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Kaifeng, China

Kaifeng (formerly P’ien-liang) is the capital of Honan province, central China. Jews arrived in Kaifeng probably before 1127 from India or Persia. They were an ethnic unit of approximately 1,000 in all. It is believed that their daily language was New Persian and presumably they were experts in the production of cotton fabrics, in dyeing them, or printing patterns on them. This industry was well developed in India, but China with its rapidly increasing population was just introducing cotton to meet the acute silk shortage.

The first Kaifeng synagogue was constructed in 1163. It was restored in 1279 and, after being destroyed in a disastrous flood, was rebuilt again through the efforts of Chao Ying-ch’en, a mandarin of Jewish descent, in 1653, when the sacred scrolls were also restored. Thereafter the community fell into rapid decay, most likely as a result of its complete isolation from other centers of Jewish life. By the middle of the 19th century the Jews of Kaifeng preserved only a rudimentary knowledge of Judaism and only the ruins of the former synagogue were left.

The first news concerning the presence of Jews in China reached Europe when Matteo Ricci, the Italian Jesuit missionary, informed his superior in Rome about the visit that the Kaifeng Jew Ai T’ien of Kaifeng had paid him in 1605. Ai informed Ricci in detail about the status of his community which led Ricci to reach the conclusion that they were of Jewish descent.

Kaifeng Jews, National Geographic (1907)

Other important records are four Chinese stone inscriptions of the Kaifeng Jewish community on three steals, dating from 1489, 1512, 1663, and 1679. Rubbings have been preserved of Chinese inscriptions on wooden tablets formerly in the Kaifeng synagogue. The Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati has in its possession a genealogical register in Chinese and Hebrew of the Kaifeng community (1660–70), as well as a large collection of prayer books obtained from Kaifeng by Christian missionaries in 1850–51. A unique scroll of the Book of Esther (in the Roth collection), with Chinese illuminations by three different artists, is believed to have probably come from the same source.

Several outstanding members of the Kaifeng community, who became officials or military officers, are mentioned in provincial Chinese gazetteers. Gradually, however, the Jewish community adopted Chinese customs and surnames: Ai, Chang, Chao, Chin, Chou, Huang, Li, Mu, Nieh, Pai, Tso, and Yen.

At the end of World War II, about 200 or 250 traceable descendants of the original Kaifeng Jewish community still survived. Descendants of some of these families can still be traced locally, but all have intermarried with local Chinese including Muslims, and they more or less have lost their Jewish identity. Nonetheless the Jewish world still has great interest in the remnants of the community.


R. Loewenthal, Jews in China: A bibliography (1939); idem, Jews in China: An annotated bibliography (1940); idem, Early Jews in China: A supplementary bibliography (1946); Shunami, Bibl, nos. 2202–11; W.C. White, Chinese Jews (19662), incl. bibl.; Leslie, in: Abr-Nahrain, 4 (1963–64), 20–49; 5 (1964–65), 1–28; 6 (1965–66), 1–52; 8 (1968–9), 1–35, incl. bibl. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Pollak, Mandarins, Jews, and Missionaries: The Jewish Experience in the Chinese Empire (1980); J. Goldstein (ed.), The Jews of China: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (1999).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Photos: Model of the Kaifeng synagogue at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv - Ricardo Tulio Gandelman from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Jews - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Jews 1907 - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons