possessed a great number of written materials and books.

About three years after Ai's visit, Ricci sent a Chinese Jesuit Lay Brother to visit Kaifeng; he copied the beginnings and ends of the holy books kept in the synagogue, which allowed Ricci to verify that they indeed were the same texts as the Pentateuch known to Europeans, except that they did not use Hebrew diacritics (which were a comparatively late invention).[7]

When Ricci wrote to the "ruler of the synagogue" in Kaifeng, telling him that the Messiah the Jews were waiting for had come already, the "Archsynagogus" wrote back, saying that the Messiah would not come for another ten thousand years. Nonetheless, apparently concerned with the lack of a trained successor, the old rabbi offered Ricci his position, if the Jesuit would join their faith and abstain from eating pork. Later, another three Jews from Kaifeng, including Ai's nephew, stopped by the Jesuits' house while visiting Beijing on business, and got themselves baptized. They told Ricci that the old rabbi had died, and (since Ricci had not taken up on his earlier offer), his position was inherited by his son, "quite unlearned in matters pertaining to his faith". Ricci's overall impression of the situation of China's Jewish community was that "they were well on the way to becoming Saracens [i.e., Muslims] or heathens.").[7]

Later, a number of European Jesuits visited the Kaifeng community as well.

The Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s led to the dispersal of the community, but it later returned to Kaifeng. Three stelae with inscriptions were found at Kaifeng. The oldest, dating from 1489, commemorates the construction of a synagogue in 1163 (bearing the name 清真寺, Qingzhen Si, a term often used for mosques in Chinese). The inscription states that the Jews came to China from India during the Han Dynasty period (2nd century BCE – 2nd century CE). It cites the names of 70 Jews with Chinese surnames, describes their audience with an unnamed Song Dynasty emperor, and lists the transmission of their religion from Abraham down to the prophet Ezra. The second tablet, dating from 1512 (found in the synagogue Xuanzhang Daojing Si) details their Jewish religious practices. The third, dated 1663, commemorates the rebuilding of the Qingzhen si synagogue and repeats information that appears in the other two stelae.[8]

Two of the stelae refer to a famous tattoo written on the back of Song Dynasty General Yue Fei. The tattoo, which reads "Boundless loyalty to the country" (simplified Chinese: 尽忠报国; traditional Chinese: 盡忠報國; pinyin: jìn zhōng bào guó), first appeared in a section of the 1489 stele talking about the Jews’ “Boundless loyalty to the country and Prince”. The second appeared in a section of the 1512 stele talking about how Jewish soldiers and officers in the Chinese armies were “Boundlessly loyal to the country.”

Father Joseph Brucker, a Roman Catholic researcher of the early 20th century, notes that Ricci's account of Chinese Jews indicates that there were only in the range of ten or twelve Jewish families in Kaifeng in the late 16th to early 17th centuries,[9] and that they had reportedly resided there for five or six hundred years. It was also stated in the manuscripts that there was a greater number of Jews in Hangzhou.[9] This could be taken to suggest that loyal Jews fled south along with the soon-to-be crowned Emperor Gaozong to Hangzhou. In fact, the 1489 stele mentions how the Jews "abandoned Bianliang" (Kaifeng) after the Jingkang Incident.

Despite their isolation from the rest of the Jewish diaspora, the Jews of Kaifeng preserved Jewish traditions and customs for many centuries. In the 17th century, assimilation began to erode these traditions. The rate of intermarriage between Jews and other ethnic groups, such as the Han Chinese, and the Hui and Manchu minorities in China, increased. The destruction of the synagogue in the 1860s led to the community's demise.[10] However, JL Liebermann, the first Western Jew to visit Kaifeng in 1867, noted that "they still had a burial ground of their own". In 1868 it was reported that their liturgy consisted only of pieces from the Bible.[11] SM Perlmann, the Shanghai businessman and scholar, wrote in 1912 that "they bury their dead in coffins, but of a different shape than those of the Chinese are made, and do not attire the dead in secular clothes as the Chinese do, but in linen".[12]


Earth Market Street, Kaifeng, 1910. The synagogue lay beyond the row of stores on the right

In China, due to the political situation, research on the Kaifeng Jews and Judaism in China came to a standstill until the beginning of the 1980s, when political and economic reforms were implemented. In the 1980s, the Sino-Judaic Institute was founded by an international group of scholars to further research the history of the Jewish communities in China, promote educational projects related to the history of the Jews in China and assist the extant Jews of Kaifeng.[13] The establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel in 1992 rekindled interest in Judaism and the Jewish experience, especially in light of the fact that 25,000 Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai during the Nazi period.[14]

It is difficult to estimate the number of Jews in China. Numbers may change simply because of a change in official attitudes. The last census revealed about 400 official Jews in Kaifeng, now estimated at some 100 families totalling approximately 500 people.[15] Up to 1,000 residents have ties to Jewish ancestry,[10] though only 40 to 50 individuals partake in Jewish activities.[16]

