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."

The story of China's Jews is supposed to have ended. But in 1987 there are still people in Kaifeng who claim Jewish ancestry and recall Jewish holidays and rituals- over a century after the synagogue near South Teaching Scripture Lane was destroyed for the last time. Over 150 years after the last Chinese rabbi in Kaifeng conducted services, taking with him at his death the last real knowledge of Hebrew and Bible, Jewish memory persists.

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 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 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. Set in a typical Chinese courtyard structure, with many pavilions dedicated to ancestors and illustrious men of Jewish history, the synagogue (called the Temple of Purity and Truth, a name common to mosques as well) had a separate hall for the ritual slaughter of animals. Inside on a front table were incense sticks burned in honor of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

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 Jesuits sent back rubbings of the two steles, or stone monuments, which had been erected in the courtyard of the synagogue compound. The earliest inscription on one of the steles, dating to 1489, tells of the history and religious beliefs of the Jews. The stele points to the year 1421, when the emperor conferred upon An Ch'eng, a Jewish physician, the surname Zhao, as the turning point for the acceptance of the Jews into Chinese society. From that time on, Chinese Jews would prove able to pass the civil service exam and thus be accepted into the mainstream Confucian society far out of proportion to their small numbers. Local gazetteers from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries attest to this.

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.

With a ban on proselytizing and the banishment of missionaries by the Yong Zheng Emperor in 1724, contact with the Jews came to a halt and would not resume for over a hundred years. During the intervening century, assimilation took its toll, as a letter from a Kaifeng Jew to the West, written in the mid nineteenth century attests: "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 this has occasioned us deep sorrow."

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.

Shmuel's son, Li Rongxin (pronounced Rungsheen), lives in Kaifeng today. At 77, he is healthy and fu11 of stories of Jewish life in Shanghai-of the synagogue on Museum Road near where the Li family lived, and of the foreign Jews, mostly from England, with whom he had contact-and of Jewish practice in Kaifeng.

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.)

While in Kaifeng two summers ago, I met again three Jewish descendants who had been brought before the American Jewish Congress groups which I led on tours of China in 1983. At the time, we were allowed to spend only a little over half an hour interviewing those chosen to speak to us. Shi Zhongyu, Shi Yulian and Zhao Pingyu are the only Chinese Jews brought before groups of Jewish tourists. All eloquent spokesmen, they nevertheless left visitors disappointed, as the Westerners tried to understand the strong ties which somehow bound them to us, as well as the differences which seemed at times insurmountable. Indeed, many came away feeling that these people 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.

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.

"In the course of researching the history of the Zhao clan, one must also understand things which pertain to the original synagogue, " says Zhao. "At least this will enable me to pass this knowledge on to my own descendants so that they will understand their history. During my research of the synagogue, I discovered that the last restoration was undertaken by my family."

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 project.

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 minority.

China has 55 national minorities, who are declared such on the basis of common language, traditions, customs and geographic area. The Muslims now constitute the second largest minority in China, after the Zhuang, and they are able to retain their study of Arabic and religious observance in mosques. The Jews, however, long ago lost their knowledge of Hebrew and, with the destruction of the synagogue, a communal meeting place for worship. Many Jews were, in fact, swallowed up by Islam over the years, since it was the religion whose customs and practices were most like those of Judaism.

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."

Shi is working with Wang Yisha, former curator of the Kaifeng Municipal Museum, who probably knows more contemporary Chinese Jewish descendants than anyone else, to reconstruct the genealogies of the Kaifeng Jews, in particular of the Shi clan. To this end, they are eager to get hold of the Chinese-Hebrew Memorial Book of the Dead, on which Sino-Judaic scholar Donald Daniel Leslie has done considerable research. The Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati has agreed to donate two microfiches of this work to Kaifeng-one to the Municipal Museum, which is planning a Judaica wing that will house the steles, and another directly to Wang Yisha. However, efforts to expedite the sending of the microfiches have run into some bureaucratic snags, which have temporarily set back those who would delve into their past in Kaifeng.

The China International Travel Service (CITS), the official Chinese travel agency, has been attempting to establish greater tourist contact between Western Jews and Kaifeng. However, tourists have been discouraged by the many inconveniences of traveling to Kaifeng (still a long way from the amenities afforded by the more glamorous cities of Shanghai and Beijing) and the paucity of actual "things to see" relating to the history of the Chinese Jews: The site of the synagogue is now occupied by a hospital, and the two steles may be seen only with considerable haggling on the part of tour leaders with CITS officials. As a result, even the American Jewish Congress abandoned Kaifeng as a part of the itinerary of its China tour in 1986.

My own solo journey to Kaifeng in 1985 was capped by a five-hour detention by the public security police on grounds that I was collecting secret information for FBI style research and was attempting to proselytize the Chinese Jews, who don't even exist anymore - so I was told - so there should have been nothing to interest me. Speaking to people in their homes, I was informed, was illegal. Since I was on a tourist visa, I should have been visiting pagodas, not talking privately with individuals - in Chinese, no less. My interrogation was a far different experience than what happens in most other cities, in China, certainly the large ones such as Beijing and Shanghai, where contacts between foreigners and Chinese are quite the norm.

Many tourists I brought to Kaifeng in official groups have come away wondering whether the whole thing wasn't a hoax to get visitors and their money into the city. Having spoken to many of the Jewish descendants in the privacy of their homes, having heard their stories and even discussed Middle East politics, I cannot agree with that assessment. There are precious memories of Jewish life in Kaifeng which are worth recording for future generations of Chinese Jews and for Jews around the world.

To this end, the Sino-Judaic Institute was created in 1985 in Palo Alto, California, to encourage research and scholarship about the Jewish experience in China and to aid the establishment of a Judaica wing in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum. I saw in the Chinese Jews a mixture of two of the greatest civilizations - certainly the oldest - the world has known. What I began to ask myself was not why Judaism and Jews as a community no longer live on in Kaifeng, but rather, how they could have survived in that far corner of the earth with a Jewish identity for so long.




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