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China Judaic Studies Association 
Promoting Judaic Studies in China

Articles

A Visit to Kaifeng

by Beverly Friend, Ph.D.

Executive Director China Judaic Studies Association, friend@oakton.edu

It was nearly 11 p.m. when the phone rang, and I was almost ready for bed after a grueling day of travel. The plane had been late, as usual in China, and we had spent hours in the airport before boarding the Beijing-Kaifeng flight. It was time to rest. The caller was my friend, colleague, and national guide while in China, Professor Xu Xin of Nanjing University.

"Can you come downstairs?" he asked. "Wang Yisha is here to meet you. He has been riding his bicycle back and forth to the hotel all day waiting for you."

I jumped into my clothes, eager to meet the Emeritus Director of the Kaifeng Museum who had spent 20 years gathering information for the first Chinese publication on the subject: The Spring and Autumn of the Kaifeng Jews. I dashed downstairs to where Wang and Xu were waiting. After words of welcome, they announced bad news: the Kaifeng museum had been robbed four months earlier and was now boarded up, closed to the public. We would not be allowed to enter and see the most important Jewish artifact---a carved stele which documents the history of the Jews of Kaifeng with inscriptions from both 1489 and 1512 relating the history of the Kaifeng Jews from the time of Abraham the Patriarch and describing Jewish customs.

Tears rose in my eyes. We had travelled so far. Xu and I were leading a group of 10 Americans who had come to China specifically to visit Jewish historical sites. We would be in Kaifeng only two days and probably would again never make this trip. Couldn't something be done?

And it was done!

Wang spent the entire night on the phone, pulling strings, calling in favors, using what we call "clout" in this country (and they term "Guanxi" in Chinese). We would be allowed to enter through the back door of the museum --its only visitors---allowed to climb to the 4th floor and view the stele. Our trip would not be in vain.

This visit to the museum was one of three highlights during our short stay in Kaifeng. The others were a trip out into the countryside to see the burial site of eight generations of the Jin family, and a beautiful shabbat dinner with three descendants of the Kaifeng Jews.

However, our first reaction to the stele was surprise and dismay because the sides of the stone did not appear etched with historic information. Rather, they looked gray, bare, virtually bald.

Where were the inscriptions retelling the history and religious beliefs of the Jews?

Where was the documentation stating that in 1163 Ustad Leiwei was given charge of the religion (Ustad is a common Persian word for Rabbi), and that Abdulla began to build the synagogue which was surrounded by other structures: a study hall, a ritual bath, a communal kitchen, a kosher butchering facility, and a sukkah?

Time and the elements had eroded them. Fortunately, however, rubbings of these steles adorned the walls of the room, attesting to the care taken by earlier scholars to preserve their contents.

Foremost among these were Jesuit Priests who, entering China in the 17th century, discovered and published reports about the Jewish colony in Kaifeng.

A story which sounds apocryphal but has been heavily documented tells the tale of the initial 1605 meeting between Ai Ti'en, a Kaifeng Jew, and the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci. When Ai was in Peking hoping for assignment in the imperial civil service after successfully completing the magistrate's exam, he learned of a book titled Things I Have Heard Tell about a small band of Europeans headed by Ricci who was opening a church. The author explained that these foreigners believed in one god.

Educated Chinese thought the foreigners must be Moslems, but Ai thought they might be Jews. He arrived at the Jesuit church thinking it was a synagogue and introduced himself to Ricci, who he thought was a Rabbi. Ricci, who had been searching for early Christian communities in China, greeted Ai with open arms. Because the celebration of the festival of St. John the Baptist was underway, a painting of Mary and the infant Jesus had been placed near the alter, together with another of a youthful St. John. Ricci knelt before them. Ai thought they were Rebecca and her sons Jacob and Esau so he also knelt (although that was not his usual custom). Later, seeing a mural of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, he wondered aloud if they might not be four of the 12 sons of Jacob and asked where the other eight were. Finally it was all sorted out leaving Ricci disappointed not to find a Chinese Christian, but astounded to find a Chinese Jew.

