The Jews of Kaifeng
- The Jews of Kaifeng
by Michael Pollack
Introduction: The Sect that Plucks Out the Sinews
During the 166 years beginning in 960 C.E., China was ruled by the emperors of the Song Dynasty from their capital at Kaifeng, a bustling metropolis straddling the legendary Silk Road that linked their sprawling domain to its trading partners in the West. And it was sometime during this period that a band of wandering Jews-probably merchants (or perhaps refugees) of Persian birth or descent passed through the gates of the city and was granted an audience in the imperial palace. The emperor graciously accepted the tribute of cotton goods they had brought to him, saying, "You have come to our China. Respect and preserve the customs of your ancestors, and hand them down here in Pien-liang [Kaifeng]."
Centuries later, in 1489, the grateful descendants of these newcomers inscribed the emperor's words (or, at any rate, what were purported to have been his words) on a stone tablet which they placed in the courtyard of the resplendent synagogue their more immediate forebears had constructed in the year 1163 at the intersection of Kaifeng's Earth Market and Fire God Streets. This monument is now among the holdings of the municipal museum of Kaifeng.
To this day, several hundred residents of the old Song capital continue to think of themselves as bona fide members of the House of Israel. They hold firm to this belief despite the fact that their features are indistinguishable from those of their neighbors, they have had no rabbi for the better part of two centuries, no synagogue or other communal organization for several generations, and remember virtually nothing of the faith and traditions of their ancestors. Quite surprisingly, the street on which many them now live bears a sign that was erected somewhat less than a hundred years ago and whose Chinese characters read "The Lane of the Sect that Teaches the Scriptures." However, it is exceedingly rare, one would suppose, that a passerby is moved to ask how and why a small street in the middle of China came to bear so unusual a name.
The Jewish community (Heb.: kehillah) of Kaifeng, which seems never to have had more than a thousand or two members, has attracted far greater interest throughout the past few hundred years than its meager size would appear to warrant. However, this interest is fully justified, for the bittersweet saga of that tiny segment of Israel whose destiny it was to be hidden away for a millennium or so in one of the most improbable of diasporic sanctuaries, has a good deal to teach us about the survival and disintegration of Jewish communities. For this reason, and also because of the curious role it was unwittingly made to play in certain pivotal European theological matters, the story of Kaifeng Jewry deserves to be told and retold.
No one can say with any degree of certainty precisely when Jews first set foot on the soil of China. Numerous theories have been proposed that place them there, either as travelers or as settlers, at varying intervals within a time-span beginning shortly before the birth of Moses and extending several hundred years beyond that. However, when subjected to critical examination, none of these theories holds fast. Some, it transpires, are totally contrived; others are patently conjectural; some are tied in with the mythology surrounding the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel; and still others are derived from the inept readings of Hebrew and Chinese texts. Nevertheless, the fact that no corroborating evidence has so far come to light does not necessarily exclude the possibility that occasional footloose Jews could have made their way to China as early as the time of the Hebrew prophets. We know, of course, that large numbers of the descendants of those hapless Jews who sat and wept by the waters of Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. wandered progressively eastward-closer, that is, to China. We know, moreover, that a thriving trade was conducted during this time, both by land and by sea, between China and its neighbors to the west. To assert that Jews played no part whatsoever in this ongoing commerce appears ill-advised. But if we acknowledge that they did participate in it, then we must conclude that the prevailing logistics would have also made it feasible for some of them to have settled in the outposts that flourished along the interconnecting caravan trails, as well as in way stops and coastal cities situated within China proper.
Whatever the case, the first piece of tangible evidence we have of the presence of even a single Jew in the Middle Kingdom comes from a much later period-around 718 C.E., that is. This takes the form of a business letter written in Hebrew characters on paper, a commodity then manufactured only in China. The language is Judeo-Persian, at the time a common idiom of Central Asian commerce. The writer was a Jewish merchant-adventurer who, as best as we can make out from the tattered sheet on which the letter is written, was seeking the assistance of a coreligionist in Ispahan in disposing of a flock of inferior sheep. His letter, apparently never delivered to its destination, was discovered a century or so ago at Dandan Uiliq, some seventy miles northeast ofthe Khotan oasis, in Chinese Turkestan. A second find, a page of Selihot (penitential prayers) written in pure Hebrew, was found a few years later at Dunhuang, in the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas (also known as the Mogao Grottoes); it dates back to the late eighth or perhaps the early ninth century. And, of course, there is no reason to suppose that these texts, which fell into our hands entirely by chance, are necessarily the very first Jewish texts to have been wntten in China. We may surmise, accordingly, that Jews were traveling in China substantially before these two documents were composed.
