To this day, several hundred residents of Kaifeng 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 next to 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." More recent 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 community, whose destiny it was to be hidden away for a millennium or so, has a good deal to teach us about the persistence of Jewish memory and the Jewish will to survive. 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.
I The Beginnings
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, but some of these theories 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 or idiosyncratic readings of Hebrew and Chinese texts. The fact that no corroborating evidence generally accepted by scholars has so far come to light does not necessarily exclude the possibility that Jews could have made their way to China and settled there during the time of the Han Dynasty.
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 came to China from Basra, stopping in India, and perhaps from Yemen and elsewhere, a theory supported by certain etymological, ritualistic and kindred considerations that link the Chinese Jews with these countries, as well as that being the primary sea route for Muslim, Jewish and Chinese freighters in ancient times. It is probable that these Jews traveled to China by sea and then proceeded via the Grand Canal to the Yellow River, and thence to Kaifeng, which was then China’s greatest city.
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 was seeking the assistance of a fellow Jew 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) and dates back to the late 8th or perhaps the early 9th century. 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; Jews were traveling to and possibly settling in China substantially before these documents were composed.
There is 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 Radhanites 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.
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 wrote that when he and his party arrived at the outskirts of Hangzhou in 1346, 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."
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, only one reference to Jews in China has been culled from Jewish literature that was written outside the country prior to the 17th century. Sadly, that one reference turns out to be the product of the fervid imagination of the colorful raconteur who called himself Eldad ha-Dani, who, in the latter part of the 9th century, told his fellow Jews 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 identified as a Jew "of the tribe of Isaachar."
II The Formation of the Community and Chinese Judaism
Scholars agree that there were seven ancient Jewish communities in China and all, save Kaifeng, were seaports. However, of these, we know almost nothing. In the case of Kaifeng, all our knowledge 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.
According to the stelae, the community was originally composed of immigrants from "Xiyu" (Western Region), a geographic term that today refers to the province of Xinjiang, but then referred to a far greater portion of Asia than is contained in present-day Iran.
As detailed above, undoubtedly Chinese Jews had been active in the caravan trade across Central Asia since the route opened after the Han dynasty created a protected zone along the rim of the Tarim Basin to the Parthian Empire in West Asia in the 2nd century BCE. Although both the Han and Tang empires had their capitals at the terminus of the Silk Road (present-day Xi’an), there is no evidence or even indication that Jews ever permanently resided there.
By the end of the 10th century, the Tang dynasty collapsed, terminating the security of the Silk Road, but by that time, Chinese, Persian and Jewish ships were sailing from Basra and other ports to India and Sri Lanka and then to a number of seaports along the east coast of China, the primary ones being Yangzhou and Ningbo. The central part of the coast, called Jiangnan, was the primary rice and silk producing area of China. The Song dynasty, which succeeded the Tang, was not as militarily oriented as the Tang, they did not control the Silk Road, which became defunct, and they moved the capital five hundred and fifty kilometers eastward to Kaifeng, then on the banks of the frequently flooding Yellow River. A canal had been created to move goods by barge from the Jiangnan region to the Yellow River, so that taxes, paid in rice and silk, could be moved to the new capital.
Maritime trade necessitates factors in the recipient seaports, so Persian and Arab Muslim and Jewish communities arose in the Chinese seaports. The Chinese government found it expedient to allow these foreign communities to govern themselves, according to their own customs and laws, and so created extraterritorial enclaves within at least six of the seaports. Thus, there developed Jewish communities along the Chinese coast, as also took place along the west coast of India.
These Jews were from the Judeo-Persian language community in Persia (although Hebrew was their ritual language and Arabic was their theological language); Judeo-Persian had become the lingua franca of the maritime trade. Since those Jews who resided in the seaports were living under extraterritorial conditions and were traveling back and forth to Persia (which included present-day Iraq, etc., at that time) it is unknown to what degree they assimilated themselves to Chinese culture, if at all.
