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Jews and Judaism in China have had a long and often enigmatic history. Jewish settlers are documented in China as early as the 7th or 8th century, but may have arrived long before this date. Relatively isolated and insulated communities developed through the Tang and Song Dynasties (7-12th c. CE) all the way through the Qing Dynasty (19th c.), most notably in the city of Kaifeng. ("Chinese Jews" is often used in a restricted sense to refer to these communities.) By the time of the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, few if any native Chinese Jews were known to have maintained the practice of their religion and culture. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, some international Jewish groups have helped Chinese Jews rediscover their heritage.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish immigrants from around the world arrived with Western commercial and quasi-colonialist influences, particularly in the commercial centers of Shanghai and Hong Kong. Many were to later come in successive decades to escape the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust.
Today, with the current expansion of trade and globalization, Jews of many ethnicities from multiple regions of the world have settled permanently and temporarily in China's contemporary commercial centers.
It should be noted that several of the most prominent and well-known international advisors and technical experts in China during the height of its communist period- who were to settle as permanent residents- were of Jewish descent.
China's Jewish communities have been ethnically diverse ranging from the Jews of Kaifeng and other places during the history of Imperial China, who, it is reported came to be more or less totally assimilated into Chinese culture, to 19th and 20th century Baghdadis, to Indians, to Ashkenazi Jews from Europe.
The presence of a community of Jewish immigrants in China is consistent with the history of the Jewish people during the first and second millennia CE, which saw them disperse and settle throughout the Eurasian landmass, with an especial concentration throughout central Asia. By the ninth century, Ibn Khordadbeh noted the travels of Jewish merchants called Radhanites, whose trade took them to China by four distinct routes.
During the period of international opening and quasi-colonialism, the first group to settle in China were Jews who arrived in China under British protection following the First Opium War. Many of these Jews were of Indian or Iraqi origin, due to British colonialism in these regions. The second community came in the first decades of the 20th century when many Jews arrived in Hong Kong and Shanghai during those cities' periods of economic expansion.
Many more arrived as refugees from the Russian Revolution of 1917. A surge of Jews and Jewish families was to arrive in the late 1930s and 1940s, for the purpose of seeking refuge from the Nazis in Western Europe and were predominantly of European origin. Shanghai was particularly notable for its volume of Jewish refugees, most of whom left after the war, the rest relocating prior to or immediately after the establishment of the People's Republic of China.
Over the centuries, the Kaifeng community came to be virtually indistinguishable from the Chinese population and is not recognized by the Chinese government as a separate minority. This is as a result of having adopted many Han Chinese mores including patrilineal descent, as well as intermarriage with the local population. Since their religious practices are functionally extinct, they are not eligible to immigrate to Israel unless they explicitly convert.
Today, some descendants of Chinese Jews still live in the Chinese and Hui population. Moreover many Chinese, as well as Jews around the world, are beginning to revive their interest in this heritage. This is especially important in modern China because belonging to any minority group includes a variety of benefits including reduced restrictions on the number of children and easier admission into tertiary education. The study of Judaism and Jews in China as an academic subject has been of interest to Westerners from the earliest period of Western knowledge of China and has come to achieve moderate success in Chinese academia in the late 20th century, alongside the study of religion generally.
It has been asserted by some that the Jews that have historically resided in various places in China originated with the Lost Ten Tribes of the exiled ancient Kingdom of Israel who relocated to the areas of present-day China. Traces of some ancient Jewish rituals have been observed in some places.
One group of particular note, the most well-documented and well-known throughout the world, were the Kaifeng Jews, who lived in Kaifeng (Henan province), and immigrated there during the Song dynasty (11th century CE).
|Bird's eye view of the synagogue of Kaifeng.
From the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, now in the public domain.
Sources indicate that Jews in China were often mistaken for Muslims by other Chinese, most likely as a result of similar practices and customs. The first plausible recorded written Chinese mention of Jews uses the term Zhu-hu, or Zhu-hu-du (perhaps from Hebrew Yehudim, "Jews") found in the Annals of the Yuan Dynasty in 1329 and 1354. The text spoke of the reinforcement of a tax on levied on "dissenters" and of a government decree that the Jews come en-masse to Beijing, the capital.
However, the earliest recorded information seems to have originated much earlier than that but from outside China. The writings of Ibn Zeyd al Hassan, a 9th century Arabian traveler, states that Jews were one of the sects massacred at Khanfu. It is apparently recorded that by the 8th century, Jews had already become large enough in number that the imperial regime appointed a government position to administer or monitor the population.
Also in the ninth century, Ibn Khordadbeh noted the travels of Jewish merchants called Radhanites, whose trade took them to China by four distinct routes.
Noted Italian traveler Marco Polo, visiting China in the late 13th century, indicated the prominence of Jews. Likewise Ibn Batuta, an Arabian envoy to the Mongol Yuan regime.
The first modern Western record of Jews residing in China is found in the records of the seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries in Beijing.
The prominent Jesuit Matteo Ricci received a visit from a young Jewish Chinese named Ngai in 1605, who explained that the community he belonged to was monotheistic, or believing in only one God. It is recorded that when he saw a Christian image of Mary with the child Jesus, he took it to be a picture of Rebecca with Esau or Jacob, figures from Hebrew Scripture. Ngai declared that he had come from Kaifeng, and stated that this was the site of a large Jewish population.
Ricci sent an ethnic Chinese Jesuit to visit Kaifeng; later, other Jesuits (mostly European) also visited the city. It was later discovered that the Jewish community had a synagogue (Libai si), which was constructed facing the east, and housed a great number of written materials and books.
