THE JEWS OF KAIFENG CHINA (By Xu Xin)
From the ninth century on, there was an indigenous Jewish community in the city of Kaifeng in northeastern China. Separated by thousands of miles from the rest of the world, and largely cut off from contact with the main centers of Jewish life, the Kaifeng Jews developed a distinctive culture that was unquestionably Jewish but progressively absorbed Chinese elements. Their greatest problem was not separation from other Jews so much as the openness and tolerance of Chinese society. Intermarriages occurred frequently, and Jews were fully accepted as merchants, government officials, and neighbors. Over time, they were so completely assimilated that few of their descendants carry any memory of Jewish ancestry and physically look much like other Chinese. The story of the Kaifeng Jews is dramatic and colorful, and offers many profound lessons. It will be indispensable to anyone interested in Jewish or Chinese history. Professor Xu Xin of Nanjing University is the foremost authority today on the history and sociology of Kaifeng Jewry. He has written and lectured widely on this subject, and his first book, Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, was an outstanding critical success.
A Jewish Spark Rekindled in China
by Michael Freund
This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine on November 23, 2001
Though he is only 23 years old, Shi Lei of Kaifeng, China, is laboring hard to reclaim centuries of Jewish tradition and heritage, much of which has all but faded away in his native land.
A descendant of a once prosperous and thriving Jewish community located on the south bank of China's Yellow River, Shi Lei (pronounced Sher Lay) is now enrolled in the one-year Jewish studies program at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, where he is busy studying Hebrew and learning about Jewish history and culture.
Shi Lei is heir to a proud legacy that was handed down from father to son over the generations. His ancestors were Chinese Jews, part of a community that enjoyed nearly a millennium of peaceful relations with their Chinese neighbors.
“My ancestors came to Kaifeng, China about 1000 years ago,” Shi Lei says. “In 1163, the Jews in my city bought a piece of land in a downtown area in Kaifeng and set up a synagogue, which stood in place for about 700 years, before it fell into ruin.”
China provided its Jews with a welcome and comfortable home, free of many of the insecurities that plagued Jewish communities elsewhere in the diaspora. There are no known recorded incidents of anti-Semitism in China, and the Jews were free to engage in trades and the professions.
At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Kaifeng Jewry numbered about 5,000 people. Concerned, perhaps, about their community’s sense of collective memory, the Jews of Kaifeng decided to erect steles (stone monuments), on which they inscribed the history of their sojourn in China. Two of the steles, which were erected in 1489, 1512, 1663 and 1669, now sit in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum, a lasting testimony to the Jewish life that once thrived there.
According to Dr. Wendy Abraham, a leading scholar on the history of Kaifeng Jewry, many Chinese Jews had risen to high ranks in the Chinese civil service system by the 17th century. But by the middle of the 1800s, widespread assimilation and intermarriage had all but erased the Chinese Jews’ practice and knowledge of Judaism. After the last rabbi of the community died sometime in the first half of the 19th century, Kaifeng’s Jewish community all but disbanded.
Nowadays, there is no community in Kaifeng per se, just a few hundred individuals who identify themselves as descendants of the city’s Jewish community. “There is no rabbi, no synagogue. There is nothing left, only memory. Only memory,” says Shi Lei.
And it was a compelling desire to investigate that memory that led Shi Lei to come to Israel for a year.
As a child, Shi Lei remembers his father and other family members telling him that he is of Jewish descent. “My father told me: ‘you are Jewish’, but I didn’t know the meaning behind this word. What is a Jew? What is Judaism? I didn’t know so much. All I knew was the word ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’”, he says.
Shi Lei’s grandfather would recount to him the distant memories he still preserved of Jewish practice. “When my grandfather was a kid, maybe when he was 8 years old or so, he saw the celebration of the Passover,” says Shi Lei. “His father, my grandfather’s father, used a traditional Chinese writing brush to dip in chicken’s blood mixed with water. After dipping, he would dip this on the doorpost of his home.” The ritual echoes the Biblical command given by G-d to the Children of Israel prior to the exodus from Egypt.
Other vague memories of Jewish customs were also passed down. “My grandfather, when he was a kid, he saw some kipahs, or yarmulkes, which were put in the medicine chest of his mother. But my grandfather doesn’t know when,” says Shi Lei. But even these remnants of Jewish ritual have been lost with the passage of time: “Now, so many things just disappeared. We don’t know why, they just disappeared — yarmulkes, but also the celebration of the Passover. We don’t do it anymore now,” Shi Lei says somewhat wistfully.
