"many [jews] came away feeling that these [Chinese jews] were frauds-after all, they neither observe Jewish holidays and traditions anymore, nor do they speak or read Hebrew. And to top it off, they gave the standard line of the Chinese Government about Israeli aggression. "
The Jews of China
A glimmer of nostalgia can be detected in the eyes of 66year-old Shi Zhongyu
(pronounced Sh'r Jongyu) as he recalls Passover rituals in Kaifeng of 1928. Then a seven
year-old boy, Shi watched the substitution for the traditional rooster's blood-colored
paint mixed with water-dabbed over the doorpost of his home, using a Chinese writing
brush. This festival, he recalls, was combined with features of the Chinese New Year.
Another custom, celebrated separately, would take place in May, when Shi's mother would
cook cakes containing no yeast.
"When the Hans [ethnic Chinese celebrate New Year's, they have some Buddhist idols
which they worship, " Shi explains. "We didn't have those statues in our family.
We only had the memorial tablets for our ancestors, in front of which we would place food
offerings of mutton rather than the pork used by other Chinese, to show our respect for
our Jewish ancestry. "
If you ask Chinese Jews how many of their ranks remain in the 1980's, estimates range
from 100 to 300, although it is not clear if they mean individuals or only male heads of
households, since Chinese Jews trace their descent, as is the Chinese custom. This, of
course, raises problems for other Jews who define Jewishness matrilineally, according to
halakha (Jewish law); by this criteria, Chinese Jews are not "really" Jewish,
and haven't been so for hundreds of years.
In fact, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, in adopting patrilineal descent in
the 1980's, legitimated a practice that Chinese Jews trace back at least as far as the
Ming dynasty (1368-1644). A Ming emperor conferred upon the Jews seven surnames by which
they are identifiable to this day: Ai, Lao, Jin, Li, Shi, Zhang and Zhao. Although other
Chinese may have one of these surnames, Chinese Jews and their descendants will have only
one of these seven names. Two names are of particular interest-Shi and Jin-meaning Stone
and Gold respectively, common surnames today among Western Jews.
A Jewish community as such no longer exists in Kaifeng. Indeed, most of those of Jewish descent do not even know each other. "In Kaifeng, we Jews have virtually no contact with each other, " one reported. "Only if someone says, 'My name is Li. I've heard my grandfather say I'm also a Jewish descendant, ' do we know there are some links between us. " But among individuals a strong sense of ethnic identity remains, and they are eager to share this and learn from foreign Jews who travel to Kaifeng as part of tours to China.
To Chinese Jews boast one of the most amazing histories in the annals of the Diaspora.
Archeological evidence points to a Jewish presence in China as early as the eighth
century, the Jews having arrived, most likely, from Persia along the Silk Road.
Arab and European travelers, including Marco Polo in the thirteenth century, spoke of
meeting Jews or hearing about them during their travels in the Middle Kingdom, as China
was then called. Polo records that Kublai Khan himself celebrated the festivals of
Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, bespeaking the existence of Jews in sufficient numbers
in China to warrant attention by its rulers.
It was not until the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci was called upon by Ai Tian, a
Kaifeng Jew, in 1605, however, that the existence of this exotic community came to the
attention of the West. Ai had heard that there were China Westerners who steadfastly
maintained their belief E in one God, but who were not Muslims. What else could they be,
thought Ai having never heard of Christianity but Jews?
The Jesuits who visited Kaifeng during the eighteenth century were intent on
befriending Chinese Jews and studying their holy writings. They were motivated by a
prevailing belief in Europe that the rabbis of the Talmudic era had excised from the Torah
certain passages which spoke I in specific terms of the coming of Jesus. If only they
could find the Torah of the Chinese Jews, who knew nothing of Christianity, they reasoned,
they would be able to locate these deleted passages. They hoped to bring back an
unexpurgated Torah-proving to Western Jews that their rabbis had deceived them-and they
envisioned mass conversion to Christianity as a result.
Needless to say, the Jesuits did not find what they were looking for. They did,
however, write letters to Beijing and to Rome, which have become a part of the Vatican
archives. In these letters, they described the daily life and religious observances of the
Chinese Jews, noting the great pride and care with which they maintained their synagogue.
