Issue: 3.02 February-01-02
by: Karen Primack

Jews Have Been in China A Long, Long Time

Scholars are divided in their opinions about when the first Jews came to China.

Some think they came in biblical times, and even theorize about one of the Ten Lost Tribes settling between Tibet and Sichuan.

So said Prof. Xu Xin at public lectures in the Washington DC area on November 19 and 20. Xu is a professor of English and Jewish Studies at Nanjing University in the Peoples Republic of China.

There is unanimous agreement that Jews have been in China at least since the 6th century. One of the earliest pieces of evidence is an 8th century letter written in Persian Hebrew by a Jewish merchant in China, probably a trader on the Silk Road.

(The Silk Road, which extended from China to the Mediterranean Sea, was built by the Romans in the second century B.C.E. and was used for 1200 years. Extending 2000 miles, through mountains and deserts, it enabled Western goods to be traded for Chinese silk for Roman nobles. Jewish merchants traded chiefly in cotton, perfume, and spice.)

In addition, Hebrew prayers were found in northwestern China by British scholars -- prayers written on paper; this is the earliest report of the use of paper for Hebrew prayers. Also, a 9th century Arab traveler wrote about his experiences, which included a report of a massacre of Christians, Moslems and Jews in southern China. Marco Polo also made mention of Jews in China

Kaifeng Attracts Jews

Up to the 11th century, these Jews were merchants and traders who came back and forth to China, but during the 11th century, the first group of Jews came to Kaifeng to stay, and they followed their traditions for many hundreds of years. Much literature has been left about them. Although the first arrivals were chiefly single men who had traded on the Silk Road, seventy families with women and children were also among the early Jewish settlers.

Xu reminds his audiences that "China was rich then, and it was a good place to live and to do business." It was the time of the Song Dynasty, whose capital was Kaifeng, a very prosperous international city with a population of 1.5 million.

Jews met the Song emperor, who encouraged them to "observe and hand down your religion here," as a stele (stone pillar) of the time relates. Because he could not pronounce their names, the emperor gave the Jews seven family surnames, which gave them legitimacy. "If you do not have one of these seven family names, you are not considered Jewish," Xu explains.

The first synagogue was built in Kaifeng in 1163.

The Jewish community was influenced by Chinese culture, including Confucianism and the Chinese classics, which had to be studied for the imperial examinations, for official appointments, and for social status.

The community grew, and more and larger synagogues were built. By 1500 the population peaked at about 5000. Kaifeng was repeatedly destroyed by the flooding of the Yellow River, which killed many, including Jews. The floods of 1663 alone killed more than 100,000 people; only 2090 Jewish families survived. Kublai Khan then moved the capital to Peking.

The Jews always intermarried in China, for the Jewish community was never large enough to marry among themselves. However, it was the Chinese custom for the wife to take the husband's religion. This enabled Jewish traditions to be maintained for seven centuries.

The 16th century saw the beginning of the decline of the Jewish community of Kaifeng. Hebrew was not really spoken anymore. Assimilation occurred because Jews spent more time studying for Chinese classics examinations and less time studying Judaism. They also adopted Chinese names. The Jews were known as Wei Wei (meaning "from the West") or a Chinese expression that translated as "the sect that plucks out sinew," in reference to one of the rules of kashrut.

This community was first discovered by Christian missionaries at the end of the 16th century. An historic meeting between Jews and a Jesuit missionary took place in June of 1605, and according to Xu, ever since then missionaries and scholars have always sought out the Jews of Kaifeng. At first there was great interest in the Jews among Christians because they believed that these isolated Jews would still possess an original Torah, not changed by rabbis during the Talmudic period, who, they thought, removed references to the coming of the Messiah.

In 1722, Christian missionaries drew a diagram of the old synagogue; it is now used by the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.

Xu found, to his delight, 59 books written by Chinese Jews of Kaifeng in the Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati, where he has studied. One of the books, written in both Hebrew and Chinese 400 years ago, traced 10 generations of a family. In addition, three steles of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries report on their history.

