Monday, August 31, 2009

Kaifeng, the Jews of China

Writing about this topic, the Kaifeng, Chinese Jews, author of The Jews of China, Jonathan Goldstein, writes that the Kaifeng, as they were known, existed in China since the Northern Song period (960 B.C.E.-1160 C.E.) and today are recognized as a bone fide ethnic minority by the Peoples Republic of China. Living primarily in Jixian, Kaifeng, Zhengzhou and Xian, the Kaifeng, like so many others are thought to have arrived to China via established trade routes, settling in and adapting to their new land. Goldstein writes "there was a longstanding history of direct trade with Jewish merchants from India to China and Europe."

Making Kaifeng their central home, perhaps a few thousand Jews settled there in antiquity.They lived their lives relatively undisturbed by the local population; ultimately they assimilated, as did Jews in the Greco-Roman lands, adopting the customs and traditions of their Chinese neighbors until they could not for example, understand their traditional language of the synagogue, Hebrew; they could no longer remember the prayers of their ancestors. Chinese, or the local dialects ultimately supplanted the previous languages. This changed in the 18th and 19th centuries with the arrival of the Europeans in the coastal cities such as Shanghai. These Jewish immigrants from Europe infused the existing community with new energy and new ties to tradition. A synagogue was established in Hong Kong that remains today.

What did the Kaifeng give to their new land? What did the Chinese lend to the Kaifeng? From the new land the Kaifeng for example, adopted Confucian values of family and worship of various deities, in particular opposition to the settled Hebrew tradition of mono-theism. And for the Kaifeng's contribution, their loyalty to the ruling family quickly earned them positive regard, in addition to their established tradition of scholarship which continued after their arrival in China.

"For his loyalty to the emperor he was rewarded with the surname Zhao," writes Goldstein. The Zhao family became over time one of the most important of the Kaifeng; others bearing family names such as Li and Gao. As their tenure in China extended into the centuries, the Kaifeng ultimately built "halls of worship," or synagogues which greatly aided them in establishing their community within the greater community. The modern and important Chinese Jewish scholar, Xu Xin, professor of Jewish studies at Nanjing University, writes that more research must be done "to fully realize the Jewish presence and contribution to Chinese society, through the ages."

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