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The Long History of Chinese Jews

Dusty Sklar
October 25, 2016

by Dusty Sklar

ONE OFTEN HEARS the Chinese, especially those who live in the huge international Chinese diaspora, being referred to as the “Jews of the Orient” and labelled with stereotypes similar to those that have been used to insult Jews. According to Christopher Hale, a media producer in Singapore, a book of that title by the King Rama VI of Siam, who came to the throne in 1910, “claimed that the Chinese exhibited all the notorious (and mythological) traits of European Jews: they cultivated clannish international networks; were reluctant to assimilate; they were clever and greedy financiers; they despised their hosts . . .”

What about the Jewish diaspora in China? One historian, Alfred Edelsheim, believes that Jews came there from Persia after the Roman general Titus invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in the 1st century CE. Other scholars mark the earliest appearance of Jews in China at the time of the Tang dynasty, beginning in 718. Several letters dating from then, probably written by Jewish traders, on Chinese paper in Hebrew and Judeo-Persian, had been found in northwest China. It’s certainly likely that the Tang Dynasty had the first settled Jewish community: Persian merchants probably came to the city of Xi’an, where a Chinese poem of the era mentions them living.

An Islamic traveler, Aboul Zeyd al Hassan, reported a massacre of foreigners in Canton towards the end of the Tang dynasty. The main motive behind the murder of as many as 120,000 Muslim Arabs, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians was believed to be resentment of their wealth.

But most scholars hold that Jews came during the Northern Song Dynasty, which began in 960. They may have come from Bukhara, a city in Uzbekistan that was once a part of Persia. It was to Kaifeng, then a cosmopolitan capital on a branch of the Silk Road, that they came; an inscription on a stone tablet, originating centuries later in 1489, bears witness to the arrival of seventy Jewish families.

FOR HUNDREDS of years, the Silk Road linked East and West. It was the main avenue of trade between China and India, Persia, Arabia, and Europe and Africa by way of the Mediterranean coast -- most of which countries had Jewish merchants eager to trade internationally. Kaifeng is thought to have had the largest population of Jews in China, who for the first eight or nine generations gave their children Hebrew names. In 1163, Kaifeng Jews built the Purity and Truth Synagogue, the first in the region, at the intersection of Earth Market and Fire God Streets, and in 1489 they installed in its courtyard the stone tablet engraved with the emperor’s words: “You have come to our China. Honor and observe the customs of your ancestors.” This monument is now in the municipal museum of Kaifeng.

Jews apparently flourished in Kaifeng until the 17th century, assimilating into the Chinese culture yet preserving some semblance of their Jewish identity until the 1840s, when their synagogue was devastated by an earthquake. Another building now stands on the site, along with a stele dating from the Middle Ages. Carved into it are inscriptions, no longer legible, pertaining to the community’s most important events. A Jesuit visiting in the early 1700s,estimated the Jewish population at two or three thousand. For some reason, the surviving records and artifacts have long since been given to Great Britain and the United States. The Hebrew Union College library in Cincinnati houses two Torah scrolls. In 1851, when European missionaries came into possession of a 17th-century Hebrew Torah, few Kaifeng Jews could read it, and it was donated to the British Museum.

Kaifeng still has a street called Nan-Xuejing Hutong, meaning South Studying-the-Scriptures Lane, which used to be home to the Jewish community. Today, there are believed to be 2,500 Jews in Kaifeng. Physically they are indistinguishable from other Chinese. Yet some still observe the prohibition against the eating of pork.

WHEN THE MONGOLS invaded the city in 1233, they bestowed bureaucratic positions on foreigners, including Jews, in order to diminish the power of the Chinese. As a 1280 decree reveals, the Mongols also banned all Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter, which the emperor felt was insulting to him: Meat fit for him should surely be good for Jews and Muslims!

Marco Polo reported finding Jews in Beijing in 1286. Several other Chinese cities, at least six in the 17th century, housed Jews, but less is known about them and they don’t appear to have lasted as long as the Keifeng Jews.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a Ming emperor assigned seven surnames to Jews, by which they are still known today: Ai, Shi, Gao, Jin, Li, Zhang, and Zhao. Of these, Jin and Shi are reminiscent of Western Jewish names: Gold and Stone. The 1489 inscription lists seven others: Yen, Kao, Mu, Huang, Nie, An, Zuo, Bai, and Zhou. Apparently, only seven names survived after 1642.

In the late 19th century, the Russian government decided to build a railway to Eastern Asia and sought people to populate the cities there. They particularly encouraged Jews, who were eager to escape the pogroms in the Pale of Settlement. Jews were encouraged to settle in Harbin, and by 1908, 8,000 of them had done so.

Shanghai, too, became attractive to Ashkenazim experiencing repression in Eastern Europe. Russian Jews, escaping the massacres under the tsar, built the Ohel Moishe Synagogue in Shanghai in 1907. Sephardim, coming as early as 1845 from Baghdad, Bombay, and Cairo, outnumbered them. Wealthy Sephardic merchants eventually became the elite. The Russian revolution of 1917 brought more Jews to Shanghai, and the 1930s and 1940s brought refugees from Nazi Germany, bringing the Shanghai population of Jews to 25,000. Shanghai was a free port and did not require visas. Between 1933 and 1941, 14,000 Jewish refugees, fleeing from the Nazis, lived in the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees.”

The Japanese captured Shanghai in 1937, and in December of 1941, closed it to further immigration. They consigned most Jews to unsanitary camps, to which they added transferred Japanese Jews. After the war, most of those Jews fled to the United States, Great Britain, Israel, and Australia.

Out of a thousand Jews living in Kaifeng today, only a hundred or two hundred are active in the culture. The present Chinese government is cracking down on them in its campaign against non-licensed religions (they approve Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism): Organizations that are trying to help rebuild the Jewish community have been shut down, and the government has gone so far as to forbid gatherings for Jewish holidays, closed Hebrew and Judaism classes, and taken away Jewish historical signs and objects from public spaces. Jews are still permitted to get together to pray in small groups, but the government is keeping a watchful eye on them.

Some residents have migrated to Israel. The Kaifeng Jews are not automatically recognized by Israel under the Law of Return, however.

“You don’t recognize me as a Jew,” one of them recently told Chris Buckley of the New York Times, “but I recognize myself as a Jew, and that’s what is most important.”

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. Her recent articles for us have dealt with David Ben Gurion and the Arabs, and Louis Brandeis, the “Jewish Jefferson.”

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.