Ricci had discovered a diaspora with an amazing history dating from 8th century migrations of Jewish merchants and traders over the Silk Road from Persia and India. He learned that the surviving Jewish community in Kaifeng included many families who observed religious practices centering in the synagogue and observed most of the traditional festivals, abstained from eating pork, circumcised their sons and followed the laws of Moses in ways that were similar to the practices of Jews in Europe. He did, however, think that their isolation would lead them to be shortly assimilated into the surrounding population.

When Ricci sent messengers to Kaifeng, they carried a letter to the chief Rabbi telling him that the Jesuit house of worship in Peking had all the books of the Hebrew Bible and also a set of later scriptures called the New Testament - which, they explained, would be of special interest to the Jews because in it they would finally be able to read the story of the Messiah who had come 16 centuries earlier to redeem their own people and all the other peoples of the world as well. The bemused rabbi responded that he did not understand how a person of Ricci's vast erudition could believe the Messiah had already arrived when it was common knowledge that he had not and would not for another 10,000 years. However, the Rabbi also wrote that he himself was now old and sick, and if Ricci would move to Kaifeng he might accept the position of Chief Rabbi. The Rabbi was less concerned with Ricci's aberrant belief in the Messiah (which he took to be a personal idiosyncracy) than with his not obeying the dietary laws, and said that the job was his if he would give up eating Pork.

Interestingly, while Ricci knew a great deal about Jews, the Jews of Kaifeng had never heard of Christians. Ai Ti'en seems to have concluded that a Christian was a member of a Jewish sect---a sect that had certain strange doctrines and practices but was still a part of the House of Israel.

While Ricci thought the Kaifeng Jewish community was on the verge of extinction, this was not so. Seven or eight generations of Jews were still to live out their lives in Kaifeng before their community ceased to function as a viable religious entity. And even after that, there was nostalgic evocation of traditions and ethnic origins of their fathers leading to at least a nominal allegiance to their ancient faith.

Archeological evidence points to Jews in China as early as the 8th century. Many travelers, including Marco Polo in the 13th century, wrote of meeting Jews. In fact, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a Ming emperor conferred seven surnames upon the Jews, by which they are identifiable today: Ai, Lao, Jin, Li, Shi, Zhang and Zhao. Interestingly, two of these Shi and Jin are the equivalent of common Jewish names in the west: Stone and Gold.

The stele notes that 1421 was a turning point for the acceptance of Jews into the Chinese world because they were allowed to take civil service exams and thus rise in government professions. Local gazetteers from the 16th to 20th centuries note that Jews were successful in mainstream Confucian society far out of proportion to their small number.

This success may also have attributed to their ultimate assimilation, as those who passed the exams might be moved away from their fellow congregants to take a government positions in other towns--isolating individual Jews.

Other prime reasons for assimilation include lack of rabbis, lack of translation of the Torah into Chinese, loss of the knowledge of Hebrew over the years and several destructions of the temple due to floods of the Yellow River. By the middle of the 19th century, poverty caused the remaining Jews to sell parts of the synagogue building and even some of their manuscripts to Protestant missionaries. Many are now in the library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Relics from the temple include a chime for calling worshippers together, two large stone bowls and a drain mouth, for ritual washing before worship, and a wooden cylindrical torah case. These, as well as additional copies of rubbings of the Stele are held by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, but are not currently on display.

European theologians were especially interested in the Kaifeng torahs and wanted to see and compare these bibles with their own because some Christian theologians had concluded that the rabbis of the Talmudic Era had blasphemously expunged or altered a number of verses predicting the birth and ministry of Jesus. This belief had led to a raging dispute in 16th century Europe and bitter repression of Jewish minorities. Hundreds of thousands of Hebrew volumes had been condemned and burned. A retrieval of a "pure and true" bible would solve the problem, and--even more important---would help in converting the Jews, for if lost passages were found, they would offer incontrovertible proof that earlier rabbis had altered the text.

Much greater fuss was made about the discovery of the Kaifeng Jews by European Christians than by European Jews. Ardent organizations formed to convert them, and six Torah scrolls were ultimately bought.

