From East To Farther East:
The Jewish Experience in Kaifeng, China
By Tiberiu Weisz1

Much has been written on the Chinese Jews. Some older academic works have based their research on information that was available at the time. Others, especially recent papers, have focused more on the religious observances of the Kaifeng Jews. The latter studies, however, have touched upon an important topic that had been neglected in earlier studies, that is the Mizrahi influences on the customs of the Chinese Jews. In this paper I will integrate these studies with Chinese sources, reconcile them with the stone inscriptions, and frame them in a dual Jewish and Chinese history.

The origin of the Chinese Jews was, and still is, controversial. An incidental encounter between a Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci from Rome, and a Chinese Jew called Aitian in 1605 in Beijing, had stirred interest about this small community. Matteo Ricci spoke Italian, Latin and perhaps other European languages, while Aitian spoke only Chinese, a few words in Persian and a few in Hebrew. Not very conducive to a conversation, but apparently it was enough for Ricci to realize that Aitian was a Jew. Aitian was an official in the Chinese bureaucracy with quite respectable standing in the social hierarchy. He told Matteo Ricci that Jews used to live in Hangzhou, Ningpo, Ningxia, Yangzhou and other places throughout China but only the community in Kaifeng survived. The Kaifeng community still held services in the temple, and read from the Hebrew Torah and prayer books, some of which were six hundred years old.  

The revelation that Israelites had lived and prospered in China for centuries stunned the Jesuit. He reported his conversation to the Roman Catholic Church and that prompted a flurry of activity and curiosity within both Jewish and Christian circles in Europe.  It piqued their interest, and the race to find out about the Chinese Jews started. Contributing to this heightened interest was the setting in the exotic orient.

Inspired by Ricci's account was the Sephardic rabbi of Amsterdam, Menasseh Ben Israel (1604-1657). He was one of the anusim or conversos who fled  from the Portuguese Inquisition in Lisbon. At the age of eighteen, he became one of the youngest rabbis in Europe.  He read Matteo Ricci's report of the encounter and, reading between the lines, he associated the existence of Jews in China to the biblical prophecy of Isaiah:"those from the land of Sinim" (Isa 49:12). This association was not a novel idea, yet supported by a prominent Sephardic rabbi it caused uproar among the European Jews. The reason was that Rashi (1040-1105), the respected Ashkenazi commentator, had placed "the land of Sinim" in southern Egypt, rendering it as "the land of the South." But Menasseh was steadfast. He aligned his interpretation with a biblical prophecy come true: the Israelites will return from the far-flung corners of the world as far China.

Menasseh's instinct was correct, but I am not sure if he could prove it. The mention of China in Isaiah's prophecy placed Jewish knowledge of China to the sixth century BCE. But a closer examination of both biblical literature and Chinese records has revealed that Jews and Chinese had encounters as far back as the ninth century BCE, at the time of King Solomon.

Was it possible?

Not only possible but very likely. Biblical history recorded that King Solomon was interested in horses, especially warhorses (I Kings 4:26). The fame of the warhorses from Kue had reached Solomon's ears and he accepted them as gifts from visiting foreigners (I Kings 10:24; 2 Chr. 9:28). "...And the king's traders received them from Kveh (Kue) at a price" (I Kings 10:28). Some biblical scholars placed Kveh/Kue in southern Anatolia (Turkey) noting that although no horses were bred there, they brought them in from the north. This theory was generally accepted due to lack of additional evidence. But a careful reading of ancient Chinese records described a place that corresponded with the biblical name of Kue. The Chinese military acquired war horses at Kucha, the marketplace for "heavenly horses." Linguistically, Kucha and Kue/Kveh have the same attributes, just in different languages. Kucha, or Kue was located in the small kingdom of Ferghana that stretched from Northern Afghanistan to Turkmenistan today. But in biblical times the people of Ferghana were the prime breeders of warhorses and they sold their horses in Kue/Kucha to traders from far away places. Among those buyers were both King Solomon's agents and the Chinese military.2

From a small trading post on the Silk Road in biblical times, Kue/Kucha gradually developed into a significant strategic town in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). The horse market of Kucha became so important that China claimed the right to station a military garrison there and incorporated the kingdom of Ferghana into the Chinese Protectorates System [shuguo)].3 In the second century CE, Kue/Kucha had a population of 150,000 and by three centuries later its population had doubled.4

Though purchasing horses was very important to the Chinese military, only lower ranking Chinese officials acted as intermediaries between the court and horse traders.  They in turn treated this trade as their own fiefdom with huge kickbacks. Only when Yang Yiqing (1454- 1530), a high-ranking official, petitioned the emperor to inform him that China's treasury was burdened by large-scale corruption in the horse trade, did the emperor elevate the position and appointed a censor in chief to oversee the tea-for- horses trade.5

This promotion was several centuries overdue. The emperor strictly followed the protocol of the Chinese social ladder, which prevented him from communicating directly with merchants and traders, the lowest social class in China. Confucians utterly despised this occupation. "The few merchants who were travelling on [the Silk Road] were closely monitored. Local officials issued them travel passes, recording each person and animal in the party and specified exactly which towns they could go to in which order. Chinese officials were not the only ones to supervise the trade on the Silk Road. Officials in Kucha did so as well."6 For this reason, many travellers on the Silk Road preferred not to be called merchants. Instead they joined the many intermediaries such as monks, adventurers, nomads and local caravans who carried fewer goods: in exchange their wares went unregistered.