There is, in any event, additional credible evidence of Jewish activity in China that goes back to the latter part of the ninth century, when ibn Khurdadbih, the so-called Postmaster of Baghdad, alluded to Jewish traders known as Radanites who traveled from such distant points as Spain and France all the way to China and back by any of four already well-established land and sea routes. In the tenth century, the Muslim chronicler Abu Zaid al-Sirafi told of the capture of Khanfu (probably Guangzhou, i.e., Canton) in 877/78 and the ensuing massacre of great numbers of Muslim, Christian, Magian, and Jewish merchants in that city. The Muslim traveler ibn Battuta also spoke of a Jewish presence in China When he and his party arrived at the outskirts of Hangzhou in 1346, he wrote, they entered the city "through a gate called the Jews' Gate," and that among the inhabitants of the city there were "Jews, Christians and sun-worshiping Turks, a large number in all."
Christian travelers began to encounter Jews in China during the latter part of the twelfth century. Marco Polo met several of them in Beijing around 1286. Shortly thereafter, the Franciscan missionary John of Montecorvino, writing from China, reaffirmed the existence of Jews in the country. In January 1326, Andrew of Perugia commented resignedly that the Jews of Quanzhou obdurately refused to accede to his pleas that they undergo baptism. And in 1342, John of Marignoli told of having engaged "in glorious disputations" in Beijing with both Muslims and Jews.
No further indications of a Jewish presence in China appear to have been received in Europe until the middle of the sixteenth century, when rumors of the survival of one or more Sino-Judaic settlements were passed on to Rome by the missionary Francis Xavier (later to be canonized for his work in the Far East). At about the same time, the Portuguese traveler Galleato Perera, writing about his incarceration in China from 1549 to 1561, stated that in Chinese courts of law "the Moores, Gentiles, and Jewes, have all theyr sundry oathes," and that members of each of these religious designations are sworn in "by the thynges they do worshyppe."
To date, no more than six indisputable allusions to Jews have been discovered in the Chinese records, and these relate to events occurring between 1277 and 1354. Though all are exceedingly brief, they cast pencils of light upon a few aspects of Jewish life in the Chinese world. Surprisingly, however, only one reference to Jews in China has been culled from the vast treasury of Jewish literature that was written outside the country prior to the seventeenth century. And, disappointingly, that one reference turns out to be the product ofthe fervid imagination of the colorful raconteur who called himself Eldad ha-Dani. It was this Eldad who, in the latter part of the ninth century, succeeded in persuading the more gullible among his coreligionists that he had once been kidnapped by a band of cannibals, brought forcibly to China, and ransomed there for thirty-two pieces of gold by a merchant whom he airily identified as a Jew "of the tribe of Isaachar."
The Discovery of the Community
Even though the city of Kaifeng could boast a population of a million during the years in which it served as the capital of the Song emperors-making it one of the two or three largest cities in the medieval world-it was only during the early decades of the seventeenth century that its name attained any noteworthy recognition in European intellectual circles. By then, the city had been reduced to the status of provincial capital, and its population had dwindled considerably. However, the interest demonstrated by well-informed Europeans regarding Kaifeng lay not in the city itself, but rather in the startling revelation that it contained an enclave of Jews who had lived there, as the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci put it, "from time immemorial."
The discovery of the existence of a Jewish community in Kaifeng emerged as the consequence of a seriocomic meeting in Beijing during the last week of June 1605 between Ricci and a Kaifeng mandarin named Ai Tian who had come to Beijing from Kaifeng in the hope of acquiring a more desirable civil service assignment than the district magistracy he already held.
Before leaving home, Ai had read in a book called Things I have Heard Tell about a small contingent of Europeans, headed by Ricci, whose evangelical zeal had brought them to China where, after many years, the emperor had finally approved their several petitions to be allowed to open a house of worship in Beijing. These foreigners, the author of the book explained, spoke of themselves as adherents of a faith based solidly and unalterably upon the doctrine of monotheism, a theological tenet which, as his educated readers would have known, ran parallel to the monotheistic teachings that the followers of the prophet Muhammad had brought to China many centuries earlier. What startled the author and, one would suppose, substantially all his readers, was that these Europeans persistently and indignantly denied that they were Muslims. What, then, the question therefore arose, was this strange faith to which these newcomers to China subscribed?
To Ai Tian, however, the matter was quite simple: if Matteo Ricci's people were truly convinced that there was only one God in the universe and if, as they maintained, they were not Muslims, what else could they be, he reasoned, but Jews?-Jews, that is, just like himself and like the rest of the kehillah to which he belonged. And this was an exhilarating thought, the more so because its consequences could well open a new chapter in the history ofthe isolated Jews of Kaifeng, whose contacts with non-Chinese Jews had now been totally cut off for several generations. In short, Ai's projected journey to Beijing would afford him an opportunity to seek out the European Jews who had settled there, tell them about his own community, find out what was happening to the Jews in the rest of the world, and perhaps reforge the links that had long ago tied the Jews of Kaifeng to their coreligionists in Europe and the non-Chinese world.
