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The Chinese Empire. A General & Missionary Survey/The Jews in China

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APPENDIX II
THE JEWS IN CHINA
See p. 159.

The following extracts are gleaned from the pages of Mr. Marcus Adler's lecture in regard to the existence of a Jewish colony in China. "We owe to the Jesuits the first authenticated accounts we possess. It was in the time of Queen Elizabeth that the Church of Rome sent out to China a band of missionaries. Father Ricci was one of the first of these missionaries, and in the report of the Propaganda Fide, at Rome, we are told how he came to know about the existence of Chinese Jews.

"One summer day, in the early part of the seventeenth century, Ricci received a visit from a scholar who had come to Pekin to pass his examination for a Government appointment. The candidate was anxious to make the acquaintance of one who, he surmised, must be a co-religionist, for it was said that he worshipped one God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and was not a Mohammedan. Father Ricci was struck with his visitor's features, so different from those of an ordinary Chinaman, and took him to his oratory, where he knelt before the picture of the Holy Family and St. John the Baptist, and another, that of the Evangelists. The visitor did so likewise, saying, "We in China do reverence to our ancestors. This is Rebecca with her sons Jacob and Esau, but as to the other picture, why make obeisance to only four sons of Jacob? Were there not twelve?" Then mutual explanations were given. The visitor was an Israelite, Ngai by name, who had come to Peking from Kaifeng Fu, the ancient capital of Honan. In this city, the visitor explained, his community had a synagogue, which they had recently repaired, and in which there was a roll of the Law which was over four hundred years old. "At Hangchow Fu," he said, "there was a larger congregation of Jews, who also had a synagogue; Jews dwelt in other provinces also." At the beginning of the eighteenth century we have further accounts from the Jesuits. Gozani, one of them, wrote a letter from Kaifeng Fu, dated November 5, 1704, giving full details of the Jewish customs and describing their synagogue.

Later on Domengo sketched a plan of the Communal buildings, and Fathers Gaubil and Cibot obtained copies and translations of the inscriptions on the walls and on certain monumental stones.

Quite recently Pére Tobar has published a most valuable work on these inscriptions.[1] Facsimiles and translations into French of the inscriptions on the stone tablets or steles, severally dated 1489, 1512, and 1663, are given along with twenty-three horizontal and seventeen vertical inscriptions which were found in the synagogue.

The following are abstracts of the dated inscriptions:—

"Abraham was the nineteenth in descent from Adam. The Patriarchs handed down the tradition forbidding the making and worshipping of images and spirits, and the holding of superstitions.

"Abraham pondered over problems of nature, and arrived at the belief in the one true God, and became the founder of the religion we believe in to this day. This happened in the 146th year of the Tcheou (Chau) dynasty. His belief was handed down from father to son till Moses, who, it is found, was alive in the 613th year of the Tcheou (Chau) dynasty.

"He was endowed with wisdom and virtue. He spent above forty days on the summit of Mount Sinai, refraining from meat and drink (while) communing with God. The fifty-three portions of the Law had their origin with him. From him the Law and tradition was handed down unto Ezra, who was likewise a patriarch. Man in his daily pursuits must ever have God before him. We pray three times a day, morning, noon, and evening.

"It is encumbent upon the Jew to venerate his ancestors. Twice in the year, in the spring and in the autumn, he offers them oxen and sheep together with the fruits of the season.

"Each seventh day is devoted to rest, and a fresh period of good deeds thus commences anew.

"Our religion came originally from Tien Tcheou (India?) in the first year of Long Hing of the Song dynasty. "1163. Yentula erected the synagogue.

"1279. The temple structures were rebuilt.

"1461. The overflow of the Yellow River, in 1461, destroyed the temple, only leaving the foundations. Li Yong, having obtained permission from the provincial treasurer, rebuilt the temple and had it decorated.

"Later, the cells at the rear of the synagogue were put up and three copies of the Holy Law were placed there.

"This has been recorded ... on this stele in the second year of Hong-Tche, 1489."

