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Jews in China
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.