So it was that Ai Tian, having arrived in Beijing and made his way to what he thought was a synagogue, but was actually the church that the Jesuits had recently established in the city. Clad in his imposing mandarin robes and looking as Chinese as all the members of his community must by then have looked, he introduced himself to Matteo Ricci, whom he took to be a rabbi, as a coreligionist from distant Kaifeng.
This was, as can be readily understood, an introduction that left Ricci astounded. For the past two decades he had been searching vainly for descendants of the several Christian communities that were known to have existed in China a thousand years earlier, and now-at last-here he was, face to face with one of them. He was exhilarated.
After a few minutes of excited, exploratory talk, the priest ushered his guest into the chapel where, in celebration of the festival of St. John the Baptist, a painting of Mary and the infant Jesus had been placed near the altar, together with another of a youthful St. John. Ricci knelt reverently before the two representations. Ai, curiously inspecting the paintings, promptly misidentified the figures as those of Rebecca, Jacob and Esau. Courteously following the example set by his host, he also sank to his knees, remarking at the same time that although it was not the custom of his people to genuflect before images, he personally saw no objection to paying homage to one's ancestors. Then, observing a mural depicting the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, he wondered aloud whether these might not be the four eldest sons of Jacob, and asked the now-bewildered Ricci why the artist had failed to include Jacob's other eight sons in the work.
In the end, of course, the matter was sorted out, leaving Ricci with the disappointing but still exhilarating realization that his visitor was not the Chinese Christian he had taken him to be, but rather-and even more astonishingly-a Chinese Jew. Ai, as might be expected, was equally astonished to learn that his host belonged to a faith called Christianity, but seems to have concluded that although this Christianity had taken on a veneer of customs and teachings that were strange to him, it was no less Jewish than the faith in which he had been reared back in Kaifeng.
We must assume that on his return to Kaifeng Ai transmitted this conclusion to the rabbi of the city's synagogue, for on the receipt of a letter from Ricci early in 1608, the rabbi (Abishai-?) sent back a reply that, while protesting Ricci's contention that the Messiah had already arrived, apparently perceived so few differences in their respective theological positions that, after explaining that he was elderly and infirm, he offered to appoint the priest as his successor in the office of chief rabbi of Kaifeng. But, he added firmly, there was one formidable failing of Ricci's that had been communicated to him by Ai and would have to be corrected before such an appointment could be confirmed. Put plainly, he declared, Ricci would have to promise to give up, once and for all, his deplorable and scandalously unrabbinic addiction to eating pork.
The stories of Ricci's meeting with Ai and of his correspondence with the rabbi of Kaifeng are told in Ricci's letters and in the journal in which he kept track of his activities in China. Regrettably, he gives us no indication of his reaction to Rabbi Abishai's offer to appoint him to the senior rabbinical post in all of China.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Jewish enclaves of varying size were established in a number of Chinese cities, first by entrepreneurs from western Asia and Europe, then by refugees from Russia, and later by refugees from the Nazi terror. The histories of most of these communities, or at least those large enough to have attained organizationally structured status, have been fairly well documented. However, of the several much earlier Sino-Judaic settlements, some of which were apparently quite substantial, we know almost nothing, not even where all of them were located. The one exception to this is the kehillah of Kaifeng, though even here the available material is sparse and at times unreliable, especially insofar as the first six or seven centuries of that community's existence are concerned. It must be understood that for this period nearly all our knowledge concerning the Kaifeng Jews is derived from three sources: their surviving historical, scriptural and liturgical texts, the ever-waning folk recollections of succeeding generations, and the testimony provided by the Jesuit missionaries who had sporadic dealings with them between the years 1605 and 1723. As a consequence, the number of Jews who settled in Kaifeng during the Song era and the identity of the land from which they came have yet to be determined to everyone's satisfaction. The traditions of the city's Jews, often vague and inconsistent, suggest that their community was originally composed of immigrants from "Xiyu," a geographic term thought to refer to Persia, though to a far greater portion of Asia than is contained in the Iran of our times. Most specialists who have studied the matter agree that the roots of the Jewish community of Kaifeng are to be sought for in the general area of present-day Persia, and that its founders traveled to China over a land route. However, certain etymological, ritualistic and kindred considerations have given rise to theories that offer India, Yemen, Bukhara, and other regions as alternative places of origin. The proven existence of pre-Kaifeng Jewish enclaves in several of the port cities of China has been used, moreover, to support the proposition that the Jews who settled in Kaifeng (or their forebears) traveled to China by sea, and then proceeded overland to Kaifeng. Whatever the case, the most probable rationale for the selection of the old Song capital as their final destination would appear to have been based upon the economic opportunities or the safety from oppression they hoped to find there.
Of the seventeen clans whose names are listed on the stone monument of 1489, subsequent allusions to only eight have been retrieved from the existing records: Shi, Ai, Gao, Jin, Zhang, Zhao, and Li (with two distinct clans using the name Li). This led, incidentally, to the common practice of referring to the Jews of Kaifeng as "The Eight Clans with the Seven Surnames."
