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The Jewish Colony at Kaifeng
Tenney, Charles Daniel

The Jewish Colony at Kaifeng.
Two years ago I had occasion to visit Kaifeng and I was naturally
interested in seeing what I could of the remains relics
of the Jewish Colony there. I was
disappointed in finding so few
traces remaining. Beyond the
Jewish physiognomies which you
occasionally see on the streets
there seems to be nothing.
Bishop White of the Canadian
Church mission was interested
himself in preserving the tablets,
but there is no single brick or
stone left of the old Synagogue.
The land where it once stood
has been purchased by Bishop
White and has now been
loaned to the [illegible: Y. M. C. A.] for an
athletic field. The stone tablets
which formerly stood within the
grounds of the Synagogue have
been rescued from destruction
and now stand in front of the
church. They have been much
defaced. One of them is quite
illegible. Two of the carved in­
scription, however, can still be
read, though some of the char­
acters have been chipped off.
I have here rubbings from these
two stone tablets and translations,
made, I believe, by Bishop Smith
of HongKong 70 years ago. The
translations show that some
phrases which are now illegible
were in a better state of preservation
when the translations were
made. For example, we read in
the translation that the an­
cestors of the Jews came from
India. The characters T'ien Chu
Kuo (天竺國) "Land of Heavenly Bamboos"
cannot now be made out in the
Chinese through defacement. There
is no doubt about its having
been there originally. In the 2 nd
tablet we can still read the
statement that Adam the first
ancestor of the Jews came from
India. The dates of the two
inscriptions which now
remain are the 2nd year of
Hung Chih (弘治) of the Ming Dyn­
asty, A.D. 1489 and the 7th year
Cheng Te (正德) of the same Dynasty
A.D. 1513. I must object to Bishop
Smith's translation in one or two
particulars. In an apparent
attempt to make the chronology
of the tablet more accurate, the
translator makes the writer of the
inscription say that Abraham
lived in the 146th year of the
"Chou State" which he places at
the time of Yao (堯) and Shun (舜)
over 2000 B.C., but the statement
of the tablet is quite clear "the
146th year of the Chou Dynasty"
(周朝) or B.C. 976, or about 1000
years later than the date ordinarily
assigned to Abraham. Moses is
stated to have lived about the 613 th
year of the Chou Dynasty, which
would also be about 1000 years
later than the date usually
assigned to him. It seems to me
rather unnecessary for the translator
to be so zealous to prove the
accuracy of the chronology of the
tablet in view of the fact that the
inscription begins with the
statement that Abraham was
the 19th descendant of P'an Ku
(盤古) or Adam.
I must also defend the standing
of the writers of the earlier inscription
by criticizing the translation of
their literary titles, which has
been repeated in every reference
that I have seen to the Kaifeng
tablets. The translation reads
"Composed by a promoted literary
graduate of the Kaifeng Prefecture
named Chin Chung ; inscribed by
a literary graduate of purchased
rank of the Hsi An Fu District
named Tsao Tso, and engraved by
a literary graduate of purchased
rank of the Kaifeng Prefecture
named Pu Ju". The phrase
rendered "Promoted Literary Graduate"
is Tseng Kuang Sheng Yüan (增廣生員)
which means a "sheng yüan" or
"hsiu-ts'ai" who got his degree in the
supplementary list, i.e. in the number
added by Imperial Edict to the quota
originally assigned to the Province.
What is translated "Literary Graduate
of Purchased Rank" is the phrase
"lin shan sheng yüan (廩膳生員)
which means a "sheng yüan" or
"hsin ts'ai" who receives a govt.
pension. So poor Ts'ao Tso and
Pu Ju have had their special
honor turned into dishonor by the
translator. The fact is that all
three were evidently scholars of
some local distinction. I think
that the general assumption is
that they were members of the
Jewish Community. I consider
this very improbable. It is the
custom in China when a tablet
is to be set up to distinguish honor any
temple or public building to
invite some scholar of local
reputation to compose or write it.
He is then posted upon such facts
as it is desired shall be contained
in the inscription and he draws
it up in such a way that it may
have the necessary literary flavor.
From the internal evidence of
the Kaifeng Synagogue inscriptions
I feel quite certain that the
usual Chinese custom was
followed and that the inscriptions
were not composed by Jews. A
rather patronizing tone pervades
both documents. We are told that
Jewish and Confucian doctrines
are practically identical.
The I Ching or Book of Changes is
freely quoted and the Jewish religion
is summarized as follows: "The
main design of it is nothing more
than reverence for heaven and
veneration for ancestors, fidelity to
the prince and obedience to
parents, just that which is
included in the five human
relations, the five constant
virtues and the three principal
connections of life." In the first
tablet we read "To venerate Heaven
and to neglect ancestors is to
fail in the services which are
their due. In the spring and
autumn, therefore, men sacrifice
to their ancestors to show
that they serve the dead as they
do the living. They offer
sheep and oxen and present the
fruits of the season to show that
they do not neglect the honor due
to ancestors when they are
gone from us." This certainly
does not come from the Old
Testament ritual.
