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Jews in Kaifeng, China: A Brief History

By Professor Xu Xin, Director of the Center for Jewish Studies, Nanjing University

(Written November, 2003.)

The Jewish Diaspora in Kaifeng has the most documented history among all Jewish communities in pre-modern China (documents trace the beginning of the presence of Jews in China back to the 8th century although assumptions go beyond the Talmudic period). Available information, though fragmentary, indicates that Kaifeng Jewry was predominantly of Persian origin around the 11th century (Song Dynasty). It seems certain that the Silk Road, a major throughway between China and Persia at the time, was the route, and business opportunities was one of the attractions.

Kaifeng Jewry’s continuous history of about 800 years is extraordinary. By and large, the history of Jews in the Diaspora is conditioned not only by their own heritage, tradition, adaptability, and cohesiveness but also by the social environment of their country of residence. The development, growth, and fall of the Kaifeng Jewish community parallels in many ways the rise and decline of Chinese society in general and of the city of Kaifeng in particular.

Our limited knowledge about the early history of Kaifeng Jewry causes us to surmise that Chinese emperors permitted the Jews to remain in Kaifeng , to observe their own laws and customs, to acquire property and enjoy the same privileges as the native-born subjects of the dynasty. They adopted themselves very quickly and successfully in the new environment and lived peacefully and comfortably with the local people. Through their own efforts, they built up homes and businesses and began to enjoy a secure and stable life. According to their own records, they built a synagogue in 1163. Ever since then, the synagogue has been renovated or rebuilt for at least 10 times.

In the second half of the 14th century, Chinese society once again underwent a major change. Han Chinese overthrew the Mongols who ruled China between 1279-1368 and established the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). During this period, the Kaifeng Jewish community entered a Golden Age. The measures taken by the Ming opened the political door for Jews along with everyone else, providing a ladder by which Jews could rise in Chinese society. Unlike the Jews of Europe and the Middle East in the same period, they were encouraged to fully engage in the local society, including public affairs and government service.

Already allied with the powerful feudal ruling class, the Jews involved themselves ever more in the city’s commerce and learning. The 1489 inscription on a memorial stele provides some insights into the center of this expanding Jewry. Its commercial activities were probably not just local. Connections with Jews in other Chinese cities -- Ningbo, Ningxia, Yangzhou, and Hangzhou -- seem to have been commercial as well as religious. Success in the civil service examination system meant wealth, security, and recognition. It is not surprising that so many Jews flocked to enroll in Chinese schools, studied diligently, and prepared for the examinations. The achievements of Kaifeng Jews during the Ming dynasty were remarkable. More than 20 of them held degrees; 14 served as court officials or military officers, and four were official physicians, one of whom served the prince directly. For one small community, this was indeed noteworthy.

As a result, the Kaifeng Jews became Chinese in dress, language, and mode of life, although they still adhered strictly to their traditional religious rites and customs. Their achievements during this period won them a permanent place in Chinese history -- often mentioned in gazetteers.

Two major events with far-reaching effects -- a local catastrophe and a national upheaval -- heralded the end of Kaifeng Jewry’s Golden Age. Locally, the Yellow River flood in 1642 completely destroyed the city of Kaifeng. Nationally, a dynastic transition occurred between the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The worst flood the city had experienced since the 4th century almost totally destroyed Kaifeng. More than half of its Jewish populace died, with approximately 200 families managing to escape. The 1489 inscription states that there were 70 clans in the community and names 17 of them. When the survivors were finally able to return to their homes after the flood, the number of clans had been reduced to seven: Li, Jin, Shi, Zhao, Gao, Ai, and Zhang. All the others were gone.

Fortunately, before the flood the community had been on a very solid foundation socially and financially. Thus, its members could and did rebuild their lives and synagogue. All seven clans contributed money. Many individuals donated funds to repair or recopy Torah scrolls. In 1663, they completed a brand-new, magnificent synagogue on the ancient site. After they placed 13 Torah scrolls in the Ark they held a grand celebration. The community also erected a stone monument to commemorate the event -- the well-known 1663 inscription that provides so much detailed information about their history.

Although the community managed to rebuild its synagogue, signs of decline were emerging. The economic center of China had further shifted to the eastern coastal cities. As the overland trade routes diminished in importance, Kaifeng and other inland cities gradually grew more and more apart from the economic mainstream. Kaifeng became no more than a provincial capital. Its size shrank, as did its economy and business.

The beginning of the 18th century also saw the growth of tension and disputes between the Chinese government and the Catholic Church, because the Qing rulers were becoming increasingly anti-Christian and anti-foreign. In 1704, in connection with the "Rites Controversy," Pope Clement XI issued a decree to prohibit Chinese Christians from practicing Chinese rituals. This so annoyed Emperor Kang Xi that the Chinese government began to expel missionaries from the country.

In 1725, Emperor Yung-cheng ordered all missionaries working among the Chinese to either go to Macao, an island colony on the southern coast of China under Portuguese rule, or leave the country. In 1783, another order from the court dissolved the Society of Jesus in China. The expulsion solidified China’s isolation from the rest of the world and thus had a profound implications for the Kaifeng Jews. The expulsion of the Christian missionaries left them more alone than ever, for the European priests had been their only contact with the outside world since 1605 when Ai Tien, a Kaifeng Jew, met Father Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit. The Jews were now completely cut off from the Catholic missionaries, who we may suppose gave them some encouragement after earlier links were severed.

Taking everything into consideration, the Kaifeng Jewish community ceased to function as a viable religious or collective entity in the second half of the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century all the holy scriptures and books were gone. In 1914, the site of the synagogue was finally sold by the Jews to the Canadian Anglican Mission headed by Bishop Charlees White. It is no exaggeration to say that by now the history of the Kaifeng Jewish community, which had existed proudly and distinctively since the 11th century, was over.

The Jewish experience in Kaifeng, China, is unique and meaningful -- a consecutive history of about 800 years as an observant society. No doubt it was the most dynamic, active, and important Jewish community in Chinese as well as in world Jewish history. Rather than being saddened by the fact that the community had ceased to exist by the mid-19th century as the last rabbi of the community died without a successor, historians should be amazed by the fact that the community survived for such a long time among the vast sea of Chinese, keeping alive traditions in a powerful Chinese culture that absorbs nearly everything. Even today, after almost 200 years following the fall of the community, the Jewish identity of many individuals whose ancestors had been members of the community remains alive. In the beginning of the 21st century, the scions of Kaifeng Jewry still consider themselves Jewish and share a strong sense of ethnic identity.

The history of Kaifeng Jewry is certainly a part of the history of world Jewry. If it is ignored, our knowledge of the many byroads and possibilities of Jewish existence would be not merely be incomplete but seriously impoverished.

Kaifeng and Kansas

Jews from Middle Kingdom, written by Jacques Cukierkorn for the March 2002 edition of Hadassah Magazine (page 60+) compares the settling of Kaifeng with the arrival of Jews in Kansas city. Inspired by a speech made by Xu Xin to a Kansas City synagogue, Cukierkorn stresses the point that "small Jewish communites have as much to teach the Jewish world as large ones."