As he grew older, Shi Lei read everything he could find about Jewish history and culture, slowly expanding his knowledge base about his ancestors’ way of life. “As my knowledge about this was growing, I gradually, little by little, more and more, I had the strong wish that I want to study Judaism and Jewish history.”
In July 2000, Shi Lei met Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of Great Neck, New York, who was leading a study and tour group to China, as he has done on many occasions over the past two decades. Rabbi Tokayer, a former Chief Rabbi of Japan and author of some 28 books on Jews and the Far East, was deeply impressed with Shi Lei and his sincerity about exploring his heritage.
Rabbi Tokayer had always been troubled by the demise of the Kaifeng Jewish community in the 19th century, saying, “No one went to help them, and we let them disappear. This bothers me to this very day.” His meeting with Shi Lei, then, was especially fortuitous. “Suddenly,” he says, “I meet a recent college graduate in China, who knows English well and is a direct descendant of the original Jewish families. He is very proud of his ancestry and anxious to learn.” After Shi Lei served as a guide for Rabbi Tokayer’s tour group in Kaifeng, the participants became enamored with the young Chinese scholar. After consulting with Shi Lei and his family, Rabbi Tokayer contacted Bar-Ilan University and arranged for him to enroll in the one-year program.
Shi Lei was excited at the prospect of learning about Jewish traditions and culture. “After I knew that I am Jewish and that my ancestral land is Israel,” he says, “I had a strong wish to go to Israel to study. Rabbi Tokayer contacted Bar-Ilan University and the university promised to give me a full scholarship because I do not have any personal funds.” Thanks to a scholarship from the university, along with some funding from the members of Rabbi Tokayer’s tour group, Shi Lei is now busy juggling an intense program of study.
When I visited with Shi Lei at the Bar-Ilan campus, the excitement he felt about his lessons was palpable. He proudly showed me his daily schedule of classes, which include lectures in Jewish history, archaeology of the Holy Land, and Hebrew language. His personable nature and ready smile have served him well, as various people stop us in the hallway to greet him and say hello.
As the first descendant of Kaifeng Jewry to come to Israel to study, Shi Lei often encounters a great deal of curiosity and interest in his background. When he tells people of his Jewish ancestry, he says, “the first reaction of some is surprise, surprise, surprise, after which they always ask me many questions about the Jews, about the history of the Jews in China.”
After completing the one-year program at Bar-Ilan, Shi Lei plans to return to Kaifeng, where he hopes to find a job in academia researching Jewish history and culture in China. He is grateful to the Chinese government, which allowed him to study in Israel, and says that relations between China and the Jewish state are friendly.
Shi Lei encourages American Jews and Israelis to visit China, and to learn more about the history of Kaifeng’s Jewish community. Such visits, he says, are “really very helpful to Jewish descendants in Kaifeng, because they can tell us more about Jewish history and traditions. Most of us know nothing about Judaism or Jewish history.” In the past, visitors have sent Jewish books and other materials to Jews in Kaifeng, all of which have helped them to deepen their knowledge of their roots.
When asked about the number of Jewish descendants in Kaifeng, Shi Lei says, “To tell the truth, I don’t know how many people in Kaifeng identify themselves as Jewish. About ten years ago, the former curator of Kaifeng’s Municipal Museum, Wang Yisha, conducted an investigation of this issue. At that time, over 300 identified themselves as Jewish.”
All of the Jewish descendants belong to one of seven clans, each identifiable by its surname. Legend has it that during the Song dynasty over a thousand years ago, a Chinese emperor, unable to pronounce the Jews’ Hebrew-sounding names, bestowed his surname and the surnames of six of his ministers on the Chinese Jews. These seven names — Zhao, Li, Ai, Zhang, Gao, Jin and Shi — were used by Kaifeng’s Jews throughout the centuries, and it is to the Shi clan that Shi Lei traces his own roots.
But even among those who do preserve the memory of their Jewish heritage, there is no active communal life. “Every Jewish family in Kaifeng,” says Shi Lei, “every family is an orphan, an island in a lake, so this family has no connection with that family and they don’t know each other.” “When the new year in China comes, some other people from the Shi clan, they come to my grandparents home and visit my grandparents so that at that time we can meet each other. So you can see it is only about individuals.”
Nevertheless, Shi Lei has gotten to know some of the other Jewish descendants in the city. “As the foreign visitors came to visit us often, it grew necessary to choose some representatives from every family, who would sit together and talk to each other and meet with the visiting groups. So through this, we get to know more and more Jewish descendants in the city.”
