first Jewish synagogue in China was built in 1163… you think those evil Emperors wouldn’t of allowed that if China wasn’t in the Jews pockets.
Detailed History of Kaifeng Jews
by Michael Pollack (z”l), revised and updated by Anson Laytner and Tiberiu Weisz
I Introduction: The Sect that Plucks Out the Sinews
For 166 years, beginning in 960 C.E., China was ruled by the emperors of the Song Dynasty from their capital at Kaifeng, a bustling metropolis straddling the legendary Silk Road that linked their sprawling domain to its trading partners in the West. And, it was sometime during this period that a group of Israelites were invited for an audience with the emperor.
Jews were not newcomers to China. Some had lived under Chinese rule from sometime after 92 CE, during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE- 220 CE), when they resided in what at the time was called the Western Region (roughly Xinjiang Province today) in special enclaves that were set aside by the Chinese for foreigners. (See: Tiberiu Weisz, The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions, iUniverse 2006). During the reign of Emperor Wen (518-604 CE) of the Sui Dynasty, large number of foreign traders and people of different creeds resided in Changan, then the capital of China. Chinese annals briefly mentioned the customs and rituals of some creeds, but otherwise they could hardly distinguish one from the other. Israelite settlers and a synagogue are mentioned by name in a Tang (618-906) poem and other records confirm Jewish settlers in the 7th century.
But, the first time that Israelites referred to their own presence in China was in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). During the late Tang and early Song, China was in turmoil. Buddhist persecution was followed by internal disorder and the “barbarians” were knocking on the gates of China. Large numbers of people left their homes and wandered in search of safer places, and by the time the Song had finally reestablished some sort of order, many Chinese residents had already been living under the Jurchen in relative peace. The Song Emperors were quite determined to return those refugees back to China. A memorial suggested that the emperor invite and welcome the refugees back. The Emperor accepted the plan and with offers of some incentives, he invited the refugees to return and submit to the Chinese rule(Lidai Mingchen Zouoyi -Famous Ministers Memorials to the Throne in Dynastical Order. v.6. pg. 4382, Taibei, 1964 –in Chinese). Among the returnees was a band of Jews, some of them merchants, probably of Persian birth or ancestry, who accepted the invitation and was granted an audience in the imperial palace. The emperor graciously accepted the tribute of cotton goods they had brought to him, saying, “You returned to my China. Honor and observe the customs of your ancestors”. Some scholars translate the Chinese as “You have come to our China…” and believe this indicates the formal start of the Jewish community of Kaifeng.
Centuries later, in 1489, the descendants engraved the emperor’s words along with what their rituals and core beliefs on a stone tablet. They placed the tablet in a place of honor in the courtyard of the resplendent synagogue that their more immediate forebears had constructed in the year 1163 at the intersection of Kaifeng’s Earth Market and Fire God Streets. This monument is now among the holdings of the municipal museum of Kaifeng.
To this day, several hundred residents of the old Song capital regard themselves as bona fide members of the House of Israel. They hold firm to this belief despite the facts that their features are indistinguishable from those of their neighbors (just like other Jews around the world), that they have had no rabbi for the better part of two centuries, no synagogue or other communal organization for several generations, and that they remember virtually nothing of the faith and traditions of their ancestors. Quite surprisingly, the street on which only a few of them now live bears a sign that was erected somewhat little more than a hundred years ago and whose Chinese characters read “The Lane of the Sect that Teaches the Scriptures.” Today newer signs have been posted as well, testifying to the survival of this ancient but isolated Jewish community.
The Jewish community (Heb. kehillah) of Kaifeng, which seems never to have had more than five thousand members, has attracted far greater interest throughout the past few hundred years than its meager size would appear to warrant. However, this interest is fully justified, for the bittersweet saga of that tiny segment of Israel whose destiny it was to be hidden away for a millennium or so in one of the most improbable of diasporic sanctuaries, has a good deal to teach us about the survival and disintegration of Jewish communities. For this reason, and also because of the curious role it was unwittingly made to play in certain pivotal European theological matters, the story of Kaifeng Jewry deserves to be told and retold.
No one can say with any degree of certainty precisely when Jews first set foot on the soil of China. Numerous theories have been proposed that place them there, either as travelers or as settlers, at varying intervals within a time-span beginning shortly before the birth of Moses and extending several hundred years beyond that. Some of these theories, however, are totally contrived; others are patently conjectural; some are tied in with the mythology surrounding the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel; and still others are derived from the inept readings of Hebrew and Chinese texts. Nevertheless, the fact that no corroborating evidence has so far come to light does not necessarily exclude the possibility that Jews could have made their way to China during the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE- 220 CE). We know, of course, that large numbers of the descendants of those hapless Jews who sat and wept by the waters of Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E. wandered progressively eastward towards China. We also know that a group of Levites and Cohanim (priests) left Babylon and wandered eastwards towards Tianzhu or India (Hodu in Hebrew) and eventually, several generations later, settled in the valleys of the Pamir Mountains, just west of the Taklamakan Desert. There they lived in obscurity according to the mitzvot of Moses until General Li Guangli in 108 BCE arrived with his occupying Chinese army. The General noticed the strange appearance of these settlers and left us a brief description. Of course, what he did not realize was that that his sketch coincided with the biblical description of Israelite customs.
