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The Jews of Kaifeng


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During the eighth century at the height of Tang splendor, traders of different ethnic backgrounds crossed the Silk Road into China. It is believed that the first Jewish settlers appeared in China via this route during the Kaiyuan period. By the time of the Northern Song dynasty, a large Jewish community existed in the capital of Kaifeng, which at that time was the terminus of the Silk Road. They are known as "The Lost Jews of Kaifeng".

This Jewish community in Kaifeng were descendants of the traders who brought cotton fabric and seeds into China during the Tang dynasty. The Kaifeng Jews were granted an audience by the Song emperor, who urged them to preserve the customs of their ancestors, according to Chinese customary practice. They were allowed to build a synagogue and one was built in 1163. The emperor also bestowed seven Chinese surnames to the Jewish families; Li, Zhao, Shi, Ai, Zhang, Gao, and Jin. This was a great honor to them as foreigners. The descendants today still are called by these names, referring to themselves as belonging to "qixingbajia".

Eventually, these Jews assimilated into Chinese culture, intermarrying with Han people. They also embraced Confucian philosophy and took the civil service exams as entry into government positions. Many Jews became government officials during the Ming dynasty, gaining rank as "juren" or "jishi". Furthermore, the Jewish community was treated with great tolerance even by the Ming government. There was no sign of anti-Semitism in China at that time.

The Jews of Kaifeng eventually dwindled in size over time because of Yellow River floods, which destroyed many of their synagogues. By the 19th century, the Jewish community has all but faded, a result of assimilation into Chinese culture and intermarriage, or through natural disasters.

During World War 2, Jewish people escaping the Holocaust sought refuge in the only city in the world that would accept refugees with no visas and no questions asked, Shanghai. Despite pleas from Nazi Germany to massacre them, the Japanese moved the Jews into a separate settlement of their own in Shanghai and treated them benevolently, a stark contrast to the way they treated the Chinese.

Today a 1489 stone tablet can be found in the Kaifeng museum commemorating the building of the first synagogue in Kaifeng in 1163.

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skylee

I watched a TV documentary on this subject a few months ago. It follows one Kaifeng Jew who has moved to Jerusalem on some sponsorship. Because of Isreali laws he cannot work (yet?), and because the Jewish laws recognize the mother's line instead of the father's line (unlike Chinese), he is not recognised as Jew. And Jews are not recognised as one of the nationalities in China. This is what I have learnt from the documentary. Kind of frustrating.

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I've heard rumours that there are a few Chinese jews left even today, but they've lost most of their heritage and identity. Don't know if this can be substantiated or not.

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  • 2 years later...

Hi Skylee,

This documentary on you watched on a family of Kaifeng Jewish descendants sounds fascinating and intriguing. It also sounds very interesting and enlightening. It sounds like it taught you a great deal about Kaifeng's Jewish connection. I too would like to watch this documentary. Could you please tell me what is the title of this documentary and was it translated into English? Please let me know. Thank you.

Best wishes,

Albert

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