Welcome to Mystic Link!

This blog is dedicated to the exploration of mystical wisdom and life experience. It seeks to penetrate beyond the shadows and surfaces of our physical reality to discover vistas of unfathomable depth, beauty and meaning. These mystical realms are closer than you might imagine, for they exist in every multifold aspect of the observed empiricial world, as they do within the consciousness of the observer. In the infinite silence and contracted light, within the ethereal mirage of every passing moment, the eternal search begins and ends...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Language Shift and the Maintenance of Cultural Identity: Kaifeng’s Jewish Descendants



In 1949 Ai Dianyuan, a resident of Kaifeng, attended the Fifth Founding Celebration of the People's Republic of China, where he met with Chairman Mao Zedong. Ai was a descendant of Kaifeng Jews who had arrived in China from Central Asia nearly a millennium earlier. His request to the Chairman was that his group, consisting then of only a few hundred families, be recognised as a separate ethnicity. Chairman Mao, who was acknowledged as an expert on Chinese history, was astounded to learn of the existence of a small Jewish community in China. He eventually ordered an investigation into this unusual phenomenon. In 1955 officials from the State National Affairs Committee visited Kaifeng and met with representatives of the seven acknowledged Jewish clans. They learned of the many legends, still preserved to this day as oral tradition, regarding the arrival of their ancestors in China; of the tribulations in maintaining its synagogue for over seven centuries amidst natural disasters, political violence and natural atrophy until its final destruction by a flood of the Yellow River in 1860; of the death of the last Hebrew-speaking rabbi several years before; and of the eventual deterioration of their exceptional variant of Jewish religion and culture.


Mao Zedong's response to the committee's investigation, endorsed by both Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, was as follows:


"According to Comrade Stalin's Theory of nationality, there should be at least three elements to be a nationality: its own language; its own folk (religious) customs: and its own living area (i.e. the Tibetan and Uighur Autonomous Regions in Tibet and Xinjiang). Since the Chinese Jews lost all the specialties and features mentioned above, they cannot still be taken as Jews."


The Chairman's ruling was later transposed to an official document that officially classified the Kaifeng Jewish descendants as Han Chinese and engendered subsequent political tensions for those who would attempt to assert their Jewish ancestry (Ehrlich and Liang 2008, 280-282).


Chroniclers of the history and culture of the Kaifeng Jews such as Bishop W. C. White (1966), Donald Leslie (1972) and Michael Pollak (1998), are in accord that the community's small number, rapid assimilation and geographical isolation from the Jewish Diaspora made their decline as a viable community all but inevitable. According to Ehrlich and Liang (2008, 278-279), the initial contingent of Jewish traders arrived in 998 CE in Kaifeng, at the time called Bianliang, the capital of the Northern Song dynasty. As merchants traversing the Silk Road, they arrived without female accompaniment, so that intermarriage with Chinese women occurred in the first generation of migrants. Although prayer books and Torah scrolls recovered from Kaifeng illustrate the use of Hebrew and Aramaic in the liturgy, evidence from the synagogue stelae first engraved in 1489 seem to indicate the use of Chinese as the lingua franca as well as a rapid language shift, required for their commercial endeavours in China. Yet, in spite of overwhelming acculturation, the Kaifeng Jews managed to preserve a unique religious culture and common identity for over eight centuries. Furthermore, even after the destruction of their last synagogue, the death of the last communal leader knowledgeable in Hebrew language and the loss of their religious literature, a small minority stubbornly persisted in asserting its Judaic heritage. This persistence has consistently weathered political repression from the Communist government and has endured until the present moment, when global interaction has at last begun to rejuvenate this insignificant, isolated and historically neglected community (Ehrlich and Liang 2008, 310-311).


It is vital to issue a caveat that the reference to this Kaifeng community as "Jewish" or "Jews" is in the most generic sense only. Quite possibly, as Jewish identity is matrilineal, with no documentation as to the conversion processes that took place in the first generations, the Kaifeng Jews ceased being technically Jewish within a relatively short time span after initial migration. More importantly, as documented by the 18th century Jesuits, their religious practice, influenced by the Confucianism of their environment, diverged significantly from that of their brethren in Europe or the Levant. As the focus of the argument presented here, however, is on the perpetuation of a sense of Jewish identity amidst concurrent language shift and assimilation, these terms are used here in a phenomenological rather than an ontological context.




