JEWS IN CHINA
Emperors during the T'ang dynasty (618-907) tolerated members all sorts of religious sects — Taoist and Confucian scholars, Christian missionaries, Zoroastrian priests, and Buddhist monks. A small community of Jews established themselves in China at that time.
A community of Chinese Jews was established in the 9th century by Persian traders who traveled along the Silk Road to Kaifeng, at the time China's capital. Records documenting the group's history are spotty, but experts do know that some of the Jewish traders settled in Kaifeng and eventually built a synagogue with official recognition from the emperor.
In 1615, the Jesuit Priest Matteo Ricci met a Chinese Jew who was on his way to Beijing to take an exam. The man said that he was an Israelite and he was familiar with the stories from the Old Testament but he was not familiar with the word Jew. He also said there were 10 or 12 Jewish families living in Kaifeng and the town had a 600-year-old "magnificent" synagogue which contained scrolls of the five books of Moses. The man told Ricci that some of the Jews in Kaifeng spoke Hebrew and more Israelites lived in the city of "Cequian."
After the last rabbi in Kaifeng died in 1809, many began to forsake their religious practices while holding on to certain traditions, like the prohibition against pork and the celebration of a communal meal on Passover.Many Jews moved to Shanghai and Harbin in the 19th and 20th century. Some made fortunes in real estate and business.
Websites and Sources: sino-judaic.org : sino-judaic.org ; Haruth Communications haruth.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Jews of China. Org jewsofchina.org ; 1907 National Geographic article haruth.com ; “The Chinese Lady Who Joined the Ashkenazic People", Jewish Times Asia, March 2015
Early Jews in China
Rudolf Loewenthal wrote in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: Individual Jews might have visited China before the eighth century, but the first authentic literary evidence of their presence dates only from that period. Two fragmentary documents of this period were found in Khotan, Chinese Turkestan (now Xinjiang Province), then the westernmost outpost of the Chinese. [Source: Rudolf Loewenthal, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Sir Aurel Stein during his explorations here in 1901 found a mutilated Persian document, which is believed to be in Hebrew script, part of a business letter dating from 718. Shortly afterward Paul Pelliot discovered, among thousands of Chinese manuscripts, a single-leaf Jewish prayer text written in square Hebrew letters. The prayer was still folded when found; apparently the owner had carried it on his person in this way. Both Jewish visitors probably arrived by caravan from or via Persia across Central Asia. While these visitors traveled by land, other Jews arrived in China by sea along the Muslim trade route to the southern Chinese port of Canton, Guangdong Province. There, during a rebellion in 878–79 some 120,000 Muslims, Jews, and other foreigners are said to have been massacred.
The Jews who entered Khotan and Canton may never have had an opportunity of seeing the interior of China. Their stay was temporary and they exercised no lasting influence. Reports that there were other Jewish communities in Chüanchow (Zayton), Fukien Province, and Ningpo, Chekiang Province, may be true, but cannot be corroborated.
Jews in Imperial Medieval China
Kaifeng Jew in 1910s Rudolf Loewenthal wrote in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: Under the declining Song Dynasty a cohesive Jewish group of some 1,000 people, including women and children, settled in the ninth or tenth century at the invitation of the emperor in Kaifeng, capital of Henan Province. They were reported to be speakers of New Persian and arrived from either India or Persia....Their descendants, whose sense of Jewish identity has been severely reduced through intermarriage, are still living in Kaifeng. [Source: Rudolf Loewenthal, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Thomson Gale, 2007]
By profession the original settlers were specialists in the manufacture, dyeing, or pattern-printing of cotton fabrics. This industry was then being developed in China, partly to meet the chronic silk shortage. Additional information is available regarding Jews in China under the Yüan Dynasty. Marco Polo, who visited China toward the end of the 13th century, reported that Jews, Muslims, and Christians were disputing the advantages of their respective religions before the Mongol conqueror and his court.
