Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Jews in China

A bit of Jewish history still being uncovered

The Jews in China

In the 1950s, on a train from Taipei, Taiwan, to Kaohsiung, missionary Pearl Johnson of South Carolina, told me about the Jewish congregations in Kaifeng, China. In the 1930s, when she was a missionary in Shandong and Guangdong provinces, she said there were about seven or eight Jewish families still in the city of Kaifeng. That started me wanting to know more about the Jews in China.

In the early1980s I was able to go to Mainland China. I flew into the city of Zhengzhou and took a bus fifty miles to Kaifeng. After visiting with an old pastor who was ill, I walked the Jiao Jing Alley in Kaifeng, the center of Jewish activity, but saw no evidence of the ancient Israelites. Their stone monuments and Torahs had long ago been purchased or stolen mostly by Europeans.

(A Kaifeng Torah is in the Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. Texas. It was a special treat to see it once. It is Scroll 12 and includes Genesis. The history of how it came to be in Texas is as interesting a tale as the story of Jews thriving in China.)

In Beijing I met Zhao Shaowei, wife of Wu Jian, a former manager of the Jinling Hotel of Nanjing, China. Ms. Zhao was tall for a Chinese and had distinctly western features. She knew she was a descendant of the ancient colony of Jews in the city of Kaifeng. Both her mother and grandmother told her about the Passover meal and of eating, at times, baked bread without salt.

The West learned of the Israelite’s existence in China in the early 17th century. Pioneer Catholic missionary, Mateo Ricci, while visiting with a Kaifeng Jew who had a Chinese name, learned of their presence. The Jew styled himself an Israelite. The term “Jew” meant nothing to him. He told Ricci of their Hebrew Torahs and what he could remember of their history, which turned out to be little more than stone-carved monuments dated 1489 and 1663. Later investigations revealed the largest synagogue ever built to have been in Kaifeng.

The synagogue was established in the year 1163. The structure was destroyed several times, but always rebuilt. A 1489 inscription says the Jews arrived in Kaifeng during the Song dynasty (960 to 1126 AD). There were two stone monuments erected in the synagogue courtyard in 1663. On the stele they recounted the decades it took to rebuild the synagogue and rewrite the scrolls. By the 1850s the Kaifeng Jews referred to themselves as “the eight clans” with Zhao Shaowei’s surname being among them.

Consider the possibility of “The Lost Tribe of Israel” ending up in China. Descendents of the vanquished Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 724 BC could have migrated farther east and ended up in a cosmopolitan China. Maybe they were not lost, but living in settlements in Persia, Afghanistan, India and China.

Later migrations could have begun with the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and Judean exile in Babylon. Another good time for leaving home was in 70 AD as the Romans destroyed the second Temple.

Then again, It is more than probable that during the years of the Crusades, when Muslims and European Crusaders were fighting over who should “protect the holy places” of the Holy Land, Jews left in droves. Generation after generation they kept moving.

By the time of Jesuit Father Ricci, the Jewish congregation was on the brink of extinction, partly from the lack of rabbis who could read the Hebrew Torah and lead the services. Centuries of intermarriage with the Chinese had a part in melding the two cultures.

In China, the Hebrew people found the only place on earth where they were accepted and not persecuted. Their search, and ours, for peace and a normal life continues, as does my love of history.

(This is also found ALONG THE WAY )