Literature Review


With the increase in global mobility and migration patterns, recent socio-linguistic research has addressed the issues associated with language shift and maintenance. Socio-cultural factors such as demographics, institutional support, language loyalty and ethno-linguistic vitality all contribute to individual and collective choices to either discard or preserve a native language (Coulmas 2005). Further research discusses the significance of language in the construction of ethnic identity (Fought 2006, Paulston 1994). However, the question of how an ethnic group can succeed in perpetuating its cultural identity in the wake of language shift and adoption of a new language is one less frequently addressed. Because the phenomenon of language shift itself normally takes three generations (Coulmas 2005), the investigation into how a culture manages to retain its identity in the context of the acquired language may often only be established over an extended period of time. In that regard, the story of the Jewish community of Kaifeng serves as a unique model of an ethnicity managing to preserve its cultural identity for several centuries within the modality of an acquired language.


The research on the existence of an exiguous group of Jews among the numerous ethnicities in populous China is relatively recent and sparse (Ehrlich 2008). Academic debate over the Kaifeng Jewish community still continues concerning their place of origin, date of entry into China, proclivity to intermarriage, observance of Jewish custom as well as the reasons for its ultimate decline in the 19th century. The focus of this research, however, will examine how this group, having commenced to shift language not long after their arrival in Kaifeng during the Southern Song dynasty (Xu 2003), syncretised their native culture with that of their host in a manner that managed, paradoxically, to preserve their original identity even after centuries of assimilation.


The stelae of 1489, 1663 and 1679 that once adorned the Kaifeng synagogue mention three different arrival times of Jews into the Middle Kingdom: during the Zhou dynasty (c.1100 BCE- 221 BCE), Han dynasty (206BCE- 221BCE) and Song dynasty (960-1126). Although these contradictory dates have provoked considerable debate, the consensus amongst Chinese scholars is that the Jewish community in Kaifeng was established during the early Song by Jewish traders who hailed from Persia and whose native language was Judeo-Persian (Shapiro 1988, Xu 2003). Moreover, Xu (2003) points out that though the stelae refer to Tianzhu (which in modern Chinese can refer to India) as the place of their origin, linguistic analysis of the Torah scrolls and liturgical texts recovered from Kaifeng clearly point to a Persian derivation.


According to the 1489 lapidary inscription, the first synagogue was constructed in 1163, later rebuilt on a larger scale with the permission of the (Yuan) authorities in 1279. In the first century of their sojourn in Kaifeng, the Jews retained their original Hebrew names, their original tongue as well as the liturgical Hebrew utilised in the synagogue, although daily affairs were conducted in the lingua franca of Chinese (Leslie 1972, Xu 2003). By the early Ming period, however, the Jews had already adopted Chinese surnames; by the seventeenth century the surnames Zhao, Li, Ai, Gao, Jin, Shi and Zhang were the sole signifiers of the Jewish clans in Kaifeng (White 1966, Leslie 1972, Pollak 1998, Xu 2003). According to Leslie (1972), the adoption of these surnames represents "…both the assimilation and acceptance of the Jews by Chinese society." Simultaneously, numerous Jews enrolled in Chinese schools and excelled in the imperial examinations "out of all proportion to their numbers" (Xu 2003). In addition, Confucianist rituals, particularly those related to ancestor worship, were by then practiced in the synagogue (White 1966, Leslie 1972, Xu 2003).


The Kaifeng synagogue, a focal point for the maintenance of collective cultural identity, was rebuilt and repaired several times during its 700 year history due to attrition, fire and flooding. The 1642 flood of the Yellow River was particularly devastating, eliminating over two-thirds of Kaifeng's population and destroying the synagogue along with its Torah scrolls and Hebrew literature (White 1966, Leslie 1972, Pollak 1998, Xu 2003). Only two hundred families survived, but, in a remarkable achievement, they succeeded in recovering many of the parchments damaged by the floods and rewriting them, though, according to Xu (2003) their scribal capabilities in the Hebrew language had diminished considerably over the centuries. With the advent of the Qing dynasty and gradual isolation of China to foreign influence, the Kaifeng Jewish community's previous geographic isolation from the Jewish Diaspora became absolute (White 1966, Leslie 1972, Pollak 1998, Xu 2003).