The proven existence of other Jewish enclaves in several of the port cities of China has been used to support the proposition that Jewish merchants (or their forebears) came to China from India, Yemen and elsewhere, a theory supported by certain etymological, ritualistic and kindred considerations that link the Chinese Jews with these countries. It is possible that these Jews traveled to China by sea and then proceeded overland to Kaifeng, which was then China’s greatest city. It is more likely that, at a later date, members of these trade-based Jewish port communities relocated to Kaifeng in order to consolidate and preserve the Jewish community there, before their own communities ceased to exist entirely.
Unfortunately, tangible evidence of this early Jewish presence in China is hard to corroborate. All the artifacts, relics traces, and whatever evidence might have been found, was probably lost due to negligence and natural, and man-made disasters. Nevertheless, the first piece of tangible evidence we have of the presence of even a single Jew in the Middle Kingdom comes from a much later period-around 718 CE. This takes the form of a business letter written in Hebrew characters on paper, a commodity then manufactured only in China. The language is Judeo-Persian, at the time a common idiom of Central Asian commerce. The writer was a Jewish merchant-adventurer who, as best as we can make out from the tattered sheet on which the letter is written, was seeking the assistance of a coreligionist in Isfahan in disposing of a flock of inferior sheep. His letter, apparently never delivered to its destination, was discovered a century or so ago at Dandan Uiliq, some seventy miles northeast of the Khotan oasis, in Chinese Turkestan. A second find, a page of selihot (penitential prayers) written in pure Hebrew, was found a few years later at Dunhuang, in the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas (also known as the Mogao Grottoes); it dates back to the late 8th or perhaps the early 9th century. More compelling evidence comes from a Chinese source suggesting that the Chinese knew about the Jews in the Tang Dynasty (618- 906). A rather obscure poem by an unknown poet, who apparently wrote in the late Tang, described life in China, and mentioned that in Changan (Xian today) there were churches, temples, synagogues and mosques for … Muslims and Jews. And, of course, there is no reason to suppose that these texts, which fell into our hands entirely by chance, are necessarily the very first Jewish texts to have been written in China. We may indeed surmise that Jews were traveling and settling in China substantially before these documents were composed.
There is, in any event, additional credible evidence of Jewish activity in China that goes back to the latter part of the 9th century, when ibn Khurdadbih, the so-called Postmaster of Baghdad, alluded to Jewish traders known as Radanites who traveled from such distant points as Spain and France all the way to China and back by any of four already well-established land and sea routes. In the 10th century, the Muslim chronicler Abu Zaid al-Sirafi told of the capture of Khanfu (probably Guangzhou, i.e., Canton) in 877/78 and the ensuing massacre of great numbers of Muslim, Christian, Magian, and Jewish merchants in that city. Next, we have a recently-discovered, firsthand account of Jews in China from the 13th century. This memoire, whose veracity is disputed by some scholars, was (allegedly) penned by a Jewish merchant named Jacob d’Ancona who, in 1270, set out in Italy and a year later, arrived in China. His narration mentions a rather large Jewish community in the southern Chinese city of Guanzhou (Canton or Fujian) and elsewhere in China (David Selboren, transl, The City of Light, Citadel Press, 2000). Christian travelers began to encounter Jews in China during the latter part of the 13th century too. Marco Polo met several of them in Beijing around 1286. Shortly thereafter, the Franciscan missionary John of Montecorvino, writing from China, reaffirmed the existence of Jews in the country. In January 1326, Andrew of Perugia commented resignedly that the Jews of Quanzhou obdurately refused to accede to his pleas that they undergo baptism. And in 1342, John of Marignoli told of having engaged “in glorious disputations” in Beijing with both Muslims and Jews. Lastly, the Muslim traveler ibn Battuta also spoke of a Jewish presence in China. When he and his party arrived at the outskirts of Hangzhou in 1346, he wrote, they entered the city “through a gate called the Jews’ Gate,” and that among the inhabitants of the city there were “Jews, Christians and sun-worshiping Turks, a large number in all.”
No further indications of a Jewish presence in China appear to have been received in Europe until the middle of the 16th century, when rumors of the survival of one or more Sino-Judaic settlements were passed on to Rome by the missionary Francis Xavier (later to be canonized for his work in the Far East). At about the same time, the Portuguese traveler Galleato Perera, writing about his incarceration in China from 1549 to 1561, stated that in Chinese courts of law “the Moores, Gentiles, and Jewes, have all theyr sundry oathes,” and that members of each of these religious designations are sworn in “by the thynges they do worshyppe.”
To date, no more than six indisputable allusions to Jews have been discovered in the Chinese records, and these relate to events occurring between 1277 and 1354. Though all are exceedingly brief, they cast pencils of light upon a few aspects of Jewish life in the Chinese world. Surprisingly, however, only one reference to Jews in China has been culled from the vast treasury of Jewish literature that was written outside the country prior to the 17th century. And, disappointingly, that one reference turns out to be the product of the fervid imagination of the colorful raconteur who called himself Eldad ha-Dani. It was this Eldad who, in the latter part of the 9th century, succeeded in persuading the more gullible among his coreligionists that he had once been kidnapped by a band of cannibals, brought forcibly to China, and ransomed there for thirty-two pieces of gold by a merchant whom he airily identified as a Jew “of the tribe of Isaachar.”
