Detailed History of Kaifeng Jews
by Michael Pollak (z”l), revised and updated by Jordan Paper and Anson Laytner (Summer 2018)
For 166 years, beginning in 960 C.E., China was ruled by the emperors of the Song Dynasty from their capital at Kaifeng, then a bustling metropolis along the banks of the Yellow River, which connected the city via the Grand Canal to the seaports on the Chinese coast. Contrary to popular belief, Kaifeng was not on the legendary Silk Road, which in earlier times (and subsequently as well) linked China to trading partners in the West. [It is some 550 kilometers (350 miles) to Xi’an, the actual terminus of the Silk Road.
While some Jews may have arrived earlier, the first time that they referred to their own presence in China was in the Song Dynasty (960-1127). According to the 1489 stele, or commemorative stone tablet, a band of Jews, probably maritime merchants speaking Judeo-Persian and hailing from either the seaports in Ningbo or Yangzhou, was granted an audience in the imperial palace and the emperor graciously accepted the tribute of cotton goods they had brought to him, saying, “You have come to my China. Honor and observe the customs of your ancestors”. Most scholars believe this indicates the formal start of the Jewish community of Kaifeng.
This same stele, which also detailed their rituals and core beliefs, was placed in a place of honor in the courtyard of the synagogue that had been 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. (Read more ...)
As of the summer of 2015, Jewish sites in Kaifeng are closed.
Kaifeng Municipal Museum
12 Baogonghu Middle Road, Kaifeng
The museum contains the original stelae erected by the Jewish community in 1489, 1512, and 1679, rubbings, and several other objects in an attractive but meagre exhibit, still locked away on its top floor, but accessible to tourists upon request.
Song Dynasty Park
Zhongshan Lu Beiduan, Long Ting District
The park has a photo exhibit on the Kaifeng Jews, donated by the Sino-Judaic Institute, that should be accessible to everyone but is still only open
by special request.
Merchant Guild Temple
Xufu Jie, Gulou District, Kaifeng
This Temple has a small but good exhibit in Chinese on the Kaifeng Jews as well as a recently-returned bowl from the Royal Ontario Museum. However, its Jewish exhibit has been removed.
Private Family Museums
Esther Guo Yan and the Zhao family maintain a small private museum in the last
remaining Jewish home on the old South Teaching Torah Lane.
The Shi family has a private museum, the status of which is unknown.
Dr. Wendy Abraham - Kaifeng travel consultant www.chinaorientations.com
Rabbi Marvin Tokayer - Offers kosher tours of China www.jewisheyes.com
Cantor Joy Katzen-Guthrie http://www.joyfulnoise.net/tours/china.html
Guo Yan, a female Jewish descendant in Kaifeng, has a blog, videos and stories in both Chinese and English. http://kaifengjews.blogspot.com
Shavei Israel – An Israeli organization that assists “lost” Jewish communities and promotes their return to Israel. http://www.shavei.org
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(Note: Although most scholars accept a Tang or Song dynasty date for the entry of Jews into China, a few scholars, both Chinese and Western, hypothesize a much earlier arrival time, in the Han dynasty.)
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Zhao family in front of their home on South Teaching Scripture Lane, early 20th century