Moreover, three decrees pertaining to Jews were issued in China under Mongol rule, indicating that the number of Jews in China at that period must have been sizable: 1) “Christians, Jews, and Muslims shall be taxed as before…" (1329); 2) levirate marriages (alizah) were prohibited (1340); these were practiced among Jews and Muslims, but were an abomination in the eyes of the Chinese, Mongols, and Manchus; and 3) wealthy Muslims and Jews were summoned to the capital to join the army (1354). No new Jewish communities were formed in China until the middle of the 19th century.
A small community of Jews lives in Kaifeng, a city on the Yellow River in Henan Province, that was the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty. They look Chinese; don't speak Hebrew or celebrate Jewish holidays; have little contact with each other; and have lost most of their traditional customs and religious beliefs. Yet they still consider themselves Jews. Avoiding pork is about the only custom they retain. Some old timers recall celebrated in Passover and Yom Kippur as children with their families and having stars of David in their childhood homes. At one time, Kaifeng was the capital of China, and it is thought that these Jews came as merchants and traders to Kaifeng along the Silk Road.
About 500 to 1,000 people in Kaifeng claim to be Jews. No one knows exactly where they came from. They may be descendants of 500 Persian Jewish traders who came along the Silk Road and settled in Kaifeng when it was the capital of China during the Song Dynasty (A.D.960-1126). According to Chinese records the Persian Jews were welcomed by the Emperor, established a synagogue in 1163, performed circumcision and abstained from pork. During the Ming dynasty they were given seven family names: Ai, Lao, Zhao, Zhang, Shi, Jin and Li.
There were never very many Kaifeng Jews. Even at its peak in the 1500s, the community only numbered around 5,000. The original synagogue in Kaifeng was destroyed by a Yellow River flood in 1642. The synagogue that replaced it was wiped out by another flood in the 1850s. The land was later sold to Canadian missionaries and is now the home of No. 4 People's Hospital. Scrolls in the last synagogue were "rescued" by Christian missionaries and taken to libraries in Israel, Canada and the United States. At present, there is no money to build a new synagogue. The October 1907 issue of National Geographic featured an an article about Chinese Jews.
Modern Jewish Communities in China
Irene Eber and Xun Zhou wrote in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: The three major Jewish communities in 20th century China were located in Harbin, Tientsin, and Shanghai. For each the story of settlement, development, and decline is different. [Source: Irene Eber and Xun Zhou Encyclopaedia Judaica, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Kaifeng Jew in 1910s Tientsin Jewry engaged in lucrative export enterprises, notably the fur trade. A number of outstandingly energetic, gifted and imaginative communal leaders, such as L. Gershevich, created a cohesive and tightly knit community with charitable institutions, a Jewish school, a hospital, and a clubhouse. A synagogue was built as late as 1937. The Tientsin community had a number of Zionist organizations, and strong ties with the world Zionist movement. Emigration from China, which began in 1945, took many years to complete. In spite of technical difficulties, the resettlement and repatriation of unpropertied Shanghai refugees was a relatively simple matter. For other Jews in China, with their considerable private and communal assets, emigration was more problematic especially after the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Only gradually were properties sold or turned over to public custody.
A few elderly Jewish residents without families were allowed to live out their days in Shanghai. Neither the Nationalist government on Taiwan or the Communist government on the mainland had any diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992. . At the beginning of the 21st century there were some Jews living in China, particularly in Hong Kong, Peking (Beijing), and Shanghai. These communities consisted mainly of businessmen (exporters) and their families from North America, Israel, Australia, South Africa, and Latin America. There was also a kosher kitchen and a Jewish community center in Shanghai led by Rabbi Greenberg of the Chabad movement.
