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Jewish Heritage in China
    2007-01-08 10:51:18     ujc.org


At the beginning of the Song dynasty (960-1127 CE), a thriving Jewish community took root in the Song capital of Kaifeng (called Bianliang at the time).

The Jews of Kaifeng asked people to call them Israelis, and they initially maintained close contact with their native communities. In 998 CE, Emperor Zhen Zong issued an edict to the Jewish immigrants, telling them to "keep and follow the customs of your forefathers and settle at Bianliang (Kaifeng's ancient name)." The Emperor also bestowed upon them seven surnames (one of them his own): Zhao, Li, Ai, Zhang, Gao, Jin and Shi.   


The Song Dynasty's Kaifeng Synagogue was constructed in 1163, destroyed by floods of the Yellow River and rebuilt twice. [Photo: Virtual Jerusalem]
The immigrants practiced Judaism and built a synagogue in 1163. The 1489 inscription of a stone tablet of the Synagogue commemorates the Jewish traders' audience with the emperor, who ordained them to revere and preserve the customs of their forefathers. An inscription on the back of the stone tablet, dated 1512, suggests the existence of Jewish settlements in other parts of China. The flood of 1849 destroyed the synagogue, and it was never rebuilt again.

Kaifeng Jews integrated certain Confucian customs into their own monotheistic religion. The Jewish elite found they had less time to study Torah as their livelihood and status were dependent upon the concentration of Chinese classics. These Torahs were eventually sold to Christian missionaries. The Torahs that are known to have survived are in Oxford University, Toronto University, Southern Methodist University, American Bible Society, Hebrew Union College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. A Chinese-language Torah of the Kaifeng synagogue is now in the British Museum in London.

Today only three surviving stone steles remain among the ruins of the Kaifeng synagogue, rebuilt for the final time in 1653. Rare pictures of the synagogue can be found by visiting the Judaic Exhibition Rooms in the Riverside Scene Park, the site of the ancient Synagogue. An official project to build "Kaifeng Synagogue Museum" and some Jewish Quarter courtyards in accordance with the architectural styles of the original buildings is being implemented.  There are about 140 families of Jewish descendants in Kaifeng today.

Kaifeng is home to China's oldest known synagogue and the newest Jewish museum, located within the Riverside Park of the Qingming Festival. The park itself vividly recreates bridges, streets, shops, canals, docks, teahouses, and folk customs of the Song Dynasty. Moshe Zhang, a descendant of Kaifeng's original Jewish settlers, runs a display of China's Jewish History, donated by the Sino-Judaic Institute. The materials depict China's Jewish life with pictures and guides in several languages, as well as replicas, books, photos, maps, artifacts, and stone tablets displaying the Jewish history in Kaifeng.



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