The tablet of 1513 reads even more
like a Confucian essay than the
earlier tablet. The translation is
perhaps rather misleading in
that the familiar "tao" is trans­
lated "Eternal Reason".
The general tone of the two
inscriptions indicates that the process
of the amalgamation absorption of the colony
into the general population was
rather advanced at the time when
they were written.
As to the historical facts which
we may glean from the tablets,
that of A.D. 1513 contains the
sentence "This religion entered
China during the Han Dynasty."
This is evidently tradition merely
and we have no particular reason
either to doubt or to believe the
statement. It is not claimed
that the Jews who came to
China in the Han Dynasty were
the ancestors of the Kaifeng
Jews for it is distinctly stated
that the ancestors of the colony
came from India during the
Sung Dynasty (A.D. 960-1278) and
that the first synagogue was
built in the 1st year of Lung Hsing
of the Sung Dynasty (A.D. 1164),
and that it was rebuilt in the
16th year of Chih Yüan of the
Yüan Dynasty (A.D. 1296). Other
details are given regarding
various repairs and additions
at other times. We are informed
also that the Hebrew scriptures
in 53 sections were deposited
in the Synagogue, and that
during the reign of T'ien Shun
of the Ming Dynasty (1457-1465)
a Jewish colony at Ming Po,
furnished them new copies of the scriptures.
This last statement is inter­
esting as showing the existence
of other communities of Jews
in China at that period. I have
heard several singular reports of
Jewish travillers that they have
found people in Shantung and also
in Mongolia who speak a debased
form of Hebrew allied to the Yiddish.
These reports have not been
carefully verified and so must be
considered for the present as
rumors only. If true, they would
seem to indicate former Jewish
colonies in Mongolia and Shan­
The Kaifeng inscriptions give
various details of the ceremonies
observed in the Synagogue and
contain mention of Sabbath
observance. They show a certain
familiarity with the names of the
ancient heroes of Jewish history.
Thus, in the 2ndtablet we read
"From the beginning of the world
our first father Adam handed down
the doctrine to Abraham; Abraham
to Isaac; Isaac to Jacob; Jacob to
the Twelve Patriarchs; the Twelve
Patriarchs to Moses; Moses to Aaron;
Aaron to Joshua and Joshua to
Ezra." The older tablet gives a
shorter list saying merely that
Abraham handed down the doctrine
to Moses and that they were again
handed down to the time of the
reformer of religion and wise instructor,
Ezra. I am obliged to criticize the
historical accuracy of the writer of
the inscription and as well as that of
the translator. of the The writer
states that the Jewish ancestors
arrived at [Kaifeng or Pien Liang in the
Sung Dynasty and were cordially
received by the Emperor who said
"Since they have come to our Central
land and reverently observe the customs
of their ancestors, let them hand down
the doctrines at Pien Liang." Now
Pien Liang was the official name of
Kaifeng in the Yüan Dynasty not in
the Sung. The Sungs called the
city Pien Ching. Further on the statement
is made that the synagogue was
was erected in the 1st year of Lung Hsing
(A.D.1163). Now Lung Hsing was the
2nd emperor of the Southern Sung
Dynasty, and in his time Kaifeng
had been abandoned to the Chin
Tartars who captured the city in
the year 1126 7 after which the
Southern Sungs made their capital
at NanKing. So the Emperor Lung Hsing
resident at NanKing, could not
have been the one who welcomed
the Jews at Kaifeng. Their arrival
must have been at least two
generations earlier before it fell into
the hands of the Kin Tartars.
The earliest account of China by
foreign travillers is that written by
a Mohammedan who visited South
China early in the 9th century during
the T'ang Dynasty. He speaks of
large numbers of foreigners at Canton
and other cities of South China.
In the commentary on this account
written by Abu Zeid al Hasan we find
an account of the over-running of
South China by an army of brigands
led by Bei Chu. Canton was captured
and the inhabitants put to the sword.
The Arab writer says "There are
persons fully acquainted with the
affairs of China who assure us that,
besides the Chinese who were
massacred on this occasion, there
perished 120 thousand Moham­
medans, Jews, Christians, and
Parsees who were there on account
of traffic." Whatever we may think
of the accuracy of this number
it seems established that there were at Canton
many foreigners, including both Jews
and Christians in the 9th century
of the Xu era.
Four hundred years later in the
time of Kublai Khan of the Yüan
Dynasty Marco Polo visited China
and at that time there were certainly
many foreigners of different faiths in
North China. In the writings of
Marco Polo I find only one direct
reference to the Jews. That is in
his account of the rebellion of
Nayan, Prince of Manchuria and
andrepeated word some adjacent regions, against
his kinsman Kublai Khan.