A step above the merchant class were the farmers, usually uneducated. Next up the social ladder were the artisans, skilled workforce but still uneducated. The step above the artisans consisted of the lower educated class, scholars, teachers and those who failed the examinations. They commanded respect and served as intermediaries between the people and officials above them. At the top of the social ladder were the officials with degrees, usually appointed by the emperor. The emperor was at the top of the pyramid and he rarely interacted with lower-level officials. Shao Yiping, a Chinese scholar who researched the relationship between merchants and Chinese officials concluded that direct interaction between high-ranking officials and merchants or foreign traders was very rare.7  Communication between these two groups occurred through intermediaries such as unemployed scholars or minor officials. They acted as a buffer between high-level bureaucrats and the lower classes. The emperor was further isolated from trade issues by the court eunuchs.  They registered traders and foreign merchants who "came to pay tribute" while at the same time restricting access to the emperor.

Sighting of Jews in the Tang Dynasty (609-960) is well documented.8 I just want to add here that a recent discovery of a cache of over one hundred and fifty Hebrew scrolls and documents smuggled out from northern Afghanistan and dated to the 11th century9 definitely indicates intermittent contact between Jews in mizrah [the East] and the Western Regions (to the west of China). This information, in addition to the earlier finding of a torn page from a Hebrew prayer book excavated in Dunhuang and dated to 740 CE, serves as evidence that Hebrew books were carried on the land route in the Tang Dynasty. Supporting the land route contact was also Cen Zhongmian, a professor of Chinese geography in the early 20th century, who suggested that the Chinese geographical name of Jilan/Gilan mentioned in the History of the Tang Dynasty referred to Jerusalem [Judah, Judea, Jordan?] and not Iran.10  He calculated the travelling distance between China and Jilan on the Silk Road incorporating the geographical landmarks, and he concluded that what the Chinese called Jilan actually corresponded to the geographical name of Jerusalem [Judah, Judea, Jordan?].11

During the Tang Dynasty (609-960) the Jews were undistinguished from other religious sects in China. Apart from sporadic references to Jews in the coastal cities and the mention of a possible Israelite temple, the Chinese Jews blended into the Chinese society. Only when anti-religious sentiments flared up in late ninth century CE, we hear about the mass exodus of all religious sects from China including the Israelites. The emperor expelled all the religions to protect the integrity of Confucianism. The background for this expulsion lay in multi-culturalism and religious proliferation. During the early ninth century, expanded commerce opened the door to Western presence in China, while Buddhist monks, Nestorians, Zoroastrians, Jesuit missionaries, Muslim imams, and Israelite Cohanim and Leviim (priests) build their monasteries, mosques and temples. Buddhism became increasingly dominant, attracting people from all levels of society. Chinese bureaucrats, officials, scholars and even the emperor did not escape the spell of the simple Buddhist rites, changing the Chinese religious landscape from Confucianism to Buddhism.  Confucianism was on the verge of extinction. To stop this trend, the Neo-Confucians came to the rescue. They convinced the emperor to combat this trend by expelling all the religions from China. That was the beginning of the Great Religious Persecution in 841-845. The edict applied to all religions except Confucianism, but it was specifically directed at Buddhism. A mass exodus of Buddhists, Daoists, Muslims and Jews headed to the Western Regions, where they could freely continue to practice their beliefs.   

With the fall of the Tang (960 CE), the Song Empire changed policies. Emperor Taizong (976 -998 CE) invited all those expelled monks, imams and Levites for an audience and permitted them to come back to China. A Muslim record indicated that they came from the Western Regions [Xiyu] in 996 CE and "as a reward for their loyalty to the Emperor [of China], they were allowed to build mosques…."12 Similarly and succinctly, the 1489 inscription wrote that: "they [Israelites] entered and brought Western cloth as tribute to the Song [Emperor]."  Accepting the tribute, the Emperor encouraged them "to honour and observe the custom of your ancestors"13 granting them privileges similar to other religions.