From then on until the turn of the twentieth century knowledge of the rapidly deteriorating culture of Kaifeng's kehillah (Jewish community) is gleaned almost exclusively through missionary sources, beginning with the initial encounter of Cardinal Matteo Ricci with the Jew Ai Tian in Peking in 1605. In the subsequent report of Ricci's envoys—trained in classical Hebrew—on their exploratory visit to Kaifeng, they claimed that although Hebrew was still chanted in synagogue liturgy, there were few in the community that could actually speak it and then with a flawed pronunciation. Nonetheless, despite their external acculturation to Han society, the observance of the Sabbath, holidays, circumcision, daily prayers and some of the scriptural dietary laws bolstered their inimitable sense of a cultural identity (Pollak 1998). Despite the gradual onset of economic hardship that afflicted the once-prosperous community and the continued erosion of their culture, all attempts by Jesuit and subsequent Anglican missionaries to convert the Jews to Christianity were of no avail (Pollak 1998). By the time the Canadian Anglican Bishop William C White arrived in Kaifeng in 1910, the community as a cohesive unit no longer existed. The last rabbi had died sixty years earlier, and the synagogue, ravaged by floods and in a state of decay, was dismantled several years thereafter, its bricks and tiles sold to feed the impoverished Jewish families for whom it once provided spiritual nourishment (Pollak 1998, Xu 2003).


Although Hebrew was now forgotten, and Jewish religious practice, except for the prohibition of eating pork, had become a memory of the distant past, the notion of a unique identity still persisted amongst the Jewish descendants. In the 19th and 20th centuries numerous letters were written to the Jewish Diaspora as well as to the thriving cosmopolitan Jewish community in Shanghai imploring for assistance in recruiting teachers who would be willing to resuscitate the failing kehillah; circumstances conspired that all of these pleas came to naught (Pollak 1998). White, whose Trinity Cathedral in Kaifeng inherited the synagogue's stelae and who, in letters to his superiors openly proclaimed his desire to convert this fallen people rather than have them succumb to the "heathen" religion of their Chinese neighbours, could not comprehend the stubborn refusal of the Jews to abandon their forsaken identity and take advantageous refuge in the Church (Pollak 1998). His English translation of the stelae reveals that, already several centuries ago, the influence of Confucianism and Taoism had corrupted the community's Jewish roots, making the seeds of decay inevitable (White 1966). Weisz (2008), however, in his later translation disputes this rendering and attempts to show that, although shrouded in the terminology of Chinese culture, the stelae were meant to preserve significant aspects of Jewish belief and culture.


Although White (1966) and Pollak (1998) both sounded a premature death-knell for Kaifeng Jewry, Leslie (1972), as the title of his book suggests, had a somewhat more positive outlook on the prospects for a community which had managed to preserve its identity as a tiny minority under adverse circumstances for almost nine centuries. Xu (2003), Ehrlich (2008) and Weisz (2006), having researched the kehillah in the wake of a Deng Xiaoping's policy of "Openness" and in the era of information technology, have seen the miraculous rejuvenation of this community from the brink of extinction. In recent years, several dozen of the Kaifeng Jewish descendants have established a modest community centre, instituted classes for three levels of Hebrew language study and celebrate communal Sabbath and festival meals. In addition, they have procured a library of Judaic resources in both English and Chinese and have commenced the process of reacquainting themselves with their lost traditions (Ehrlich 2008).


The focus of the second part of this paper will be on those particular referents within Han culture that enabled the Kaifeng Jewish community to maintain its identity despite its near total acculturation. In today's global era, where governments strive to preserve cultural diversity, the question of how a culture can maintain its fundamental identity in the wake of language shift is of tremendous importance both in regard to the formation of government policy and as a guide for immigrants themselves, who seek to become integrated citizens of their host country, while simultaneously preserving a resilient link to their original ethnicity. More specifically, what follows is an examination of the cross-cultural aspects in both Han and Jewish cultures that, in the aftermath of language attrition, contributed to a natural, inescapable absorption of Kaifeng Jewry into the mainstream society of their residence, but, more significantly, also managed to sustain an incontrovertible Judaic identity up until the present day.