Jews in Harbin
There was fairly large Jewish community in Harbin that emerged as the Trans Siberian Railway was opening up Siberia. The first arrived in 1899. Some were Russian Jews fleeing pogroms. A second wave came during the 1917 Russian Revolution. At its peak in 1920 the Jewish population of Harbin reached 20,000. A third wave came in 1929, fleeing a Russian-Chinese border conflict. Most were Russians. Jews from elsewhere in Europe mostly ended up in Shanghai The Jews that lived in Harbin generally led a privileged life. They had Chinese and Russian maids and crossed the river in the winter on telhai, sleds pushed by attendants. There are no Jews left in Harbin. They were pushed out by a Communist government suspicious of “imperialist capitalists.” Most left in the early 1950s. Most of their property and businesses were seized. A few lingered longer. The last was a woman who died in the mid 1960s.
Irene Eber wrote in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: The Manchurian community began around the turn of the century in Harbin and along the Chinese-Eastern Railway as a pioneering venture by hardy Siberian and Russian Jews. Later, during the Russo-Japanese War, Jewish supply agents to the Russian army and Jewish soldiers came and remained in Manchuria. These early settlers contributed significantly to the development of Harbin, and actively promoted Manchurian commercialization and industrialization. They established soybean oil refineries, grain mills, and breweries, and participated in coal-mining and the lumber industry. [Source: Irene Eber, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Thomson Gale, 2007]
The Russian Revolution dispersed thousands of Eastern European Jews to Manchuria, many of whom settled in Harbin. Others moved on to Mukden and Dairen, or to Tientsin and Shanghai. From its inception in 1902, the Harbin community, which consisted of around 12,000 persons in the 1920s, developed strong communal and cultural institutions. Jewish publishing in Russian flourished; there were synagogues, a library, a hospital, a Jewish high school, and a number of charitable and Zionist organizations. Revisionists were especially active and, as in Shanghai, several Betar groups functioned in Manchuria, Subsequent to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and world economic difficulties, Jewish prosperity declined. Whereas in 1929, there were 15,000–20,000 Jews in Manchuria, this figure dropped as Jews left to look for better economic opportunities elsewhere in China. In spite of Tientsin's favorable location as North China's port and a foreign concession, the Tientsin community grew slowly and remained numerically smaller than either Shanghai or Harbin. Founded in 1904 by a handful of Siberian and Russian Jews, it consisted of 2,000–2,500 persons by the late 1930s, all of whom lived in the foreign concession.
Jews in Shanghai
Shanghai also had a fairly large Jewish community in the early 20th century. Some were Russian Jews fleeing Russian pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Others came from other spots around the globe. Sephardic Jewish families like the Sassoons and Kadoories had been in Shanghai since the mid-19th century and made a fortune trading tea, opium and silk.
Victor Sassoon — a Jewish businessman of British descent from Baghdad who made millions trading opium, real estate and racing horses — was one of the most famous personalities in Shanghai. His most famous quote was "there is only one race greater than the Jews and that's the Derby." His most famous possession was the Cathay Hotel, where the rich and famous wined and dined and Noel Coward wrote "Private Lives".
During World War II, around 30,000 Jews fleeing Hitler found safe haven in the open port of Shanghai, where they built synagogues, Yiddish theaters and yeshivas even as the occupying Japanese forced many to live in a cramped ghetto.
Virtually nothing remains of the Shanghai's old Jewish community. In 1958, the government relocated all foreign graves — including the Jewish ones — to one international cemetery, which was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, when locals plundered the gravestones to use in construction.The last synagogues were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. About 200 Jews remain in Shanghai's Jewish enclave along with European-style row houses, a theater, a synagogue and several grand buildings. About 2,000 expatriate Jews live in Shanghai today. Most are entrepreneurs or corporate executives — or members of their family — from around the world.