Some descendants of Kaifeng's Jewish community say their parents and grandparents told them that they were Jewish and would one day "return to their land",[10] others are only vaguely aware of their ancestry.[17]

The Kaifeng Jews intermarried with local Chinese sufficiently to be indistinguishable in appearance from their non-Jewish neighbors.[18] One trait that differentiated them from their neighbors was not eating pork.[10] Qu Yinan, a Chinese woman who discovered her Jewish ancestry after her mother attended a conference on minorities in 1981, says her family did not eat pork or shellfish and her grandfather always wore a blue skullcap.[19]

Within the framework of contemporary rabbinical Judaism, matrilineal transmission of Jewishness is predominant, while Chinese Jews based their Jewishness on patrilineal descent. As a result, in Israel they are required to undergo conversion in order to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

After contact with Jewish tourists, some of the Jews of Kaifeng have reconnected to mainstream Jewry.[20] Recently a family of Kaifeng Jewish descendants formally converted to Judaism and accepted Israeli citizenship.[21] Their experiences are described in the documentary film, Kaifeng, Jerusalem.[22] On October 20, 2009, the first group of Kaifeng Jews arrived in Israel, in an aliyah operation coordinated by Shavei Israel.[23][24][25]

Kaifeng manuscripts

Little of the written works of the Kaifeng Jews have survived. A significant portion, however, are kept in the library of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.[26] Among the works in that collection are a siddur (a Jewish prayer book) in Chinese characters and a Hebrew codex of the Bible. The codex is notable in that, while it ostensibly contains vowels, it was clearly copied by someone who did not understand them. While the symbols are accurate portrayals of Hebrew vowels, they appear to be placed randomly, thereby rendering the voweled text as gibberish. Since Hebrew is generally written without vowels, a literate Hebrew speaker can disregard these markings, as the consonants are written correctly, with few scribal errors. The British Library also has a Torah scroll from the Kaifeng Synagogue.[27]


The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions

Ink rubbings of the 1489 stele (left) and 1512 stele (right)

In The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions: The Legacy of the Jewish Community in Ancient China, Tiberiu Weisz, a teacher of Hebrew history and Chinese religion, presents his own translations of the 1489, 1512, and 1663 stone stelae left by the Kaifeng Jews. Based on the new information gleaned from this translation, Weisz theorizes after the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BCE, disenchanted Levites and Kohanim parted with the Prophet Ezra and settled in Northwestern India. Sometime prior to 108 BCE, these Jews had migrated to Gansu province, China and were spotted by the Chinese general Li Guangli, who was sent to expand the borders of Han Dynasty China. Centuries later, the Jews were expelled from China proper during the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution (845-46), where they lived in the region of Ningxia. Weisz believes they later returned to China during the Song Dynasty when its second emperor, Taizong, sent out a decree seeking the wisdom of foreign scholars.[8]

In a review of the book, Irwin M. Berg, a lawyer and friend of the Kaifeng Jewish community, claims Weisz never figured the many religious documents—Torah, Haggadah, prayer books, etc.—into his thesis and only relied on the stelae themselves. Such documents can be roughly dated from their physical and scribal characteristics. Even though he refers to Persian words utilized in the stelae, Weisz did not include a study on when the Judeo-Persian language of the liturgical documents first came into use in his thesis. Judeo-Persian first developed in Central Asia during the 8th century,[28] well after the author supposes the Jews first entered China. Berg questions the historical reliability of the three stone inscriptions themselves. He gives one anachronistic example where the Jews claim it was an emperor of the Ming Dynasty who bequeathed the land used to build their first synagogue in 1163 during the Song Dynasty.[29]

Authenticity of the Kaifeng Jews

In 2004, Dr Xun Zhou, a research fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, published doubts regarding the authenticity of the Kaifeng community.[30] Zhou asserts that the apparent presence of the Jews was largely a Western cultural construct,[27] which grew following the publication by James Finn of The Jews in China (1840) and The Orphan Colony of Jews in China (1874)[31] whose initial research was based upon the accounts of the 17th century Jesuit missionaries.[30] She maintains that the community had no Torah scrolls until 1851, when they suddenly appeared to be sold to eager Western collectors.[30] She also states that drawings of the synagogue were doctored in the West because the original did not look like one, and that the Kaifeng community claimed to have kept some Jewish practices since before they are known to have begun. Xun Zhou's conclusion is that the Kaifeng community was not Jewish in any meaningful sense.[30]

Books and films

Kaifeng Jews, National Geographic, 1907

Literary references

Nobel-prize-winning American novelist Pearl S. Buck, raised in China and fluent in Chinese, set one of her historical novels (Peony) in a Chinese Jewish community. The novel deals with the cultural forces gradually eroding the separate identity of the Jews, including intermarriage. The title character, the Chinese bondmaid Peony, loves her master's son, David ben Ezra, but cannot marry him due to her lowly station. He eventually marries a high-class Chinese woman, to some consternation of his mother, who is proud of her unmixed heritage. Descriptions of remnant names, such as a "Street of the Plucked Sinew", and of customs such as refraining from the eating of pork, are prevalent throughout the novel.