Jean Domenge, a Jesuit who visited the Chinese Jews in 1722, drew sketches of the interior
and exterior of the synagogue, illustrating the degree of assimilation that had occurred
among Chinese Jews by this time.
On the Sabbath, the Jews read from the Torah, only after it was placed on a special
"chair of Moses. " Above this chair loomed a great tablet with gold Chinese
letters proclaiming, "Long live the great Qing [dynasty] Emperor" a requirement
for Muslim, Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist temples as well until the establishment of the
Republic of China in 1911. The Chinese Jews, however, added Hebrew characters above the
proclamation, which the non-Jews could not understand: This was the Shema, the Jewish
statement of faith, and it was put above the Chinese characters so that the Jews and God
alone knew that He was the highest of all.
The 1489 inscription also notes that the first synagogue was erected in 1163, after the Jews were ordered by the emperor to "keep and follow the customs of your forefathers and settle at Bian liang [Kaifeng]. " The stele itself was erected to commemorate the reconstruction of the synagogue after a devastating flood in 1461-one of several which would destroy the synagogue and many Kaifeng inhabitants over the next few centuries.
An inscription on the back of the 1489 stone, dated 1512, suggests the existence of
established Jewish communities in other parts of China. It records for posterity the
donation of a Torah scroll by a Mr. Gold (Jin) of Hangzhou to the Kaifeng kehilla. This
inscription also attempts to draw parallels between the basic tenets of Confucianism and
Judaism, an effort which needs little help, since both emphasize the moral basis for
conducting one's daily affairs. The notion of tzedaka (charity), common to Confucianism
and Judaism, is duly noted.
Lack of a rabbi and the dilapidated state of the synagogue were prime reasons for the diminishing confidence of the Jewish community in their future. Although circumcision and observance of the dietary laws were still reported, the poverty rampant among the Jews, like that of their Chinese neighbors, led some to attempt to sell parts of the synagogue building and even some of their manuscripts. Scrolls of the Law and other Hebrew manuscripts were in the end sold to Protestant missionaries during the nineteenth century. Many are now in the Klau Library of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
Some time between 1850 and 1866, the synagogue was destroyed for the last time. But not
until 1900, with the establishment of the Shanghai Society for the Rescue of the Chinese
Jews, was a concerted effort made by Western Jews to help their brethren in Kaifeng. By
then it was practically too late. Two Jews, a father and son of the Li clan, came to
Shanghai at the behest of the Shanghai Society. They were joined in a later visit by six
other members of the Kaifeng community, who all expressed eagerness for financial support
to rebuild the synagogue that once stood near South Teaching Scripture Lane.
But shortly after the turn of the century, pogroms in Russia and the resulting Jewish
emigration diverted the needed funds and attention away from Kaifeng, and a synagogue for
the Kaifeng Jews was no longer considered a priority for the Shanghai Jewish community,
when faced with life-and-death Jewish crises elsewhere.
The elder Li remained in Shanghai until his death in 1903 and was buried in the Jewish
cemetery there. His son was raised by the family of D.E.J. Abraham, and when he was
circumcised, he was given the name Shmuel. Shmuel lived in Shanghai for nearly 50 years,
returning after the Second World War to Kaifeng, where he died. Shmuel's son, who grew up
in Shanghai, was sent to Kaifeng after the Communists came to power in 1949.
The one small room Li calls home is filled with correspondence from Western Jews he has met over the years since Kaifeng was opened to tourists. He has accumulated something of a Judaica library, as they have given him copies of Haggadas and Hebrew primers. Nevertheless, his knowledge of Jewish law and custom seems tinged with bubbe meiseXs passed down among Chinese Jews- such as the "fact" that Jews observe the Sabbath in part by fasting.
(Interestingly, the 1489 stele does state that Jews are to fast four times a month.)
How close do these Chinese Jews feel to Jews around the world? Many feel a special bond
for our common ancestry and heritage, but the political world in which they live precludes
a deeper understanding of Jewish ties to the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, pride in their
past is very real, as can be seen by their listing their children as "Youtai"
(Jewish) on all certificates of registry, next to the space allotted for nationality,
where they once might have written "Han" (ethnic Chinese).
