The Jews of Kaifeng

by Anson Laytner

Jews traveled from West Asia over the Silk Road and by sea from India, probably in Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE). Some scholars think they may have arrived even earlier, during the Later Han dynasty (25 – 220 CE), which would coincide with Roman persecution in Judea.

Jews were certainly established in Kaifeng by 960 CE, which was then called Bianliang, when it served as a capital of the Song dynasty. China was then a world center of civilization and trade. Jews also settled in major shipping cities, such as Guangzhou (a southern coast port with access to SE Asia and Persia), Quanzhou (in SE Fujian and a center for foreign trade), Ningpo (from which the Kaifeng Jews received Torah scrolls after the flood in 1461), Yangzhou (a Grand Canal port near the sea on the Yangzi River), and Hangzhou (also on Grand Canal, which is known to have had a synagogue). There is also evidence of Jewish presence inland along the Silk Road in such locations as Dandan Uiliq, Dunhuang, and Ningxia.

In 1163, a synagogue was built in Kaifeng and the community lived close by the synagogue in two lanes called the North and the South ''Teaching Torah'' lanes. The Jewish community prospered despite repeated disasters, such as fires or the flooding of the Yellow river, which frequently destroyed the synagogue. Whenever disaster struck, the Jews worked together to rebuild their synagogue. A stele was erected each time to commemorate the rebuilding of the synagogue.

The Kaifeng Jews erected four steles in total, one each in 1489, 1512, 1663 and 1679. These stelae, except that of 1663 (which remains lost), are currently kept in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum. The stelae tell us how the Jews believed they entered China, their history in Kaifeng, their view of the development of their religion and their religious beliefs, and their practice of the mitzvot (commandments), which was, for centuries, very traditional. Theologically, they achieved a synthesis of Jewish, Confucian and Taoist thought.

Kaifeng Contacts with Westerners

In his diary, Marco Polo describes meeting with Jews in China in 1286. He reported that Kublai Khan celebrated Jewish, Christian and Muslim festivals.

However, it wasn’t until 1605, that the Jewish presence in China was really “discovered” by the West when a Kaifeng Jew named Ai Tian went to Beijing to take a civil service examination and serendipitously met the Rev. Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit priest to visit China.

After this meeting, the Vatican sent other Jesuits to Kaifeng. The missionaries left excellent sketches and notes about what they observed and confirmed that the Jews of Kaifeng had exactly the same Torah and observed the same religious observances as the Jews of Europe. Contact with Jesuits ended when China closed itself off from missionaries in 1723.

By 17th century, all the coastal communities had disappeared, leaving only Kaifeng extant. We do not know whether the residents assimilated, moved to Kaifeng, or left China. As China declined, so too did the Kaifeng community. The last rabbi passed away in 1810, leaving little Judaic knowledge in the community. By 1854 their synagogue fell to ruin once again, but the community, now impoverished, lacked the means to restore it.

Shortly thereafter, they were “rediscovered” by Protestant missionaries and other Western travelers. At the turn of the 20th century, the Canadian Anglican bishop, William Charles White of Toronto, tried to revive community but without success.

The Situation Today

Kaifeng was a closed city from after the Communist victory until the early 1980s when its Jews were “rediscovered” again by journalists and Jewish tourists. They noted that Jewish self-identity persists, most notably in the form of insisting on being registering as Jews in their identity papers, but that Jewish customs and practices had become a faded memory. However, two indications of a revival of Jewish identity in Kaifeng are the example of a young descendant who went to study in Israel and has returned home to serve his community and, separately, the establishment of two schools by the descendants.

The Kaifeng community’s 1000 years of continuous existence is an extraordinary display of commitment to their Jewish heritage and tradition in relative isolation from the larger Jewish world, and in a welcoming but culturally powerful host country.

Rabbi Anson Laytner, 58, is the president of the Sino Judiac Institute, a non-profit organization which was founded in 1985 by a group of international scholars for the purpose of promoting understanding between Chinese and Jewish peoples. He traveled to Kaifeng, China for the first time in May 2009 to meet the descendants of Kaifeng.

"Respect their reverence for heritage and allow them to become what they want to become. If they want to be Chinese people who are learning about their culture for the first time, then that's fine. They've earned that right in their centuries of survival."

- Rabbi Anson Laytner about the Kaifeng Jews
A picture of Kaifeng Jews from the early 20th century A picture of Kaifeng Jews from the early 20th century. Image courtesy Anson Laytner
The model of the synagogue in Kaifeng from Beth Hatfutsot in Israel
The model of the synagogue in Kaifeng from Beth Hatfutsot in Israel. Image courtesy Anson Laytner