Language shift and the conservation of cultural identity: the Jewish Diaspora and Kaifeng


The general question of how Jews were able to preserve their identity as a minority culture, including the specific question of the Jewish community in Kaifeng, was already addressed in the mid-nineteenth century by Immanuel Kant. Kant was attempting to formulate a general rule of history that the predictable fate of marginal ethnicities was assimilation into the host majority and eventual extinction. The Jews, however, were a notable exception to his theory: "…the Jews have continued to maintain themselves [as a distinctive religious body], though scattered throughout the world, whereas the faith of other religious fellowships has usually been fused with the faith of the people among whom they have been scattered. This phenomenon strikes many as so remarkable that they judge it to be impossible according to the nature of things, but to be an extraordinary dispensation for a special divine purpose (Kant 1960, 127)."


Kant, however, who was brought up as a Pietistic Christian, did not see any special "divine purpose" in the maintenance of Jewish cultural identity. Pragmatically, he declared Judaism's apparently uncanny survival was enabled by its possession of written scriptures that could be verified by those of the host culture either in Christendom's Old Testament or within Islam's biblical adaptations in the Koran. Nonetheless, Kant was troubled by the continued existence of a Jewish community for seven centuries in Kaifeng, news of which had been transmitted to Europe by Jesuits in the part of that century. Kaifeng Jews had survived for that length of time without the presence of Christianity's support. (Kant was apparently unaware of the large Muslim population of Kaifeng, which would have given some credence to his unusual theory.) In order to solve this anomaly, Kant declared, in what appears to be a blatant contradiction to his hypothesis on Jewish perseverance generally, that it was the total lack of compatibility between the belief systems of China and that of Judaism that allowed the Jews there to maintain their independent identity and distance from the mainstream culture (Kant 1960 ).


Before examining Pollak's response to Kant's supposition, one that reveals an obvious Christian bias of supercessionism, it is important to take note of a number of historical factors concerning European Jewry which Kant had conveniently chosen to ignore in ascribing Judaism's survival to its proximity to Christianity and Islam. In fact, it was Judaism's propinquity to Christendom that created the economic discrimination and religious persecutions that compelled the segregation of Jewish culture from that of the mainstream. According to Jewish historians like S. M. Perlmann, contrary to Kant's theory, it was precisely this oppression that reinforced the separate ethnic identity of the Jewish minority. Writing in 1912 Perlmann argues that the danger of assimilation and cultural extinction "… is not imminent in those countries where the hostility to the Jews is still strong and effective, for they will fight there and conserve themselves." The massive acculturation and conversion of Jews with the advent of post-Enlightenment humanism in the century after Kant's death seems to confirm this truth (Pollak 1998, 334-336).


In challenging Kant's assertion that Confucianism's antithetical nature to Judaism was the lynchpin of identity maintenance for Kaifeng Jewry, it is important to mention that the philosopher's comparison between the Jews of Europe and those of Kaifeng is a flawed premise at the onset. Despite the oppression confronting European Jewry, their conservation of identity created a rich religious and cultural life, where Jewish scholarship thrived and Hebrew, even in the wake of language shift, was preserved as a second language. This knowledge of Hebrew was reinforced by its continuous usage as a language of communication between the various European communities. By contrast, there is no recorded incidence of anti-Semitism towards the Jews of Kaifeng. According to their oral traditions, they were welcomed personally by the Song emperor, who bestowed upon them Chinese surnames, hastening the process of acculturation (Ehlich and Liang, 2008, Xu, 2003). Furthermore, the Kaifeng kehillah was for centuries the most isolated Jewish community on earth. They were forgotten by the world until the meeting of the Jesuit Mateo Ricci and the Kaifeng Jew Ai Tian in Beijing in 1605; at that time, according to the testimony of Ricci's emissaries, their knowledge of Hebrew was negligible. Following the Qing expulsion of missionaries in 1723, there was a veritable shutdown on all communication with Kaifeng Jewry until the 20th century in the wake of its cultural nadir (Xu 2003, 52-53).


