Behind the Headlines the Jewish Roots in China

The site of the former synagogue of the Chinese Jews here will be identified by Chinese and English markers, according to the Vice Director of Foreign Affairs of the Kaifeng municipality.

“It is not necessary to worry about this, because we consider the place a historic site. In China we take the means to protect relics,” Vice Director Jang told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Accompanying the seventh American Jewish Congress tour to the People’s Republic of China during this 25th anniversary year of that organization’s tour program, this journalist observed that the Kaifeng synagogue site, now a hospital complex, bears no evidence of its past history. The first synagogue in China was built on this site in 1163 by Jews who had followed the silk route and settled here some time between the first and tenth centuries.

Kaifeng, in Hunan Province about 470 miles south of Beijing, was the capital of China during the Sung Dynasty (960-1126 C.E.). The city is off the beaten path for most American tourists. According to our local tour guide, Liu Wenching, only AJCongress and Jewish Teachers Association groups currently visit the synagogue site.

NO ONE REQUESTED A MARKER

Standing in the hospital courtyard, Liu said that the Zhao emperor gave this land to immigrant Jews for their synagogue, in return for their gift of cotton fabric. He explained that the synagogue was destroyed by the flooding Yellow River in 1461 and 1642, and rebuilt after the floods. By the time another flood leveled the synagogue in the 1850′s, the Jewish community was too small and poor to reconstruct it.

When asked by this correspondent why there was no marker nor memorial at the site, Liu said no one had ever made the request. Asked through what channels such a request could be made, Liu said that it was a decision of the municipality. In response to several urgent pleas to produce the mayor or his representative within the 24 hours the AJCongress group was in Kaifeng, Liu arranged a private meeting between JTA and Jang.

Reacting positively to the request, Jang said: “For Kaifeng Chinese, the site is a common place, and they know it. For Westerners, it is not a hard job to have something placed there. As more and more Jewish groups come to Kaifeng, this will draw the attention of people.”

HISTORY OF THE KAIFENG JEWS

The municipality anticipates building a new museum, Jang added. He said there had already been discussion on whether to house there or at the synagogue site three steles (stone tablets) which record the history of the Kaifeng Jews and their synagogue. The steles, written in Chinese in 1489, 1512, and 1679, are currently housed in the warehouse of the old municipal museum. A fourth stele, written in 1663, is missing.

In 1912, Bishop William Charles White, head of the Canadian Church of England in Hunan Province, acquired the steles. (Pearl Buck’s 1948 “Peony” gives a fictionalized account of the event, as well as a fictionalized history of the demise of the Kaifeng Jewish community.) White agreed to stipulations by descendants of the Jewish community that he not remove the steles from the province, and he placed them on the grounds of Trinity Cathedral in Kaifeng.

Today the 1489 and 1512 steles are bound back to back and lie in a covered courtyard of the museum warehouse. The legend is visible only on the former. According to Liu, it describes the construction of the first synagogue (using the Chinese characters for the word “mosque”).

This stele says that the Jewish community came from Xiu, which Liu identified as the general region of India, Persia and Turkey. It describes the emperor’s acceptance of the Jews as naturalized citizens, who can abide by their own ancient customs and reside in Kaifeng. In 1163, Levi Wusida led the community and Andula built the first synagogue with money donated by Kaifeng clans, the stele says (according to Liu’s translation).

The second stele speaks of the “scripture-worshiping synagogue,” Liu said. The third mentions a “temple history-telling inscription.” The 32 members of the AJCongress tour had the opportunity to see these three steles, which were formerly not open to the public. By special arrangements with the municipal museum, Liu and other local government guides can now take AJCongress groups to the warehouse. (The taking of photographs was strictly prohibited.)

ONLY EVIDENCE OF A ONCE JEWISH COMMUNITY

Along with the torahs and other relics now in the Royal Museum in Toronto, the three steles are the only public physical evidence that a Jewish community once flourished here. Although descendants of this community can still be found here, they no longer publicly admit more than their lineage. Their interaction with Western Jews is limited, and monitored by an atheist government. If they are more than relics themselves, their practice of Judaism is a well-guarded secret.

Liu was knowledgeable about the history of the Kaifeng Jews, and gave the following reasons for their disappearance as a community: intermarriage, isolation from other Jews, lack of discrimination against them, and the floods. Scholars do not agree on a specific year for the arrival of Jews here, nor for the demise of the community. In the 13th century, Marco Polo spoke of the Jews of Kaifeng. But their presence was generally doubted until 1605.

Ironically, it was a Christian missionary, Father Matteo Ricci, who that year discovered and publicized their existence. According to his account, the community then numbered more than one thousand. Ricci and later missionaries wanted to convert the Kaifeng Jews, and hoped to find in the Chinese torah Christological passages they believed were “missing” from western torahs. They did not succeed in either mission.

(Tomorrow: Part Two)

NEXT STORY