Although the use of Chinese patronymics by people of recognizable foreign descent was not ordinarily sanctioned, the Kaifeng Jews were authorized to adopt such names in appreciation of the role played by a Jewish soldier (or perhaps a physician) who in 1420 helped expose the treasonable designs of a member of the royal family. The clan names chiseled onto the 1489 monument are Chinese, but we may assume that the names borne by the original Jewish settlers in Kaifeng would have been predominantly Hebraic. It is worth noting, however, that the seven Chinese patronymics mentioned above are still used by those several hundred individuals of Kaifeng extraction who even now call themselves Jews.
The inscription of 1489 tells us that Kaifeng's first synagogue was built in 1163, the rabbi at the time was Lie-wei (Levi-?), and the construction was directed by someone bearing the name Antula (Abdullah-?; Hamdullah-?). In time, the synagogue was surrounded by other structures, among them a ritual bath, a communal kitchen, a study hall, a kosher butchering facility, a sukkah for use at the appropriate season of the year, commemorative arches and gateways, stelae (that of 1489, another dated 1512, and the two-sided stele dated 1663), and the like. The first synagogue, enlarged and refurbished as the need arose, was destroyed by flood in 1461. A replacement synagogue appears to have been consumed by fire around 1600. The third synagogue was swept away in 1642 by a fiood caused by the deliberate rupturing of the dikes of the nearby Yellow River as part of a plan for ending a lengthy siege of the city by rebel forces. At least 100,000 people lost their lives in this inundation, including an undetermined number of Jews. Kaifeng's last synagogue, which was dedicated in 1663, served the community until the 1860s, when it was demolished, the congregation having by then become divided, impoverished, and weakened by a general ignorance of its heritage. A substantial portion of the tiles from this structure were acquired by the city's Great East (Dong Da) Mosque, which, it would appear, also managed to procure an assortment of artifacts and manuscripts that had formerly been used in the synagogue. A balustrade, which was part of the synagogal building, was incorporated in a local Confucian temple. Other synagogal appurtenances have survived, as well as seven of its Torah scrolls, a fragment consisting of the first twelve skins of an eighth Torah, and sixty-one booklets-mainly prayer texts and portions of the weekly Torah readings, but also two Haggadahs for Passover and the community's historically invaluable Memorial book, which lists the names of more than a thousand Kaifeng Jews who died between the early years of the sixteenth century and cat 1670. With the exception of the Torah fragment, which is owned by an anonymous private collector, all are preserved in libraries and museums in England, Austria, Canada, and the United States.
What was life like for the Jews of Kaifeng from the time they became firmly established in the city until their community fell apart? The answer is that in its everyday non-religious aspects the life of the Kaifeng Jews was not very different from that of their neighbors. They dressed like their countrymen, wore pigtails (a custom decreed by the Qing conquerors of China to symbolize the submission of the Chinese to their new rulers), bound their daughters' feet, spoke the local dialect, and engaged in the same occupations as the people among whom they lived. They were thus farmers, merchants, artisans, scholars, officials, soldiers, doctors, and the like. In proportion to their numbers, however, they seem to have been quite successful . Many attained mandarin rank, the most noteworthy of these being the brothers Zhao Yingcheng (Moshe ben Abram) and Zhao Yingdou (Hebrew name unknown), who in the 1660s held prestigious governmental posts and were instrumental in rebuilding the synagogue that was destroyed in the flood of 1642. Each of the two brothers also wrote a book, in Chinese, about Judaism. To our regret, however, only the titles of these works are known. Yingcheng's Record of the Vicissitudes of the Holy Scriptures, it is believed, dealt with the history and scriptures of Kaifeng Jewry, while Yingdou's Preface to the Illustrious Way offered an exposition of the tenets of Judaism. In recent years, interested Chinese scholars have instituted searches, so far altogether unsuccessful, in the libraries of Kaifeng, Beijing and elsewhere for these texts. In the event that a copy of either or both of these works is discovered, we may expect to fill in many of the gaps that now exist in our understanding of the Jewish experience in old China.
The religious outlooks and practices of the Kaifeng Jews were for centuries very much like those of their fellow Jews outside China. They observed the Sabbath and the other holy days, circumcised their male offspring, maintained schools which taught the language and scriptural texts of their ancestors, and ordered their lives within the moral and doctrinal parameters set forth in the traditional rabbinic literature. They recognized the One God as eternal and without physical form, and believed that the individual is judged in the hereafter, as well as in the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels. Idolatry was anathema to them. They accepted full responsibility for helping the poor and those incapable of taking care of themselves. They prayed facing westward, in the direction of Jerusalem. The headgear they wore at worship was colored blue, a practice which led some of their neighbors, who mistook them for adherents of a subsect of Islam, to call them "The Muslims with the Blue Caps," this to differentiate them from mainstream Muslims, who, because they wore white headgear at prayer, were known as "The Muslims with the White Caps." Their children were given Hebrew names in addition to the conventional names of the country. No converts were sought, but Chinese women underwent the rite of conversion before marrying Jewish men. Polygamy was permitted, and the levirate laws were observed. In the Persian style, they divided their pentateuchal readings into fifty-three portions rather than into the Ashkenazic division of fifty-four.
