Jews of China

As with other ancient communities, it is unclear exactly when the Jews first arrived in China. Scholars say that Jews may have come as early as the First Temple period, from the ten Lost Tribes, or during the Talmudic period. At that time, Roman, Persian, and Middle Eastern merchants came to China for trade. Jewish merchants may have traveled the Silk Road to Kaifeng to conduct trade and stayed there for better business opportunities.

There are traces of a Jewish presence beginning at least in the 7th century. The first documented proof of Jewish existence in China was discovered over a century ago. A letter written in Judeo-Persian on paper (a commodity that was produced only in China) was found attesting to the fact that the Jews probably came from Persia, introducing cotton-cloth to China, known primarily for its silk industry.

The most enduring community was that in Kaifeng. From the 10th-13th century, China was ruled by the emperors of the Song Dynasty from their capital at Kaifeng, which lies north of Beijing on the Yellow River. It had a population of 1.5 million people in the 10th century, probably the largest city in the world at the time:

[Kaifeng was] a bustling metropolis straddling the legendary Silk Road that linked their sprawling domain to its trading partners in the West. [...] The main street in the Jewish section of Kaifeng is called The Lane of the Sect that Teaches the Scriptures, the remnants of a Jewish community which flourished for nearly a thousand years until the 1840's.

The synagogue in Kaifeng, constructed in the 11th century, was the center of their life and activities. The 5,000 Jews in 17th century Kaifeng were successful in Confucian society. In the mid-17th century a civil war raged in China, and Kaifeng was flooded, resulting in the destruction of the entire city. Only one-third of the population survived, including some 1,000 Jews. Kaifeng never fully recovered. The Jews rebuilt the synagogue in 1663. During this time, the Kaifeng Jews were discovered by Jesuit priests.

This community finally disintegrated in the 1850s. The community began to dwindle due to a lack of rabbis, loss of proficiency in Hebrew, a lack of a Chinese Torah translation, and the repeated destruction of the synagogue by Yellow River floods. The remaining Jews could not maintain the synagogue, and were forced to sell the building and manuscripts to Protestant missionaries. The Jews integrated into Chinese society and assimilated. Yet, there still are descendants who feel a link to Judaism.

Baghdadi Jews established a Sephardi community in Shanghai after the opening of the Treaty Ports in 1845. Shanghai's small Jewish community became a safe haven where Jews were allowed to practice Judaism freely and even build their own autonomous government:

The ghetto, in what was once the American and then the International Settlement and is now called the North Bund, harbored more than 20,000 Jews who fled Nazi Europe from 1933 to 1941 and another 5,000 to 10,000 who fled Stalin's Russia before that. Viewers of Steven Spielberg's 1987 film Empire of the Sun got a glimpse of the area. Known in Chinese as Hongkou (or Hongkew), the ghetto was a haven for stateless refugees in a city that for years did not require a visa to enter.

Later, Russian Jews escaping pogroms founded Jewish communities in Harbin in the northeast of China. Davi Cheng, a Chinese Jew from Los Angeles, remembers that her mother, who grew up in Harbin, used to tell her about her Russian friends. According to Li Shuxiao, vice director of Jewish research at the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences:

The first Jew reportedly arrived in Harbin around 1899, leading what would eventually be three waves of immigration. The first group, in the early 20th century, came in search of opportunity after the opening of the Russia-China railroad. The second fled the 1917 Russian Revolution. A third sought to escape a Russia-China border conflict in 1929. The peak was around 1920, when the local Jewish population reached 20,000.

In an effort to stimulate foreign tourism, trade, and business investment in the region, Harbin recently announced a $3.2-million renovation of its main synagogue, other historically significant buildings, and Asia's largest Jewish cemetery.

By the 1950s, most Jews had left China, but the buildings they created, the records they kept, their economic and their cultural contributions are a monument to that historical experience. Since 1986, Professor Xu Xin of Nanjing University, who has been researching, lecturing, and writing on Judaism and Jews in China, and the Sino-Judaic Institute, founded in 1985 to serve as a vehicle for the study and preservation of Jewish history in China, are primarily responsible for current education about the Jews in China. The Sino-Judaic Institute deemed it "imperative that a nation of one fifth of the world's population have access to accurate and unbiased materials about Jews."

Map of China
Click to Enlarge

“There are traces of a Jewish presence beginning at least in the 7th century. [...] in China”