An inscription on a stone stele of 1512 gives details of the Jewish religion, its moral and other ordinances, and its canonical books. The following passage is of interest: "After the Creation, the doctrine was transmitted by Adam to Noah; thence unto Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and afterwards through the twelve patriarchs to Moses, Aaron, and Joshua. Ezra promulgated the Law, and through him the letters of the Yew thae (Jewish) religion were made plain."

Another inscription on a stone stele, dated 1663, gives a graphic account of the events following the fall of the Ming dynasty, 1642." Kaifeng Fu (Peën-liang) stood six months' siege by the rebel chief Li Tsi Cheng, who eventually caused the fall of the city by diverting the Yellow River. The loss of life was great and the synagogue was destroyed. Two hundred or more Jewish families were saved and took refuge on the north side of the river.

"In 1653 a Jewish mandarin rebuilt the temple. It was not possible to make more than one complete scroll of the Law out of the parchments recovered from the waters. The scroll, much venerated by the faithful, was placed in the middle of the ark. Twelve other scrolls were gradually collated, and the other holy writings and prayer books were repaired and revised with care."


Summarising the historical references in these inscriptions, and in the accounts of the Jesuit Fathers and other reliable writers, we arrive at the following results:—

"Jews had certainly settled in China some time during the Han dynasty (200 B.C. to A.D. 220). It is supposed that the settlement took place soon after A.D. 34, at which time terrible persecutions of the Jews took place in Babylon. No less than 50,000 were then massacred. Others hold that the settlement took place thirty-five years later, after the fall of Jerusalem. It is quite possible that the Jewish colony in China may be of even older date—Is. 49. 12, 'And these from the land of Sinim.'"

Marco Polo speaks of the Jews as sufficiently numerous in China to exercise political influence, A.D. 1286. Kaifeng Fu (fourteenth century), called by the Tartars Pien-liang, was a city six leagues in circumference. Many Jews came thither by way of Persia and Khorassan. They won the Emperor's favour by presents of cotton or cloth. In course of time the city suffered from inundations of the Yellow River, and frequent conflagrations sadly reduced its importance. The Jewish quarter, 500 feet from the river embankment, was specially prone to damage by flood.

In 1642 the city was besieged; the embankments were demolished, 100,000 people perished, and many Hebrew manuscripts were destroyed. The synagogue was successively rebuilt in 1279 and in 1489, and at the commencement of the seventeenth century and in 1653.

The site covered a space 300 to 400 feet by 150 feet. There were four courts proceeding from east to west. The synagogue proper faced west, the direction in which Jerusalem lay. The synagogue proper was a building 60 feet by 40 feet. In the centre of the building was the so-called chair of Moses. From the dome above were suspended the words in Hebrew: "Hear, Israel, the Lord our God! The Lord is one!"

The Sabbath was observed with great strictness; the food was prepared on the day preceding. Their customs were similar to those of the Rabbinitic Jews of the present, with the one exception that they regarded the New Moon as a festival. In 1723 the Chinese Government put a stop to the efforts of the missionaries on behalf of the Jews. It was only gradually that the existence of a Jewish colony in China came to the knowledge of the Jews in Europe. In 1842 Mr. James Finn, who subsequently became British Consul at Jerusalem, began to interest himself in Chinese Jews. A letter composed both in Chinese and Hebrew was sent to the Jewish community. Mr. Finn received a pathetic reply in 1870. The colony seems to have been rapidly declining, their teachers had all died, and there was no one left who could read Hebrew.

"Daily with tears in our eyes we call on the Holy name; if we could but again procure ministers, and put our house of prayer in order, our religion would have a firm support."


Out of 70 clans only 7 remained, numbering about 200 persons. A solitary stone bears silent witness to the past, synagogue and temple are gone. The ordinances of their religion are unobserved, and the few families left are fast being lost amid the Gentile population around, one man even holding the office of a Buddhist priest.

On March 13, 1900, a letter was despatched from the Jewish community in Shanghai offering to rebuild the synagogue, and it is possible that the "Orphan Colony" may even yet at the eleventh hour be saved from extinction and assimilation.

  1. Inscriptions Juives de Kaifeng Fu, par le P. Jérôme Tobar, S. J., Variétiés Sinologiques, No. 17, Shanghai, 1900.