The Kaifeng Jews ate only meat that had been prepared in accordance with the precepts so common elsewhere in the Jewish world. Their kashrut practices appeared so utterly strange to the Chinese that one of the several names by which they identified the Jews was "The Sect that Plucks Out the Sinews." The term was inspired by the Kaifeng Jews' practice of removing the thigh muscles from the hip sockets of the animals they slaughtered, this in adherence to the kashrut rule derived from the story told in Genesis 32 of Jacob's struggle with the angel at Peniel, in the course of which this part of his body was injured.
The prospects for the long-term survival of Kaifeng Jewry were from the very outset endangered by its small numbers and later compounded by its total isolation from the rest of the Jewish world. For several hundred years, the bilateral international trade that flowed along the Silk Road and the sea lanes between East and West provided the Kaifeng Jews with infusions of theological and educational content that reinforced their resolve and capacity to maintain their Jewish orientation intact. Their relations with the several Jewish communities then flourishing within China itself no doubt did much the same. Around the year 1500, however, the Ming rulers issued a series of decrees prohibiting travel between their domains and foreign lands. As an immediate consequence, the Jews of Kaifeng found themselves hermetically sealed off from all contact with coreligionists abroad. Meanwhile, the various Jewish settlements in other Chinese centers died out, leaving the Kaifeng Jews utterly stranded and surrounded by millions upon millions of inhabitants who looked to spiritual heritages profoundly different from their own.
There were, to be sure, other significant erosive factors. The Chinese Jews, unlike most of their non-Chinese coreligionists, lived in a relatively open and tolerant society, and not once in their long history did any Chinese monarch see fit to single them out for the torments and ghettoization to which Jews were so tragically subjected in western lands, or to deny them free access to all forms of employment. Their good fortune was not, however, without its difficulties, for it split their ranks disastrously as they dealt with the thorny problem of drawing the line between their desire to preserve their own traditions and the constant temptation to replace them with those of their neighbors. Moreover, the absence of political and economic restrictions cost Kaifeng Jewry a high percentage of its brightest young men. To make matters worse, appointments to the country's most prestigious and remunerative postsãposts, that is, in the civil service, the educational establishment, and even in the armed forces -required that candidates pass a series of specialized examinations designed to evaluate the extent of their mastery of the classic texts of Confucianism. The preparation for these examinations entailed long years of intensive study; and in the case of Jewish candidates the effort was all too often undertaken at the expense of their Judaic studies. As a rule, moreover, success in the examinations quite often resulted in appointments to posts far from home. There the Jewish official and his family would be unlikely to meet other Jews, and could well be lost to the people from whom they had sprung. Still, this was not always the case the Zhao brothers, for example, came home to participate fully in Jewish life but there is every reason to suspect that such losses occurred frequently enough to cause appreciable damage to the integrity of the community that had been left behind.
The community was further weakened by the repeated natural, military and economic crises that Kaifeng experienced over the centuries. Fire and flood took their toll, revolutionary and foreign armies swept across the city, and the closing of the Silk Road drained it of much of its prosperity. Though now no longer the imperial capital, Kaifeng retained its status as capital of Henan Province until modern times, and as such continued to be a place of importance. But it was nevertheless a city in decline, a city which lured fewer and fewer newcomers, while losing more and more of its own people. Understandably, those Jews who left the city-and there were many who did could scarcely have been expected to find their new surroundings conducive to the successful transmission of their Judaic heritage to succeeding generations.
The gradual dilution of that heritage in Kaifeng itself is readily discerned from even cursory readings of both the community's surviving records and the reports published by foreign visitors.
The first evidence of the community's habituation to its all-encompassing Chinese environment may be gleaned from the text inscribed on the synagogal monument of 1489, where an attempt is made to demonstrate that the ethical principles upon which both Judaism and Confucianism are based are very much the same. Incense is bumed in the synagogue to honor the memory of dozens of outstanding biblical personages, but also to honor Confucius (who, however, is revered as a great moral teacher rather than as a religious figure). As time goes by, even more evidence of sinicization becomes evident. Sacrifices, in the Chinese style, are offered on several Jewish holidays, though only of kosher foods. The communal schools teach less and less, and the number of students decreases.
Slowly but inexorably, the knowledge of Hebrew diminishes, so that when twelve new Torah scrolls are written in the middle of the seventeenth century, the scribal misspellings in each of them run into the hundreds. Even the rabbis remember distressingly little of the ancestral language and faith, and after the death of the last of Kaifeng's rabbis in the first decade of the nineteenth century, there is nobody to take his place. Still, the Torah scrolls are preserved in the decaying synagogal building, where they are treasured as objects of veneration, but nobody in the congregation is now able to read them. In fact, the lews display one Torah scroll in the marketplace, together with a placard offering a reward to any bypasser who could translate it for them. This turns out to be a futile gesture.
