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Jews in China

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Religion and Religious Groups and Their Foods

Summer Volume: 2019 Issue: 26(2) pages: 23 to 24

Most Jews in China were and are Sephardic, that is of Spanish or Portuguese origin, or are their descendants. A lesser number are Mizrachi or Ashkenazi. Those we spoke to observe Judaism in their own different ways. Many did arrive during the Tang Dynasty (617 - 907 CE), the early ones came to Kaifeng. They are respected there and throughout China with little to no antisemitism.

Kaifeng had a synagogue for about eight centuries, the most accurate date of its demise was about 1860 when many said their families felt totally assimilated. Many intermarried with local Han or other Chinese, and most no longer practice their Jewish or any religion.

Recently, we met or heard about Jews in Shanghai, Harbin, Tianjin, Beijing, or elsewhere; and others have heard of Jews, they are a very small minority group, in China called Youtairen, Tiao Jin Jiao, even Blue Hat Hui. Chinese history tells us that seven or eight family names were given the family names of Ai, Shu, Gao, Gan, Jin, Li, Zhang, and Zhao by an emperor, who allowed them to practice their religion, have important jobs in his government, too.

For a while, there was a major exodus of Jews going to Israel. From what we learned it was more to raise their children Jewish, than for any other reason. In the 19th century until today, thousands more arrived from European cities in Poland, Russia, France, even Hong Kong, but many of them kept their Jewish identity secret.

In 1992, Israel did establish diplomatic relations with China, respecting that both countries are ancient, originating thousands of years ago, have cultural similarities, and that Jews in China are a tiny population, now just a few thousand, and are natural partners who survived against many odds, thanks to their strong family ties and values. Many were Persian and Babylonian Jews who received their Emperor’s blessings, names too, who served as Rabbis, doctors, lawyers, government officials, and business people, and traders long before the holocaust in Europe.

Many Persian Jews went to China to India from Gansu and other Muslim Provinces in Northwestern China. Some were from Henan and came as early as the Song Dynasty (960 - 1127 CE). They did so as other Jews had migrated there before that dynasty. Some of them claimed they were among the ten lost tribes, but that could not be proven. Others better educated in Jewish history said they came after the Roman Emperor captured Jerusalem in 70 CE. Among them was a Father Brucker who was better educated. He wrote that Jews came to China from India. That was more reasonable because one steele in Kaifeng did commemorate the construction of the Kaifeng synagogue in 1163. Another called it Qing Zhen Si and dated it as 1512 CE.

Today, there is a center of Judaic Studies at Nanjing University. They call the Jews ‘the chosen people endowed by God’ and they refer to Judaism as Yicileye Jiao or the Religion of Israel. In China, Muslims are often mistaken for Jews and visa versa. They call them Zhuhu or Zhuhudu, which perhaps is from the Hebrew word Yehudim. That word is in the Annals of the Yuan Dynasty of 1329, seen again in 1354, when a government decree was about Jews coming to Beijing to complain about a tax levied on them and other dissenters. What the results of this complaint was, we never learned.

Many prominent writers referred to Jews as did Marco Polo. So did the Franciscan Arcbishop, John of Montecorvino from Beijing as did Ibn Batuta an Arab envoy of the Mongol Empire, in the mid-14th century. Genghis Kahn called Jews and Muslims huihui, and he forbade both from practicing the food preparations of Halal and Kashruth. He also forced them to eat Mongol food and banned both from practicing circumcision. He called both his ‘slaves’ and treated them as such.

The Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, did report about a Chinese-Jewish man from Kaifeng who in 1605 believed in one God, went to a synagogue facing west and read books in Hebrew. It was destroyed by flooding and the last four families left Nanjing, converted to Islam, and were the last Jews known to leave that city.

Later, in the 19th century, many Mizachi Jews came to China from Iraq. One of them was Elias David Sassoon. In 1850, he did open a branch of his father’s Bombay business, developed trade in China, served in its municipal courts as did a partner, Aaron Hardoon. We know that both traded opium and cotton there. We also read in a Catholic Encyclopedia that thirty-six thousand Jews were in China then in Manchukuo when it was established; in 1932. More came from Russia to Harbin later. So did the parents of the future Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert.

Then and later, Shanghai was a haven for Jews, most were holocaust refugees. They went there as they did not need a visa to go there. Later, most emigrated to Israel or to cities in the US.

Today, there are synagogues in Beijing and Hong Kong, and a few are starting elsewhere. The Chinese see Jewish pride as equal to their own in building wealth. They deem it a virtue and they belive in it, as well. They encourage Jews to open synagogues, study halls, kosher kitchens, and educational institutions. One opened in Shanghai in May 2010, and Jews are planning to open others elsewhere. They see them as ways to make and sell Kosher food worldwide. Another reason they have established certification agencies, and hired rabbis to work as food inspectors. In 2009 there were more than fifty inspectors known as mashgichim or rabbis who can and do that.

In a 1998 history volume titled Song History, Monk Niweini tells two fellow China experts, Chen Changqi and Wei Qianzhi, that Jews are written about in a volume at the end of the first thousand years CE and did have a synagogue in Kaifeng then. They said they saw a model of it in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. If you go there, do look it up.

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