History Files
 

Near East Kingdoms

Levantine States

 

Chinese Jews (Israel)
Incorporating Kaifeng Jews

Today's Israel and Palestine are irrevocably linked in terms of their history. The former was carved out of a large proportion of the already-expanded latter from 1948. Prior to that lies four thousand years of history, sometimes recorded, sometimes alluded to, and sometimes a complete mystery. Unpicking it to establish a relatively stable story has been the work of decades, and even today there are differences of opinion regarding many of the details.

The region in which both names came to be created was Canaan, which consisted of the long Mediterranean coastal strip between ancient Syria and Egypt. Today the northern part of this is known as the Levant. Various Semitic-speaking groups formed states in this region from around 3000 BC onwards. During climate-induced social collapse in the late thirteenth century BC, both a state known as Israel and a region known as Palestine emerged, giving both terms similar founding dates (very approximately), with the Phoenicians emerging to the immediate north during the same period.

Then came the beginnings of the Jewish Diaspora and the age of great empires in the form of the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Eastern Romans, Islam, and the Ottomans, until the twentieth century saw the most recent phase of empire-building come to an end and individual sovereign states emerge. Until that happened both Judea and Palestine remained occupied territories.

By the time independence was regained, Jewish groups had been emigrating to and from Israel and Palestine for two thousand years and more, spreading them far and wide across the Old World in a number of generalised groupings. Despite these groupings being joined across those centuries by converted regional locals, most modern Jews still carry a marked Near Eastern heritage in their DNA. Connections between the separate groups have also helped to maintain elements of unified practice in synagogues.

Chinese Jews are thought to have entered China no later than during the ascendancy of the tenth century AD Song dynasty. Some theorists have tried to push back this date into the seventh century AD Tang dynasty, based on the writings of Muslim explorers who journeyed there and the Silk Road trade caravans which may easily have included Jewish traders in their number (males predominantly, as it was a long, hard journey). Those males may have settled at the far end of their journey and taken Chinese brides as they settled down.

The presence of Jews in China was never concentrated or organised. Individual groups arrived at various times and spread into whichever were the important centres of the day. Late medieval or early modern arrivals seemingly provided the basis for a particularly notable community in Henan Province (today's eastern central China). This community became known as the Kaifeng Jews after the town in which it settled. There it largely remained, entirely isolated from other Jewish groups to the extent that it eventually became extinct through intermarriage and conversions. A group of descendants are today attempting to revive the community.

The Arch of Titus

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas, and Jewish Encyclopaedia.)

AD 481

A Second Sassanid-Hephthalite War is launched by Sassanid Shah Peroz, with Vakhtang I Gorgasil of Chosroid Iberia in support. Initially successful by chasing the Hephthalites out of Bactra, the war ends in the capture (again) of Peroz, with him agreeing to the payment of thirty mule packs of silver drachms as a ransom, parts of which he pays through imposing a poll tax.

Map of Central Asia and India AD 500
By the late 400s the eastern sections of the Sassanid empire had been overrun and to an extent occupied by the Hephthalites (Xionites) after they had killed Shah Peroz (click or tap on map to view full sized)

To meet the rest of the demanded sum he leaves his son Kavad as a hostage with the Hephthalites, along with a daughter and the chief priest. His tax-raising drive may involve some communication with the empire's Jewish Diaspora community of Persian Jews.

Peroz is known to conduct a pogrom against them during his reign which drives some of them eastwards, into Samarkand. There they coalesce in the later emirate of Bukhara to become known as Bukharan Jews. In turn it seems either to be Persian Jews or Bukharan Jews who provide the basis for the Kaifeng Jews.

617 - 1127

Either in the Tang dynasty period in China (arguably) or the Song dynasty period (certainly), the ancestors of the Kaifeng Jews arrive. Jewish traders do seem to be active in China in the ninth century (Tang dynasty restoration period), with them being proposed as the originators of the first wave of Jewish Diaspora immigration into China, but any date for the start of a specific Kaifeng community is conjectural. Coastal trading settlements certainly do have Jewish populations, especially Hangzhou, Ningbo, and Yangzhou.

Marco Polo on the Silk Road
Marco Polo's journey into China along the Silk Road made use of a network of east-west trade routes which had been developed since the time of Greek control of Bactria

1419

Recent events have involved various incidents being initiated by Japanese pirates - wokou - who are based on Tsushima Island. The latest concerns a wakou raid on Ming China which has stopped off along the way to raid two Korean counties. The attack becomes a major political row between the two states.

The wokou raids continue along the Chinese coast during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Ming authorities are ineffectual in fending them off with the result that the large coastal trading ports are badly affected. Jewish Diaspora communities in all of them become extinct, largely leaving only the Kaifeng Jews in China.

1605

The existence of a Jewish Diaspora population in China remains unknown to Europeans until the arrival of the Jesuits. In 1605 the Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci, is visited in Beijing by a Chinese official from Kaifeng. The official, Ai Tian, explains that he is a member of a thousand-strong Israelite congregation which worships one god. The congregation is unfamiliar with the word 'Jew' but it does possess a splendid synagogue.

Kaifeng in China
The basis for the city of Kaifeng was laid down in 364 BC, by the state of Wei during the Warring States period, although it was greatly rebuilt under the eighth century Tang

by 1800s

The Kaifeng Jews effectually become extinct in terms of practising their Jewish faith. They have been peacefully assimilated into the surrounding population over the course of the last two centuries (and more) until their numbers have dwindled to zero.

However, their modern-day descendants in China remember their heritage and in the twenty-first century are attempting to revive the Jewish faith in Kaifeng. Some individuals are undertaking the journey to be able to complete aliyah so that they can move to Israel.

1881

The first modern-era wave of Jewish Diaspora migrations back to Palestine begins with an event known as the First Aliyah. The Jews are fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe's 'Pale of Settlement', thanks to the Russian empire under Alexander III and his imposition of anti-liberalisation reforms.

The Jewish population of the 'Pale' (mainly Ashkenazi Jews) is restricted from moving eastwards into Russia proper and is now being discouraged from remaining in the western border regions of the empire.

Early modern Zhytomyr
Legendarily founded in 884 by Zhytomyr, a prince of the Drevlians, the city which bears his name is first mentioned in 1240, became the Polish capital of its half of Ukraine in 1667, and even today houses the country's largest Polish community

Some of their number end up elsewhere in the world, especially the USA, but also China where they form the Chinese Jews. Some may interact with already-established groups of Baghdadi Jews. Many are absorbed into the surrounding population so that, by the advent of communist China in 1949 very few are still practising worship in synagogues.

1917

The Russian Revolution of 1917 provides the reason for another wave of Jewish Diaspora migrants into European-controlled areas of China. They settle in port cities, especially Shanghai and Hong Kong, the latter being a British colonial holding.

1930s - 1940s

A further wave of Jewish Diaspora migrants, more specifically refugees, arrive in European-controlled areas of China. They are largely escaping the growing persecutions in Nazi German-controlled Central Europe prior to the outbreak of war, and then the Second World War itself.

These populations swell rapidly, even having a dedicated district in Shanghai, but they ebb just as rapidly following the war's conclusion and China's troubled political situation. Those few who do remain largely leave at the formation of communist-controlled China.

Shangai in China
European traders in the nineteenth century helped to turn Shangai into a major trading city which had communities from all around the world

When David Ben-Gurion makes his proclamation of the creation of the state of Israel on 14 May 1948, the last day of British Mandate Palestine, this offers any Jewish groups which are still in China yet another option, one which some of them subsequently accept.

 
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