The Discovery of the Community
Even though the city of Kaifeng could boast a population of a million during the years in which it served as the capital of the Song emperors-making it one of the two or three largest cities in the medieval world-it was only during the early decades of the 17th century that its name attained any noteworthy recognition in European intellectual circles. By then, the city had been reduced to the status of provincial capital, and its population had dwindled considerably. However, the interest demonstrated by well-informed Europeans regarding Kaifeng lay not in the city itself, but rather in the startling revelation that it contained an enclave of Jews who had lived there, as the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci put it, “from time immemorial.”
The discovery of the existence of a Jewish community in Kaifeng emerged as the consequence of a seriocomic meeting in Beijing during the last week of June 1605 between Ricci and a Kaifeng mandarin named Ai Tian who had come to Beijing from Kaifeng in the hope of acquiring a more desirable civil service assignment than the district magistracy he already held.
Before leaving home, Ai had read in a book called Things I have Heard Tell about a small contingent of Europeans, headed by Ricci, whose evangelical zeal had brought them to China where, after many years, the emperor had finally approved their several petitions to be allowed to open a house of worship in Beijing. These foreigners, the author of the book explained, spoke of themselves as adherents of a faith based solidly and unalterably upon the doctrine of monotheism, a theological tenet which, as his educated readers would have known, ran parallel to the monotheistic teachings that the followers of the prophet Muhammad had brought to China many centuries earlier. What startled the author and, one would suppose, substantially all his readers, was that these Europeans persistently and indignantly denied that they were Muslims. What, then, the question therefore arose, was this strange faith to which these newcomers to China subscribed?
To Ai Tian, however, the matter was quite simple: if Matteo Ricci’s people were truly convinced that there was only one God in the universe and if, as they maintained, they were not Muslims, what else could they be, he reasoned, but Jews?-Jews, that is, just like himself and like the rest of the kehillah to which he belonged. And this was an exhilarating thought, the more so because its consequences could well open a new chapter in the history of the isolated Jews of Kaifeng, whose contacts with non-Chinese Jews had now been totally cut off for several generations. In short, Ai’s projected journey to Beijing would afford him an opportunity to seek out the European Jews who had settled there, tell them about his own community, find out what was happening to the Jews in the rest of the world, and perhaps re-forge the links that had long ago tied the Jews of Kaifeng to their coreligionists in Europe and the non-Chinese world.
So it was that Ai Tian, having arrived in Beijing and made his way to what he thought was a synagogue, but was actually the church that the Jesuits had recently established in the city. Clad in his imposing mandarin robes and looking as Chinese as all the members of his community must by then have looked, he introduced himself to Matteo Ricci, whom he took to be a rabbi, as a coreligionist from distant Kaifeng.
This was, as can be readily understood, an introduction that left Ricci astounded. For the past two decades he had been searching vainly for descendants of the several Christian communities that were known to have existed in China a thousand years earlier, and now—at last—here he was, face to face with one of them. He was exhilarated.
After a few minutes of excited, exploratory talk, the priest ushered his guest into the chapel where, in celebration of the festival of St. John the Baptist, a painting of Mary and the infant Jesus had been placed near the altar, together with another of a youthful St. John. Ricci knelt reverently before the two representations. Ai, curiously inspecting the paintings, promptly misidentified the figures as those of Rebecca, Jacob and Esau. Courteously following the example set by his host, he also sank to his knees, remarking at the same time that although it was not the custom of his people to genuflect before images, he personally saw no objection to paying homage to one’s ancestors. Then, observing a mural depicting the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, he wondered aloud whether these might not be the four eldest sons of Jacob, and asked the now-bewildered Ricci why the artist had failed to include Jacob’s other eight sons in the work.
In the end, of course, the matter was sorted out, leaving Ricci with the disappointing but still exhilarating realization that his visitor was not the Chinese Christian he had taken him to be, but rather-and even more astonishingly-a Chinese Jew. Ai, as might be expected, was equally astonished to learn that his host belonged to a faith called Christianity, but seems to have concluded that although this Christianity had taken on a veneer of customs and teachings that were strange to him, it was no less Jewish than the faith in which he had been reared back in Kaifeng.
We must assume that on his return to Kaifeng Ai transmitted this conclusion to the rabbi of the city’s synagogue, for on the receipt of a letter from Ricci early in 1608, the rabbi (Abishai?) sent back a reply that, while protesting Ricci’s contention that the Messiah had already arrived, apparently perceived so few differences in their respective theological positions that, after explaining that he was elderly and infirm, he offered to appoint the priest as his successor in the office of chief rabbi of Kaifeng. But, he added firmly, there was one formidable failing of Ricci’s that had been communicated to him by Ai and would have to be corrected before such an appointment could be confirmed. Put plainly, he declared, Ricci would have to promise to give up, once and for all, his deplorable and scandalously un-rabbinic addiction to eating pork.