Worship services are discontinued, destitute Jewish families set up ramshackle shelters on the synagogal grounds, and even grow cabbages in their little plots. By 1850-51 poverty and ignorance are so widespread that the surviving Jews sell six of their Torah scrolls and sixty-three smaller synagogal books to emissaries of the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews (now the Church's Mission to the Jews). In ensuing years, three more Torahs and at least two smaller synagogal manuscripts are sold. Around 1860, the synagogue is torn down, and a half-century later the land itself is deeded to Canadian missionaries.
Still, throughout all this time there persists a tenacious sense of loyalty (well-mixed, presumably, with nostalgia) on the part of some of the descendants of the ancient Jewish community to the idea of being Jewish and to their forgotten traditions. One finds occasional expressions of that attachment even now, so that it is not surprising that in two censuses made of Chinese minority peoples in recent decades, two or three hundred individuals saw fit to register themselves as Jews.
Given Kaifeng Jewry's grindingly long isolation from the wellsprings of Judaism in other lands and its paucity of numbers, it is not difficult to understand why most of its members were ultimately assimilated into the faiths of their countrymen. But what is really amazing is that this beleaguered outpost of Israel was able to find the inner strength and determination to carry on in face of these overpowering obstacles for as many centuries as it did.
The Western Fascination with Kaifeng Jewry
No summary of the history of the Jews of Kaifeng can ignore the great fervor and widespread religious speculations that were evoked in the West by the news of their "discovery" in 1605 by Matteo Ricci, particularly throughout Catholic theological circles. The kehillah itself, however, was apparently never aware of the strange uses to which the mere revelation of its existence was quickly put in that remote barbarian corner of the world called Europe.
In 1628, the first of the several Jesuit mission houses that functioned intermittently in Kaifeng was established by Father Francois Sambiasi. From statements made by the Kaifeng Jews in the early 1720s we know that at least two of his successors, Fathers Rodriguez de Figueiredo and Christiano Enriquez, were received as guests in the synagogue some decades before that time; and from this we may infer that meetings with other resident missionaries were not infrequent. In view of the special interest of these men in the proselytization of their Jewish townspeople, the total absence of contemporary reports in either the Jesuit or Jewish records indicating the baptism of even a single Jew suggests that the kehillah was by then more cognizant of the differences between Judaism and Christianity than either Ai Tian or Ricci's rabbinical correspondent had been, and that its members responded negatively to the conversionary entreaties of the missionaries.
In fact, the earliest known direct report during this period of meetings in Kaifeng between Jew and Jesuit is dated 1704 and comes from the hand of the Jesuit priest Jean-Paul Gozani, whose motivation for making contact with the kehillah went far beyond the conventional limits of missionary endeavor. Surprisingly -and even more important to him than converting the city's Jews-his primary reason for dealing with them was to secure certain information that might help persuade the Vatican to approve the Jesuit Order's grandiose plans for the mass proselytization of the Chinese people. What is even more surprising is that Gozani was instructed to obtain documentation from the Kaifeng synagogue that would presumptively clear the way for the second coming of Christ, and with that the dawning of the messianic age.
One of the most vexing problems facing the Catholic Church in connection with its evangelical campaign in China was to decide how much of their old Confucian thoughts and ways of life presumptive candidates for baptism should be permitted to take with them if and when they actually embraced the Catholic faith. And if they were permitted to carry over certain of these Confucian tendencies, what, if anything, should later be done to counteract and eradicate these troublesome proclivities? This was by no means a new problem for the Church, for it had faced very much the same predicament in its dealings with forcibly converted Jews in Europe and in its missionary endeavors in India, Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere.
What intrigued the Jesuits most was the manner in which the Kaifeng Jews had integrated certain Confucian customs into their own monotheistic religion. They felt it necessary, in addition, to find out which Chinese terms the Jews used to identify the Divinity (the Terms Question)--terms, they concluded, that if used by the Jews could be trusted to be entirely free from the taint of idolatry or polytheistic thought. The Jesuits, whose policy it was to define Confucianism as a way of life rather than as a religion, felt that if potential and newly acquired converts were denied the right to retain a fair number of their old familiar beliefs and practices, the Catholic campaign to Christianize China might never be brought to fruition. Here, however, they were completely at odds with their Dominican and Franciscan counterparts, who perceived the introduction into the Church of even the least jot of Confucian ideology to be fraught with danger and to border on heresy. Unlike the Jesuits, however, both the Dominicans and Franciscans insisted that the terms employed by the Chinese for the concept and name of God implied certain material attributes to Him that were utterly irreconcilable with Christian dogma.