Despite these positive developments, it would be wrong to speak of a revival of the Kaifeng Jewish community. Too many years have passed, too much has been lost, to try and rebuild a Jewish communal framework in the city.
The site of the former Kaifeng synagogue now serves as a hospital. It adjoins Jiao Jing Lane, which is Chinese for “Teaching Scripture Lane,” which passes through what was once the Jewish district of Kaifeng. Though the synagogue had been renovated and rebuilt a dozen times in the centuries after its establishment, by the 1860s it was no more. In 1866, a Reverend W.A.P. Martin visited Kaifeng and wrote that the only thing left of the once beautiful synagogue was a single, solitary stone.
Now, nearly a century and a half later, even that stone is gone.
Or is it?
Interestingly, when I asked Shi Lei the meaning of his name in Chinese, he told me that, roughly translated, it means a “strong stone.” I could not help but be moved by the symbolism.
For though Jewish life in Kaifeng, like the synagogue it once supported, is long gone, a single stone, one made of flesh and blood, still stands, proudly clinging to the heritage of his ancestors and grappling to reclaim it.
That stone, of course, is Shi Lei. And, as his name implies, he is a rock of strength and determination.
For more information about the history of Kaifeng's Jewish community, please consult:
Sino-Judaic Institute http://www.sino-judaic.org/
China-Judaic Studies Association http://servercc.oakton.edu/~friend/chinajews.html
A wonderful novel, Peony, written by Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck, vividly describes the demise of Kaifeng?s Jewish community. Though a work of fiction, it is based on historical events. It is available over the internet at www.amazon.com.
China Judaic Studies Association
Promoting Judaic Studies in China
Jews in Kaifeng, China: A Brief History
By Professor Xu Xin, Director of the Center for Jewish Studies, Nanjing University
(Written November, 2003.)
The Jewish Diaspora in Kaifeng has the most documented history among all Jewish communities in pre-modern China (documents trace the beginning of the presence of Jews in China back to the 8th century although assumptions go beyond the Talmudic period). Available information, though fragmentary, indicates that Kaifeng Jewry was predominantly of Persian origin around the 11th century (Song Dynasty). It seems certain that the Silk Road, a major throughway between China and Persia at the time, was the route, and business opportunities was one of the attractions.
Kaifeng Jewry’s continuous history of about 800 years is extraordinary. By and large, the history of Jews in the Diaspora is conditioned not only by their own heritage, tradition, adaptability, and cohesiveness but also by the social environment of their country of residence. The development, growth, and fall of the Kaifeng Jewish community parallels in many ways the rise and decline of Chinese society in general and of the city of Kaifeng in particular.
Our limited knowledge about the early history of Kaifeng Jewry causes us to surmise that Chinese emperors permitted the Jews to remain in Kaifeng , to observe their own laws and customs, to acquire property and enjoy the same privileges as the native-born subjects of the dynasty. They adopted themselves very quickly and successfully in the new environment and lived peacefully and comfortably with the local people. Through their own efforts, they built up homes and businesses and began to enjoy a secure and stable life. According to their own records, they built a synagogue in 1163. Ever since then, the synagogue has been renovated or rebuilt for at least 10 times.
In the second half of the 14th century, Chinese society once again underwent a major change. Han Chinese overthrew the Mongols who ruled China between 1279-1368 and established the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). During this period, the Kaifeng Jewish community entered a Golden Age. The measures taken by the Ming opened the political door for Jews along with everyone else, providing a ladder by which Jews could rise in Chinese society. Unlike the Jews of Europe and the Middle East in the same period, they were encouraged to fully engage in the local society, including public affairs and government service.
Already allied with the powerful feudal ruling class, the Jews involved themselves ever more in the city’s commerce and learning. The 1489 inscription on a memorial stele provides some insights into the center of this expanding Jewry. Its commercial activities were probably not just local. Connections with Jews in other Chinese cities -- Ningbo, Ningxia, Yangzhou, and Hangzhou -- seem to have been commercial as well as religious. Success in the civil service examination system meant wealth, security, and recognition. It is not surprising that so many Jews flocked to enroll in Chinese schools, studied diligently, and prepared for the examinations. The achievements of Kaifeng Jews during the Ming dynasty were remarkable. More than 20 of them held degrees; 14 served as court officials or military officers, and four were official physicians, one of whom served the prince directly. For one small community, this was indeed noteworthy.
