Kaifeng Jews are members of a small Jewish community that has existed in Kaifeng, in the Henan province of China, for hundreds of years. Although Jews in modern China have traditionally called themselves Youtai in Mandarin Chinese — also the predominant contemporary Chinese language term for Jews in general — the community was known by their Han Chinese neighbors as adherents of Tiaojinjiao, meaning, loosely, the religion which removes the sinew (a reference to kashrut).
History of Kaifeng Jews
According to historical records, a Jewish community lived in Kaifeng from at least the Southern Song Dynasty (960-1279) until the late nineteenth century. It is surmised that the ancestors of the Kaifeng Jews came from Central Asia. It is also reported that in 1163 Ustad Leiwei was given charge of the religion (Ustad means Rabbi in Persian), and that they built a synagogue surrounded by a study hall, a ritual bath, a communal kitchen, a kosher butchering facility, and a sukkah.The uninterrupted existence of this religious and ethnic group, living for over 700 years in socio-cultural surroundings strongly dominated by Confucian moral and ethical principles, is a unique phenomenon in Chinese and Jewish history.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a Ming emperor conferred seven surnames upon the Jews, by which they are identifiable today: Ai, Shi, Gao, Jin, Li, Zhang, and Zhao; sinofications of the original seven Jewish clan's family names: Ezra, Shimon, Cohen, Gilbert, Levy, Joshua, and Jonathan. Interestingly, two of these: Jin and Shi are the equivalent of common Jewish names in the west: Gold and Stone.
The existence of Jews in China was unknown to Europeans until 1605, when Matteo Ricci, then established in Beijing, was visited by a Jew from Kaifeng, who had come to Beijing to take examinations for his jinshi degree. According to his account in De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, his visitor, named Ai Tian (Ai T'ien) explained that he worshipped one God. It is recorded that when he saw a Christian image of Mary with the child Jesus, he believed it to be a picture of Rebecca with Esau or Jacob, figures from Scripture. Ai said that many other Jews resided in Kaifeng; they had a splendid synagogue and possessed a great number of written materials and books.
About three years after Ai's visit, Ricci sent a Chinese Jesuit Lay Brother to visit Kaifeng; he copied the beginnings and ends of the holy books kept in the synagogue, which allowed Ricci to verify that they indeed were the same texts as the Pentateuch known to Europeans, except that they did not use Hebrew diacritics (which were a comparatively late invention). When Ricci wrote to the "ruler of the synagogue" in Kaifeng, telling him that the Messiah the Jews were waiting for had come already, the "Archsynagogus" wrote back, saying that the Messiah would not come for another ten thousand years. Nonetheless, apparently concerned with the lack of a trained successor, the old rabbi offered Ricci his position, if the Jesuit would join their faith and abstain from eating pork. Later, another three Jews from Kaifeng, including Ai's nephew, stopped by the Jesuits house while visiting Beijing on business, and got themselves baptized. They told Ricci that the old rabbi had died, and (since Ricci had not taken up on his earlier offer), his position was inherited by his son, "quite unlearned in matters pertaining to his faith". Ricci's overall impression of the situation of China's Jewish community was that "they were well on the way to becoming Saracens [i.e., Muslims] or heathens."
Later, a number of European Jesuits visited the Kaifeng community as well. The Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s led to the dispersal of the community, but it later returned to Kaifeng. Three stelae with inscriptions were found at Kaifeng. The oldest, dating from 1489, commemorates the construction of a synagogue in 1163 , a term often used for mosques in Chinese). The inscription states that the Jews came to China from India during the Han Dynasty period (2nd century BCE-2nd century CE). It cites the names of 70 Jews with Chinese surnames, describes their audience with an unnamed Song Dynasty emperor, and lists the transmission of their religion from Abraham down to the prophet Ezra. The second tablet, dating from 1512 (found in the synagogue Xuanzhang Daojing Si) details their Jewish religious practices. The third, dated 1663, commemorates the rebuilding of the Qingzhen si synagogue and repeats information that appears in the other two steles.