The Broadway musical Chu Chem is a fictional tale that revolves around the Kaifeng Jewish community. In the show, a group of European actors join a troupe of Chinese performers to present the story of Chu Chem. He is a scholar who, with his wife Rose and daughter Lotte, journeys to Kaifeng to learn about his ancestors and find a husband for the girl.

Documentary films

In his 1992 documentary series Legacy, historian Michael Wood walked down a small lane in Kaifeng that he said is known as the "alley of the sect who teach the Scriptures", that is, of the Jews. He mentioned that there are still Jews in Kaifeng today, but that they are reluctant to reveal themselves "in the current political climate." The documentary's companion book further states that one can still see a "mezuzah on the door frame, and the candelabrum in the living room." Similarly, in the documentary Quest for the Lost Tribes, by Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, the film crew visits the home of an elderly Kaifeng Jew who explains the recent history of the Kaifeng Jews, shows some old photographs, and his identity papers that identify him as a member of the Jewish ethnic group. A recent documentary, Minyan in Kaifeng, documents and covers the present-day Kaifeng Jewish community in China during a trip to Kaifeng that was taken by some Jewish tourists.[32]

See also


  1. Laytner, Anson (2011). Baskin, Judith R., ed. China. The Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture. Cambridge University Press. pp. 100–2. ISBN 978-0-521-82597-9. Retrieved 2012-02-01.
  2. Fishbane, Matthew (March 30, 2010). "China's Ancient Jewish Enclave". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-02-01.
  3. Ehrlich, M. Avrum, ed. (2008), The Jewish-Chinese Nexus: A Meeting of Civilizations, UK: Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-45715-6.
  4. Chinese and Japanese repository of facts and events in science, history and art, relating to Eastern Asia. 1. Oxford. 1863. p. 48. Retrieved 2011-07-06.(Original from the University of Michigan)
  5. Ricci, Matteo (1953), "11", in Gallagher, De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas [China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals], one, New York: Random House, pp. 107–11.
  6. De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu (Google Books) (in Latin), one, pp. 131ff.
  7. 1 2 Ricci 1953, p. 109.
  8. 1 2 Weisz, Tiberiu. The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions: The Legacy of the Jewish Community in Ancient China. New York: iUniverse, 2006 (ISBN 0-595-37340-2) Google books
  9. 1 2 De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, p. 108 in Gallagher's English translation (1953)
  10. 1 2 3 4 Pfeffer, Anshel (2008-06-27), Taking the Silk Route back home, Haaretz, retrieved 2009-12-28
  11. Chambers's encyclopædia, 1868, p. 155
  12. Dawid, Heinz (1998), "From Berlin To Tianjin", in Goldstein, Jonathan, The Jews of China, 1, p. 117
  13. "The Sino-Judaic Institute". Retrieved 20 April 2016.
  14. Jüdische Nachrichten. "Youtai – Presence and Perception of Jews and Judaism in China". Retrieved 20 April 2016.
  15. "Are There Really Jews in China?: An Update". Retrieved 20 April 2016.
  16. The Virtual Jewish History Tour – China
  17. Hadassah Magazine
  18. Epstein, Maram, American The Jews of China. Volume 1, Historical and Comparative Perspectives (review), China Review International — Volume 7, Number 2, Fall 2000, pp. 453-45
  19. "CHINESE WRITER STUDIES JEWISH ROOTS". The New York Times. 18 June 1985. Retrieved 20 April 2016.
  20. Kaifeng Jews Celebrate Hannukah on YouTube
  21. From a Village in China. To the Wedding Canopy in Jerusalem. Arutz 7
  22. "箱根の楽しみ方ガイド". Retrieved 20 April 2016.
  23. From Kaifeng to kibbutzim. Jerusalem Post
  24. Descendants of Chinese Jews arrive in Israel, Jewish telegraphic Agency news service, 10//26/09.
  25. Kaifeng Jews study in Israeli yeshiva, On road to full Orthodox conversion, seven dedicated Chinese Jews plan to exchange their visitor permits for aliyah visas to make their trip to Israel a permanent one, by Rebecca Bitton, 08/24/10.
  26. Dalsheimer Rare Book Exhibit. Jews of Kaifeng Manuscripts
  27. 1 2 "Sacred Texts: Kaifeng Torah". Retrieved 20 April 2016.
  28. Roth, Norman. Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Routledge, 2002, p. 394
  29. Review of The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions. Retrieved 09-26-2009
  30. 1 2 3 4 Zhuo, Xun (2005). "The Kaifeng Jew Hoax: Constructing the 'Chinese Jews'". In Kalmar, Ivan Davidson; Penslar, Derek Jonathan. Orientalism and the Jews. UPNE. pp. 68–80. ISBN 978-1-58465-411-7.
  31. The Orphan Colony of Jews in China, 1874
  32. "Minyan in Kaifeng: A Modern Journey to an Ancient Chinese Jewish Community". Retrieved 14 June 2016.

Further reading

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