History of the Jews in Shanghai
Irene Eber wrote in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: The Jewish community in Shanghai consisted of three distinct groups. The earliest arrivals were Baghdadi and British Jews who came to trade in the newly opened treaty ports shortly after the Opium War (1840–42). Most prominent in this group were members of the Sassoon family, whose base was Bombay and who specialized in warehousing, transport and the opium trade in China. As a result of astute land speculation and business investments, they gained an important position in all areas of commercial and financial life in South China. Although this largely Sephardi community built communal institutions, such as synagogues, schools, and a hospital, it was worldly, sophisticated, and very much a part of the new Western society of the treaty ports. [Source: Irene Eber, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Thomson Gale, 2007]
The second group began to arrive after the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), and especially after the Russian Revolution of 1917. They participated in Shanghai's commercial life on a lesser scale, primarily as import-export merchants and agents, and built their own communal institutions. This Ashkenazi community, which was formally founded in 1907, developed strong ties with world Zionism after 1913. One of the most able and devoted community leaders was N.E.B. Ezra, who also published the first Jewish paper in China, Israel's Messenger. Altogether the Shanghai Jews numbered several thousand in the 1930s. Refugees from Nazi persecution formed the third group.
Starting as a trickle of mainly professional people after 1933, it became a flood in 1938 and 1939. According to one estimate, there were about 20,000 refugees in Shanghai by August 1939, the majority German Jews. Prior to 1943, the refugees lived in different sections of Shanghai, although most were concentrated in Shanghai's Hongkew district. After February 1943, however, the Japanese authorities ordered the establishment of a segregated area, where approximately 16,000 refugees spent the war years subject to hunger, disease, poverty, and subtle forms of persecution. However, unlike the two other groups, The Hongkew refugees were a transient community. [Source: Irene Eber, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Jews That Fled to Shanghai to Escape the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s
Japanese rulers in Shanghai accepted 20,000 Jewish refugees, more than Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India combined. The Japanese Foreign Minister told a group of Jewish businessmen in December 1940: "I am the man responsible for the alliance with Hitler, but nowhere have I promised that we would carry out his Anti-Semitic policies in Japan." Most of the Jewish refugees came from Austria, Poland and Russia. The Japanese "Schindler," Chiyune Sugihara, a consul in the Japanese Embassy in Lithuania issued thousand of exit visa for Jews, which allowed them to leave the country through Japan as a transit point to Shanghai.before the Nazi occupation. After his seal was taken he issued the visas by hand and continued doing so out of the window of the train that took him out of the country. The Chinese consul in Vienna, Ho Feng-shan, supplied about 2,000 visas that the Austrian government required for Jews to leave.
Shanghai under the Japanese was one of the few places in the world that accepted Jewish refugees from Europe. Despite Shanghai being more than 7,000 kilometers from their homes in Germany, Poland and Austria, thousands of Jews arrived in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the late 1930s and early 1940s from Europe because it was the only place that would accept them without passports or visas and unlike other places there were no restrictions on the numbers of Jews allowed in the country. At the 1938 Evian conference, only the Dominican Republic, out of 32 countries attending, agreed to admit a sizable number of Jews.
At the time the Jews arrived Shanghai was a modern city and multicultural oasis with British, French, American, Russian and Iraqi residents. It had an established community of Russian Jews, who a decade earlier, had built the Ohel Moshe Synagogue. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The story of Shanghai's Jews is also a feel-good one that runs counter to the criticism of China over its human rights record. "No city saved so many Jewish lives as Shanghai," said Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli expatriate who gives tours of the old Jewish neighborhood. "For the Chinese, this is a 'good face' story." During World War II, Shanghai was an open port without visa requirements and had a well-established Jewish community that included wealthy families such as the Sassons and Kadoories who'd made fortunes in real estate and banking. They helped the new arrivals, as did several courageous diplomats. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2012]