The stories of Ricci’s meeting with Ai and of his correspondence with the rabbi of Kaifeng are told in Ricci’s letters and in the journal in which he kept track of his activities in China. Regrettably, he gives us no indication of his reaction to Rabbi Abishai’s offer to appoint him to the senior rabbinical post in all of China.
Scholars agree that there were numerous ancient Jewish communities in China. However, of these, some of which were apparently quite substantial, we know almost nothing, not even where all of them were located. The one exception to this is the kehillah of Kaifeng, though even here the available material is sparse and at times unreliable, especially insofar as the first six or seven centuries of that community’s existence are concerned. It must be understood that for this period nearly all our knowledge concerning the Kaifeng Jews is derived from four sources: their surviving historical, scriptural and liturgical texts, the few documents in Chinese, the ever-waning folk recollections of succeeding generations, and the testimony provided by the Jesuit missionaries who had sporadic dealings with them between the years 1605 and 1723. As a consequence, the number of Jews who settled in Kaifeng during the Song era and the identity of the land from which they came have yet to be determined to everyone’s satisfaction.
The traditions of the city’s Jews, often vague and inconsistent, suggest that their community was originally composed of immigrants from “Xiyu,” (Western Region) a geographic term that refers to the province of Xinjiang today, though to a far greater portion of Asia than is contained in the Iran of our times. Most specialists who have studied the matter agree that the roots of the Jewish community of Kaifeng are to be sought for in the general area of present-day Persia, and that its founders traveled to China over a land route.
Of the seventeen clans whose names are listed on the stone monument of 1489, subsequent allusions to only eight have been retrieved from the existing records: Shi, Ai, Gao, Jin, Zhang, Zhao, and Li (with two distinct clans using the name Li). This led, incidentally, to the common practice of referring to the Jews of Kaifeng as “The Eight Clans with the Seven Surnames.”
Although the use of Chinese patronymics by people of recognizable foreign descent was not ordinarily sanctioned, the Kaifeng Jews were authorized to adopt such names in appreciation of the role played by a Jewish soldier (or perhaps a physician) who in 1420 helped expose the treasonable designs of a member of the royal family. The clan names chiseled onto the 1489 monument are Chinese. It is worth noting that the seven Chinese patronymics mentioned above are still used by those several hundred individuals of Jewish descent who live in Kaifeng and elsewhere in China today.
The inscription of 1489 tells us that Kaifeng’s first synagogue was built in 1163.
The community was led by Levites and Cohanim, names which indicate that they were of priestly class, and an “andula” (a caretaker or shamash) was in charge of building the synagogue. In time, the synagogue was surrounded by other structures, among them a ritual bath, a communal kitchen, a study hall, a kosher butchering facility, a sukkah for use at the appropriate season of the year, commemorative arches and gateways, stelae (that of 1489, another dated 1512, and the two-sided stele dated 1663), and the like. The first synagogue, enlarged and refurbished as the need arose, was destroyed by flood in 1461. A replacement synagogue appears to have been consumed by fire around 1600. The third synagogue was swept away in 1642 by a flood caused by the deliberate rupturing of the dikes of the nearby Yellow River as part of a plan for ending a lengthy siege of the city by rebel forces. At least 100,000 people lost their lives in this inundation, including an undetermined number of Jews. Kaifeng’s last synagogue, which was dedicated in 1663, served the community until the 1860s, when it was demolished, the congregation having by then become divided, impoverished, and weakened by a general ignorance of its heritage. A substantial portion of the tiles from this structure were acquired by the city’s Great East (Dong Da) Mosque, which, it would appear, also managed to procure an assortment of artifacts and manuscripts that had formerly been used in the synagogue. A balustrade, which was part of the synagogal building, was incorporated in a local Confucian temple. Other synagogal appurtenances have survived, as well as seven of its Torah scrolls, a fragment consisting of the first twelve skins of an eighth Torah, and sixty-one booklets-mainly prayer texts and portions of the weekly Torah readings, but also two Haggadahs for Passover and the community’s historically invaluable Memorial book, which lists the names of more than a thousand Kaifeng Jews who died between the early years of the 15th century to c1670. With the exception of the Torah fragment, which is owned by an anonymous private collector, all are preserved in libraries and museums in England, Austria, Canada, and the United States.
What was life like for the Jews of Kaifeng from the time they became firmly established in the city until their community fell apart? The answer is that in its everyday non-religious aspects the life of the Kaifeng Jews was not very different from that of their neighbors. They dressed like their countrymen, wore pigtails (a custom decreed by the Qing conquerors of China to symbolize the submission of the Chinese to their new rulers), bound their daughters’ feet, spoke the local dialect, and engaged in the same occupations as the people among whom they lived. They were thus farmers, merchants, artisans, scholars, officials, soldiers, doctors, and the like. In proportion to their numbers, however, they seem to have been quite successful. Many attained mandarin rank, the most noteworthy of these being the brothers Zhao Yingcheng (Moshe ben Abram) and Zhao Yingdou (Hebrew name unknown), who in the 1660s held prestigious governmental posts and were instrumental in rebuilding the synagogue that was destroyed in the flood of 1642. Each of the two brothers also wrote a book, in Chinese, about Judaism. To our regret, however, only the titles of these works are known. Yingcheng’s Record of the Vicissitudes of the Holy Scriptures, it is believed, dealt with the history and scriptures of Kaifeng Jewry, while Yingdou’s Preface to the Illustrious Way offered an exposition of the tenets of Judaism. In recent years, interested Chinese scholars have instituted searches, so far altogether unsuccessful, in the libraries of Kaifeng, Beijing and elsewhere for these texts. In the event that a copy of either or both of these works is discovered, we may expect to fill in many of the gaps that now exist in our understanding of the Jewish experience in old China.
