China’s Ancient Jewish Enclave
A mezuza at the doorway of Guo Yan’s house in Kaifeng, where traces of a thriving Jewish community remain.
(Photo by Matthew Fishbane)
Through a locked door in the coal-darkened boiler room of No. 1 Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Kaifeng, there’s a well lined with Ming Dynasty bricks. It’s just a few yards deep and still holds water. Guo Yan, 29, an eager, bespectacled native of this Chinese city on the flood plains of the Yellow River about 600 miles south of Beijing, led me to it one recent Friday afternoon, past the doormen accustomed to her visits. The well is all that’s left of the Temple of Purity and Truth, a synagogue that once stood on the site. The heritage it represents brings a trickle of travelers to see one of the more unusual aspects of this country: China, too, had its Jews.
Ms. Guo, who identifies herself as a Jew, says she hears it from scholars, visitors and Chinese people alike: ” ‘You Chinese Jews are very famous,’ they say. ‘But you are only in the history books.’”
That seemed a good enough reason to come looking, and I quickly found that I was hardly alone. Ms. Guo and I were soon joined by a 36-year-old French traveler, Guillaume Audan, who called himself a “nonpracticing Jew” on a six-month world tour of “things not specifically Jewish.” Like me, he’d found Ms. Guo by recommendation, and made the detour to see what the rumored Kaifeng Jews were all about.
Earlier, Ms. Guo had brought us into a narrow courtyard at 21 Teaching Torah Lane — an alley once central to the city’s Jewish community, and still home to her 85-year-old grandmother, Zhao Cui, widow of a descendant of Chinese Jews. Her one-room house has been turned into a sort of dusty display case, with Mrs. Zhao as centerpiece.
“Here are the Kaifeng Jews,” Ms. Guo said, a little defiantly. “We are they.”
We were surrounded by signs that supported Ms. Guo’s statement: A mezuza was attached to the door frame. A copy of the Sh’ma, widely considered the most important of Hebrew prayers, decorated with Chinese lettering, hung on the wall. A menorah sat by a Chinese-style altar displaying a black-and-white portrait of Mr. Zhao.
Indeed, some 50 descendants of Kaifeng’s Jews are embracing this legacy and relearning Jewish ways. And a few, like Ms. Guo, are tapping a quirky vein of religious tourism. From the 10th to the 12th century, Kaifeng was the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty and a cosmopolitan center on a branch of the Silk Road, attracting Chinese imperial suitors and Persian merchants with camels. Amid this ferment was a small community of Sephardic Jews, who arrived most likely from Persia and India as traders, or perhaps fleeing the Crusades.
Scholars still debate the time of their first arrival, but for at least 700 years, Jews prospered free of persecution, largely out of mind of the various Chinese dynasties that dubbed them “blue-hatted Hui” — people from the West. They settled into trades and, around 1163, built a synagogue. In 1605, the peripatetic Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci met one of their emissaries in Beijing and reported their existence back to Europe.
But time, isolation and assimilation took their toll. When European missionaries in Kaifeng purchased a 17th-century Hebrew Torah in 1851 (it is now housed at the British Museum in London, one of 15 known Kaifeng scrolls), no locals could read it. The synagogue, which had fallen into neglect after repeated flooding, was never rebuilt.
Yet for 150 years following the death of the last rabbi, tiny embers of a heritage still glowed in Kaifeng. Grandparents told their grandchildren, as Mrs. Zhao told Ms. Guo: “You are a Jew.” Without knowing why, families avoided pork. And at Passover, the old men baked unleavened cakes and dabbed rooster’s blood on their doorstep.
Most Jewish-themed tours of China skip Kaifeng, focusing instead on the immigration of persecuted European Jewry, in cities like Shanghai, Harbin, Tianjin and Beijing. Thanks to American, Israeli and European support of places significant to their own past, Harbin and Shanghai, for example, enjoy a regular flow of tourists to museums and sites of synagogues, restored though no longer used for prayer.
Kaifeng, by comparison, attracts word-of-mouth backpackers and three or four rabbi- or scholar-led Jewish heritage groups a year. Most visitors, according to Shi Lei, a 31-year-old descendant of Chinese Jews who has been leading tours here since he was sent to Israel to study Hebrew and Judaica, stay for a day, “have a look, and leave.”
