Jews in China: Legends, History and New Perspectives 

By Pan Guang


Jews came to China as early as the Tang Dynasty, around the 8th Century. The Jewish community in Kaifeng which prospered during the Song Dynasty was known to all. From the middle of the 19th Century, when the old Jewish community in Kaifeng was assimilated, new Jewish communities began to emerge in tween the 8th Century and the 20th Century, the culture and tradition of immigrant Jews drew upon and were enriched by the host country--China. They also exerted their influence on the cultural and social life of China.

Chinese and Jewish cultures are the two oldest civilizations in the world and share a lot in common. Both highly emphasize the family tie function and educational value, and although both have absorbed various exotic cultures, their central core has never changed since birth.

The topic "Jews in China" has academic value in the fields of Jewish studies, sinology, history, religious studies, ethnic studies, cultural anthropology, and philosophy. Moreover, this project has important practical significance in opposing racism and fascism, furthering friendly relations and cultural harmony between all peoples, and preserving peace in the world.

Jews in Ancient China: The Case of Kaifeng

It was during the Tang Dynasty (around the 8th Century) that the earliest groups of Jews came to China via the overland Silk Road. Others then may come by sea to the coastal areas before moving inland. A few scholars believe that Jews came to China as early as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.); some even go so far as to place their arrival earlier, during the Zhou Dynasty (around the 6th Century B.C.), though there have been no archaeological discoveries that would prove such claims. After entering China, Jews lived in many cities and areas, but it was not until the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that the Kaifeng Jewish Community formed. [1]

In the Northern Song Dynasty, a group of Jews came to the then capital Dongjing (now Kaifeng, as it will be referred to below). They were warmly received by the authorities and allowed to live in Kaifeng as Chinese while keeping their own traditions and religious faith. Thereafter, they enjoyed, without prejudice, the same rights and treatment as the Han peoples in matters of residence, mobility, employment, education, land transactions, religious beliefs and marriage. In such a safe, stable and comfortable environment, Jews soon demonstrated their talents in business and finance, achieving successes in commerce and trade and becoming a rich group in Kaifeng.  At the same time, their religious activities increased. In 1163, the Jews in Kaifeng built a synagogue right in the heart of the city.  After more than 100 years, with the support of the government of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the synagogue was renovated.  By the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Jewish community in Kaifeng reached its most prosperous period.  It included more then 500 families, with a total population at about 4,000-5,000. [2] The Jews' social status also continued to rise.  At that time, there were Jews who had become government officials through imperial examinations, some had grown extraordinarily wealthy through business, some had become skilled craftsmen or hard-working prosperous farmers, and still others doctors and clergymen.  At the same time, the Jews were almost unconsciously becoming assimilated into the mainstream of Chinese Confucian culture.  They took part in the imperial examinations, changed their Hebrew names to Chinese ones, used Chinese for speech and study, started to intermarry with other nationalities, dressed like Chinese, and absorbed Chinese habits and traditions while their own gradually faded away. In 1642, Kaifeng Synagogue was destroyed and many religious scriptures lost in a major flood of the Yellow River. The Jews in Kaifeng rebuilt their synagogue in 1663 and recovered some of the scriptures, but the number of the Jewish community had decreased to less then 2,000. [3]

By the late 17th century, the Jewish community had essentially lost contact with the Jewish world outside.  By the mid-19th century, the Kaifeng Synagogue lay in ruins, and the Jews in Kaifeng had lived without a rabbi for many years.  They could not read Hebrew and had ceased performing religious rituals.  Just around that time, Western missionaries "discovered" the descendants of Jews in Kaifeng, provoking a frenzy of research by Europeans and Americans into the Kaifeng Jews. Later, Jews in Shanghai also tried in vain to help the descendants of Jews in Kaifeng to restore Jewish traditions. In the end, the Jewish community in Kaifeng was integrated into Chinese culture.

From Baghdad to Hong Kong and Shanghai: The Sephardi Experience

Sephardi Jews arrived in China as a result of the Opium War and the subsequent upsurge of trade with Britain.  Coming to China from British-controlled places such as Baghdad, Bombay, and Singapore, most of them were merchants and businessmen with British citizenship.  Originally from Baghdad, the Sassoon family first shifted their operations eastward to India and then went on to become the first Jews to establish firms and engage in business in Hong Kong (1841) and Shanghai (1845).  In the wake of the Sassoons, other Sephardi merchants originally from Baghdad such as Hardoons and Kadoories came to China to seek their fortunes.  As external trade centers open to foreign countries, Hong Kong and Shanghai became their leading bases for business. They soon revealed their commercial talents, taking advantage of their traditional contacts with various British dependencies as well as the favorable geographic location of Shanghai and Hong Kong to develop a thriving import-export trade from which they quickly amassed a great amount of wealth.  They then turned around and invested this wealth in real estate, finance, public works and manufacturing, gradually becoming the most active foreign consortium in Shanghai and Hong Kong, whose influence spread throughout China and the entire Far East. 