Since the freighters were stopping in India on the way to China to resupply and await favorable winds, they seem to have picked up cotton fabric there to resell in China. Chinese clothing at that time was of inexpensive hemp or expensive silk. Hence, a more comfortable, easier to sew, cheaper cloth such as cotton would have been desirable. It seems the government became aware of this cloth, and in the 11th century, Jewish merchants from one of the major seaports were asked to bring the cloth as tribute to the government in Kaifeng. After they arrived, they were invited to remain in Kaifeng, undoubtedly to facilitate trade, especially in cotton. This was the beginning of the Kaifeng Jewish community.
It can be assumed that these Jewish merchants were probably single, younger men, as traveling merchants from all cultures tend to be. As they settled in, they married local women, were financially successful, and after several generations, built a synagogue in 1163 with government support. (The Chinese government since the Han dynasty supported the religions of foreigners.) They would have sent for a rabbi, Torah scrolls, Tanachs (Bibles), and siddurs (prayer books) from Baghdad via Jewish maritime merchants through the seaports. This is a pattern of development that has continued throughout Jewish history.
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. 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.
It is unlikely that these Chinese wives of the Jews in Kaifeng were formally converted, especially early on, as the necessary personnel were not available. But we can be certain that they adopted a Jewish lifestyle, taught to them by their husbands, because in Chinese culture women become part of the family into which they marry and would have expected to carry out the rituals of the household into which they marry. So conversion, if the term is used, probably would have been in the biblical rather than the rabbinic sense, as would have been the case with the early phase of diaspora Jewish communities everywhere.
Keeping kosher was not difficult for these newly arrived Jews in Kaifeng. The pork commonly eaten in China, of course, would have been avoided, and there were no cattle or dairy products. Thus their protein would have come from fowl, which is easily made kosher, fresh water fish and soybean products. Once a ritual slaughterer could have been brought in, then sheep would have been added to the diet.
Different from the seaports, where the Jews lived in extraterritorial enclaves with other foreigners, in Kaifeng, they lived among the Chinese people, and the first wives would have brought Chinese culture with them. At the same time, while they maintained Judeo-Persian for communication with traders in the seaports, they would have needed to become fluent in both spoken and written Chinese–even to speak to their wives. Thus they would have assimilated to Chinese culture, just as Jews everywhere in the Diaspora have assimilated to the culture in which they lived, unless segregated and persecuted.
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), those of the upper class bound their daughters' feet as was the custom for that class, 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.
Some, far out of proportion to the general population, 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.)
Over time, as more Kaifeng Jews passed the civil service examinations and became government civil and military officials, some of high office, this increased the wealth and political power of the community so when the last synagogue was built, it was perhaps the grandest synagogue complex ever constructed anywhere in the world.
Fortunately, we have highly detailed drawings of the synagogue grounds and the interior of the main sanctuary by a Jesuit in the early 18th century, at the height of the community’s success. The grounds were about the size of a football field and contained three archways. The oblong grounds were walled and along the side walls were classrooms and two clan temples for the most predominant clans, one that produced the rabbis and one from which the highest officials emerged. There were also along the perimeter small rooms for caretakers, etc. The main sanctuary at the far end would have held hundreds of people and had the usual bimah in the center on which, typical of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) synagogues, was a chair called the “Throne of Moses” on which the Torah was placed upright when it was read. At the far wall was the traditional ark where the scrolls were kept and at each side cupboards for prayer books. To the rear of the grounds was a placed for koshering meat, a well and most likely a mikvah (ritual bath). Of course, the architecture was Chinese temple architecture, as synagogues all over the world tend to follow local architecture. In the courtyard were several stelae (tall commemorative stone tablets) engraved at different times with a description of Judaism and a history of the community and synagogue. On the gateways and on the support columns were statements about their theology in Chinese, similar to decorations in Chinese temples. Different from Chinese temples there were no images, and the Chinese Jews were adamant in talking with the Jesuits that they did not worship shen (divinities usually represented by an image), as took place in Chinese temples. (The Great Mosque in Xi’an, built around the same time, is of a similar size, layout and architecture, with the same type of archways, etc. Of course, the interior of the main hall is that of a mosque rather than of a synagogue. This mosque is still extant, and those visiting China are encouraged to visit Xi’an to see what the Great Synagogue of Kaifeng would have looked like.)
