Saturday, June 1, 1996

"Lost" Jews of Kaifeng

An exhibit organized by the Sino-Judaic Institute of Menlo Park, California and held at the Koret Gallery in Palo Alto tells a little known story about the early settlement of Jews in China. Hebrew letters and notes found on the ancient silk route suggest that Jewish traders have been coming to China as early as the eighth century during the Tang dynasty. The proof: The documents were written on paper and in those days only China knew how to make paper.

By the Northern Sung dynasty (960-1127AD), a thriving Jewish community existed in Kaifeng, a city south of Beijing that was then the capital of China. From engraved messages on steles (stone tablets) that have survived ravages of time, we now know that Jewish traders were granted audience with the emperor who bade them to revere and preserve the customs of their ancestors, consistent with well established Chinese tradition. The synagogue in Kaifeng was built in 1163AD and a Rabbi Levi was in charge of the first congregation.

As the capital, Kaifeng would have been the terminus of the Silk Road and thus it was natural for the largest concentration of Jews to settle there. Various historical sources also described Jewish communities at various trade ports such as Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Ningbo and Yangzhou. Only the community in Kaifeng survived.

Apparently the emperor also bestowed seven surnames to eight Jewish families. The surnames were Ai, Gao, Jin, Li, Shi, Zhang and Zhao. The descendants today still refer themselves as belonging to "qixingbajia," seven surnames in eight families. It's not clear why these names were selected. One speculation is that they sounded close to actual Jewish surnames.

The presence of Jews in China was forgotten until 1605 when a Jew, Ai Tian, heard about a new arrival in Beijing, by then the capital of Ming dynasty, who seemed to believe in the same God as he. Whereupon Ai went to Beijing to seek out this visitor. The new visitor turned out to be Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit that was to become the most influential European ever served at the imperial court. Ricci's report of having discovered a Jewish community in China aroused considerable interest in the Vatican and made the West aware of the existence of Jews in China.

The exhibit presents many other tantalizing and fascinating bits of information on Jews in China. It portrays a China that has been broadly tolerant of other people and religion. During her lecture at the gallery, Dr. Wendy Abraham, noted lecturer and writer on this subject and board member of the institute, remarks more than once that China is the only nation in the world that has never persecuted the Jews on account of their beliefs. Today there are descendants of Kaifeng Jews in China that still identify themselves as ethnically Yutai, i.e., Jew, in the government census forms.