But this rudimentary sentence caused great confusion among Western scholars. The mention of "Western cloth" led some scholars to conclude that the Israelites were traders. Contradicting this claim were the inscriptions and Chinese historical sources. The inscriptions indicated that the returning Jews were well versed in both the Chinese language and Confucian customs, in addition to Hebrew. As evidence, they inscribed on the stone the amida and birchat hacohanim prayers translated directly from Hebrew. Once they returned, they re-established their presence, rebuilt the temple and dedicated the stone inscriptions in the temple in Kaifeng. Furthermore, when they returned in the Song Dynasty, the Chinese Jews were not only sinocized, but also markedly influenced by Buddhism. In the inscriptions they used Buddhist terms to describe the life of the Levites and Cohanim who "prayed and worshipped… sought 'field of happiness' … lived on income from the Prince… and the Prince 'bestowed incense' to rebuild the temple...."14 Unfortunately this aspect was lost in earlier translations of the inscriptions.

Additional confusion was caused by the Chinese text of the stelae. They were written in Ming Dynasty Chinese, a semi-poetic elliptical grammar, local idiomatic phrases and vernacular vocabulary. In the 1920s Bishop White translated the inscriptions as if they were written in modern Chinese rather than sixteenth century vernacular.15 Even though the translation was laden with many errors and misleading statements,16 it became the 'official' English version. Unfortunately these errors went undetected for almost a century. I rendered a new translation in 2006, addressed many of the errors and annotated the text in both Chinese and Jewish historical context. I also reconciled the Chinese text with biblical references,17 Jewish prayers, Chinese idioms and poems that Bishop White missed in his translation. Perhaps due to his unfamiliarity with Judaism, Bishop White failed to detect the Hebrew biblical references such as the Chinese version of the amida prayer in the 1512 inscription, or that of the Birchat Hacohanim  (Priestly Blessing) in the 1663a stela. He also neglected to address the significance of Chinese idiomatic phrases and their relevancy to the Chinese Jews. Lastly, and of utmost importance to the Chinese Jews, he overlooked the native historiography style of the Chinese text.  

Chinese historiography also compounded the language problem. Instead of the factual writing used in the West (who, what, when, how) Chinese historiography followed a narrative style in which historical events were implied in idiomatic expressions, vernacular vocabulary and poetry. For example the famous quote "boundless loyalty to the Country and Prince" referring to the tattoo on the back of General Yue Fei18 (1103-1145?) was neither annotated nor explained, though this phrase, as we shall see below, was pertinent to the Kaifeng Jews.  Or, the sentence "abandoned Bianliang" was erroneously rendered in English as "Remain and hand them down in Bianliang [Kaifeng],"19 totally missing the implied historical context. This phrase was characteristic of Chinese historiography, a combination of characters with specific dynastic meaning. In the 1489 inscription, the phrase "abandoned Bianliang" referred to two related historical events. One was the moving of the capital city from Kaifeng to Li An (Hangzhou today) in 1122 CE, in essence establishing the Southern Song Dynasty. "Kaifeng Jews had also followed this exodus to the south [Hangzhou] in 1122 CE."20 Four years later, the Jurchen, a semi- nomadic Tungusic tribe ancestral to the Manchus, conquered Kaifeng and set up a new dynasty, the Jin Dynasty also known as the Northern Song Dynasty (1126-1234).

The other was the defense of the "abandoned capital city" (Kaifeng) by two well-known Chinese commanders, Yue Fei, and Ligang. They were in charge of the city and their decisions had directly impacted the Kaifeng Jews. Both commanders advised the Emperor to leave Kaifeng and move to Li An (Hangzhou), while they would stay and defend the city to the end. According to the 1489 inscription, and implied in the 1663a inscription, Chinese Jews joined Yue Fei's army to defend Kaifeng, and they were rewarded upon their return.  More significant however, from a Jewish perspective, was the appointment of Ligang as prime minister, the first Chinese of Jewish descent to hold such an august position in Chinese history.21 He was mentioned in the 1489 inscriptions along with other Jews from the Li clan who "were knowledgeable about the scriptures".22

Ligang 李剛 (1083-1140?), whose given name was Boji 伯 紀, was born in Shaowu in Fujian Province, a coastal town that foreign traders frequented, and thus there were speculations that he was born to a yangui [foreign devil] father, raising the possibility that his father could have been a Jewish trader or sailor. Not much is known of his early years.  Ligang passed the jinshi [PhD] degree examination in 1111 CE and was attached to the War Department. Then he was transferred to Kaifeng and appointed military commander. When the Jurchen were at the gate of Kaifeng, Ligang was one of the military commanders who advocated defending the city to the end. The Emperor appointed him prime minister [shangshu youcheng], but his tenure lasted only 75 days. Though Ligang coordinated the defense of Kaifeng successfully, the emperor changed his mind, made peace with the Jurchen and "abandoned the capital city of Kaifeng." The emperor then arrested all the high-ranking military commanders. He demoted some, imprisoned others, executed Yue Fei, and exiled the rest.  When the city fell in 1126 Ligang disappeared without a trace. Rumors abounded. Some said that that he died in captivity, others that he was exiled, yet he left a deep impression on the people of Kaifeng:  "Ligang was a patriot, but he was not a strategist."23

Even the mistranslation of a single word can distort the meaning of the inscriptions in historical context. For instance, Bishop White translated the Chinese word gui [return] as 'come'. It followed then that instead of reading the Chinese sentence as "You returned to my China," it was erroneously rendered in the English "You came to my China." This simple but critical error changed the meaning of the text with far-reaching implications. It led scholars to believe that the Jews were newcomers to China in the Song Dynasty. What actually the original Chinese text implied was that the emperor acknowledged their return.24

But the Israelites were by no means newcomers to China.

