The Magazine


The History of the Jews in China

Apr 19, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 29 • By CHARLES HORNER
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In 1605, Matteo Ricci, the renowned Italian Jesuit missionary hard at work in China, reported back to Europe that he had discovered the existence of a community of Jews in Kaifeng -- a city situated on the Yellow River about five hundred miles to the southwest of Peking. He had learned of them when an elder of the community had come to Beijing, seeking out Ricci and his group who he thought just might be Jews themselves.

This initial encounter between Jesuit and Jew was only the first of a series of misunderstandings, and it took a while to get it cleared up. Thereafter, the Jews of China, small in number and mysterious in origin, took on a symbolic significance far beyond their actual influence. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these Chinese Jews, on the verge of extinction, would be joined by co-religionists from Europe and the Middle East whose practical impact on China and the world would prove far greater.

In 1992, Harvard University sponsored a conference entitled "Jewish Diasporas in China," and some of the fascinating papers there presented have finally found their way into print. Like the subjects themselves, the conferring scholars represented several countries, including the United States, Israel, China, and Japan. Once of purely antiquarian interest, the subject of Judaism in China now encompasses not only high scholarship, but also personal memoirs and searches for familial roots. Indeed, as China itself has become more connected to the outside world, Chinese scholars have become more interested in Judaism. Thus, the Institute of World History of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences has a center for Judaic studies, as does Nanjing University in central China. (The connection also reverberates outside the Chinese Academy: Commercially successful Chinese, some of whom have been called the Jews of Southeast Asia, have been victims of communal violence reminiscent of the experience of Jews in Europe.)

Even though pressures for assimilation and acculturation grew out of the sheer mass of the surrounding civilization, the Kaifeng Jewish community lasted for about seven centuries. The general view is that Jews settled there in the early twelfth century, though Jewish traders had probably been visiting China for centuries before that. Even today, there are Chinese in the city who speak of themselves as Jews, but the identification is a tenuous one. The community's last synagogue was destroyed in 1866. The Kaifeng Jews, as Professor Shirley Isenberg describes them, were by then

living in poverty, and no one among them knew Hebrew or Jewish liturgy. . . . Their pleas to outsiders for Jewish teachers, Holy Scriptures, prayer books, and Hebrew-Chinese grammars were all thwarted by fate or indifference . . . What was left to the Kaifeng Jews was only the knowledge that their ancestors had been Jewish.

Ironically, their fate seemed more important to Christians than to Jews. Their discovery by Europeans was, in its day, a large event. Were these people related to the Ten Lost Tribes? Would their texts and scrolls reveal something about the original Hebrew scriptures, something preserved in the pristine environment of China? Did the unexpected appearance of Jews in China mean that the Second Coming was that much closer? Would it not be a coup of some kind to convince the Jews of Kaifeng to embrace Christianity? (They never did.) These questions were widely discussed, and the small number of Jews in China became the subject of much larger theological and, occasionally, political debates in the Christian world.

The outside world's interest declined in the nineteenth century, while the real influence of other Jews, more recently arrived in China, proceeded to grow. Jewish families, originally from the Near East, built up important trading relationships with China, especially under British rule. Iraqi Jews, particularly, migrated first to India and then on to China, paralleling the march eastward of British power. The legendary trader David Sassoon came to Bombay in 1833 and his descendants expanded the family's commercial network to China. The Sassoons and other families helped from connections with Baghdad, Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai -- important achievements that remain underappreciated in British imperial history.