A Brief History of Jews in China

Continuing my inadvertent series about surprising cultural connections (and my ruminations on the fact that history so often repeats itself), I recently came across this article in the New York Times about the clampdown on public practice of Judaism in Kaifeng, China.   The article is interesting, but rather vague about the history of Judaism in the area.  That happens to be one of the subjects I’ve researched in the last year for an epic historical fantasy novel set in Song Dynasty China, during the Mongol invasions.

A re-constructed Song Dynasty building in Kaifeng, China.

A re-constructed Song Dynasty building in Kaifeng, China.

When I set out to write a book set in China, I was somewhat at a loss. China has a vast land area and deep historical and cultural richness.  Where would I even begin?  So, as I often do, I plunged into the research to see what might spark some ideas that resonated with the technology I wanted to write about.

Kaifeng almost immediately leapt out as a setting.  Situated on the Yellow River, Kaifeng was the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, until the incursions from the horsemen of the steppes forced the empire to move south before the area was finally overwhelmed.  As the seat of empire, Kaifeng was home to Su Sung’s astronomical clock (the device which started me down this road) which was completed in 1090.  It was sacked by Jurchen raiders in 1126, then beseiged by the Mongols in 1232-3, though it later rebelled against Mongol rule.  So there’s all kinds of fascinating history to work with.

But the Jews were already there. Before all of that.  Some scholars believe the Jews first settled in Kaifeng during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), merchants from Persia.  According to tradition, they were invited to settle by the emperor, who wished to encourage scholarship in all forms, and had heard that the Jews were learned people. During  a later crackdown on foreign influences and religions, they were expelled, along with the Buddhists (hey–let’s crack down on foreign influence!  A thousand plus years later, they’re doing it again.) Only to return again with trade along the Silk Roads.

A sketch of the Kaifeng Synagogue

A sketch of the Kaifeng Synagogue

At any rate, there was a synagogue in Kaifeng from 1163.  The Mongol empire was notoriously accepting of a variety of religions and cultures, with minority advisors on staff, including Jews.  During the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, many laws that favored Han Chinese citizens were lifted, to the benefit of Jews and Muslims, among others.  Some new restrictions arrived, naturally, but the Jews seem to have done well for a time under Mongol rule.  In 1368, when the Han returned to power, overthrowing the Mongols, the Han-centric laws returned in force, but the Jews were granted additional land and continued to prosper.

19th century rubbings of the Kaifeng stele

19th century rubbings of the Kaifeng stele

Two famous stele (tall stone monuments) erected near the site of the synagogue in 1489 and 1512 refer to the Jews’ loyalty to China, and the emperor’s decree that they should be free to practice their religion.  The Jews also expressed their appreciation for permission to re-build the synagogue which had been destroyed during earlier invasions.  In 1642 to quash rebellion, the Ming army broke the dam on the Yellow River, flooding the city, and killing many more people than they had intended, dispersing the Jewish community for a long time.  Stories from the era tell of a brave man who dove into the flood to rescue the Torah scrolls from the drowned synagogue.

The Jewish community became increasingly absorbed into the general population, intermarrying and letting many practices fall away, until a resurgence in the late 1900’s.   Even so, there is a continuous tradition of Judaism in the area, with many families proudly maintaining their Jewish heritage to the present day.

For me, as a writer, the Jewish presence in Kaifeng cinched its nomination as the primary location for my novel (working title:  Drakemaster). I wanted to look at medieval multi-culturalism, and that, plus the layering of invasion, siege and rebellion made this a fascinating time and place to research.  The more I study history, the more aware I become of our monolithic expectations of other times and places.  We think of the past as provincial, peopled by isolated groups, who might have traded goods, but little else.  The revelation of a Jewish population in China opened my eyes.  As is so often the case with minority groups, they were already there, and they deserve to be recognized.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in fiction, history, medieval, Mongolia, religion, research, worldbuilding and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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