Jewish Heritage in China

In 998 AD, the reign of Emperor Zhenzong of Northern Song Dynasty, a group of wandering foreigners came to Kaifeng, which was at the time the capital of China, and also a metropolitan of politics, economy, culture, commerce and trade.
First Jewish Immigrant to China
— 2000 by Joy Katzen-Guthrie. Used by Permission.

Nobody knew who they were and where they were from. They apparently liked this city and took themselves as one part of the millions of the city citizens.

With their simple spoken Chinese, the local people were told that they originally came from Palestine – maybe via India, or Persia – but that had been centuries ago. They asked people to call them Israelis. They presented themselves before a Chinese Emperor with some cotton cloth, which was rarely seen in China then. An edict about these immigrants was issued by Emperor Zhenzong: “Welcome to Zhongxia (China); Keep your own customs and rites, settled down in the capital”.

At that point, they officially made their presence in China.

In Kaifeng, they were given the best district (just outside the Forbidden City) as their quarters. They kept good and harmonious relations with other ethnic Chinese, like Hans and Moslems. Year after year, they began to get assimilated to the local Chinese society. They studied the Chinese culture represented by the Confucius and Mencius theories, quite a few of them took important positions as Chinese officials after serious exams, like other Chinese did. Others developed into commerce and trade and became owners of large properties. Meanwhile, they practiced their own religious rites and ceremonies, and built the first Synagogue in 1163 AD. They loved the city and its people. They preferred the life better than “wander the globe”. They had been unknown by other Jewish communities in the world until 17th century.
Former Kaifeng Synagogue
— 2000 by Joy Katzen-Guthrie. Used by Permission.

In 1601 AD, Father Marteeo Ricci, an Italian missionary traveled to Peking (Beijing). He happened to meet with someone named Ai Tien from Kaifeng. To the great surprise of the missionary, he found that there had been a Jewish community surviving in the far Oriental China. They were living on an “Isolated Island”. It created an explosion in the Western Jewish communities. It was a miracle of Jewish Diaspora; of Jewish history; of Jewish and Confucius culture. Based on these, William Charles White, a Canadian Anglican Bishop, wrote a book “Chinese Jews” during his mission of decades in Kaifeng. Driven by this book, thousands of Jewish historians, scholars, archaeologists, Rabbis poured into Kaifeng for their research and study. There had been more than 270 books about this legend.

As it’s known widely, after the intrusion of Palestine by the Roman Empire in 67 AD, the local citizens were scattered in Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa. They didn’t have homes, and the vast shabby “Ghettoes” were their only choice available. Especially during the reign of Adulf Hitler, millions of European Jews were persecuted and slaughtered, which had been a miserable page of Jewish history.

However, a striking contrast originating from Chinese land indicated the fortune of the Jewish immigrants. They were favored by different feudal dynasties. In Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD), they were granted the best part of the city as their living quarter; they studied Chinese culture and joined the ruling class as one member of the Chinese family. For other Jews, they managed jewelry shops, dentist’s, pharmacy, silk and satin factory and some other businesses. They had never suffered any racial discrimination or religious persecution. Eventually they became a seamless part of Chinese nation, which is a rare case in Jewish history.
Pedigree Codex of Zhao(Joshua Family).
— 2000 by Joy Katzen-Guthrie.Used by Permission.

During the years of Diaspora, all the Jews kept close together with a tie of faithful belief and pure blood lineage. The more they were discriminated and persecuted, the closer they kept with themselves. However, it proves to be true that a community of thousands just simply disappeared in the mysterious Chinese land and merged into the Chinese family.

Today, we may come to this conclusion: The Jews in China lost any “vigilance” of assimilation among the generally harmonious society of China. They preferred to choose Confucius culture in stead of the Old Testament in an isolated environment with other communities. “hatan” or “circumcision” has been one of the frightening phrases to the naughty boys by the elders but is not practiced anymore.

Currently project to build “Kaifeng Synagogue Museum” and some Jewish Quarter courtyards, in the exact accordance with the architectural styles of the original buildings is being implemented.


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