Part of that has to do with the lack of actual sites to visit. Like an old battlefield, Jewish Kaifeng exists mostly in the imagination of the visitor. Here stood a synagogue. Here once lived the Chinese Jews, who made unleavened bread and ate no pork.
China does not recognize Judaism as one of its five approved religions. And unlike the Muslim Hui people, who populate much of Kaifeng, Jews are not considered one of the country’s 55 minorities. Though foreign Jews are allowed to practice their religion while on Chinese soil, there are currently no officially active synagogues in China. The state, in short, holds that no Chinese Jews exist.
“Teaching Torah Lane gets historical landmark status,” Mr. Shi said, walking me down the narrow alleys of the city’s Muslim quarter, “but no Jews exist in China. What is this history of, then?”
Local authorities seem to tolerate discreet activity from the Jewish community and the visitors it draws. In the Kaifeng Municipal Museum, it takes an extra 50 renminbi and a request to be led to the locked room with three barely legible 1489 and 1512 steles describing the Jewish presence in Kaifeng.
And to see the Jewish pavilion at Millennium City Park, a Song dynasty-period-costumed theme park modeled on a famous painted scroll, Mr. Shi had to ask an attendant to bring keys. The modest exhibition there was put together a decade ago by China’s foremost scholar on Chinese Jews, Xu Xin, who told me the limited access to his display was “a very complicated issue.” With this in mind, Ms. Guo and Mr. Shi both label their tours with a wink: they are taking you to meet “descendants of Jews,” not “Jews.”
On Friday evening, after buying some bread from a Muslim street stand, Ms. Guo took Mr. Audan and me into a half-completed shopping center. She marched purposefully around several corners, past closed shops, to a second-floor balcony of empty stores. Smoggy daylight was waning, but through a curtain in one of the shops came the distinct yellow glow of candles. An Israeli flag was just visible through the glass door. And inside, around a simple gray table, sat a dozen people bowed before ritual books in both Chinese and Hebrew, about to begin their Sabbath prayers. The men wore yarmulkes. The women were perched under a poster of the 10 Commandments, written in Chinese script, hung below photos of their ancestors.
Then the group, most of whom requested anonymity, took turns reading from Hebrew prayer books. Mr. Audan put on a cap and joined in the singing. When the Sabbath meal of spiced shredded potato, Chinese wine, peanuts and kumquats had been shared (with chopsticks), he passed on a gift from Parisian friends to Ms. Guo for the Zhao family: a ceremonial knife from the Sydney Jewish Museum gift shop.
The day before, Mr. Shi had led me down Yiyuanhou Lane, a hutong, or alley, where his Jewish grandfather used to live, past half-demolished houses and plots full of felled bricks. Last October, residents there, as in many places in China, were told to move out, as the old neighborhood had been scheduled for redevelopment.
Mr. Shi’s mini-museum to Kaifeng Jews on Yiyuanhou Lane is a one-room collection of photographs of visits by Westerners, reproductions of historical documents used as evidence of Kaifeng’s Jewish past, and a few donated objects, including a menorah, under glass. He wasn’t sure where to put the museum now that it had to move.
“Next year,” Shi Lei said with a disapproving click of the tongue, “this hutong will disappear from the map.”
IF YOU GO
The closest airport to Kaifeng is in Zhengzhou, reached from major Chinese cities. Shuttles from Zhengzhou Xinzheng International Airport to downtown Kaifeng take one and a half hours and cost 16 renminbi, or $2.40 at 6.7 renminbi to the dollar.
You can book a two-day detour to Kaifeng through Ctrip (866-992-8747; ctrip.com), which also suggests hotels. Or try the faded but centrally located Dajintai (23 Gu Lou Street; 86-378-255-2888); doubles start at 120 renminbi.
Xu Xin’s authoritative book “The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, Culture, and Religion” (Ktav, 2003)is worth reading.
To explore Jewish Kaifeng, you will need a guide. Shi Lei (jewishchinatours.com) is licensed, charming and experienced. Guo Yan (email@example.com; 86-387-115-2704) has built a mini-museum of her own and is happy to take you to a Sabbath gathering. At Passover, you may find yourself sharing food with a group of 50 or more.
In 1985, Wendy Abraham, on the board of the Sino-Judaic Institute, recorded oral histories of the last generation to remember a Jewish past in Kaifeng. Her next Kaifeng Connection tour (kaifengtours.org) to China, three weeks, is scheduled for October starting at $4,000, including airfare from San Francisco.