Two of the stelae refer to a famous tattoo written on the back of Song Dynasty General Yue Fei. The tattoo, which reads "Boundless loyalty to the country" , first appeared in a section of the 1489 stele talking about the Jews' "Boundless loyalty to the country and Prince". The second appeared in a section of the 1512 stele talking about how Jewish soldiers and officers in the Chinese armies were "Boundlessly loyal to the country." The same source even claims that Israelites served as soldiers in the armies of Yue Fei.
Father Joseph Brucker, a Roman Catholic researcher of the early twentieth century, notes that Ricci's account of Chinese Jews indicates that there were only in the range of ten or twelve Jewish families in Kaifeng in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries, and that they had reportedly resided there for five or six hundred years. It was also stated in the manuscripts that there was a greater number of Jews in Hangzhou. This could be taken to suggest that loyal Jews fled south along with the soon-to-be crowned Emperor Gaozong to Hangzhou. In fact, the 1489 stele mentions how the Jews "abandoned Bianliang" (Kaifeng) after the Jingkang Incident.
Despite their isolation from the rest of the Jewish diaspora, the Jews of Kaifeng preserved Jewish traditions and customs for many centuries. In the seventeenth century, assimilation began to erode these traditions. The rate of intermarriage between Jews and other ethnic groups, such as the Han Chinese, and the Hui and Manchu minorities in China, increased. The destruction of the synagogue in the 1860s led to the community's demise. However, J.L. Liebermann, the first Western Jew to visit Kaifeng in 1867, noted that "they still had a burial ground of their own". S.M. Perlmann, the Shanghai businessman and scholar, wrote in 1912 that "they bury their dead in coffins, but of a different shape than those of the Chinese are made, and do not attire the dead in secular clothes as the Chinese do, but in linen".
Today, 600-1,000 residents of Kaifeng trace their lineage back to this community. After contact with Jewish tourists, the Jews of Kaifeng have reconnected to mainstream Jewry. With the help of Jewish organizations, some members of the community have emigrated to Israel.
Kaifeng Jews Today
Due to the political situation, research on the Kaifeng Jews and Judaism in China came to a standstill until the beginning of the 1980s, when political and economic reforms were implemented. The establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel in 1992 rekindled interest in Judaism and the Jewish experience, especially in light of the fact that 25,000 Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai during the Nazi period.
The Kaifeng Jews intermarried with local Chinese, and are thus indistinguishable in appearance from their non-Jewish neighbors. Within the framework of contemporary rabbinical Judaism, only matrilineal transmission of Jewishness is recognized, while Chinese Jews based their Jewishness on patrilineal descent. As a result, they are required to undergo conversion in order to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Most descendants of Kaifeng's Jewish community are only vaguely aware of their ancestry. Some, however, say their parents and grandparents told them that they were Jewish and would one day "return to their land."The one trait that differentiated them from their neighbors was not eating pork.They also have celebrated Jewish events such as Chanukah.
The last census revealed about 400 official Jews in Kaifeng, now estimated at some 100 families totalling approximately 500 people,to 1,000 residents have ties to Jewish ancestry, though only 40 to 50 individuals partake in Jewish activities.It is difficult to estimate the number of Jews in any country, but in China it is nearly impossible. Numbers may change simply because of a change in official attitudes. For example, the number of ethnic Manchus during the reign of the last Manchu emperor was estimated at 2 million; after the fall of the Manchu Empire, Manchus, fearing persecution, virtually disappeared and only 500,000 were counted in the succeeding census. When official policies regarding minorities were changed, affording them protective rights, the number of ethnic Manchus jumped to 5 million. Thus far, some overseas Jewish communities have been indifferent toward the putative descendants of the Kaifeng Jews. However, the Sino-Judaic Institute based in California is involved in ongoing research on the history of the Jewish communities in China, promoting educational projects related to the history of the Jews in China and in assisting the Jews of Kaifeng (Recently a family of Kaifeng Jewish descendants have formally converted to Judaism and have become Israeli citizens. Whether or not more Kaifeng Jewish descendants will follow in this family's path remains a matter of speculation.The upcoming documentary film, Kaifeng, Jerusalem, by Dr. Noam Urbach, describes the ordeal of this family.On October 20, 2009, the first group of Kaifeng Jews arrived to Israel, in an aliya operation coordinated by Shavei Israel.