Who were the Jews of Kaifeng?
The Jewish community of Kaifeng, a city in southwest China, dates as far back as the 9th century. While the history of the community is sketchy, it is believed that Jewish merchants from Persia or Iraq were the first to settle there, according to a Ynet story published in 2010. Other sources claim they were descendents of the Ten Lost Tribes or escaped to China in the second century C.E. following the failed Bar Kokhba revolt in Israel.
At its height, the Kaifeng Jewish community consisted of 5,000 to 6,000 Jews (the number varies by reference source), many of whom were involved in commerce.
According to Ynet, all of Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants belonged to one of seven clans, each identifiable by its surname and family trees that stretch back for centuries. One legend has it that the emperor of China assigned the names.
These seven names — Zhao, Li, Ai, Zhang, Gao, Jin and Shi — were used by Kaifeng’s Jews throughout the centuries. It is believed that the Li family’s original Hebrew name was Levi, and the Gao family was Cohen.
The community was largely unknown until the 1600s when a Jesuit priest visited the city and verified the Jews’ existence there.
The community’s last rabbi died in the 19th century without leaving an heir and the synagogue of Kaifeng was destroyed in floods in 1854. It was never rebuilt.
After that, many Kaifeng Jews began assimilating.
There are approximately 1,000 descendants of the Jewish community living in Kaifeng today, of whom about half are connected to their identity. Other Kaifeng Jews have made aliya in recent years.