The long journey of the Israelites to China can be traced to the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE, a time period that corresponded to the Zhou Dynasty in China.  A group of Levites and Cohanim ignored Ezra's call to return to Jerusalem: instead they travelled from the east to farther east until eventually they reached the Western Regions [Xiyu] via India and the kingdom of Ferghana.

Attesting to this route were the inscriptions that the 1512 stela summarized quite succinctly: "[As to] the Religion of Israel, the first ancestor was Adam.  It [the religion] originally came from Tianzhu [to] the Western Regions." Donald Leslie erroneously translated this as  "Adam originated in Tianzhu Xiyu, The Western Regions of India."25  This particular translation might have also contributed to some confusion. "Tianzhu was the Chinese name for India while the Xiyu was the Chinese term for the territory between Ningxia today to northern Afghanistan including the biblical place of Kue/Kucha.  Xiyu or the Western Regions was a very important area in Chinese history. It was China's window to the world and Chinese sources recorded the journeys of Chinese sages into the Western Regions. A few Chinese sages in antiquity spent considerable time there, and they made some observations that shed some light on the Israelite presence there.

In antiquity, the Chinese sage Laozi, (7-6th century BCE), the founder of Daoism and the author of The Daodejing, had spent twenty years in the Western Regions/Xiyu. He wrote about topics that would have been more familiar to an Israelite at the time than to a Chinese. His writing serves as witness to his contacts with "barbarian" tribes during his travels in the Western Regions, where he might have heard stories of a "land of milk and honey" (Exodus 33:3; Deut. 27:3). This "land of milk and honey" became the country where "people sweeten their food, they do not engage in wars… they live in prosperity, grow old and die of old age…" in the Chinese version of the Daodejing.26 Realistically, such conditions did not exist in China at the time, and I believe that in this chapter, Laozi described a utopian country that he might have heard of during his travels and that resembled the conditions prevalent in Jerusalem at the time of King Solomon (ca. 960 BCE).

Another important Chinese sage who travelled and spent twenty years in the Western Regions/ Xiyu was Mencius (372-289 BCE) the second most influential sage after Confucius. He encountered a tribe that "were filthy…but if [they] fasted and bathed, then they could sacrifice to Shangdi."27  Shangdi was the Chinese Almighty equal only to Elohim. When juxtaposed with Prophet Isaiah's reminder to the Levites and Cohanim to "purify and cleanse themselves before making their offerings to Elohim" (1:16), Mencius's description matched a biblical custom of Israelite priests before sacrifice during the Temple period.28

Confirming the above description was General Li Guangli, the Chinese garrison commander stationed in the kingdom of Ferghana in 108 BCE, who made an observation about people with "sunken eyes, big noses and [distinguished] headdress/coiffure".29 Normally this description would not be of any significance except for the fact that Chinese commentators were puzzled: "Who were they?" Some commentators left this sentence unexplained while others casually attributed it to those Greeks who stayed behind after the retreat of the Greek army of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). However, combined with Mencius's observation, and in biblical context: "the turban/cap…should always be on his forehead" (Exodus 28:36-38), it is feasible that Li Guangli referred to the same Israelite tribe that Mencius described a century and half earlier. The Cohanim (priests) used to wear head coverings that were different from ordinary ones before exile (582 BCE) while the High Priest wore a turban called mitznefet.

For the next several centuries, these Israelites faded from the pages of history, but not from China. Undisturbed, unnoticed, and completely integrated in Chinese society, they transmitted orally the rituals of biblical Judaism from generation to generation. But with very little contact with their co-religious brethren and even less with the outside world, they believed that they were the last remnants of the Israelite religion. Finally, in the fifteenth century they inscribed their experience in stone for future generations, a custom that conformed to the social norms in China at the time. Parts of the inscriptions focused on the community, their daily religious lives, customs and prayers. A segment of the 1512 inscription depicting the life of the Jews that unfolded like a Chinese scroll was written with such eloquence that it could have only been composed and written by a highly educated literary person.  