Needless to say, the Kaifeng torah scrolls were found to be exactly like the ones in Europe.What has become of these Torahs? Currently, the one which went to the Hong Kong Missionary College has disappeared, but others ended up in the British Museum, the Bodleian Library at Oxford ,the University Library at Cambridge, and the Bridewell Library at Southern Methodist University, Dallas. One other was also lost. Two smaller Hebrew texts are now at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

It is interesting to consider the gap in time between the Church's desire to obtain the Torahs and the actual purchases. Problems had arisen between the Missionaries and the Chinese government which caused the Missionaries to be banned from the interior of China in 1724. The Church was racked by the "Chinese Rites Controversy" which dealt with what aspects the Catholic church would or would not accept of Confucianism. While the Church would not allow either polygamy or open polytheism (as practiced in Buddhism and Taoism), there were other considerations such as whether or not Confucianist ancestor worship be condemned as idolatry or regarded as an essentially innocuous means of expressing reverence towards ones ancestors. Should it tacitly, even if reluctantly, be permitted a place in the Catholic Church?

Ricci, who agreed with the example of the Kaifeng Jews, was tolerant and regarded most Confucian rituals as devoid of theology, asserting they were social and civic practices.

The Dominicans and Franciscans, on the other hand, said the Confucian beliefs and practices were not compatible with Christianity. The Congregation of Rites condemned Confucian rituals and warmed Church members that such ceremonies were forbidden. The ruling offended Emperor K'ang Hsi and he retaliated in 1706 by ordering the Catholic priests in his empire either to continue the tolerant policy instituted by Ricci or leave the country.

This Catholic dispute was bitter, shaking the foundations of the Church and it nearly nullified her missionary program in the Far East. Scholars note that because of this dispute, the Church missed a momentous opportunity.

This banishment of missionaries is important in the history of the Jews of Kaifeng because it also returned the Jews to their isolated state as contact with them again came to a halt for over a hundred years. The community began to die out, and a letter from a Kaifeng Jew to the west, written in the mid-nineteenth century states: "Morning and night, with tears in our eyes and with offerings of incenses do we implore that our religion may again flourish. We have everywhere sought about, but could find none who understood the letter of the Great Country (Hebrew) and that has occasioned us deep sorrow."

During the 1860's the Sephardic Jews of Shanghai became interested in the community in Kaifeng and in 1900 started a Shanghai Society for the Rescue of the Chinese Jews (at that time said to consist of 50 families of about 250 people) and one member of the society wrote a letter begging the Jews not to sell any more of the scrolls than they had already done. They also offered to help them rebuild the temple. Nothing much came of all.

After the Jews had withstood all the Catholic blandishments for some 200 years, they were next met by a brilliant new technique formulated by Protestant missionaries. These did not describe Christianity as a separate religion, but as a reformed type of Judaism which Jews throughout the world had accepted (shades of Jews for Jesus?). This met with some success until about 1858 when it was brought to the attention of the Sassoon family who intervened to stop the fraud.

There are no reports of the Baptism of even one single Jew in either Jesuit or Jewish records.

When Bishop William White, a Canadian Church of England Missionary worked in Kaifeng, he made a serious attempt to try to revitalize the Jewish community. In 1919 he called a conference in an attempt to bring Chinese Jews together. While there was much discussion and social fellowship, the conference failed. However, there is a most interesting picture of a group of Jewish women who came to the conference. All, including the children, have bound feet.

Why did the Kaifeng Community die out?

It was weakened by repeated natural, military and economic catastrophes over the centuries: fire, flood, foreign armies. The closing of the silk route to international trade ended prosperity. When Kaifeng was no longer a national capital, it became a city in decline. Many Jews left and in leaving did not find new surroundings conducive to practicing their religion.

There were very early signs of dilution. In the 1489 inscription, for example, an attempt is made to demonstrate that the ethical principles upon which both Judaism and Confucianism ar based are very much the same. Incense is burned to honor the memories of outstanding biblical persons, and also to honor Confucius who is, however revered as a great moral teacher rather than as a religious figure. Sacrifices in the Chinese style began to be offered on several Jewish holidays, though only of kosher food. The communal school taught less and less. Knowledge of Hebrew diminished so that when 12 new torah books were written in the middle 17th century, the scribal misspellings in each of them ran into the hundreds. No one could take the place of the last rabbis.

In fact, the community even displayed one Torah scroll in the marketplace together with a sign offering a reward to any traveller who could interpret its text for them. It was then that they sold their Torahs and the synagogue was torn down and the land was sold to Canadian missionaries.