They were also engaged in public welfare and charity work within the community, building synagogues, establishing schools, and providing aid to Russian Jewish immigrants and European Jewish refugees. They supported the Zionist movement, and, in order to safeguard their own interests, occasionally became involved in Chinese politics. Some of them like Mr. Silas Aaron Hardoon also patronized Chinese arts and culture. Basically, they maintained friendly relations with the social and political groups in China. 

But the Sephardi merchants' interests in China sustained great losses following the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, and when Japan occupied Shanghai and Hong Kong after the Pearl Harbor Incident in 1941, the Sephardi merchants lost all their property in those occupied territories.  After the war, with the outbreak of the Chinese civil war and the founding of the People's Republic of China, the Sephardi merchants gradually transferred their property to Hong Kong and abroad. After 1949, they continued to forge ahead, taking advantage of the Hong Kong's position as the main trading channel between China and the West. [4]  Since the implementation of reform policies and the "opening" of China to foreign businesses, many Sephardi merchants have once again begun to make investments on the Chinese mainland, promising that their relations with China will continue to further strengthen and expand. 

The Second Homeland: Russian (Ashkenazi) Jews in China

Unlike the Sephardic Jews, Russian (Ashkenazi) Jews came to China not mainly for trade, but rather because of rising anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe from the 1880s onward. This wave led to the migration of millions of Russian Jews to North America, and tens of thousands also crossed Siberia, reaching northeast China, Inner Mongolia, and further to southern parts of China. During this period, the construction of China Eastern Railway, the expansion of Russian power in China, the Russo-Japanese War, and the two Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 all propelled the migration of Russian Jews to China. [5] At beginning, they mainly lived in Harbin and neighboring areas, where they formed the largest Jewish community in the Far East. After Japan's invasion of northeast China, they moved southward and settled in  communities in cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Qingdao.

Most of these Russian Jews initially lived in poverty, able only to eke out a meager living by running small businesses. Later they rose to the middle class through their own efforts. Because they greatly outnumbered the Sephardic Jews, they became an active community force. Some of them were technicians and intellectuals, and after entering China, they contributed to China's economic and cultural development by working in enterprises and organizations set up by Chinese, Russians, Sephardic Jews and other foreigners.

    Long-resident Russian Jews looked upon China as their second motherland. Some studied hard and were integrated into Chinese culture, and played a positive role in promoting Chinese-Jewish and Chinese-Russian cultural exchanges. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, a number of Russians Jews stayed on. Not until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution did the last group of Russian Jews leave.

Haven for Holocaust Victims from Nazi Europe 

While the Nazis were conducting their furious persecution and slaughter of European Jews over sixty years ago, many persons upheld justice and boldly rescued the Jewish victims of the Nazi terror. At the same time, however, the governments of many nations were imposing strict restrictions on the immigration of Jewish refugees. Especially after 1938, almost all countries closed their doors to the desperate Jews. Looking back at what was done to the Jews by the "civilized world," Chinese people are proud of the fact that when Jewish people were on the verge of death and struggling for survival, the Chinese city of Shanghai provided them with a vital haven and all possible forms of relief. From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai accepted over thirty thousand European Jewish refugees.  Excluding those who went on from Shanghai to other countries, by the time of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 the city was sheltering 20,000-25,000 Jewish refugees. According to Simon Wiesenthal Center, Shanghai took in more Jewish refugees than Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India combined. [6] Before Pearl Harbor, Sephardic Jews, Russian Jews and Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe in Shanghai amounted to over thirty thousand, forming the largest Jewish community in the Far East. The prosperous community had its own communal association, synagogues, schools, hospitals, clubs, cemeteries, chamber of commerce, more than 50 publications, active political groups (from Utopian Socialism to Revisionist Zionism) and a small fighting unit - Jewish Company of Shanghai Volunteer Corps, which was at the time the world's sole legal Jewish regular army. [7]