The polarization arising from this set of opposing views regarding the identification of Confucianism as either a pagan religion or as a code of morals that had been deeply ingrained in the minds of the vast majority of the inhabitants of China gave rise to a bitterly divisive dispute that is known to ecclesiastical historians as the Chinese Rites Controversy. This dispute was not resolved until 1939, when the decision was made to adopt the position advocated by the Jesuits. By that time, however, the effort to convert China had been brought to a standstill. The nation, then being invaded by the Japanese and split by civil war, was soon to be ruled by a movement that was unbendingly antagonistic to its indigenous theistic establishments, let alone to a new foreign faith. The door through which Catholicism hoped to enter China was now slammed shut.
There was an additional reason for the Church's great interest in the Kaifeng community. Catholic theologians, followed shortly by Protestant thinkers, were eager to obtain one or more of the Torah scrolls owned by the Kaifeng synagogue. These men presumed, though erroneously, not only that the Jews had come to China before the beginning of the Christian era, but that they had almost from the time of their arrival in the country been utterly cut offfrom contact with the Jewish population of the rest of the world. It followed, then, that the texts in all the Torah scrolls owned by the Kaifeng synagogue must have been copied by the Chinese Jews from exemplars that were part of a chain of Torahs going back to those that were originally brought to Kaifeng by its first Jewish settlers. The Torah texts of the Kaifeng synagogue, it was therefore pointed out, could be expected to be identical with those ofthe Torahs that were in use throughout the Jewish world prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth-texts whose integrity successive generations of Christian theologians had been attacking ever since the second century of the Christian era. These "pristine" Torahs, their argument went, had originally contained an array of passages foretelling the coming of the Christian messiah in language so specific that not even the most obdurate of Jews could fail to accept. The absence of such prophecies from the pre-Christian Jewish scriptures, they charged, could be explained quite simply-they had been blasphemously removed, or perhaps altered in meaning, by the rabbinical authorities during or slightly after the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. (Later, Islamic theologians would argue that since neither the Hebrew nor the Christian scriptures contained prophecies regarding the coming of Muhammed, it was obvious that both the rabbinical and the priestly establishments must have deliberately removed these from their respective texts.)
It occurred to the Christian theologians that if a Torah from Kaifeng were brought to Europe and placed on open display there, its "pristine" contents could be relied upon to demonstrate to Jews everywhere that they had been shamefully betrayed by the ancient rabbinical authorities in whom they had so long put their trust. Such a demonstration, it was generally agreed, could be counted upon to open the eyes of the Jews and convince them to acknowledge Jesus as the true messiah the sine qua non and immediate prelude, as the Church had long taught, to his second coming and the redemption of mankind.
With this overweening consideration in mind, the Jesuit missionaries Jean-Paul Gozani, Jean Domenge and Antoine Gaubil approached the Kaifeng Jews in the years between 1704 and 1723 and tried to buy several of their synagogal books, above all a Torah scroll. Unable to persuade the Jews to part with such treasures, they resorted, though unsuccessfully, to other tactics: two attempts by Domenge to bribe synagogal members, and a scheme to have a friendly prince of the realm apply pressure on the Jews to turn over these writings to the Jesuit Order.
Actually, the Jews had permitted both Domenge and Gaubil, each of whom had apparently mastered the basics of Hebrew, to look at the synagogal Torahs. However, the two missionaries had been disappointed, for the few passages they checked showed absolutely no indication of having been altered. Still, it was nearly a century and a half after their time in 1851, that is, when European scholars were at last privileged to examine the Kaifeng writings in detail that it was at last acknowledged that no difference whatsoever existed between the Kaifeng biblical texts and those that could be bought in Jewish and Christian bookstores throughout the world.
Whereas Chrisban intellectual circles were roused to enthusiasm, however misdirected, by the revelation of the presence of an ancient Jewish enclave in the depths of China, the Jewish theological reaction to this news might be characterized as indifferent. In 1650, it is true, the celebrated Amsterdam rabbi Manasseh teen Israel mentioned Kaifeng Jewry several times in his widely circulated Hope of Israel, while attempting to convince Oliver Cromwell's Puritan regime to permit the Jews to return to England, from which they had been expelled in 1289. Manasseh observed, almost parenthetically, that the Torah texts of Kaifeng established the fact that the Scriptures of the Jews could not have been rewritten in any way that might be taken as a ploy for concealing the coming of Christianity's savior.
To date, historians have been unable to retrieve even a single subsequent allusion to Kaifeng from the wealth of the Jewish literature written prior to the late eighteenth century. One must concede, of course, that it is scarcely possible that the Jewish writers of that period, fascinated as they were by the many stories about the Lost Ten Tribes and the kindred curiosa contained so abundantly in that literature, could have neglected so distant and mysterious a Jewish community as that beyond the Great Wall. What is more likely is that they did write, and perhaps quite frequently, about Kaifeng Jewry, and that we may reasonably anticipate that at least a few samples of their work will some day come to light.
