Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Kaifeng Jews comprise the best documented Jewish community in China. They resided in the city of Kaifeng in Henan province. Although their profile was low among the Chinese, they attracted interest from European visitors, who were curious about this most remote outpost of Jewish culture.
According to historical records, a Jewish community with a synagogue existed at Kaifeng from at least the 12th (Song Dynasty) until at least the late 19th century. Some accounts suggest they in fact had lived there since the 9th century.
It is surmised that the ancestors of the Kaifeng Jews came from Central Asia. The uninterrupted existence of this religious and ethnic group, lasting for more than 700 years in totally different socio-cultural surroundings strongly dominated by Confucian moral and ethical principles, is a unique phenomenon, not only in Chinese history, but also in the thousands of years of Jewish civilisation.
13th century Italian traveler Marco Polo may have received accounts of Jewish settlements in China. The existence of the Jews in China was still largely unknown to the rest of the world until Matteo Ricci met a Jew from the Kaifeng community by accident at the beginning of the 16th Century. It was then that European research on the Jews in Kaifeng began, mostly carried out by European missionaries.
Ricci received a visit from a young Jewish Chinese named Ngai in 1605, who explained that he worshipped one God. It is recorded that when he saw a Christian image of Mary with the child Jesus, he believed it to be a picture of Rebecca with Esau or Jacob, figures from Scripture. Ngai declared that he had come from Kaifeng, where many other Jews resided. Ricci sent a Chinese Jesuit to visit Kaifeng; later, further Jesuits also visited the city. It was later discovered that the Jewish community had a synagogue (Libai si), which faced east, and possessed a great number of written materials and books.
The Jews of China apparently "suffered greatly" and were dispersed during the Taiping rebellion of the 1850s. An American encyclopedia in 1912 recorded that following this dislocation, they returned to Kaifeng, yet continued to be small in number and to face hardships.
Three Jewish tablets with inscriptions were found at Kaifeng. One Catholic researcher of the early 20th century showed, that Ricci's manuscripts indicate that there were only in the range of ten or twelve Jewish families in Kaifeng in the late 16th - early 17th century, and that they had reportedly resided there for five or six hundred years. It was also stated in the manuscripts that there was a greater number of Jews in Hangzhou.
Besides its long history, the Kaifeng Jewish community had another conspicuous feature: Although existing almost in isolation and without any contacts with the Jewish diaspora outside China, it still managed to keep alive Jewish traditions and customs for hundreds of years. However, although it experienced neither discrimination nor persecution on the part of the Chinese, a process of gradual assimilation went on. Up to the 17th century, the assimilation of the Kaifeng Jews intensified and escalated. It resulted in changes in Jewish religious and ritual customs, social and language traditions, as well as intermarriage between Jews and other ethnic groups, such as the Han Chinese and the Hui and Manchu minorities in China. In the 1860s, the Jewish synagogue in Kaifeng collapsed because it had long been in disrepair. As a consequence, Jewish religious life, together with the Jewish identity in the community, came to an end.
Kaifeng Jews today
The Jews in China remained almost unknown to Chinese society until the beginning of the 20th century, although they had existed in the country for over 700 years.
European Jews residing in Shanghai in the early 20th century are reported to have conducted research in Kaifeng but with little success.
Together with the growing interest in Western cultures among Chinese intellectuals during this time, the presence of the Jews, and Judaism, began to be realized by scholars in China. This subject had gradually developed into an independent field of research by the time the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949.
Due to the poor conditions for research on religions as a result of the political atmosphere in the country, research on the Jews and Judaism in China came to a standstill until the beginning of the 1980s, when political and economic reforms started. The establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel in 1992 accelerated the research work by researchers in this field on both sides. Research on the Jews in China gained new attention around the world through the reappraisal of the experiences of around 25,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai during the Nazi period.
In recent years, research into the history and culture of the Kaifeng Jews has been carried out not only in China, but in other countries as well. Increasing academic interest in related subjects is also expected in the future.
It has been stated, but of unknown accuracy, that in appearance, the Kaifeng Jews were indistinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbors.
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