The Nazis and their accomplices not only killed six million Jews in Europe but also seriously menaced Jewish communities outside Europe, including the Jewish communities in China and especially in Shanghai. In July, 1942, eight months after the outbreak of the Pacific War, Colonel Josef Meisinger, chief representative of the Gestapo in Japan, arrived in Shanghai and proposed a "Final Solution in Shanghai" to the Japanese occupation authorities. [8]  Although the Meisinger Plan was not put into effect due to differences between the Japanese and German governments' attitudes toward Jews, the Japanese authorities proclaimed a "Designated Area for Stateless Refugees," ordering refugees who had arrived in Shanghai from Europe after 1937 to move into the area within a month. The pressure of Nazi Germany and the vagaries of Japanese policy toward the Jews kept Shanghai's Jews in difficult, unpredictable, and sometimes dangerous straits for nearly four years. But, in the end, almost all Shanghai's Jews, not only Central European Jewish refugees but also the Sephardic congregation and Russian Jews, survived the Holocaust and the war, mainly depending upon their own mutual aid as well as the great support from American Jews and Chinese people.

Like Schindler, Wallenberg and Sugihara, the name Shanghai has now become synonymous with rescue and haven in the annals of the Holocaust.

The Historical Pages of Traditional Friendship between the Chinese and Jewish People

The Jews who came to China were nurtured in some cases by the breadth and profundity of Chinese culture; likewise, they with their own cultural traditions had an influence on Chinese society. The important point is that although many Jews inhabited China from ancient to modern times, no indigenous anti-Semitic activity has ever taken place on Chinese soil. Why has China never witnessed any spontaneous and native anti-Semitic activity? The main reasons are as follows:

   1. Anti-Semitic originated from deep-rooted religious prejudice, which is more conspicuous in Christian Europe. However, as a whole, Chinese are influenced by the Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, and therefore this kind of strong anti-Semitic fanaticism with deep religious bias does not exist in China, and never has.

   2. From the cultural point of view, Chinese and Jewish cultures share a lot in common. For example, both highly emphasize the family tie function and educational value, and although both have absorbed various exotic cultures, their central core has never changed since birth. On a stone monument erected in 1489, the Kaifeng Jews wrote: "Our religion and Confucianism differ only in minor details. In mind and deed both respect Heaven's Way, venerate ancestors, are loyal to sovereigns and ministers, and filial to parents. Both call for harmony with wives and children, respect for rank, and for making friends." [9] All these contributed to the prevention of the impact of anti-Semitism on Chinese people.

   3. Since the middle of last century, the Chinese people suffered much devastation as the Jews did. Nearly 35 million Chinese were killed and wounded by the Japanese fascists during wartime. [10] Anti-Chinese atrocities which happened in some parts of the world in the past several centuries and even in Indonesia in1998 remind us of similar anti-Jewish outrages which occurred in Europe in the past many centuries, especially between 1933 and 1945. This shared experience engendered in the Chinese people a deep sympathy for Jewish people and made them oppose firmly any kind of anti-Semitism.

What is especially worth mentioning is mutual respect, sympathy and support between Jews and Chinese people. As early as December 14, 1918, in his letter to Mr. E. S. Kadoorie, Mr. Chen Lu, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Chinese government expressed that China endorses the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. [11] On April 24, 1920, Mr.N.E.B.Ezra, another leader of Shanghai Jewish community, received a letter from Dr.Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China. In his letter, Dr. Sun wrote: " All lovers of Democracy cannot help but support the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightfully deserves an honorable place in the family of nations." [12]  Soon after Hitler's anti-Semitic campaign started, Madame Sun Yet-sen (Ms. Song Qingling) headed a delegation to meet with the German Consul in Shanghai and lodged a strong protest against Nazi atrocities. Her delegation included all the important leaders of The China League for Civil Rights: Cai Yuanpei, Lu Xun, Lin Yutang, Yang Xingfo a.o. [13] As the materials recently discovered indicate, Dr. Feng Shan Ho, Chinese Consul General in Vienna, Austria 1938 to 1940 was one of the first diplomats to save Jews by issuing them visas from the Holocaust. [14] Also, we found some documents which indicate in 1939, the Chinese government planned to set aside territory in Yunnan for the resettlement of Jewish refugees from Europe. For various reasons, the plan was never carried out. [15]

When thousands of Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai between 1937 and 1941, millions of Shanghai residents themselves became refugees after the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. However, in spite of this, the natives of Shanghai tried their best to help Jewish refugees in various ways. In the hardest days in Hongkew from 1943 to 1945, Jewish refugees and their Chinese neighbors enjoyed mutual help and shared weal and woe. They, though largely separated by linguistic and cultural barriers, found themselves bound together by mutual suffering.