Zuotang, with a jinshi degree30 [PhD], composed the text in a Neo-Confucian style, the crown jewel of the vernacular Chinese literature of the time.31 In contrast to traditional poetical rhythmic composition, the Neo-Confucians used reason and persuasive writing to appeal to the mind. In the opening paragraphs of the 1512 inscription, Zuotang described Judaism, as he understood it, in terms of Neo-Confucian logic [li]. This style started in the late Tang Dynasty (ca. 870 CE), fully developed in the Song (960-1279), peaked in the Ming Dynasty (1380-1644) and faded in the late Qing (1870s). According to the 1512 stela, the Jews were already assimilated, indistinguishable from the Chinese, and entirely integrated into the social life of China. Some served as officials, others as scholars, while others were soldiers. They held respectable positions in the bureaucracy. Many Israelites in China held advanced degrees, a testimony to their educational level. In addition, they held official positions, some with the highest prestigious titles conferred by the emperor such as Daifu , Great Officer,32 or even prime minister, as in the case of Ligang.  The inscription also mentioned local merchants and shopkeepers, but due to their low social status, their visibility was marginalized in favour of temple life.

Other parts of the inscriptions detailed the efforts to restore the temple and preserve its contents. Actually the Chinese Jews dedicated all four inscriptions to the rebuilding of the temple, a reminder of their commitment to temple life.  No matter how many times the temple was destroyed, the Chinese Jews rallied, combined resources and contributed to rebuilding the temple. The Levitesand Cohanim were in charge of the temple; they serviced it just as their ancestors had in antiquity in Jerusalem. They identified themselves as "all the offspring of Jacob" (Exodus 1:5)33 to the Song emperor and told him that they followed a belief that was similar to Confucianism only different in minor aspects. They worshipped Huangtian [High Heaven], a highly complimentary (though archaic) Chinese term that was used to affirm the ancestry of emperor. It implied that the Son of Heaven (Emperor) like the Jewish Elohim "only helps the virtuous."34  The emperor encouraged the Israelites to practice their religion according to their tradition.

Other segments of the inscriptions gave us a glimpse of their early religious rites. The initial early Israelite settlers in China followed the biblical rituals of pre-exilic, pre-Talmudic Judaism. They were the Levites35 who fulfilled their biblical commandment to be in charge of the temple work. As priests, they prayed, performed their ceremonial duties, and safeguarded the sanctity of the temple, the Torah scrolls and other Hebrew prayer books. In addition they were also in charge of maintaining the temple. As such they enjoyed the same social status as monks in imperial China, deriving their livelihood from the court.

We learned about their later religious practices from the reconstructed and preserved Hebrew Manuscripts (Torah, the Haggadah, and prayer books).36 The Hebrew Manuscripts offer us a glimpse of the source of their religious practices but they only served as a sourcebook to the Kaifeng Jews in their observances. In contrast to the inscriptions, which were originally composed by the Kaifeng Jews, the Hebrew Manuscripts were brought to Kaifeng either by land or by sea from mizrahi communities in Central Asia. They may have been brought by land, as Father Antoine Gaubil, a missionary who visited Kaifeng in 1723 described: "During the reign of Emperor Wanli (1573-1620) the Jews of the region he calls Xiyu [Western Regions] brought the Torah and other books to the Kaifeng Jews following the destruction of the Kaifeng Synagogue by fire and its rebuilding."37  A somewhat different version of the scriptures' journey to China was described by Jean Domenge, another missionary who visited Kaifeng in 1724. He wrote "the Kaifeng Jews obtained their ancient Bible from a Mohammedan they met in Ningxia in Shensi after the conflagration of the first synagogue. And this Mohammedan had got it from a Jew who dying at Canton had entrusted it into his hands as a valuable security and deposit."38 The Kaifeng Jews indicated that the scriptures came from various places in China, from the coastal city of Ningpo to the desert in Ningxia (Western Regions).39

But as the author Paper Jordan wrote in his book,40 by the eleventh century the sea route dominated trade between China and the West, and it was more likely that the Kaifeng manuscripts came from Persia by sea. Jacob d'Ancona,41 a Jewish merchant who sailed from Italy to India and China in 1270 had mentioned: "in the house of study in Chaifen (Kaifeng) are the lost books of the Maccabees and the Son of Sirach."42 He met Jews in the province of Fujian, and Zaitun (Canton today?) and heard about other Jews in Sizhou and Sizhuan. Irrespective of the routes, the Hebrew Manuscripts indicated that the Kaifeng Jews were influenced by mizrahi religious practices of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Michael Pollack analyzed the Torah scroll and concluded that the "Kaifeng Torah tends to indicate Sefardic, Oriental or Yemenite influence rather than European Ashkenazi influence."43  Reinforcing this conclusion was the Kaifeng Haggadah: "The early Judeo-Persian of the Kaifeng Haggadah faithfully adhered to a scribal tradition of preserving archaic features of the language and a close translation of the Hebrew text .…the Passover liturgy originated in the Persian Passover rite."44  Wong's conclusion verified my earlier finding that the Birkat Hacohanim (Priestly Blessing) in the 1663a inscription was actually translated from "Hebrew and closely followed the Hebrew syntax."45