According to Marco Polo Prince Nayan
had become a Christian and had
the cross displayed upon his
banners. I will quote from Marco
Polo "After the great Khan had
conquered Nayan it came to pass
that the different kinds of people
who were present, Saracens and
[illegible: Idolatris] and Jews, and many
others that believed not in God,
did give those that were Christians
because of the cross that Nayan
had borne on his standard. Thus
they would say to the Christians
'See now what precious help
this God's Cross of yours hath
rendered Nayan who was a Christian
and a worshipper there of'. And
such a din arose about the matter
that it reached the Great Khan's
own ears. When it did so, he
sharply rebuked those who cast these
jibs at the Christians, and he
also bade the Christians be of
good heart 'for if the cross had
rendered no help to Nayan, in that
it had done right well — for Nayan
was a disloyal and traitorous rebel
against his Lord — wherefore the
cross of your God did well in that it
gave him no help against the right'"
Most of the Mohammedans, Jews
and Christians who were in
North China in Marco Polo's time
appear to have entered China by
the northern land route. The
Kaifeng Jews coming from India
must have come by the southern
sea route.
The first knowledge of the
existence of the Honan Colony
reached Europe through the Jesuit
missionaries who were at the
Court in the early days of the
late dynasty. A young Jew
from Kaifeng called upon Father
Ricci at Peking, where upon [right]Jesuit
(Jesuit) missionaries went to
Kaifeng to investigate. Through
them the European Jews first
heard of their co-religionists in
Honan. Letters in Hebrew were exchanged
between London and Kaifeng. At
the time when these Jews were
first introduced to the Western World
by the Jesuit missionaries they
were on the down-grade as
regards worldly prosperity and
since that time their poverty has
increased year by year until now
the colony is actually extinct.
In 1850 Bishop Smith of HongKong
interested himself in them, and,
since then both Protestant mission­
aries and Jewish merchants have
visited Kaifeng in an attempt to
arouse them without success.
Before the last attempts by Protestant
missionaries to help them, the
Taiping Rebellion had already
completed their ruin. In the 16th
century the synagogue was described
as a building 300 feet in length
and 150 in breadth, but in 1870
it was only a heap of ruins and
as I hear said, two years ago
there was not even a broken brick
to represent the old building.
They seem always to have been
regarded by the Chinese of Kaifeng
as a sect of Mohammedans.
They called them the "T'iao Chin
Hui-hui (挑筋回回) or "Sinew
Picking Mohammedans. You will
remember that in Genesis Jacob
is said to have visited with the
Angel of the Lord all night and the
Angel touched the hollow of his thigh
"Therefore the Children of Israel eat
not of the Sinew which shrank
—- because he touched the hollow of
Jacob's thigh in the Sinew that
shrank." The author of the article
on the Jewish Colony at Kaifeng in
the Jewish Encyclopaedia argues
from this name great antiquity
because he thinks that the
practice of Rabbinical Judaism
would have suggested to the
Chinese more distinctive
peculiarities of the Jews than
this of picking out the Sinew.
I do not think much of the argu­
ment. It presupposes that on
their arrival at Kaifeng these Jews
were [illegible: punctilious] in the observ­
ance of all the rites of Rabbinical
Judaism. This is extremely un­
likely in view of the fact that they
were only a company of traders
and also that they their forbearers had lived for a
long period in India before they
migrated to China
There appear to be two great lessons
to be learned from the history of the
Jewish Colony at Kaifeng.
The first is that the Jew as a
trader had met his match in China.
Instead of enriching themselves at the
expense of their Chinese neighbors,
the Kaifeng Jews have themselves
been sucked dry in the competition
of trade. Year by year they have
sunk lower in poverty until they
have at last given up the struggle.
The second lesson which we may
learn from the experience of the
Kaifeng Jews is the extraordinary
absorption or assimilating force of
Chinese Society. The enormous
mass of the Chinese makes a
human ocean in which the
rivulets from outside soon lose their
identity. Christianity established
itself here not later than the 8th
and again in the Yuan Dynasty
in the 13th century, but the church
has been smothered. The Jews have
established themselves, but little by
little the tenets and ceremonies
of their religion have been modified
and adapted to the views of hereditary
beliefs and superstitions of the surrounding Chinese
population, until the Jewish
religion has disappeared like the
small stream in the ocean.
The Mohammedans so far have
kept their identity because they
have settled among the Chinese
in such prodigious numbers. Wherever
they constitute a minority of the
people you may clearly see the
disintegrating forces at work.
Modern Catholic and Protestant missions
retain their individuality because
of the unfailing supply of western
leaders that continues to pour
into China. What would happen
if these leaders were to be withdrawn,
we cannot but wonder in view of the
fate of the Middle Age Christian
communities and of the Jewish
Colony of Kaifeng.
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