The Kaifeng synagogue was repaired or rebuilt several times until the 19th century, when the last rabbi died and Hebrew was no longer taught. (Hebrew had been taught continuously for 700 years.)

But, amazingly, "a sense of Jewish identity still persists" in Kaifeng, according to Xu, as today's descendants are "trying to pick up lost traditions" of their ancestors 900 years ago.

The Modern Era

Meanwhile, the 19th century saw a westward migration of Jews, especially from Germany, and, between 1820 and 1920, a movement of Sephardi Jews in Mesopotamia eastward to India, Malaysia and China.

After the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, in which China was defeated by Britain, China was forced to open its doors to Western society. Among others, the Sassoons arrived in Shanghai, liked it, and brought in their friends and relatives. By 1900 there were 700 Jews in Shanghai, along with synagogues, a Jewish cemetery, and ritually-slaughtered poultry. In the 1930's the Sassoons donated millions of dollars to help Jewish refugees from Europe.

Pogroms in Poland and Russia in 1905-1917 brought a new migration of Eastern Europeans to Shanghai. By 1930 there were 4000 Ashkenazic Jews there, who survived by setting up small businesses. They established many facilities and a Jewish press. These Jews were early Zionists.

According to Xu, Chinese president Dr. Sun Yat-sen published a letter in 1920 supporting Zionism.

In 1937-39, refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria found all doors closed to them except the doors of Shanghai, the only city in the world that did not require a visa from these Jews. By 1941, some 20,000 of these refugees' lives had been saved.

Another Jewish community came to Shanghai in 1942: all the faculty and students from the renown Mir Yeshiva of Poland. Although Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese by then, the Jews were ghettoized and allowed to study and worship. These scholars were virtually the only ones who survived as a group after the war; the Mir Yeshiva students and teachers were largely responsible for the continuation of Ashkenazic yeshiva learning in the US and Israel after the war.

By 1945, there was a Jewish community in Shanghai numbering 30,000, with its own autonomous government presiding over marriages and burials. Today, Xu says, some Chinese still remember their Jewish neighbors.

Another Jewish community settled in Harbin, in northeastern China, after 1898, when this city was chosen as headquarters of the East China Railway. Many people were brought in from Russia, including Jewish merchants. In 1903 the Jewish population reached 500, in part because the Jews were never discriminated against by the Chinese, as they were by the Russians. Xu notes that, during the Chinese-Russian War of 1904, Jewish soldiers stayed on in Harbin and brought their relatives from Russia. By 1908, Harbin's 8000 Jews enjoyed a better life than they had in Russia.

However, the Japanese invasion of northern China in the 1930's resulted in a diminution of the Jewish community in Harbin. After 1945 most Jews had emigrated to America, Canada, Australia or Israel. By 1950 the majority were gone, and the last synagogue service was held in Harbin in 1956.


In China today, the descendants of the Jews of Kaifeng pass remnants of this heritage from generation to generation through oral legends, which enable them to keep a sense of Jewish identity. Xu comments that "even today some have a strong sense of Jewish identity," and even list "Jew" as their ethnic group in the official government census, even though such a listing is discouraged (China does not want to encourage ethnic divisions among its huge population.)

Xu estimates that there are 400-500 descendants of Kaifeng Jews in China today

Xu also reports that in the last 10 years, some Jews have come back to China for business reasons, and those in Hong Kong are not leaving, holding hopes that the business prospects will remain good after China's takeover of the city in 1997. There are 1000 Jewish diplomats and business people today in Peking, and more in Shanghai. But there is no synagogue or religious school...YET!

"Jewish life in China will continue," Xu believes.

"Jews Have Been in China a Long, Long Time, by Karen Primack is a historical overview based on public lectures delivered by Professor Xu Xin in Washington DC.
Printer friendly version of this article
Bigger font