The religious outlooks and practices of the Kaifeng Jews were for centuries very much like those of their fellow Jews outside China. They observed the Sabbath and the other holy days, circumcised their male offspring, maintained schools which taught the language and scriptural texts of their ancestors, and ordered their lives within the moral and doctrinal parameters set forth in the traditional rabbinic literature. They recognized the One God as eternal and without physical form, and believed that the individual is judged in the hereafter, as well as in the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels. Idolatry was anathema to them. They accepted full responsibility for helping the poor and those incapable of taking care of themselves. They prayed facing westward, in the direction of Jerusalem. The headgear they wore at worship was colored blue, a practice which led some of their neighbors, who mistook them for adherents of a sub-sect of Islam, to call them “The Muslims with the Blue Caps,” this to differentiate them from mainstream Muslims, who, because they wore white headgear at prayer, were known as “The Muslims with the White Caps.” Their children were given Hebrew names in addition to the conventional names of the country. No converts were sought, but Chinese women underwent the rite of conversion before marrying Jewish men. Polygamy was permitted, and the levirate laws were observed. In the Persian style, they divided their pentateuchal readings into fifty-three portions rather than into the Ashkenazic division of fifty-four.
The Kaifeng Jews ate only meat that had been prepared in accordance with the precepts so common elsewhere in the Jewish world. Their kashrut practices appeared so utterly strange to the Chinese that one of the several names by which they identified the Jews was “The Sect that Plucks Out the Sinews.” The term was inspired by the Kaifeng Jews’ practice of removing the thigh muscles from the hip sockets of the animals they slaughtered, this in adherence to the kashrut rule derived from the story told in Genesis 32 of Jacob’s struggle with the angel at Peniel, in the course of which this part of his body was injured.
The prospects for the long-term survival of Kaifeng Jewry were from the very outset endangered by its small numbers and later compounded by its total isolation from the rest of the Jewish world. For several hundred years, the bilateral international trade that flowed along the Silk Road and the sea lanes between East and West provided the Kaifeng Jews with infusions of theological and educational content that reinforced their resolve and capacity to maintain their Jewish orientation intact. Their relations with the several Jewish communities then flourishing within China itself no doubt did much the same. Around the year 1500, however, the Ming rulers issued a series of decrees prohibiting travel between their domains and foreign lands. As an immediate consequence, the Jews of Kaifeng found themselves hermetically sealed off from all contact with coreligionists abroad. Meanwhile, the various Jewish settlements in other Chinese centers died out, leaving the Kaifeng Jews utterly stranded and surrounded by millions upon millions of inhabitants who looked to spiritual heritages profoundly different from their own.
There were, to be sure, other significant erosive factors. The Chinese Jews, unlike most of their non-Chinese coreligionists, lived in a relatively open and tolerant society, and not once in their long history did any Chinese monarch see fit to single them out for the torments and ghettoization to which Jews were so tragically subjected in western lands, or to deny them free access to all forms of employment. Their good fortune was not, however, without its difficulties, for it split their ranks disastrously as they dealt with the thorny problem of drawing the line between their desire to preserve their own traditions and the constant temptation to replace them with those of their neighbors. Moreover, the absence of political and economic restrictions cost Kaifeng Jewry a high percentage of its brightest young men.
To make matters worse, appointments to the country’s most prestigious and remunerative posts in the civil service, the educational establishment, and even in the armed forces—required that candidates pass a series of specialized examinations designed to evaluate the extent of their mastery of the classic texts of Confucianism. The preparation for these examinations entailed long years of intensive study; and in the case of Jewish candidates the effort was all too often undertaken at the expense of their Judaic studies. As a rule, moreover, success in the examinations quite often resulted in appointments to posts far from home. There, the Jewish official and his family would be unlikely to meet other Jews, and could well be lost to the people from whom they had sprung. Still, this was not always the case the Zhao brothers, for example, came home to participate fully in Jewish life but there is every reason to suspect that such losses occurred frequently enough to cause appreciable damage to the integrity of the community that had been left behind.
The community was further weakened by the repeated natural, military and economic crises that Kaifeng experienced over the centuries. Fire and flood took their toll, revolutionary and foreign armies swept across the city, and the closing of the Silk Road drained it of much of its prosperity. Though now no longer the imperial capital, Kaifeng retained its status as capital of Henan Province until modern times, and as such continued to be a place of importance. But it was nevertheless a city in decline, a city which lured fewer and fewer newcomers, while losing more and more of its own people. Understandably, those Jews who left the city-and there were many who did could scarcely have been expected to find their new surroundings conducive to the successful transmission of their Judaic heritage to succeeding generations.
