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July 26: Ai T’ieng of Kaifeng

July 26, 2014
200px-Jews_of_Kai-Fung-Foo,_ChinaAn Italian Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, wrote to his superior in Rome on this date in 1605 about a visit to him in Beijing from Ai T’ieng, a Jew from Kaifeng. Ricci’s letter bore the first news to reach Europe about the presence of Jews in China since reports by Marco Polo in the 13th century and by one or two other Christian and Muslim travelers in the 14th. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Jews arrived in Kaifeng, the capital of Hunan Province in Central China, in the early 12th century from India or Persia. (Oral reports hold that Jews came to China as early as the 1st century CE, following the Roman capture of Jerusalem in 70.) In Kaifeng, they were “an ethnic unit of approximately 1,000 in all. It is believed that their daily language was New Persian and presumably they were experts in the production of cotton fabrics... The first Kaifeng synagogue was constructed in 1163.” Assimilation took its toll, however, and “by the middle of the 19th century the Jews of Kaifeng preserved only a rudimentary knowledge of Judaism and only the ruins of the former synagogue were left.” They are not considered a national ethnic minority by the Chinese government today. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jewish merchants arrived in China in the wake European imperialists, and several thousand Jews resided there, most of them temporarily, to escape the the Nazi onslaught. “When Matteo Ricci walked the streets of Beijing more than 400 years ago, he was a celebrity. The Jesuit was the first Westerner to enter the gates of the Forbidden City. He impressed the emperor by predicting solar eclipses. He created an enormous map that gave Ming dynasty Chinese a sense of the rest of the world for the first time. He spoke and read Chinese well enough to translate Euclid.” —Debra Bruno, The Atlantic