Fortunately, the Kaifeng Jews salvaged and preserved as many Hebrew Manuscripts as they could from the flooding in 1642, at great sacrifice of their personal safety. They repaired the prayer books, the square scriptures,46 the Passover Haggadah and most importantly the Torah scroll. After examining the repaired Torah scroll, Israel Lehman, curator of Hebrew Manuscripts at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, wrote that "the soferic (scribal) work which was done in Kaifeng during the seventeenth century may point to traditions which are about three-quarters of a millennium older."47 His finding affirmed what Aitian told Matteo Ricci in 1605, that the community had Torah scrolls and scriptures that were six hundred years old.  Other scholars went even farther, noting that the "unique vocalization [of the Haggadah] shows that they were produced locally rather than brought over from abroad."48  Apparently the "Kaifeng Jews still could read and write Hebrew after centuries of isolation though not proficiently."49  In addition, they were very observant, adhering to the early Biblical rites and liturgy that mirrored a heavy mizrahi/ Oriental influence. Many piyutim [hymns], rituals and prayer books were similar to those of Persian origin. Even the "lack of piyutim during the repetition of the amidot of Rosh Hashanah, mirrored the practice of the Oriental Jewish communities, where only one short piyut is recited."50 Furthermore, "the lack of additional songs in the Kaifeng Haggadah is consistent with the supposition that the source of the Kaifeng Haggadah is an early Babylonian tradition."51

Evidently, both the inscriptions and the Kaifeng Manuscripts indicated that the Kaifeng Jews had a strong religious affiliation to pre-exilic Judaism.52 Though the Kaifeng Manuscripts steered the Chinese Jews toward mizrahi rituals and prayers, the Kaifeng Jews did not necessarily adopt those rituals in entirety. They practiced rituals that were particular to them.

In contrast to the manuscripts, the Chinese Jews composed and wrote the inscriptions locally in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, without any detectable outside influences. They referred to Jewish rites in biblical times, but nothing beyond that. They were also written in no ordinary Chinese. Highly educated Jews with jinshi degrees composed them, and within the four character phrases and idioms were frequent Chinese and biblical references. Within those references were clues to their experience and religious practices in China.

Their belief was the key to survival in the sea of Chinese culture. Combined with their distinctive religious practices, the Chinese Jews flourished in an alien culture. Though outwardly they integrated smoothly with Confucianism, internally, the community followed the relatively pure ancient biblical rites. Only after the introduction of Persian and Yemeni manuscripts in the seventeenth century, did the Chinese Jews begin to mix mizrahi customs with their beliefs. But neither the Central Asian influence nor their august positions in the Chinese bureaucracy prevented them from remaining true to their original Israelite roots. They proudly maintained a dual identity as Chinese literati and Torah-abiding Jews, in their own way. They openly supported their religious community, donated to the rebuilding of the temple, rallied behind the religious leadership, and participated in Jewish religious life. They never forgot that they were Jews. And, with time, this dual identity evolved into a mixture of Jewish and Chinese rituals that were unique to them.


1. Tiberiu Weisz has a Masters Degree in Chinese and is a scholar of China and Judaism. He is the author of two books, The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions (iUniverse 2006) and The Covenant and the Mandate of Heaven: An In-depth Comparative Cultural Study of Judaism and China (iUniverse 2008), and his articles have been published in magazines in the US, Europe, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Israel. He has taught Classical and Modern Chinese and translated academic papers, business and legal documents and other writings from Chinese.

2. See also my article "Is Judaism the Yang of China's Yin?", Asian Jewish Life,  No.10, 2012

3. Cen Zhongmian. The Protectorates (shuguo) in the Han Dynasty were independent administrative "kingdoms" that paid "tribute" to China in exchange for military protection (Chinese view). In fact, the kingdoms were independent and did not owe any allegiance to China though they paid tribute to keep the Chinese away. The kingdom of Ferghana was the farthest "protectorate" from the Chinese borders and a Chinese expeditionary force was sent there to "pacify" the Kingdom in 108 BCE. Four year later when the Chinese military retreated, they offered the local tribes to migrate to the neishu, fully Chinese administered settlements with the potential of settling in China. Apparently the Israelite tribes took advantage of this offer and moved to China.

4. Liu and Chen.

5. Yang. In a memorial to the emperor, Yang suggested to change the method of payment for horses. He wrote: "If the barbarians do not get tea, they will die." Instead of silver, China should pay with tea.

6. Valerie, p. 237.

7. Shao Yiping.   

8. Pollack, 1980.

9. KABUL (Reuters) - A cache of ancient Jewish scrolls from northern Afghanistan that has only recently come to light is creating a storm among scholars who say the landmark find could reveal an undiscovered side of medieval Jewry. The 150 or so documents, dated from the 11th century, were found in Afghanistan's Samangan province and most likely smuggled out -- a sorry but common fate for the impoverished and war-torn country's antiquities.

