1. Origins and first traces
Jewish settlers from Persia are documented in China as early as the 7th or 8th century AD. Relatively isolated communities developed through the Táng and Sòng dynasties, most notably in Kāifēng 開封.
As with Buddhism, Islam, and Nestorianism, yet again a "Western" religion had travelled to China on the Silk Road.
The earliest hard evidence for the presence of Jews in China is from the 8th century:
- A business letter written in the Judaeo-Persian language by a Chinese Jew requesting the help of a fellow Jew to sell a lot of mediocre quality sheep. At the time, Jews resided in special enclaves that were set aside by the Chinese for foreigners in what was called the Western Regions (Xīyù 西域, roughly corresponding to Turkestan, Dzungaria, Sogdiana, and the Tarim Basin on the map on page 28 of The Celestial Empire)
- A page of Jewish prayers for the Day of Atonement (from Gānsù)
In the 9th century, an Arab writer mentions the Radanites, Jewish merchants travelling between Western Europe and China.
In the 10th century, another Arab writer mentions in his chronicles the killing in Canton in 878 of 120,000 Western merchants, among others Jewish, by the Huáng 黃 rebels.
In 1286, Marco Polo notices the prominence of Jewish traders in Dàdū 大都 [present-day Běijīng].
The Portuguese soldier of fortune Galeote Pereira, incarcerated in China from 1549 to 1561, notices that the Chinese legal system provides for "Moors, Gentiles and Jews" to be tried on equal terms with the Chinese.
A living community
The 1489 Kāifēng stone monument states that the congregation began to build the first Kāifēng synagogue in 1163. It is also reported that in 1163 Ustad Lièwéi 列爲 was given charge of the religion (Ustad means teacher in Persian). The synagogue was completed by a study hall, a ritual bath, a communal kitchen, a kosher butchering facility, and a sukkah. Further steles were added in 1512 and in 1663.
The Kāifēng Jews produced a great number of written materials and books, up until the 18th century.
The Kāifēng Jews had several rabbi lineages
The Kāifēng Jews' creed was similar to any other Jewish community in the world
The Kāifēng Jews practised polygamy and Levirate marriage (the practice whereby a man must marry his sister-in-law if his older brother, her husband, dies without fathering children).
The Kāifēng Jews did not proselytise, but any Chinese woman who married a Jew had to convert to Judaism
Children received both a Chinese and a Jewish name
The community was known by their Hàn Chinese neighbours as adherents of Tiāojīnjiào (挑筋教), meaning, loosely, the religion which removes the sinew (a reference to Jewish dietary laws)
The Golden Age of Chinese Judaism
Under the Yuán, Jewish holidays were publicly recognised, along Muslim ones.
The Jews had the privilege of carrying a Chinese surname (which was usually forbidden for foreigners). This privilege had been granted in 1420 after a Jew had successfully thwarted a plot against the Míng. It is debated whather these seven Chinese surnames have or don't have a relationship with Jewish surnames. The seven surnames are: Ài (艾), Shí (石), Gāo (高), Jīn (金), Lǐ (李), Zhāng (張), and Zhào (趙).
Usually, whenever an individual succeeded in the imperial examinations, he would be appointed in a province different from his own province. A Jew having passed the imperial examination would hence find himself completely isolated from his community. The result of this isolation would be assimilation, if not for him, at least for his children. It is known that many Jews passed the imperial examinations.
The use of a Chinese surname, the obligation under the Qīng to wear the pigtail as a sign of submission to the ruling Manchus, the adoption of the Chinese custom of foot binding on young girls-- all these customs led to assimilation into the Hàn (or sometimes Huí) community.
In 1500, the Míng enforced a ban on free travel within and without the Celestial Empire. This cut off the Chinese Jews from Jews in Central Asia.
The end of trade along the Silk Road impoverished Chinese Jews to the point that the very same Kāifēng community who had fiercely refused to sell their original Hebrew Bible to the Jesuits in 1723, sold it to Canadian Christian missionaries in 1850-51. It was also observed by a Chinese Protestant who was sent from Shànghǎi to visit Kāifēng Jewry in 1850 that they did not keep Sabbath, nor the commandment of circumcision.
The many rebellions that shook China during the 19th century also led many Jews into assimilation. The Tàipíng rebellion of 1850-64 was particularly decisive.
The role of Confucianism
One of the forces of assimilation was Confucianism. Jews had adopted some Confucianist customs such as burning incense, which they did in their synagogues.
The process of studying for the imperial examinations was time-consuming and costly; this secular education had an adverse effect on Jewish studies.
The 1489 Kāifēng stele explains that the fundamentals of Judaism and of Confucianism are the same.