It should be emphasized here that Jews in China also did their best to support the Chinese national-democratic movement and resistance against Japanese aggression. Some Jewish friends joined the anti-Japanese war or  cooperated with the Chinese Underground, even gave their lives for  the  cause  of  the liberation of the Chinese people. Many examples could be given here with deep respect. The well-known Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen, was aide-de-camp to Dr. Sun Yat- sen, 1922-1925. Following Sun's death, he worked for a series of Chinese leaders and rose to become a Jewish general in the Chinese Army. [16] Mr. Hans Shippe, a writer and reporter from Germany, was the first Jewish  volunteer to fall in battle on China's soil during her war against Japanese aggression. He left Shanghai and joined Chinese Army in 1939. On November 30, 1941, several days before Pearl Harbor, He died with a gun in his hand  in  an  engagement  with Japanese troops  in Shandong  province. Chinese people erected a monument for  him near the battlefield. [17] Also, Dr. Jacob Rosenfeld should be mentioned here.  He came to  Shanghai  from Austria  as a  Jewish refugee in 1939 and left Shanghai to join the anti-Japanese war in 1941. He  served  in the  ranks of the Chinese army for ten years, obtaining the highest  rank of Commander of the  Medical Corps as a foreigner. [18] Had he not died of a heart attack abruptly in Tel Aviv in 1952, it was speculated he would have been appointed high-level officer of Ministry of Health of the PRC. 

Jews from China and Jews in today's China

After the Second World War, China descended into civil war, and, for a variety of reasons, a number of Jews left China. Following the establishment of the People's Republic of China, many Jews continued to live and work in peace on Chinese soil, and it was not until the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution that they were forced to leave.  Jewish communities have continuously thrived in Hong Kong and Taiwan as part of China.  Today, "Chinese Jews" live throughout the world.  While their natures, pursuits, and occupations differ, they nevertheless have a common point -- recalling China as their home -- and consider themselves "old China hands." In order not to forget the memorable years they spent in China, they have established associations that frequently hold events and issue various publications. 

Since the introduction of China's policies of reform and openness, they have returned with their children to their "homecity" in order to seek their roots, visit old friends and travel.  Some have come to China to invest and do business, participating in their former-home's new upsurge of development.  After his revisit to China in 1978 after an absence of thirty years, Lord Lawrence Kadoorie wrote: "We are grateful to the country where we grew up." [19] He met Mr.Deng Xiaoping during his visit to Beijing in 1985. When Michael Blumenthal, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, returned to Shanghai in 1979, he showed off his old Shanghai haunts in Hongkou to the press. One change he noted since he arrived in Shanghai from Germany in 1939: "There are now no people dying in the street." [20] Ambassador Yosef Tekoah (Tukachinsky) said at a banquet when he revisited China in 1989: "The most wonderful time of the life is youth. I spent the time in China. Now I am back with the purpose of looking for something that is the best." [21] The late Shaul Eisenberg came to China as a refugee during the Second World War and later went on to become a noted businessman.  He actively invested in Shanghai enterprises, establishing, for example, the Y.P. Glass Factory.  During his life, he energetically supported the project for establishing Pudong Diamond Exchange Center in Shanghai which is now coming true . [22]

In 1992, China and Israel established diplomatic relations, further encouraging the return flow of Jews to China.  At present, Beijing and Shanghai have begun to see the emergence of new Jewish communities made up of businesspeople, technical experts, diplomats, and foreign students.  Since Hong Kong's return to China, the Jewish community there has once more come to life.

Jews in China: A Hot Topic of Academic Research and Public Interest

Since the mid-20th century there has been a steady increase of books on Jews in China, and during the 1980s and 1990s this subject became an international "hot topic." Particularly since the establishment of Sino-Israeli diplomatic relations in 1992, academic conferences have regularly been devoted to the subject and a large number of books on the topic have appeared.  This enthusiasm for the subject is not limited to academic circles but extends to the mass media, television and movies.  To a certain degree, interest in the subject carries social and political connotations.  First, this "Oriental" page in the history of the Jewish people has academic value in the fields of Jewish studies, sinology, history, religious studies, ethnic studies, cultural anthropology, and philosophy.  Moreover, this topic has important practical significance in opposing racism and fascism, furthering friendly relations and cultural harmony between all peoples, and preserving peace in the world.  Since the subtext of this topic is the special friendship between Chinese and Jews, it also plays a unique role in furthering the continued opening-up of China and developing relations between China and nations like Israel and the United States.