Israeli emeritus professor Shaul Shaked, who has examined some of the poems, commercial records and judicial agreements that make up the treasure, said while the existence of ancient Afghan Jewry is known, their culture was still a mystery.
"Here, for the first time, we see evidence and we can actually study the writings of this Jewish community. It's very exciting," Shaked told Reuters by telephone from Israel, where he teaches at the Comparative Religion and Iranian Studies department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The hoard is currently being kept by private antique dealers in London, who have been producing a trickle of new documents over the past two years, which is when Shaked believes they were found and pirated out of Afghanistan in a clandestine operation.
It is likely they belonged to Jewish merchants on the Silk Road running across Central Asia, said T. Michael Law, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Oxford University's Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

"They might have been left there by merchants travelling along the way, but they could also come from another nearby area and deposited for a reason we do not yet understand," Law said.

10. Cen.  Factoring in the linguistic deviations between the languages, names like Jerusalem, Judah, Jordan could have sounded and been transliterated in Chinese as Jilan/Gilan.  In Chinese history, names of foreign places were either translated into Chinese according to what they thought the word meant (e.g. Dashi= Big Eaters= Roman Empire) or how it sounded to the Chinese at the time. There is still much confusion in identifying historical names in Chinese sources.

11. Ibid., vol. I, p. 325.

12. Gladney, p. 183.

13. Weisz, 2006.

14. Weisz, 2006, p. 17.

15. Bishop White, Chinese Jews.

16. Wang Yisha, who was in charge of the Kaifeng Jewish Museum in the mid 1980s, reported over 123 errors and misleading statements in Bishop White's translation of the inscriptions (Unpublished manuscript) .

17. For the full text and annotations, see Weisz, The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions.

18. This quote was in both the 1489 and 1663a inscriptions. For details, see Weisz 2006 p. 18 note 76. Legend says that Yue Fei's mother tattooed this sentence on his back when he was five years old. Though Yue Fei was executed for treason, he was exonerated in the Ming Dynasty and became a national hero. 

19. Weisz, 2006, p. 10, note 42. Also Gernet p. 82

20. Gernet, p. 82. Also Weisz 2006, p. 10, note 42.

21. Ligang served as Prime Minister for two and half months in 1122. More details are in Li Lian's Relics of Bianjing pp. 226-233.   

22. Weisz, 2006, p. 11.

23. Li Lian, Relics of Bianjing pp. 226-233.

24. Weisz, 2006 p.10, notes 41 and 42. "Honour and observe the custom of your ancestors" meant that the emperor encouraged the Israelites and other creeds to build their temples in China (not necessarily in the capital city as was suggested in Bishop White's translation).

25. Leslie, Judeo-Persian, p. 29.

26. Laozi, Daodejing, ch. 80.

27. Book of Mencius, Bk IV, II, 25, ASL #11. For the full explanation of the original Chinese text and its relation to Judaism see my article "Biblical Influences in Chinese Literature," Asian Jewish Life, No. 11, 2013.

28. "Wash yourselves, cleanse yourselves, put your evil deeds out of my sight!"(Numbers 8:21, Leviticus 16:3-4)

29. Weisz, 2006.

30. A relatively high number of Chinese Jews held advanced degrees. The average per year of jinshi (PhD) graduates in the Northern Song Dynasty (1126-1279) was 200, in the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) it was only 90. The three Jewish composers, writers and recorders of the 1512 inscriptions each held a jinshi degree. In addition, the composers of the 1663 inscriptions held jinshi degrees, while the writers of the 1489 inscriptions held fist and second degrees.

31. I compared the style of the 1512 Chinese inscription with other Neo-Confucian writings of the time as appeared in the book Commotion in Bianjing by Ru Yanting.

32. Daifu, Great Officer, Gentleman. The highest honorific title an official could obtain in China below the rank of nobility. Since officials could not get titles of nobility in the Ming Dynasty, they were entitled to honorific titles and Daifu was one of the highest. Unfortunately the term Daifu in the 1489 inscription was mistranslated as physician, the meaning in modern Chinese.

33. Quoted in the 1489 stela.

34. For details see Weisz 2006 fn. 71.

35. The Chinese characters Liewei in the inscriptions were misinterpreted as Rabbi Levi.

36. The collective name of the manuscripts that were found and bought from the Kaifeng Jews, included a Torah, some prayer books and two Haggadot.

37. Pollack, Torah Scrolls, p. 5.

38. Ibid.

39. Weisz, 2006 . Chinese Jews from all over China, from Ningxia in the Western Regions to the hinterland in Henan, Hangzhou, Shenxi, and to the coastal cities of Ningpo, Yangzhou, and Fujian (Ligang was born in Fujian) contributed their salaries to pay for the repairs or replacement of the scriptures.