The inscription on the 1489 stele tells us that Kaifeng's first synagogue was built in 1163. This 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 or collapsed having suffered extensive flood damage, the congregation having by then become impoverished and weakened by a general ignorance of its heritage.
In addition to clothing, language, secular education and cuisine, the Jews of Kaifeng also were influenced by the religion of their neighbors. Chinese religion, which has a history of several thousand years, has as its core the concept of jiao (Familism), which means reverencing one’s ancestors in the Chinese mode (offering food, drink and, after the introduction of Buddhism, incense to the departed members of the family and clan). This, of course, is compatible with Judaism, as “honoring one’s parents” is one of the Ten Commandments, and it is customary to have special rituals on the anniversary of the death of a parent. This influence of Chinese Religion did not result in a change in Judaism but rather an enhancement of Jewish practices, without losing the traditional ones.
The religious outlook 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 that 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. Children were given Hebrew names in addition to their Chinese names. Polygamy was permitted and the levirate laws were observed.
The community was led the rabbi (manla) as well as by Levites and Cohanim, names which indicate that they were of priestly class, and an “andula” (a caretaker or shamash) was in charge of maintaining the synagogue complex.
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." In the Persian style, they divided their Torah readings into fifty-three portions rather than into the Ashkenazic division of fifty-four. 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. (For more Kaifeng Jewish observance, see Chaim Simons, Jewish Religious Observance by the Jews of Kaifeng, China,Sino-Judaic Institute, 2010.)
To this otherwise traditional Jewish practice was added the burning of incense before name-plaques (in Hebrew) of the departed members of the family in the homes, and the addition of two wings to the synagogue, in which were found the name-plaques for the Patriarchs, the twelve children of Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Ezra and several other men and women, whose names are not found in the Jesuit records. Before these plaques were placed bowls for the burning of incense. One can assume that in the clan halls on the temple grounds were plaques with the names of the important clan ancestors and incense bowls.
As the practice of Judaism is influenced by the countries in which its practitioners find themselves, so too with their theology. In this, the Kaifeng Jews were no different than any other Jewish community the world over. Over time, the Kaifeng Jews added the Chinese Classics to their education in Hebrew and the Torah, and consequently they incorporated complementary aspects of Chinese literati philosophy to their Jewish theology, creating a unique synthesis.
The Chinese Jews had two expressions for God in Chinese, taken from Chinese philosophical and religious terms. These terms were found on the placards in the synagogue and used in discussing theology with the Jesuits in Chinese.
One term for God was half of the binomial expression of Tiandi (Sky-Earth). As Sky, God had several meanings for these Jews. On the one hand, Tian was understood to be the Chinese equivalent of “Shamayim” or “Heaven”, a non-personified synonym for God. On the other hand, following Chinese usage, "Sky" meant the amalgam of all the souls of dead Jews, not just the Patriarchs and Prophets, but of the entire past of Judaism, which in China had considerable meaning, given the importance of ancestors. Hence, in this sense of Sky, God was the full tradition of Judaism and the entire line of Jews from the distant past to the present. Lastly, the star-pattern of Sky, in the astrological sense, meant that fate—all that happens, good and bad—is not due to human will.
The second and more important term was Dao. In the cosmogony of the educated in China at that time, from wu, Nothingness, comes yu, Somethingness, which is arbitrarily named "Dao." The Kaifeng Jews understood God as a Nothingness that is the source of our ancestors and is infinitely continuing existential potential. Dao, meaning “the Way” also referred to the Torah and mitzvot (commandments), which provided a behavioral and experiential link between Heaven/Sky and Earth. Thus, for the Chinese Jews, the foci of worship on the one hand was Judaism itself and all of the Jews of the past, and on the other hand, the continuous creation of life; that is, existence in and of itself; in other words, God. (For a fuller explication, see Jordan Paper, The Theology of the Chinese Jews, 1000-1850, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012.)