Who is left?

While our visit to Kaifeng had not been too late to see the museum, it was, sadly, to late to meet Zhao Pingyu, whose great grandfather had been the last rabbi. We did visit his home on Teaching the Torah Lane South (the main street of former Jewish life), and saw the religious objects he had collected in his attempt to create a small Judaic library and museum there. Zhao, who had died several months earlier, had been able to recall some rituals from his childhood.

The descendants we did meet from the Zhang, Shi and Jin families had no such memories. Living in a secular country, they do not observe religious rituals, although some do refrain from eating pork. A member of the Jin family took us to the burial mounds of eight generations of his family. We gathered around the memorial stone and said a Kaddish.

Rabbi Neil Brief of Niles Township Jewish Congregation had done the same thing on his trip a year earlier, and told us that tears had formed to the eyes of his non-Jewish tour guide. When asked why he wept, he had answered that although he wasn't a Jew, as a Chinese he was moved by the respect shown to ancestors.

In spite of a lack of formal religious ceremonies, the Kaifeng Jews do share a strong sense of ethnic identity and are eager to discuss this and learn from foreign Jews who travel to their city. Learning about their heritage has been a difficult task as very little about Jews and Judaism has been published in Chinese. As Xu Xin had just completed editing the one-volume Chinese edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica, we were able to help by donating a copy to each of the seven family clans (based on the seven groups of names originally allotted to the Jews).

Their sense of connection is very real, as can be seen in their listing their children as "Youtai" (Jewish) on all government documents next to a spot where they might have written "Han" (Ethnic Chinese).

Of course, one problem in the chain of identification lies in the Chinese focus on patrilineal descent. Because of this, we were told, boys were permitted to marry out of the faith, as their wives would automatically be considered absorbed into their husband's beliefs. Girls, on the other hand, were encouraged to find Jewish husbands.

Just a few days after we visited Kaifeng, we saw an article in the South China Morning Post which questioned the validity of the Jewishness of the descendants. The article opened with the words, "Several thousand Chinese citizens claim to be Jews but the Government, apparently hoping to avoid another 'minority problem,' is taking the position that most of them are impostors."

This was similar to the point of view expressed to us by Eyal Proper, of the Israeli Embassy, when we met him in Beijing. According to Proper, unhappy Chinese claim to be Jews in order to escape China's hardships for a better life in Israel.

The people we met were not impostors. For those of us who shared the Friday night meal, there is no doubt that the descendants of the Kaifeng Jews do feel their Jewish connection.

On our last night in Kaifeng, as we celebrated a shabbat dinner with our guests, and as we sat around the table, reciting prayers in Hebrew that were then translated via English to Chinese, we welcomed this link to our Asian family, so long lost and now---at last---able to learn about and participate in their religion .

It was an unforgettable experience.

BOOKS:

  • Buck, Pearl S., Peony, (set in Kaifeng, 1850; first printed in 1948), Block, Publishing, NY, (with afterward by Wendy R. Abraham, Ed.D.) 1990.
  • Needle, M. Patricia, ed. East Gate of Kaifeng: a Jewish world inside China, China Center, U. of Minnesota, 1992.
  • Pollak, Michael, Mandarins, Jews and Missionaries, the Jewish Experience in the Chinese Empire, Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1980.
  • Shapiro, Sidney ed. Jews in Old China, Studies by Chinese Scholars, Hippocene Books, NY, 1984.
  • White, William Charles, Chinese Jews: A Compilation of Matters Relating to the Jews of K'ai-feng Fu, Paragon Book Reprint Corp, NY, 1966.
  • Xu Xin, et al., Chinese edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica, Nanjing, 1994.
  • Xu Xin, with Beverly Friend, Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng (KTAV), 1995.

JOURNALS:

  • Points East: A Publication of the Sino Judaic Institute, editor Anson Laytner, published three times a year, Back issues $5 each $15/year plus $2 postage and handling. Sino Judaic Institute, 2316 Blueridge Ave., Menlo Park, CA 94025.
  • The China/Judaic Connection, editor, Beverly Friend, Ph.D., published bi-annually for members of the China Judaic Studies Association by Oakton Community College, 1600 Golf Rd. Des Plaines, IL 60016.