Following this long stretch of apparent silence, Jewish references to the Jews of China began to emerge in increasing numbers. From the 1 860s onward, western travelers who since 1724 had been barred by imperial edict from venturing into the interior of the country, were again enabled to visit Kaifeng and its Jews. Bursts of new information now came to light, and the reports provided by both Jewish and Christian visitors to the city uncovered historical data extending beyond those that had been made available in the Jesuit accounts. Regrettably, much of what has been disseminated in print and on lecture platforms about the Jews of Kaifeng had no other purpose than to entertain, and tended to be historically distorted or to contain numerous other misrepresentations. Thus, Voltaire saw fit to make the Jews of China the butt of his wit by contriving a tale which presented them, and by extension all Jews, in a very negative light. Treading in Voltaire's footsteps, numerous other antisemitic propagandists produced a venomous literature that often tended to make Voltaire's fulminations seem relatively innocuous. Thus, the Nazi press found it convenient to exploit the story of the Chinese Jews (in extravagantly distorted form, of course) and use it in vicious attacks against them and against the Chinese people as a whole. Those Jews who first arrived in China, the Nazis insisted, had promptly contaminated the genetic lines of their hosts, with the result that although two thousand years had now gone by (sic), the degenerative impact of "tainted Jewish "blood" could still be recognized in the features and the character of the entire Chinese population. These propaganda attacks against the Chinese by the German allies of the Japanese may have been part of the reasons that prompted Japanese intelligence to send two agents to Kaifeng during World War 11 with directives to determine whether what remained of its old Jewish community posed a threat to the Japanese occupying forces. The agents' reports, far more realistic than the orders that had sent them to Kaifeng, made it clear that the city's Jews were too few, too weak and too divided to pose any kind of threat whatsoever. Numerous other antisemitic horror stories based on deliberate misrepresentations of the saga of the Jews of old China have appeared in American periodicals.
It must be pointed out, however, that much of the information concerning the Chinese Jews that was circulated in the West by Jewish writers has also turned out to be misleading, though obviously not antisemitic. Shortly after the end of the Opium War (1839-42), for example, various Jewish newspapers carried a story about an unnamed British naval commander (in some accounts he is identified as a Jew) who sailed an unnamed warship up an unnamed river deep in the heart of China and discovered a city, also unnamed, whose million inhabitants were Jews. Another story, this one written by a devotee of the Haskalah movement who claimed to have visited China, declared that nearly all Chinese Jews were engaged in agriculture. Here the writer's intention was to encourage European Jews to follow the wholesome example set by their Chinese coreligionists, and start earning their livelihood in the same manner as both their own ancestors and those of the Chinese Jews had-by tilling the soil.
One early Zionist, S.M. Perlmann, derived still another moral from the story of the Chinese Jews. Writing shortly before the outbreak of World War I, he foresaw all too optimistically a rapid diminution in European antisemitism. This prospect pleased him greatly, of course, but it also alarmed him. He warned that European Jewry, once liberated from the oppression it had so long suffered, might lose sight of its heritage and disappear. The only effective response to the challenge of keeping Judaism intact in the hate-free world he envisaged and of avoiding the fate of Chinese Jewry, he concluded, lay in the Zionist idea of creating a national home for the Jews.
In 1663, the reconstruction of a new synagogue in Kaifeng was carried through under the direction of Major Zhao Jingshi of the Middle Army, who had participated in the defense of the besieged city at the time of the inundation that destroyed the existing synagogue. In the lapidary inscription with which the Kaifeng Jews commemorated the dedication of their new house of worship, it is stated that Major Zhao, "fearing that the members of the religion, owing to the ruin of the synagogue, might di sperse and never come together again, and unable to contemplate the work his ancestors had built up and preserved through the centuries suddenly destroyed in a single day...sent troops to patrol and protect the remnants of the synagogue day and night." The inscription further informs us that, together with his distinguished cousins, the mandarins Zhao Yingcheng and Zhao Yingdou, Major Zhao uncovered "the actual foundation of the former synagogue," thereby encouraging the kehillah to erect a new synagogue in its place.
After two centunes had passed and that synagogue had fallen into decay, there was no longer enough will left in the ranks of Kaifeng Jewry to pull their community together and construct a new center for worship and study. In part, perhaps, this was a consequence of the Taiping Rebellion and the series of other military and political upheavals that rocked China at the time, but at bottom it was the result ofthe community's very small size and the apathy that its remoteness and long isolation from the rest of the Jewish people had induced. And so, with the severance of the ancient communal and religious ties that had kept Kaifeng Jewry viable for centuries on end, its history was to all intents and purposes permitted to come to an end.
In 1663, Major Zhao ordered that the story of Kaifeng Jewry be cut in stone, so that "it would be handed down to future generations." The stone has been lost, but we do have rubbings of its text and, accordingly, a record of the synagogue's rebuilding. The present exhibition has been planned and created as a means of helping preserve the story ofthe Jewish community of Kaifeng, while reminding us of the lessons it has to teach. For only if this story and the many others like it are told and retold, and if our heritage is cherished and studied, may we expect that it will indeed be transmitted to generations yet unborn.
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