As a result, the Kaifeng Jews became Chinese in dress, language, and mode of life, although they still adhered strictly to their traditional religious rites and customs. Their achievements during this period won them a permanent place in Chinese history -- often mentioned in gazetteers.
Two major events with far-reaching effects -- a local catastrophe and a national upheaval -- heralded the end of Kaifeng Jewry’s Golden Age. Locally, the Yellow River flood in 1642 completely destroyed the city of Kaifeng. Nationally, a dynastic transition occurred between the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The worst flood the city had experienced since the 4th century almost totally destroyed Kaifeng. More than half of its Jewish populace died, with approximately 200 families managing to escape. The 1489 inscription states that there were 70 clans in the community and names 17 of them. When the survivors were finally able to return to their homes after the flood, the number of clans had been reduced to seven: Li, Jin, Shi, Zhao, Gao, Ai, and Zhang. All the others were gone.
Fortunately, before the flood the community had been on a very solid foundation socially and financially. Thus, its members could and did rebuild their lives and synagogue. All seven clans contributed money. Many individuals donated funds to repair or recopy Torah scrolls. In 1663, they completed a brand-new, magnificent synagogue on the ancient site. After they placed 13 Torah scrolls in the Ark they held a grand celebration. The community also erected a stone monument to commemorate the event -- the well-known 1663 inscription that provides so much detailed information about their history.
Although the community managed to rebuild its synagogue, signs of decline were emerging. The economic center of China had further shifted to the eastern coastal cities. As the overland trade routes diminished in importance, Kaifeng and other inland cities gradually grew more and more apart from the economic mainstream. Kaifeng became no more than a provincial capital. Its size shrank, as did its economy and business.
The beginning of the 18th century also saw the growth of tension and disputes between the Chinese government and the Catholic Church, because the Qing rulers were becoming increasingly anti-Christian and anti-foreign. In 1704, in connection with the "Rites Controversy," Pope Clement XI issued a decree to prohibit Chinese Christians from practicing Chinese rituals. This so annoyed Emperor Kang Xi that the Chinese government began to expel missionaries from the country.
In 1725, Emperor Yung-cheng ordered all missionaries working among the Chinese to either go to Macao, an island colony on the southern coast of China under Portuguese rule, or leave the country. In 1783, another order from the court dissolved the Society of Jesus in China. The expulsion solidified China’s isolation from the rest of the world and thus had a profound implications for the Kaifeng Jews. The expulsion of the Christian missionaries left them more alone than ever, for the European priests had been their only contact with the outside world since 1605 when Ai Tien, a Kaifeng Jew, met Father Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit. The Jews were now completely cut off from the Catholic missionaries, who we may suppose gave them some encouragement after earlier links were severed.
Taking everything into consideration, the Kaifeng Jewish community ceased to function as a viable religious or collective entity in the second half of the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century all the holy scriptures and books were gone. In 1914, the site of the synagogue was finally sold by the Jews to the Canadian Anglican Mission headed by Bishop Charlees White. It is no exaggeration to say that by now the history of the Kaifeng Jewish community, which had existed proudly and distinctively since the 11th century, was over.
The Jewish experience in Kaifeng, China, is unique and meaningful -- a consecutive history of about 800 years as an observant society. No doubt it was the most dynamic, active, and important Jewish community in Chinese as well as in world Jewish history. Rather than being saddened by the fact that the community had ceased to exist by the mid-19th century as the last rabbi of the community died without a successor, historians should be amazed by the fact that the community survived for such a long time among the vast sea of Chinese, keeping alive traditions in a powerful Chinese culture that absorbs nearly everything. Even today, after almost 200 years following the fall of the community, the Jewish identity of many individuals whose ancestors had been members of the community remains alive. In the beginning of the 21st century, the scions of Kaifeng Jewry still consider themselves Jewish and share a strong sense of ethnic identity.
The history of Kaifeng Jewry is certainly a part of the history of world Jewry. If it is ignored, our knowledge of the many byroads and possibilities of Jewish existence would be not merely be incomplete but seriously impoverished.
Kaifeng and Kansas
Jews from Middle Kingdom, written by Jacques Cukierkorn for the March 2002 edition of Hadassah Magazine (page 60+) compares the settling of Kaifeng with the arrival of Jews in Kansas city. Inspired by a speech made by Xu Xin to a Kansas City synagogue, Cukierkorn stresses the point that "small Jewish communites have as much to teach the Jewish world as large ones."