Ronan O'Connell of the BBC wrote: I was particularly struck by the story of Dr Jacob Rosenfeld. This Jewish refugee came to Shanghai from Austria in 1939 and later joined the Chinese army in its war against the invading Japanese, working as a field doctor and saving the lives of many wounded Chinese soldiers. After being awarded several Chinese military medals, Rosenfeld moved back to Austria in 1949 to reunite with his family...Jerry Moses was just six years old when he and his family fled to Shanghai from Germany in 1941. "If the [people of Shanghai] had not been so tolerant, our life would have been miserable," Moses is quoted as saying. “In Europe, if a Jew escaped, he or she had to go into hiding, and here in Shanghai we could dance and pray and do business." [Source: Ronan O'Connell, BBC, April 5, 2021]
Shanghai's Jewish Ghetto During World War II
At first the Jewish refugees in Shanghai lived throughout the city, but in 1943, the Japanese, under pressure from their German allies, ordered them into Hongkew (now Hongkou), a two-square-mile ghetto that had been badly damaged by bombing raids and was one of the city's poorest neighborhoods in Shanghai. The Japanese rounded up a total of 18,000 newly arrived Jews, mostly from Austria, Germany and Poland, and placed them in Hongkew, where they were squeezed in like sardines and lived cheek by jowl with working-class Chinese. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2012]
Many of the Jews in Shanghai ended up in Tilanqiao, a neighborhood in Hongkou. Ronan O'Connell of the BBC wrote: At first, life in Shanghai was peaceful for its newest residents. The Jewish refugees were welcomed by Shanghai residents and they created a strong community with schools and a vibrant social scene. Some refugees began working as dentists and doctors, while others set up shops, cafes and clubs in the neighbourhood. Then they were forced into Hongkew and Tilanqiao. [Source: Ronan O'Connell, BBC, April 5, 2021]
Bordered on the north by Zhoujiazui Road, on the south by Huimin Road, on the east by Tongbei Road and on the west by Gongping Road, the ghetto was roughly 1 square mile in size. More than 15,000 Jews lived inside those boundaries in the early 1940s, and Huoshan Park served as a sort of public living room where many Jews gathered during the day. Unlike some of the Jewish ghettos in Europe at that time, Tilanqiao did not become fenced off.
Peter Max and Life in Shanghai's Jewish Ghetto During World War II
Ronan O'Connell of the BBC wrote: Tilanqiao "was a deprived and depressed place, according to Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli journalist and expert on Shanghai's Jewish history, who has been leading tours of Tilanqiao since 2002. "Imagine being a doctor, lawyer or musician living in Vienna and suddenly you're unemployed in the [ghetto] of Shanghai," Bar-Gal said. “So, it was not a happy place. But they tried to maintain Jewish life by doing traditions like theatre and music. They were earning very little in doing this but [Tilanqiao] was thriving with Jewish life in the 1930s." [Source: Ronan O'Connell, BBC, April 5, 2021]
There were Jewish refugee shelters on Changyang Road. Nearby, the area along Huoshan and Zhoushan roads was once known as Little Vienna, and was the most prosperous part of Tilanqiao's Jewish neighbourhood. In the late 1930s, those streets were the backbone of Shanghai's Jewish community, and brimmed with Jewish businesses and regular social events at the Mascot Roof Garden atop the former Broadway Theatre.
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “There were "many Jews were here, along with cafes, cabarets, German bakeries, delicatessens, dance halls and music conservatories, that the neighborhood was nicknamed Little Vienna at the time. In 1939, when he was 2, the artist Peter Max and his family fled Berlin for Shanghai. At first the family lived in a large house, but they were later moved to Hongkou, which he remembers as a chaotic, colorful neighborhood. "It wasn't really a ghetto," Max, ne Finkelstein, said, "There were two cinemas. We could listen to jazz. There was an old man who sat cross-legged on the street selling American comic books." “Max attended an English-language school funded by the Kadoorie family and learned rudimentary Chinese from kids on the street. More important, he learned to draw from his baby-sitter, a Chinese girl who was a few years older and the daughter of an artist.” In 2012, Max took his first return trip to Shanghai. He searched for his old nanny even though he doubted she was still alive.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2012]
Suffering and Survival of Jews in Occupied China
The Nazis proposed rounding up the Jews in China for a "final solution." One suggestion was to sponsor a big Rosh Hashanak party on some barges and then send the celebrators to concentration camps on Tsungming Island (later canisters of gas were found on the island that contained the same chemicals used to kill Jews in Europe). Why the Japanese refused to go along with the plan is unknown? Some have suggested that it was because Jewish businesses had lent them money during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.