On behalf of the Israeli people, late Yitzhak Rabin, when he visited Shanghai in l993 expressed his heartfelt thanks to Shanghai for providing a haven for Jewisl1 refugees from Nazi Europe. During his visit to Shanghai in 1995, the Austrian President Thomas Klestil paid a special visit to Hongkew (today's Hongkou ) to lay a wreath in memory of the Holocaust victims from Austria. In 1998, U.S. First Lady Hilary Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Shanghai's Ohel Rachel Synagogue. Israeli President Ezer Weizmann paid a 1999 visit to a photo exhibit at Shanghai's Ohel Rachel Synagogue, where he once again thanked the Chinese people for rescuing Jewish refugees. In 1999, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder visited Shanghai's Ohel Rachel Synagogue.  In 2003, German President Johannes Rau also paid a visit to former Hongkew ghetto. Their visits are specially significant, because the majority of Jewish refugees in Shanghai during wartime came from the Nazi Germany and its occupied area. When the short visit was coming to an end, Mr.Schroder wrote in the distinguished visitor's book: "A poet once wrote 'death is envoy coming from Germany.' We know that many persecutees found a haven in Shanghai. We never forget this history. Today, we are here to show our appreciation and praise to those who provided every possible relief for the persecutees."[23]

These pages in history, composed on Chinese soil by many ordinary Chinese and Jews and cataloging the traditions of Sino-Jewish friendship, form a chapter in the history of human progress that will forever shine.

(Dr. PAN Guang is the Director and Professor of Shanghai Center of International Studies and Institute of European & Asian Studies in Shanghai,  Dean of Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai (CJSS), and Vice Chairman of Chinese Society of Middle East Studies. He is Professor of History & Political Science, and Walter & Seena Fair Professor for Jewish Studies. He has traveled and lectured widely as a visiting scholar in North America, East Asia, Russia, Europe, Middle East and Australia. He holds a number of prestigious posts in Chinese institutions on International Studies, Asian Studies, Middle East Studies and Jewish Studies, and published books and articles on a variety of topics such as The Jews in China, The Jews in Shanghai, The Revitalization of the Jewish People, The Jewish Civilization, Shanghai Jews Memoirs, Shanghai Jews since 1840, China--Central Asia--Russia Relations, China's Role in the War on Terrorism, Contemporary International Crises, and China's Success in the Middle East.)

[1] For a general picture, see Sidney Shapiro (ed.) Jews in Old China. New York, 1984, and Jonathan Goldstein (ed.) The Jews of China , M.E.Sharpe, 1999.

[2]   Wang Yisa, Spring and Autumn of The Chinese Jews, Beijing, 1992,  p.35.

[3]   Wang Yisa, Spring and Autumn of The Chinese Jews, Beijing, 1992,  p.45.  

[4]See Pan Guang (ed.) The Jews in China, Beijing, 2001.

[5] See Quwei & Li Shuxiao (ed.) The Jews in Harbin, Beijing, 2003.

[6] Alex Grobman and Daniel Landes (ed.) Genocide, Critical Issues of the Holocaust. Los Angeles, 1983, p. 299.

[7] Pan Guang & Wang Jian, Shanghai Jews since 1840, Beijing, 2002, p.42.

[8] Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz, The Fugu Plan, The Untold Story of the Japanese and Jews during World War II. New York and London, 1979, p. 223.

[9] Chen Yuan and Ye Han, Study on the Israelite Religion in Kaifeng - Commentaries on the Stone Inscription of the Israelites. Shanghai, 1923, p. 2.

[10] Official Statistics by Chinese government.

[11] See Isrealí»s Messenger, October 29, 1920.

[12] See Isreal's Messenger, November 4, 1927.

[13] See Isreal's Messenger, June 2, 1933.

[14] See Vancouver Holocaust Education Center (ed.) Diplomat Rescuers and the Story of Feng Shan Ho, Vancouver, 1999.

[15] Pan Guang & Wang Jian, Shanghai Jews since 1840, Beijing, 2002, pp.177-181.

[16]See Daniel Levy, Two-Gun Cohen: A Biography. New York, 1997.

[17]Wang Huo, "He Died on China's Soil, The Story of Hans Shippe," in: China Reconstructs, December 1979, pp.17-19.

[18] See Gerd Kaminski, General Luo Genannt Langnase,Das abenteuerliche Leben des Rosenfeld, Wien, 1993.

[19] Oral interview with Lord Lawrence Kadoorie, Hong Kong, April 19, 1989. See also Pan Guang (ed.) Shanghai Jews Memoirs, Shanghai, 1995, p11.

[20] Oral interview with M.Blumenthal, New York, June 17, 1996. See also Washington Post, March 4, 1979.

[21] Pan Guang (ed.) The Jews in China, Beijing, 2001,  p.162.            

[22]Pan Guang & Wang Jian, Shanghai Jews since 1840,  Beijing, 2002, p.254-255.

[23] Pan Guang, "With Chancellor Schroder in Ohel Rachel Synagogue," in: Wen Hui Daily, November 22, 1999.