40. For details see Paper Jordan.

41. Jacob d'Ancona. Though some Western scholars challenged the credibility of City of Light (Preface to the American Edition), d'Ancona's description of life in China compares well with both Chinese and Western sources. For a comparison see Gernet. Daily Life.

42. Ibid., pg 132. This is hearsay. D'Ancona had neither been in Kaifeng nor seen these books, and it is highly unlikely that the Kaifeng Jews would have them in their possession. But the translator remarked that this sentence was written in Hebrew in the original Italian manuscript.

43. Pollack, Torah Scrolls, p. 49.

44. Wong, p. 63.

45. Weisz, p. 60.

46. Square scriptures were those manuscripts written in square Hebrew script, such as the prayerbooks.

47. Pollack, Torah Scrolls, p. 30.

48. Wong, p. 11.

49. Ibid.

50. Simon, p. 89.

51. Wong, p. 75.

52. The Israelites who settled in China had left Babylon after the first Babylonian exile, and so were unfamiliar with the Talmud.


Cen, Zhongmian, Verification of Foreign and Chinese Historical Places (中外史地攷證). Translated by Tiberiu Weisz . Hong Kong: Taiping Publishing, 1966 (2 vols). [From the author's introduction: The objectives of this book are to identify ancient Western and Chinese geographical terms; trade routes (land and sea); Chinese and foreign cities; frontier tribes; geographical names in the Western Regions and Southern China, and infrequently mentioned foreign names in Chinese histories.]

Gernet, Jacques. Translated by H. M. Wright. Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion 1250-1276. Stanford: Stanford University Press, , 1962.

Gladney, Dru C. Muslim Chinese. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard East Asian Monographs 149, Council of East Asian Studies, Harvard University Press, 1996.

Jacob d'Ancona (1221- 1279?). The City of Light. Translated and edited by David Selbourne. New York: Citadel Press, 2000.

Leslie, Daniel. The Judeo-Persian Colophonston: The Pentateuch of the Kaifeng Jews, Reprinted from ABR Nahrain, Leiden: E.J. Brill 1969.

Li, Lian (1488-1566). Relics of Bianjing (Kaifeng). 汴京遺蹟志 (BianJing Yijizhi). Translated by Tiberiu Weisz. Reprinted in Zhonghua Shudian, Beijing, China, 1999. [This gazette is a compilation of records from Kaifeng in the Song (960-1126) and Jin Dynasties (1126-1279). The story of Ligang is on pages 226-233.]

Ma, Dazheng, ed. A History of China Administration of Borderlands. Translated by Tiberiu Weisz. Zhong Zhou Guji Publishing, 2000 (Chinese).

Paper, Jordan. The Theology of the Chinese Jews 1000-1850. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012.

Pollack, Michael. Mandarin, Jews, and Missionaries. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, First Edition, 1980.

Pollack, Michael. Torah Scrolls of the Chinese Jews (unpub. manuscript).

Ru, Yanting. Commotion in Bianjing ( Bianjing Fengsao 汴京风骚)。Translated by Tiberiu Weisz . China: Zhangjiang Wenyi Publishers, 2003 (3 vols.). [The clash of wills among the three most influential Neo-Confucian personalities in Kaifeng around 1000 CE: Wang Anshi, a radical reformer, Sima Guang, a conservative leader, and Sushe a famous poet. The 1489 inscriptions quoted from Sushe's poems. For an analysis of the Neo-Confucian style of the 1512 Inscription see my article in Points East Vol. 18, No 3, November 2003.]

Shao, Yiping. Merchants in Chinese Literature. 中国文学中商人世界 Translated by Tiberiu Weisz. Zhongguo Wenxue Shangren Shijie. China: Fudan Press, 2005. (PhD dissertation, Chinese). [A detailed account of Chinese sources focusing on the relationship between merchants, officials, scholars and the emperor from the earliest times to the end of the Qing Dynasty 1911.]

Simons, Chaim. Jewish Religious Observances by the Jews of Kaifeng China. June 2010, Kiryat Arba, Israel, (Unpublished Manuscript).

Valerie, Hansen. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Weisz, Tiberiu. The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions: The Legacy of the Jews in Ancient China. iUniverse, 2006.

Wong, Fook-Kong and Yasharpour, Dalia. The Haggadah of the Kaifeng Jews of China. Leiden: Brill, 2011.

Yang Yiqing (1454-1530). To Restore the Old System of Tea-Horse Exchange in order to Bring Under Control the Barbarians and Pacify the Localities." Translated by Tiberiu Weisz. [The Chinese text is reprinted from: Tea-Horse Exchange :Chama Jiaoyi 茶馬交易, (Chinese). Huang Ming Qingshi Wenpian Guolian Dushu 1964, vol. 8 (pg 375-441). The text is reprinted of the original memorial to the emperor.]

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