The gradual dilution of that heritage in Kaifeng itself is readily discerned from even cursory readings of both the community’s surviving records and the reports published by foreign visitors.
The first evidence of the community’s habituation to its all-encompassing Chinese environment may be gleaned from the text inscribed on the synagogal monument of 1489, where an attempt was made to demonstrate that the ethical principles upon which both Judaism and Confucianism are based are very much the same. Incense was burned in the synagogue to honor the memory of dozens of outstanding biblical personages, but also to honor Confucius (who, however, was revered as a great moral teacher rather than as a religious figure). As time goes by, even more evidence of sinicization becomes evident. Sacrifices, in the Chinese style, were offered on several Jewish holidays, though only of kosher foods. The communal schools teach less and less, and the number of students decreased.
Slowly but inexorably, the knowledge of Hebrew diminished, so that when twelve new Torah scrolls are written in the middle of the 17th century, the scribal misspellings in each of them ran into the hundreds. Even the rabbis remembered distressingly little of the ancestral language and faith and, after the death of the last rabbi in the first decade of the 19th century, there was nobody to take his place. Still, the Torah scrolls were preserved in the decaying synagogal building, where they were treasured as objects of veneration, but nobody in the congregation was able to read them. In fact, the Jews displayed one Torah scroll in the marketplace, together with a placard offering a reward to any passerby who could translate it for them. This turned out to be a futile gesture.
Eventually worship services were discontinued; destitute Jewish families set up ramshackle shelters on the synagogal grounds and even grew cabbages in their little plots. By 1850-51, poverty and ignorance are so widespread that the surviving Jews sell six of their Torah scrolls and sixty-three smaller synagogal books to emissaries of the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews (now the Church’s Mission to the Jews). In ensuing years, three more Torahs and at least two smaller synagogal manuscripts are sold. Around 1860, the synagogue is torn down, and a half-century later the land itself is deeded to Canadian missionaries.
Still, throughout all this time there persists a tenacious sense of loyalty (well-mixed with the Chinese concept of ancestral veneration and perhaps a dash of nostalgia as well) on the part of some of the descendants of the ancient Jewish community to the idea of being Jews and to their forgotten traditions. One finds expressions of that attachment even now, so that it is not surprising that in two censuses made of Chinese minority peoples in recent decades, two or three hundred individuals saw fit to register themselves as Jews. Today, as China has granted its citizens more freedom, Jewish descendants gather to study their history and culture, learn Hebrew, and celebrate together. Who knows what their future will be?
Given Kaifeng Jewry’s grindingly long isolation from the wellsprings of Judaism in other lands and its paucity of numbers, it is not difficult to understand why most of its members were ultimately assimilated. But what is really amazing is that this beleaguered outpost of Israel was able to find the inner strength and determination to carry on in face of these overpowering obstacles for as many centuries as it did and to persevere to the present day.
II The Western Fascination with Kaifeng Jewry
No summary of the history of the Jews of Kaifeng can ignore the great fervor and widespread religious speculations that were evoked in the West by the news of their “discovery” in 1605 by Matteo Ricci, particularly throughout Catholic theological circles. The kehillah itself, however, was apparently never aware of the strange uses to which the mere revelation of its existence was quickly put in that remote barbarian corner of the world called Europe.
In 1628, the first of the several Jesuit mission houses that functioned intermittently in Kaifeng was established by Father Francois Sambiasi. From statements made by the Kaifeng Jews in the early 1720s we know that at least two of his successors, Fathers Rodriguez de Figueiredo and Christiano Enriquez, were received as guests in the synagogue some decades before that time; and from this we may infer that meetings with other resident missionaries were not infrequent. In view of the special interest of these men in the proselytization of their Jewish townspeople, the total absence of contemporary reports in either the Jesuit or Jewish records indicating the baptism of even a single Jew suggests that the kehillah was by then more cognizant of the differences between Judaism and Christianity than either Ai Tian or Ricci’s rabbinical correspondent had been, and that its members responded negatively to the conversionary entreaties of the missionaries.
In fact, the earliest known direct report during this period of meetings in Kaifeng between Jew and Jesuit is dated 1704 and comes from the hand of the Jesuit priest Jean-Paul Gozani, whose motivation for making contact with the kehillah went far beyond the conventional limits of missionary endeavor. Surprisingly -and even more important to him than converting the city’s Jews-his primary reason for dealing with them was to secure certain information that might help persuade the Vatican to approve the Jesuit Order’s grandiose plans for the mass proselytization of the Chinese people. What is even more surprising is that Gozani was instructed to obtain documentation from the Kaifeng synagogue that would presumptively clear the way for the second coming of Christ, and with that the dawning of the messianic age.