History from the 14th to the 20th Century
In the late 14th century, the Ming government had become xenophobic and banned overseas trade and, having drastically reduced their salt-water navy, depopulated the major seaports as a defense against marauding Japanese pirates. What happened to the Jewish maritime trading communities is unclear. Those still having ties to West Asia probably went back. Others, it has been suggested, may have converted to Islam, traditional Islam being not that different from traditional Judaism, and joined those communities away from the coast. Being maritime traders, it is unlikely they would have moved to Kaifeng and, indeed, one coastal community donated its Torah to Kaifeng. These developments cut off the Kaifeng synagogue community from Judaism elsewhere. They could no longer receive news of Judaism worldwide. Worse still, the ability to obtain Torah scrolls and other necessities became impossible, especially when these were destroyed by the periodic flooding of the Yellow River, which required the synagogue to be rebuilt several times and Torah scrolls to be copied from surviving scraps and fragments.
Nevertheless, in the early 18th century, the Jesuits reported that Judaism still continued in Kaifeng, that children were able to read and write in biblical Hebrew and rabbis were still being trained. Of course, they had no Torah scribes, that being a specialty occupation, and as replacement scrolls were no longer obtainable from West Asia, they tried to write their own, leading to errors in the script.
In the 19th century, Kaifeng was beset by a number of disasters. Not only did major floods seriously damage the synagogue and the homes of the Jews but a major insurrection devastated the city. The Taiping movement, an indigenous Christian movement, sought to replace the crumbling Qing dynasty, and Kaifeng was seriously damaged by the ensuing battles. When the Qing army, strengthened with European troops, overthrew the Taiping regime, Kaifeng was again devastated. All this led to most Kaifeng residents fleeing, and few returned to the ravaged city. During this time worship services were discontinued; destitute Jewish families set up ramshackle shelters on the grounds of the synagogue complex and even grew cabbages in their little plots. By 1850-51, poverty was so widespread that some of the surviving Jews sold six of their Torah scrolls and sixty-three smaller liturgical 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 manuscripts were sold. Around 1860, the synagogue collapsed or was torn down, and a half-century later the land itself is deeded to Canadian Anglican missionaries.
When Baghdadi and European Jewish merchants settled in Shanghai after the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century—and following alarming Protestant missionary reports about Kaifeng—these Jews, supported by along with their European and American Jewish communities, took note and attempted to revive the Kaifeng community. A delegation of Jews from Kaifeng came to Shanghai seeking assistance to revitalize the synagogue and the practice of Judaism. Money was collected from around the world but then was diverted to aid other Jews suffering from pogroms in Russia. Subsequent efforts, in the 1920s and 1930s, also floundered due to the travails of European Jewry. (For more on this period, see essays by Alex Bender and Anson Laytner in Anson Laytner and Jordan Paper, eds., The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng: A Millennium of Adaptation and Endurance, Lexington Books, 2017.)
Still, throughout all this time there persisted a tenacious sense of loyalty on the part of some of the descendants to 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 by nationality. While several hundred Chinese Jews still remain in Kaifeng, until recently there was little knowledge and understanding of Jewish practices. Since 1980, after China granted its citizens some freedom, the Kaifeng Jewish descendants have been able to study their history and culture, learn Hebrew, and celebrate Shabbat and holidays.
Weak as the small Jewish community in Kaifeng is today, it must be understood that the Kaifeng community had been arguably the most successful synagogue community in history. It was viable for eight hundred years, as least as long as the oldest Jewish synagogue community in Europe. The Chinese Jews, unlike most Jews in Europe, 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. Because the Chinese Jews lived in a benign environment and were treated no differently than any other Chinese and because the Jewish love of education matches that of the Chinese, a disproportionate number attained high office through the civil service examinations. The relatively small community was so successful that they built one of the largest and grandest synagogues in Jewish history. Not being subject to mass murder and expulsion by European Christians or to second-class citizenship in Muslim countries, they developed a theology based on of love of God, respectful observance of Jewish tradition, and abounding reverence for their ancestors, going all the way back to Abraham—and even to Adam. Their Sino-Judaic synthesis—evident in everything from the architectural style of the synagogue complex to the beliefs articulated on the commemorative tablets—strengthened their Judaism and allowed them to flourish in China for nearly a millennium.