It has been asserted in oral tradition that the first Jews immigrated to China through Persia following the Roman Titus's capture of Jerusalem in 76 CE, during the Han dynasty. A European researcher, writing in 1900, hypothesized that Jews came to China from India by a sea route during the Song dynasty between 960 and 1126.
Three tablets with inscriptions found at Kaifeng bear some historical suggestions. The oldest, dating from 1489, commemorates the reconstruction of a synagogue (bearing the name Qīngzhēn Sì, a term often used for mosques in Chinese), and states that 70 Jewish families entered China during the Song period (10-13th centuries). The second table, dated 1512 (found in the synagogue Xuanzhang Daojing Si), was allegedly taken to China during the Han dynasty (3-5th cent. CE). The third is dated 1663 and commemorates the rebuilding of the Qingzhen si synagogue and states that Judaism came to China from India during the Zhou dynasty (690 CE- 705 CE).
One Catholic researcher of the early 20th century showed that Ricci's manuscripts indicate that there were only approximately ten or twelve Jewish families in Kaifeng in the late 16–early 17th century, and that they had reportedly resided there for five or six hundred years. It was also stated in the manuscripts that there was a greater number of Jews in Hangzhou. This could be taken to suggest that the Jews did indeed arrive during the Song, based on the timeframe indicated, and in fact the dynasty's capital was Hangzhou.
|Jews of K'ai-Fun-Foo (Kaifeng Subprefecture), China.
A picture from the public domain Jewish Encyclopedia.
During the Taiping rebellion of the 1850s, the Jews of Kaifeng apparently suffered a great deal and were dispersed. Following this dislocation, they returned to Kaifeng, yet continued to be small in number and to face hardships, as is recorded in the early 20th century.
Shanghai's first wave of Jews came in the second half of the 19th century. The first Jew who arrived there was Elias David Sassoon, who, about the year 1850, opened a branch in connection with his father's Bombay house. Since that period Jews have gradually migrated from India to Shanghai, most of them being engaged from Bombay as clerks by the firm of David Sassoon & Co. The community was composed mainly of "Asian," German, and Russian Jews, though there are a few of Austrian, French, and Italian origin among them. Jews took a considerable part in developing trade in China, and several served on the municipal councils, among them being S. A. Hardoon, partner in the firm of E. D. Sassoon & Co., who had served on the French and English councils at the same time. During the early days of Jewish settlement in Shanghai the trade in opium and Bombay cotton yarn was mainly in Jewish hands.
During Shanghai's period as a trading center in the early 20th century, Jews from many Western nations resided and worked there.
Contemporaneous sources estimated the Jewish population in China in 1940- including Manchukuo- at 36,000 (source: Catholic Encyclopedia).
Jewish life in Shanghai had really taken off with the arrival of the British. Sephardic Jews from the Middle East came as traders via India and Hong Kong and established some of the leading trading companies. Later came Jewish refugees from Russia (and later the Soviet Union).
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, several thousand Russian Jews moved to Harbin in northern China (former Manchuria), alongside Christian Russians.
Another wave of 25,000 Jews, from Germany immigrated to Shanghai in the 1930s. Shanghai at the time was an open city and did not have restrictions on immigration. After Japanese invasion of Shanghai, in 1941 these Jews were detained by the Japanese in few concentration camps in Hongkou District in northeastern Shanghai. The total number of Jews entering Shanghai during this period equaled the number of Jews fleeing to Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa combined. Many of the Jews in China later returned to found modern Israel.
Shanghai was an important safe-haven for Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, since it was the only place in the world where one didn't need a visa. However, it was not easy to get there. The Japanese, who controlled the city, preferred in effect to look the other way. Some corrupt officials however, also exploited the plight of the Jews. By 1941 over 20,000 European Jews had found shelter there. Charles K. Bliss, during his stay took inspiration from Chinese writing for his Blissymbolics.
The Nazis asked the Japanese to cooperate in a scheme to exterminate the Jewish refugees, but some Japanese officers made these plans known to the rich Sephardic Jews which in turn used their influence with the Japanese to stop these plans.
After World War II and the establishment of the Communist regime in 1949, most of these Jews immigrated to Israel or the West, although a few remained. It should be noted that two of the most prominent non-Chinese Communist sympathizers to have lived in China from the establishment of the People's Republic of China to the contemporary period, Sidney Shapiro and Israel Epstein, American émigrés, are of Jewish descent.
Synagogues are found in three cities in China today, serving mostly international Jews, in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
The contemporary term for Jews in use among Chinese today is Youtai (Chinese: 犹太人; Pinyin: Yóutài Rén) in Mandarin Chinese. This is sometimes thought to be derogatory because of the use of a character containing the animal (dog) radical. There is no evidence that the Chinese population views the use of this term in a disparaging manner. It has been recorded that the Jews in China historically called themselves adherents of Tiao jin jiao (挑筋教), loosely, "the religion which removes the sinew," probably referring to the Jewish dietary prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve (from Genesis 32:32). Jewish dietary law would have most likely caused Jewish communities to stand out from the surrounding mainstream Chinese population, as Chinese culture is typically very free in the range of items it deems suitable for food. They have also been called the Blue-Hat Hui people (Chinese: 蓝帽回; Pinyin: Lánmào Húi), in contrast to other populations of Hui, who have identified with hats of other colors. The distinction between Muslim and Jewish Chinese is not, and historically has not been, well recognized by the dominant Han population.