One of the most vexing problems facing the Catholic Church in connection with its evangelical campaign in China was to decide how much of their old Confucian thoughts and ways of life presumptive candidates for baptism should be permitted to take with them if and when they actually embraced the Catholic faith. And if they were permitted to carry over certain of these Confucian tendencies, what, if anything, should later be done to counteract and eradicate these troublesome proclivities? This was by no means a new problem for the Church, for it had faced very much the same predicament in its dealings with forcibly converted Jews in Europe and in its missionary endeavors in India, Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere.
What intrigued the Jesuits most was the manner in which the Kaifeng Jews had integrated certain Confucian customs into their own monotheistic religion. They felt it necessary, in addition, to find out which Chinese terms the Jews used to identify the Divinity (the Terms Question)–terms, they concluded, that if used by the Jews could be trusted to be entirely free from the taint of idolatry or polytheistic thought. The Jesuits, whose policy it was to define Confucianism as a way of life rather than as a religion, felt that if potential and newly acquired converts were denied the right to retain a fair number of their old familiar beliefs and practices, the Catholic campaign to Christianize China might never be brought to fruition. Here, however, they were completely at odds with their Dominican and Franciscan counterparts, who perceived the introduction into the Church of even the least jot of Confucian ideology to be fraught with danger and to border on heresy. Unlike the Jesuits, however, both the Dominicans and Franciscans insisted that the terms employed by the Chinese for the concept and name of God implied certain material attributes to Him that were utterly irreconcilable with Christian dogma.
The polarization arising from this set of opposing views regarding the identification of Confucianism as either a pagan religion or as a code of morals that had been deeply ingrained in the minds of the vast majority of the inhabitants of China gave rise to a bitterly divisive dispute that is known to ecclesiastical historians as the Chinese Rites Controversy. This dispute was not resolved until 1939, when the decision was made to adopt the position advocated by the Jesuits. By that time, however, the effort to convert China had been brought to a standstill. The nation, then being invaded by the Japanese and split by civil war, was soon to be ruled by a movement that was unbendingly antagonistic to its indigenous theistic establishments, let alone to a new foreign faith. The door through which Catholicism hoped to enter China was now slammed shut.
There was an additional reason for the Church’s great interest in the Kaifeng community. Catholic theologians, followed shortly by Protestant thinkers, were eager to obtain one or more of the Torah scrolls owned by the Kaifeng synagogue. These men presumed, though erroneously, not only that the Jews had come to China before the beginning of the Christian era, but that they had almost from the time of their arrival in the country been utterly cut off from contact with the Jewish population of the rest of the world. It followed, then, that the texts in all the Torah scrolls owned by the Kaifeng synagogue must have been copied by the Chinese Jews from exemplars that were part of a chain of Torahs going back to those that were originally brought to Kaifeng by its first Jewish settlers. The Torah texts of the Kaifeng synagogue, it was therefore pointed out, could be expected to be identical with those of the Torahs that were in use throughout the Jewish world prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth-texts whose integrity successive generations of Christian theologians had been attacking ever since the 2nd century of the Common Era.
These “pristine” Torahs, their argument went, had originally contained an array of passages foretelling the coming of the Christian messiah in language so specific that not even the most obdurate of Jews could fail to accept. The absence of such prophecies from the pre-Christian Jewish scriptures, they charged, could be explained quite simply-they had been blasphemously removed, or perhaps altered in meaning, by the rabbinical authorities during or slightly after the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. (Later, Islamic theologians would argue that since neither the Hebrew nor the Christian scriptures contained prophecies regarding the coming of Mohammed, it was obvious that both the rabbinical and the priestly establishments must have deliberately removed these from their respective texts.)
It occurred to the Christian theologians that if a Torah from Kaifeng were brought to Europe and placed on open display there, its “pristine” contents could be relied upon to demonstrate to Jews everywhere that they had been shamefully betrayed by the ancient rabbinical authorities in whom they had so long put their trust. Such a demonstration, it was generally agreed, could be counted upon to open the eyes of the Jews and convince them to acknowledge Jesus as the true messiah the sine qua non and immediate prelude, as the Church had long taught, to his second coming and the redemption of mankind.
With this overweening consideration in mind, the Jesuit missionaries Jean-Paul Gozani, Jean Domenge and Antoine Gaubil approached the Kaifeng Jews in the years between 1704 and 1723 and tried to buy several of their synagogal books, above all a Torah scroll. Unable to persuade the Jews to part with such treasures, they resorted, though unsuccessfully, to other tactics: two attempts by Domenge to bribe synagogal members and a scheme to have a friendly prince of the realm apply pressure on the Jews to turn over these writings to the Jesuit Order.
Actually, the Jews had permitted both Domenge and Gaubil, each of whom had apparently mastered the basics of Hebrew, to look at the synagogal Torahs. However, the two missionaries had been disappointed, for the few passages they checked showed absolutely no indication of having been altered. Still, it was nearly a century and a half after their time in 1851, that is, when European scholars were at last privileged to examine the Kaifeng writings in detail that it was at last acknowledged that no difference whatsoever existed between the Kaifeng biblical texts and those that could be bought in Jewish and Christian bookstores throughout the world.
