For well over a thousand years there has been a continuous Jewish presence in China. The oldest and most enduring community was that of Kaifeng, in Henan province (in central China), dating back to at least the 11th century. There are stone inscriptions from 1489, 1512, 1663 and 1679, which tell the story of this community. This community finally disintegrated in the 1850's, but descendants of those Kaifeng Jews survive to this day and are striving to educate themselves as Jews. While the number of Jews in China has always been small, Jews arrived there in five ripples of immigration:
1) 10th-12th Centuries
Jewish traders from Persia and India journeyed to China via ancient maritime trade routes and along the Silk Road, settling in cities along the coast and in Kaifeng, then the capital of China. The earliest piece of archaeological evidence, a Judeo-Persian business letter, dates to 717 CE, confirming the presence of Jews in Chinese territory at least as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907). The Kaifeng community persists to the present day.
2) 19th Century
Mizrahi (Baghdadi) Jews made their way to Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1845 with the 19th century British invasion. Working initially with the British East India Company, primarily with the opium trade, these Sephardi Jews built up the iconic architectural landmarks still seen along the Bund in Shanghai today.
3) Early 20th Century
Russian Jews traveled to Harbin, Tianjin and other cities in the northeast at the turn of the 20th century, fleeing first pogroms and then the Russian Civil War that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. Later, at the onset of World War II, many moved to Shanghai and established their own community there, welcoming the Jewish refugees who were to come.
4) 1930s and 1940s
In the 1930s, desperate German, Austrian, Czech and Polish Jews fleeing the Nazis found Shanghai to be the only place in the world that accepted them without visas. By the 1950s most Jews had left China, but the buildings they built, the records they kept, and their economic and cultural contributions are a monument to that historical experience.
5) 1980s to the Present
China’s modern Jewish history started after Deng Xiaoping’s "Open Door" policy went into effect in the early 1980s. Since then, many North American, European, and Israeli Jews have moved to China to work.
Today, the ex-pat Jewish communities of China consist primarily of those in Hong Kong, with about 3,500; Shanghai, with about 1,000; and Beijing, with at least 1,500. While Hong Kong has a longstanding, permanent Jewish community as well as a transitory business one, the Shanghai and Beijing Jewish communities are mostly transitory business or government related people. Unlike the Kaifeng Jews, members of these Jewish communities are not Chinese citizens. Furthermore, although Judaism is not one of the five religions officially recognized by the state, Jewish foreigners are free to practice it as are Chinese nationals who have Jewish spouses or partners.
Today there are 13 Chabad centers across China including three in Shanghai alone, and progressive Reform communities in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. There’s also an Israeli Sephardic synagogue in Shanghai. It’s estimated that 10,000 Jews live in China year-round, but that number swells during tourist season and throughout the year for business.
In Beijing and Shanghai, the two main communities operate independently, but there is some overlap among congregants and programming.
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Door with a Jewish star, in the former Jewish ghetto of the Hongkou District