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 the community almost disappeared. But what is really amazing is that this isolated 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.
III The European “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."
As recorded in Ricci's letters and in the journal in which he kept track of his activities in China, the discovery of the existence of a Jewish community in Kaifeng emerged as the consequence of a seriocomic meeting in Beijing in late June 1605 between Ricci and a Kaifeng Jew named Ai Tian, who had come to Beijing from Kaifeng in the hope of acquiring a better 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 upon the doctrine of monotheism. What surprised the author was that these Europeans persistently and indignantly denied that they were Muslims. What, then, was this strange faith to which these newcomers to China subscribed?
To Ai, however, the matter was quite simple: if Ricci's people were truly convinced that there was only one God in the universe and if they were not Muslims, what else could they be, he reasoned, but Jews? This was an exhilarating thought because its consequences could well open a new chapter in the history of the isolated community of Kaifeng, whose contacts with non-Chinese Jews had now been totally cut off for several generations. Ai's projected journey to Beijing would afford him an opportunity to seek out these 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 re-forge links that had long ago tied the Jews of Kaifeng to fellow Jews 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 looked, he introduced himself to Matteo Ricci. Where Ai took Ricci to be a rabbi and a fellow Jew, Ricci assumed Ai to be a descendant of one of the several Christian communities that were known to have existed in China a thousand years earlier.
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, 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 this Christianity was no less Jewish than the faith in which he had been reared back in Kaifeng.
Ai probably 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 faiths 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, Ricci would have to promise to give up, once and for all, his deplorable and scandalously un-rabbinic addiction to eating pork.
IV 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 in 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.
The earliest known direct report 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. 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.
The Jesuits had three objectives vis-à-vis the Kaifeng Jews. First they wanted “guidance” in deciding how much of their Confucian thoughts and ways of life presumptive candidates for baptism should be permitted to take with them when they converted. Second, they wanted to learn which Chinese terms the Jews used to identify God (the Terms Question)–terms that, if used by the Jews, could be trusted to be entirely free from the taint of idolatry or polytheistic thought. And third, they wanted to find a pristine Torah scroll, one presumably free of rabbinic modifications that had removed all prophecies concerning the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.
With this latter 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 and, 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 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, when European scholars were at last privileged to examine the Kaifeng writings in detail that it was at last acknowledged that no differences existed whatsoever between the Kaifeng texts and those of other Jews.
From 1724 until the 1860s, western travelers had been barred from venturing into the interior of the country by imperial edict. After the Opium Wars forced China open, Protestant missionaries and other westerners, including a few Jewish travelers, were again able 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.
The many reports by these visitors and journalists to Kaifeng, beginning sporadically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, depicted a desperate community clinging tenaciously to its Jewish identity. Of particular note were the efforts of the Canadian Anglican bishop William Charles White who, in 1919, convened a conference in Kaifeng in an effort to revive the community, the efforts of the Shanghai Baghdadi Jews’ Society for the Rescue of the Chinese Jews, and the visit in 1933 of the American publisher and philanthropist David A. Brown, who sought to mobilize support of the community through his reportage. Visitors to Kaifeng increased exponentially since 1980, when China opened up to the world again, and today contact and communication between the Kaifeng Jewish descendants and the world is relatively easy and accurate information about the community more readily available. (More on the Kaifeng Jewish descendants here.)
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. Major Zhao ordered that the story of Kaifeng Jews be cut in stone, so that "it would be handed down to future generations."
Sometime in the 20th century, the actual 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.
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 treasure-trove of Jewish materials.
Despite all odds, the descendants of this 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.