Whereas Christian intellectual circles were roused to enthusiasm, however misdirected, by the revelation of the presence of an ancient Jewish enclave in the depths of China, the Jewish theological reaction to this news might be characterized as indifferent. In 1650, it is true, the celebrated Amsterdam rabbi Manasseh ben Israel mentioned Kaifeng Jewry several times in his widely circulated Hope of Israel, while attempting to convince Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan regime to permit the Jews to return to England, from which they had been expelled in 1289. Manasseh observed, almost parenthetically, that the Torah texts of Kaifeng established the fact that the Scriptures of the Jews could not have been rewritten in any way that might be taken as a ploy for concealing the coming of Christianity’s savior.
To date, historians have been unable to retrieve even a single subsequent allusion to Kaifeng from the wealth of the Jewish literature written prior to the late 18th century. One must concede, of course, that it is scarcely possible that the Jewish writers of that period, fascinated as they were by the many stories about the Lost Ten Tribes and the kindred curiosa contained so abundantly in that literature, could have neglected so distant and mysterious a Jewish community as that beyond the Great Wall. What is more likely is that they did write, and perhaps quite frequently, about Kaifeng Jewry, and that we may reasonably anticipate that at least a few samples of their work will some day come to light.
Following this long stretch of apparent silence, Jewish references to the Jews of China began to emerge in increasing numbers. From the 1 860s onward, western travelers who since 1724 had been barred by imperial edict from venturing into the interior of the country, were again enabled to visit Kaifeng and its Jews. Bursts of new information now came to light and the reports provided by both Jewish and Christian visitors to the city uncovered historical data extending beyond those that had been made available in the Jesuit accounts. Regrettably, much of what has been disseminated in print and on lecture platforms about the Jews of Kaifeng had no other purpose than to entertain, and tended to be historically distorted or to contain numerous other misrepresentations. Thus, Voltaire saw fit to make the Jews of China the butt of his wit by contriving a tale which presented them, and by extension all Jews, in a very negative light.
Treading in Voltaire’s footsteps, numerous other anti-Semitic propagandists produced a venomous literature that often tended to make Voltaire’s fulminations seem relatively innocuous. Thus, the Nazi press found it convenient to exploit the story of the Chinese Jews (in extravagantly distorted form, of course) and use it in vicious attacks against them and against the Chinese people as a whole. Those Jews who first arrived in China, the Nazis insisted, had promptly contaminated the genetic lines of their hosts, with the result that although two thousand years had now gone by (sic), the degenerative impact of “tainted Jewish “blood” could still be recognized in the features and the character of the entire Chinese population. These propaganda attacks against the Chinese by the German allies of the Japanese may have been part of the reasons that prompted Japanese intelligence to send two agents to Kaifeng during World War 11 with directives to determine whether what remained of its old Jewish community posed a threat to the Japanese occupying forces. The agents’ reports, far more realistic than the orders that had sent them to Kaifeng, made it clear that the city’s Jews were too few, too weak and too divided to pose any kind of threat whatsoever. Numerous other anti-Semitic horror stories based on deliberate misrepresentations of the saga of the Jews of old China have appeared in American periodicals…
In 1663, the reconstruction of a new synagogue in Kaifeng was carried through under the direction of Major Zhao Jingshi of the Middle Army, who had participated in the defense of the besieged city at the time of the inundation that destroyed the existing synagogue. In the lapidary inscription with which the Kaifeng Jews commemorated the dedication of their new house of worship, it is stated that Major Zhao, “fearing that the members of the religion, owing to the ruin of the synagogue, might disperse and never come together again, and unable to contemplate the work his ancestors had built up and preserved through the centuries suddenly destroyed in a single day…sent troops to patrol and protect the remnants of the synagogue day and night.” The inscription further informs us that, together with his distinguished cousins, the mandarins Zhao Yingcheng and Zhao Yingdou, Major Zhao uncovered “the actual foundation of the former synagogue,” thereby encouraging the kehillah to erect a new synagogue in its place.
Major Zhao ordered that the story of Kaifeng Jews be cut in stone, so that “it would be handed down to future generations.” Two centuries later the synagogue had fallen into decay, there was no longer enough will left in the ranks of Kaifeng Jewry to pull their community together and construct a new center for worship and study. In part, this was a consequence of the Taiping Rebellion and the series of other military and political upheavals that rocked China at the time—as China declined politically and economically in the 19th century so did its Jews—but it also was the result of the community’s very small size and its remoteness and long isolation from the rest of the Jewish people.
In the 20th century, the 1663 stone was lost, and for decades the Jewish descendants in Kaifeng have only had their story to pass along from one generation to the next. And yet, despite all odds, the descendents of the ancient community continue to identify as Jews, maintain a connection to the site of their synagogue and street, and strive to educate themselves and their children as Jews.
Since the opening up of China, Western Jewish contact with the Kaifeng Jews has resumed in several forms. Western Jews visit Kaifeng as tourists and teachers, Kaifeng Jews study in Israel and elsewhere, and the community also has access to the internet and its treasurehouse of Jewish materials.
[Excerpted, with permission, and updated from ‘The Jews of Kaifeng: “The Sect Which Plucks Out the Sinews”’ by Michael Pollak in The Jews of Kaifeng: Chinese Jews on the Banks of the Yellow River, Beth Hatefutsoth, 1984.]