The Jews in Shanghai suffered terribly. They did menial jobs and relied on charity to survive. Baths, fresh food and hot water were luxuries. They ate old bananas and cabbage soaked in chemical to kill bacteria and washed their hair with kerosene to kill lice. Many died from starvation and diseases. Others busied themselves with clubs, dances and theater performances. Most survived the war. Ronan O'Connell of the BBC wrote: According to Bar-Gal, even prior to the Japanese invasion, many Jewish refugees in Tilanqiao lived in poverty compared to their comfortable lifestyles back in Europe. Conditions worsened greatly after Japanese soldiers gathered Jews from across Shanghai and forced them to all live within the borders of this newly formed ghetto. Jews were banned from leaving the area, even for work, unless they received permission from Japanese officers, which rarely happened. Disease and malnutrition plagued the many heinously overcrowded group homes. “It went from a poor neighbourhood to an extremely poor neighbourhood," Bar-Gal said. “Many people had no jobs and lived in communal housing with many other beds and common bathrooms and kitchens. They had zero privacy and almost no food." [Source: Ronan O'Connell, BBC, April 5, 2021
During World War Two, the Japanese incarcerated dozens of Jewish refugees and Chinese dissidents behind the thick stone walls of Tilanqiao Prison. The brutality of the Japanese gave the Jews and the Chinese a common enemy and a shared experience. This connection remains strong, according to Tian. "The Jewish community established a certain relationship, co-operation and affection with the local residents of Shanghai," she said. “They brought European culture to Shanghai and lived in harmony and culturally integrated with the local residents."
"The majority of Shanghai's Jewish refugees survived. This remarkable feat was described by Holocaust historian David Kranzler as the “Miracle of Shanghai", and according to Bar-Gal, they survived because Jews weren't a primary target of the Japanese forces. In 1945, when World War Two ended with the defeat of Japan and Nazi Germany, Japanese troops retreated and most of Shanghai's Jews quickly left, relocating to places like the US, Australia and Canada. But had Shanghai not taken these refugees in, many of these more-than-20,000 Jews may have never survived the Nazi death squads.
Chinese Who Befriended Shanghai Jews
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The family always knew there was something mysterious about Wang Fanglian, secrets he dared not share with even his closest relatives.Although he was just an ordinary worker at a diesel engine factory, he spoke four languages, among them English with a guttural German accent. His narrow brick-faced house had a flush toilet, a gas stove and a balcony for drying clothes, all strange luxuries in his rickshaw-wide Shanghai alley. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 18, 2012]
“Only late in life did Wang explain himself, when it was safe to talk about his friendships with Jews. "They were good friends. They lived together. They played together. They suffered together under the Japanese occupation," said Wang Fanglian's 21-year-old granddaughter, Wang Kaiyan. The old man learned English and French from his Jewish neighbors — and Japanese from the occupiers. He bought his house, the one with the Western luxuries, at the end of the war from a departing Jewish family.
“Then when the remaining Jews, along with other foreigners, fled China after the communist victory in 1949, this chapter of Shanghai history was tucked away and forgotten. "Because of the Cultural Revolution, people didn't want to talk about relations with foreigners," said the granddaughter, referring to the communist purges of the 1960s and 1970s against what were seen as bourgeois influences. For Chinese such as Wang, some of the friendships with Jews lasted a lifetime. "My father got along very well with them," said Wang's son Wang Jianmin. "After the Cultural Revolution, his old friends started to send him letters. They would come to Shanghai to visit him."
“Wang Fanglian conducted tours of Shanghai Jewish sights briefly before his death in 2008. Wang's old house still stands and occasionally receives tourists, though there's little trace of the former Jewish occupants. Wang Kaiyan, an English-language major in college, says she regrets she was too young to hear more of her grandfather's stories before his death. But she's pursuing his legacy just the same: as a volunteer tour guide at the museum. "Jewish people come to the museum who still remember my grandfather and ask about him," Wang said. "I feel bad saying that he's dead and I didn't spend as much time as I should have listening to his stories."
Wikimedia Commons, Kaifeng Jews, National Geographic
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2022