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JEWISH HISTORY IN CHINA

  Much of the history in China is identified by the dynasties in power during that period of time. During the Chinese North Song Dynasty (960-1126 A.D.) the silk trade continuously flourished along the legendary over-land Silk Route. Caravans from the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean began their journeys on the Silk Road at the city, now known as Baghdad in Iraq, and terminated in China at the then capital of China, Kaifeng. With over one million residents at that time, Kaifeng was considered among the worlds largest commercial metropolis. A similar classification was presented by Baghdad. The Silk Road was the conduit for connecting these two hubs of commerce.

From the early years of the silk trade, the Israelite traders provided a very important medium between China and the Roman Orient. This is evidenced as an historical fact by the immigration and settling of the Jewish community in Kaifeng in the Northern Song Dynasty.

Sometime between 960-1126 A.D., a group of Israelite merchants, numbering about 2000 in seventy or more clans, traveled a long way from their homes in Persia, followed the overland Silk Route and finally arrive in Kaifeng. When they were ushered into the palace of the Song Emperor, they proudly presented their tribute of cotton cloth to the Emperor. The cloths were woven in five brilliant colors and the Emperor was immensely attracted at his first glimpse of such beautiful material. After examining the Western Cloth, the Emperor was so delighted and asked if they could stay and produce such cloth for his people. The visitors explained that they could no stay because they are members of an ancient people who observed customs very different from Chinese people.

The Emperor responded, You have come to our China, you can reverence and preserve the customs of your ancestors and hand them down in Bian Liang (Kaifeng).

The history of the Kaifeng Jewish community was written by the Jews themselves and preserved on three inscribed monuments that were erected in the courtyard of the ancient synagogue respectively in 1489,1663 and 1679.

After settling in Kaifeng, seventy families founded and formed the core of the first congregation. They built their first synagogue in 1163. The synagogue followed the traditional structure of Chinese Temples that included a courtyard, memorial arches, pavilions, great halls and side buildings. However, it differed from the usual Chinese Temple which normally faces south, in that the synagogue faced east with the main gateway and entrance on the east side. The most sacred part of the synagogue was on the extreme west so that worshippers in performing their religious observances would face west toward Jerusalem.

On the south side of the central courtyard of the synagogue was an Ancestral Hall similar to that used by Chinese. For some generations the descendants of these Jews had followed the customs of maintaining their ancestral tablets exactly as the Chinese do.

At the peak times in the history of the congregation, the Kaifeng Jews kept thirteen Torahs in the ark, each enclosed in a gold lacquered case covered with silk. Twelve scrolls represented the twelve tribes of Israel and one was dedicated to Moses.

From the early settlement through the thorough assimilation by the late Qing Dynasty the community had tried to preserve its Jewish identity. Yet they had been inevitably influenced by the hospitable Confucian culture in which they had lived for centuries. In the inscriptions on the three Jewish stone monuments were recorded many members whose achievements added to the glory on the community such as imperial degree holders, high civil officials, military officers, scholars and official physicians, traders and shopkeepers.

In various historical Chinese accounts several Jews were singled out for special mention. In 1421 for instance, a Kaifeng Jew named An Cheng, an official physician who exposed a plot of treason against the Emperor. A Cheng was rewarded after Emperor Yongle by promoted to Assistant Commissioner of Zhejing Province. He was bestowed Chinese surname Zhao and honor was also paid to his family and his synagogue.

Li Yao, a company commander died in action putting down a rebellion in 1643, Ai Ying was special physician to the resident prince in 1644 and owned a big pharmacy near the synagogue. In 1652, Zhao Shi-fang was honored for being the leader of a group who helped repair a Confucian shrine just next to the synagogue. The best known of all Chinese Jews was Zhao Ying-Cheng whose name was Moacsben Abram. His biographies were written in Henan and Fujian Provinces. He is remembered for capturing and killing the bandit that had killed and looted in Fujian area.

For almost seven centuries, the Jews of Kaifeng had coexisted in peace with the local Chinese. They dressed like the Chinese, spoke the local dialect and engaged in the same occupation as other Chinese. There had never been examples of anti-semitism in China. On the contrary records even show that the ruler of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) were particularly well disposed to the Jewish minority.

The history of the survival of the Kaifeng Jews is closely tied to the periodical floods of the Yellow River. Kaifeng had been considered as the oriental Jerusalem for its ancient synagogue. After the frequent floods since Ming Dynasty the synagogue had been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. Finally it fell into ruin. With the death of Kaifengs last Rabbi about 1800, the Jewish community gradually disintegrated. They had no grammar books to study Hebrew and scriptures. They began to intermarry with the local Chinese. As the religion declined assimilation increased. By the middle of 19 th century poverty in the community was so severe that the surviving Kaifeng Jews had to assimilate into Chinese culture.

In 1605 the discovery of the Kaifeng community by the western world agreed when a Jesuit missionary Mattio Ricci was visited in Beijing by a native of Kaifeng named Ai Tian. Through the interesting interview Ricci realized to his surprise that his visitor was a Chinese Jew. Ai Tian didnt know the designation Jew, but called himself an Israelite. He never heard of Jesus. Ricci reported the event to Rome. The news thus began to spread in Europe and brought about an electrifying response. When Marco Polo traveled in China, he also reported the Jews lived in China in or about 1286.

Today in Kaifeng the original site of the synagogue is still marked as the Lane of the teaching scriptures. Nothing of the synagogue remains except for the three synagogue monuments which are now housed in Kaifeng today which depicts their ancestry and knowledge about the land from which their ancestors came. They also feel proud that Kaifeng had been the ancient capital of China, and that their ancestors made their contribution to the glorious of Kaifeng.

  


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