The merchant economy of ancient China brought Jewish traders to the region as early as the eighth century. Jewish merchants travelling the Silk Route settled in the far western region of the country in the city of Pien-Liang (today's Kiafang), capital of the Honan province. Jews were officially allowed in Pien-Liang in 960 C.E. and built the Purity and Truth Synagogue, the first in the region, in 1163. The community thrived through eight centuries, reaching its height in the 17th century at 5,000 members. But following generations of war, poverty, and religious isolation, the Pien-Liang Jewish community significantly declined. The poverty-stricken community lost many Jewish traditions, including the knowledge of Hebrew, and by the mid-19th century, the community's last rabbi had died, long after the position of rabbi had become hereditary. The synagogue, repeatedly destroyed by floods, was finally demolished in around 1860.
Today, the community had begun to repair itself and is trying to reconnect with the world Jewish community. In Keifeng, an estimated 500 to 1,000 residents have ties to Jewish ancestry, though only 40 to 50 individuals partake in Jewish activities. It is speculated that this lack of religious affiliation is due to the strict police surveillance of religion under the Chinese government, despite the emergence of Capitalism. Citizens affirm their Jewish identity discreetly to avoid incuring official displeasure. The community as a whole manages to maintain only a few traditions, such as refraining from eating pork and mixing milk and meat. As the Keifeng Jews try to reach out to the world Jewish community and return to their Jewish roots, they face a number of obstacles, including poverty and lack of knowledge about Judaism. By adopting the Chinese patrilineal tradition, the Kiefeng Jews are no longer considered Jewish according to Orthodox Judaism. Nevertheless, the community is determined to reeducate its members and convert to revive Judaism in China.
China's growth as a leading economic power combined with the remodeling of Kaifeng into a tourist destination has led to a greater acceptance of Jewish expression in the city. Tours of the city's historical sites are given, which give foreign Jews access to the remains of first synangogue and various synagogue relics, including a massive stone water jar and a large stone stele, both dating to 1489. These artifacts are located in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum, while other Jewish relics are housed in various museums worldwide, such as the British Musuem in London and the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. The stele, originally one of many that decorated the synagogue, is inscribed with the history of the local Jewish population and how Jewish families recieved Chinese patronymics. A Ming emperor gave the Jews the typical Chinese surnames Ai, Gao, Jin, Li, Zhang, Shi and Zhau because he found Hebrew names confusing.
In the late nineteenth century, communities of Russian Jews settled in Harbin and Tientsin, especially at the urging of the Russian government, which aimed to construct a railway to eastern Asia and needed population centers there. The Russian government, eager to populate the cities, encouraged minorities such as Jews and Karaites to move to these cities. As the religious freedoms in Eastern Europe became more limited and as pogroms in the Pale of Settlement increased, many Jews joined these Southeast Asian communities, raising the Jewish population of Harbin to 8,000 by 1908.
Shanghai, a port city in the Kiangsu province in Eastern China, opened to foreign trade in 1842. Subsequently, the city of Shanghai absorbed many of the Ashkenazi émigrés fleeing repression in Eastern Europe. Russian Jews fleeing persecution and massacres under the Tsar also emigrated and built the Ohel Moishe Synagogue in Shanghai in 1907. But the majority of the Shanghai Jewish population was Sephardim from Baghdad, Bombay, and Cairo, including the wealthy families Sassoon, Kadoorie, Hardoon, Ezra, Shamoon, and Baroukh. These families raised the Jewish population of Shanghai to approximately 700, including 400 Sephardim, 250 Europeans, and 50 Americans. Most of them were merchants, although some were in medicine, teaching, and diplomatic service.
Jews fleeing the Russian Revolution of 1917 further increased the Jewish population and raised awareness for the Zionist movement. Then in the 1930s and 40s, Jewish refugees from Germany and German-occupied areas fleeing the Nazi regime increased the Shanghai population to approximately 25,000. Lubavitch Hasidim, as well as remnants of the Mir and Slobodka Lithuanian yeshivot (Jewish religious schools), found refuge in Shanghai, which became a frequent destination because the free port did not require visas.
Between 1904 and 1939, three synagogues were built in Shanghai, and 12 Jewish magazines in English, German, and Russian were established and published there. A Hebrew newspaper was also published as early as 1904. The leading magazine, Israel's Messenger, was a Zionist monthly founded in 1904 by N. E. B. Ezra and published until his death in 1936.
The Japanese captured Shanghai in 1937 and closed it to further immigration in December 1941. They deported most of their Jews to the miserable Hongkew district of Shanghai and kept them in unsanitary semi-internment camps under Japanese occupation forces. The Shanghai Jews, including the transferred Japanese Jews, suffered great economic and property loss during the war, after which, most left to the United States, Britain, Israel, Australia, and other communities. Since 1948, 1,070 Jews from China have immigrated to Israel, with 504 leaving between 1948 and 1951.
During the past decade, Jewish and Chinese students have met on academic exchange programs to Israel and elsewhere. A small Jewish Museum exists in Kaifang, though most remnants of the Jewish community lie in Shanghai. Israel and China established formal relations in 1992.
Today, China's Jewish community numbers around 200, nearly all in Shanghai. But led by Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shalom Greenberg, efforts are underway to revive the small Jewish community.
Kaifeng Tourist Administration
14 Yingbin Road
Kaifeng, Henan 475000, China
The city's tourist bureau can arrange tours, guides, traslators, and access to the Qingming park Jewish museum building and jewihs section of the municpal museum to visitors.
Gruber, Samuel D. Synagogues. New York: MetroBooks, 1999.
Leowenthal, Rudolf. Shanghai. Encyclopedia Judaica. CD-ROM Edition. Judaica Multimedia. 1995.
Edinger, Bernard. "Chinese Jews: Reverence for Ancestors." Hadassah Magazine, December 2005.