Kaifeng Jewish Quarters
- Place to learn about the history of the Jewish community in Kaifeng
- See a Muslim area of Kaifeng
- See the site of the former synagogue (now a hospital)
- Perhaps meet descendants of the community on a tour
- The community existed at least 700 years until the 19th century
The former Kaifeng Jewish community lived on two adjacent streets in the past called North Teaching Scripture Road and South Teaching Scripture Road. By the 19th century, it is said that the descendants were living all over the city and that they had lost almost all knowledge of the Jewish religion. However, like Muslims, they followed the custom of not eating pork.
Recently, an elderly lady in her 80s who claimed to be a descendant of this community lived on one of these streets in her house. She had a menorah in the house. She may now be dead. Unless others of these descendants decide to move to the area, the two lanes are basically a Muslim Chinese neighborhood. This is interesting in itself since Muslim customs, food and clothing differ somewhat from those of regular urban Chinese.
You can also see the place where the synagogue building stood. It is now a hospital. There is a special stone marker erected at the spot, and the back of the marker details some of the history of the community in Chinese. Tourists come to Kaifeng to see places of Jewish historical interest to learn about the history and current state of the ancient community. View Jewish Heritage in China
The origins of the community isn't clear. For various reasons, it is thought a large segment of the community originated from a group of people from Persia who settled in India and had a cotton textile business. Then a large number of them moved to Kaifeng during the Song Dynasty period about 1,000 years ago. But there is a little evidence that Jews may have been already been living in Kaifeng before this large group arrived.
During the Yuan Empire era 700 years ago, foreign merchants and officials came to the area in large numbers. The Mongol rulers had a policy of bringing in foreigners to their empire. Kaifeng was an unusually rich and powerful city during the Song and Yuan eras, and foreign traders and merchants were attracted to live there.
Now, for a fee and with the help of a tour guide or with special permission, you might be able to see three ancient stone steles. They date from 1489, 1512, and 1663. These are said to be from the synagogue before it was destroyed. These are on the fourth floor of the Kaifeng Municipal Museum. Also, you may be able to talk to modern descendants. There are thought to be about 500 people who are descendants of this community.
So far, about 10 or 20 young people have made aliyah to Israel to study and learn about Israel and modern Jewish life. A few of the local people meet for Sabbath services now. Some people hope to open a museum one day, and there is a mini-museum that might be open. The descendants almost look like typical Chinese, but not quite. They actually have a little Caucasian facial features.
The history of the Kaifeng community and of their descendants is a complex topic. On one hand, many people discredit sources of information or the assertions of witnesses in the last two hundred years because of the suspicion that local people were claiming history or concocting material in order to make money or impress people. Also, foreigners, whether Jews or not Jews, might have exaggerated information.
On the other hand, foreign sources from Marco Polo to Mateo Ricci to 19th century visitors and missionaries wrote a lot about them, and their writings are hard evidence that an indigenous Jewish community existed in Kaifeng and other cities in China before the 20th century.
Ricci (October 6, 1552 – May 11, 1610) was a leading Jesuit missionary and an influential official of the emperors in the early Qing Empire. He lived in the Forbidden City, and the emperor of that time named Kangxi had a church built in the Forbidden City. Ricci is said to have been visited by a Rabbi from Kaifeng who was in Beijing seeking official appointment after he had successfully passed the Confucian imperial exam. He heard of the church, and when he visited it, he thought that Ricci was a leader of a Jewish sect. Ricci followed up on that visit, and it became clear to the Jesuits that the Kaifeng community followed most of the Jewish traditions and that some of them could read Hebrew, and they considered them Jewish.
There is a register that was transferred to the West of the men and women in Kaifeng of the community in Kaifeng in the years 1660 and 1670 that shows that there were 453 men in the community at that time. The manuscript shows their names written in Hebrew and Chinese characters.
The manuscript also shows that many of the women in the community where not descendants of the community but where from Muslim or Chinese families. The Jesuit records say that in this community, the men could take wives of any religion. It was a patralineal society, and the children of these marriages were considered to be Jews. But the women of the community were not allowed to marry outside of the community.
This custom of allowing the men to intermarry perhaps explains part of the reason why the people were assimilated into Chinese culture by the 19th century and how they almost all of their knowledge and traditions. According to records, the men of this community were allowed by the Ming Dynasty to take the Confucian imperial examinations to become officials in the Ming Empire.
Confucian scholars in the Kaifeng community often passed these exams, and a disproportionate number of them became officials in the empire. In this way, families left Kaifeng and were posted all over the empire, and they were isolated from the main community.
If you want to take a taxi, to find the site of the former synagogue and the alleys of the former community, it is suggested that people first go to the Bianjing Hotel at 109 East Avenue because that is easy to find. It is a big Western-looking hotel. Here is the address in Chinese. 开封汴京饭店河南省开封市鼓楼区东大街109号.
From the front, go to the corner intersection on the right side, and turn south. Walk a little until you come to the Chinese Medicine Hospital (河南开封市中医院). There is a stone plaque in front that marks the spot. Take Bus 11 to Bei Shu Dian Jie (North Bookstore Street) Bus Stop and walk 50 meters to Bianjing Hotel.
- Bus: You can take Bus No.3 or 25 to go directly to the former synagogue site.
From in front of the Chinese Medicine Hospital, go a little further south to the first intersection. To the left, a narrow alley opens up. You might see a little sign in Hebrew marking the alley. This is a typical narrow urban street. It is called 21 Teaching the Torah Lane or 教经胡同.
Questions and Answers About Kaifeng Jewish Quarters
I updated this article on December 2, 2012
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