Zhao Pingyu, a retired tax collector in his mid-60's and a member of the Planning
Committee of the Tourist Bureau of Kaifeng, displayed one of these certificates. Perhaps
the most enterprising of all the Chinese Jews, Zhao is preparing a mini-museum or, as he
calls it, a "commemorative hall, " which will recount the many contributions and
scholarly successes attained over the centuries by his ancestors. To this end, he has
built a model of the old synagogue as his father and grandfather told him it looked. It is
along the lines of the model of the Kaifeng synagogue found in Be it Hatefutzot (the
Diaspora Museum) in Tel Aviv, only Zhao has added two stone lions in the front, which
stood there throughout the centuries.
Given that Judaism has been traced patrilineally in Kaifeng for centuries, Zhao finds
himself in a peculiar position: He is one of the few Chinese Jewish descendants with an
extensive knowledge of his people's history and only daughters-five of them-to pass it on
to. Like Tevye, Zhao has had to accommodate to changing times. He has, therefore, decreed
that any children which his daughters have should be registered as "Youtai, "
even if their fathers are not of Jewish descent. And they have all agreed. In fact, one
has joined her father in a small-scale enterprise of making Chinese Jewish yarmulkas to be
sold to Jewish tourists-which will, they hope, bring in much needed funds for the museum
Although he has amassed a formidable Judaica collection from Jewish tourists over the
years, Zhao can neither read the books nor make use of them, as they are all in English or
Hebrew. However, he does appreciate having them and hopes that one of his daughters, whom
he would like to send to the United States to study Judaism, will someday return to
Kaifeng and explain them to her father.
The Zhaos still live on South Teaching Scripture Lane, named after the religion of the
Jews who resided there because of its close proximity to the synagogue. "[The
synagogue] was destroyed in the flood of the Yellow River, " says Zhao. "After
the flood [in the mid nineteenth century], many Jews fled to other parts of the country.
They went north, south, east and west, scattered in all directions. After they left, they
managed to make a living where they were and never bothered to return. So some of them
[now] don't even know they are Jewish. At that time we also left, without any choice. But
we couldn't make a living, so we came back. After this, we had no house, no way to make a
living, so we just set up a house next to the original synagogue temporarily and slowly
made our lives again. That's how we came to remain on this street. "
Few Kaifeng Jewish descendants display the knowledge of their ancestry that Zhao Pingyu
possesses. When shown a Star of David, for example, Ai Dianyuan did not recognize it as a
Jewish symbol. Nevertheless, Ai displayed an attitude typical of most Jewish descendants
in Kaifeng today, as distinct from those brought before tourist groups to recount their
family's histories; that is, they know they are of Jewish descent only because they were
told so by their fathers, and they have a strong desire to pass this one bit of
information on to their children. For some reason, it is still important to them to do so.
Ai Fengmian, a former construction worker now in his 70's, had one of the most
interesting stories. In 1952 Ai was picked by his neighborhood committee to go to Beijing
to represent Chinese Jews as one of the national minorities in a ceremony held by the then
three-year-old government of the People's Republic of China. Ai met and shook hands with
Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-Lai and Deng Xiaoping. One might conclude from this episode that
shortly after the establishment of the PRC, Jews were close to being declared a national
One such person is Jin Xiaojing, a sociologist at the National Minorities Research
Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. Jin, whose surname means
"Gold, " only discovered her Jewish roots in 1980. Jin Xiaojing's daughter, Qu
Yinan, a Beijing journalist, is now studying at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
A deep desire to recover his heritage was best exhibited by Shi Zhongyu, whose
childhood memories of celebrating Passover and seeing brass Stars of David wrapped in red
silk hidden in a medicine chest are still vivid. "The yarmulkas I saw in my family
were not made up of four sections like this [given him by a tourist], but rather were
composed of six pieces, " he recalls. "They were dark blue with black trim, and
there was Hebrew writing embroidered on it. They used yellow thread to embroider it with.
I never understood any of the Hebrew writing.... These belonged to the previous
generation. It was always kept in the closet.... As I remember now, the number of the
edges probably has something to do with the Sabbath. The story goes that on the first day
God created such and such, the second day God created such and such, and so on, finishing
creation on the sixth day. So because of this, the yarmulka has six or seven parts. I
heard this from my mother. It's really regrettable we no longer have these things. "
Dr. Wendy Abraham