Contesting Kant's thesis that the adversative native Chinese belief systems repelled Kaifeng Jewry into a mode of cultural maintenance, Pollak argues that, on the contrary, they served as a magnet to provide Jews with an opportune means to adopt the identity of the host Han culture and to obscure their foreign origins: "The inescapable impression that emerges from even a superficial reading of the Kaifeng synagogal stelae is that of a tiny community that is losing its ancestral heritage and becoming inextricably absorbed into the culture of the larger community around it." He further suggests that it was both the tolerance displayed by the Chinese to minorities who respected its values and the phenomenal determination of Kaifeng Jewry to conserve their ethnic identity that accounted for the perpetuation of that distinctiveness as long as it did. Moreover, the assimilation with Confucianist values not only enabled the Kaifeng Jews to assert their identification with Chinese civilization, it also facilitated the economic advancement of many of them who excelled in the civil service exams and were thus appointed to distinguished social positions. Based on this presumption that expediency alone impelled the adoption of Confucianist ideas and practices, Pollak then concludes, despite the lack of any supportive evidence, that this manoeuvring necessarily must have provoked the kind of internecine wrangling that characterized other historic confrontations between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. "Without question," writes Pollak, "the insistence of certain Confucian-oriented literati, and other assimilated-minded Jews as well, that such practices as ancestor adulation be brought into the synagogue was no less repugnant to their traditionally inclined co-religionists than, for example, the insistence of the proponents of Reform [Judaism] that the organ [prominent in Christian services] be given a place in communal worship would later be to their Orthodox brethren" (Pollak 1998, 337- 342). Significantly, Pollak's assumptions run contrary to Ehrlich and Liang's (2008, 279) contention that "… there is no record of the Jews demonstrating threat or offense to the ruling philosophies of the various successive dynasties."


White (1966, 3) argues that apart from the seemingly un-Jewish content of the lapidary texts, the form of the stelae in itself represented a departure from traditional Jewish synagogal architecture and therefore a turning point in the absorption process. Inscribed stelae have been a feature of Chinese, rather than Jewish, places of worship for about two thousand years. "For over 300 years following the erection of the synagogue in 1163 the Kaifeng Jews appeared not to have followed this practice, until the stone of 1489 was set up. This would seem to point to a breakdown of their Jewish conservatism and assimilation into the non-Jewish environment." This statement of White's betrays an ignorance of synagogal architecture: since the time of the Judean exile in 72 CE, synagogues in Diaspora have inexorably adopted the local architectural styles. The synagogue in Kaifeng was no exception to this rule, and, as Pollak (1998), Xu (2003), Ehrlich (2008) and Weisz (2006) all argue, the setting up of the stelae in the synagogue courtyard arouse more from the need to preserve communal history in written form than from a desire to wantonly abandon it.


Tangentially, in his defence of the motivation behind this decision to put up the stelae, Weisz (2006, xvii) erroneously declares: "Carving in stone was contrary to the Jewish precept against idolatry, and the Israelites in China faced the dilemma of either vanishing without a trace or incising their religious beliefs in stone to be preserved for perpetuity." However, although the carving of certain three dimensional figures falls under the proscription against idolatry, no Talmudic or halachic (Jewish legal) code has ever prohibited the carving of written words in stone, as a visit to any Jewish cemetery anywhere in the world would attest to. In fact, a careful examination of the biblical Book of Joshua reveals that before crossing the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land, Joshua, similar to the Kaifeng Jews, "…inscribed there, on the stones, a repetition of the Torah of Moses, which he wrote before the Children of Israel" (8:32).


While the assimilation of Kaifeng Jewry is indisputable, particularly in light of their incomparable circumstances, reducing its cause to solely practical reasons or exaggerating its extent, may obscure many of the commonalities shared by both Jewish and Chinese cultures that made cultural integration not only probable but essentially desirable.


An analysis of the confluence of Confucianist and Jewish cultural referents in the lapidary inscriptions of Kaifeng


Xu (2003, 114-116) while acknowledging that Kaifeng's Jewish descendants excelled in the civil service examinations, argues that Kaifeng Jewry saw no contradiction between the social order espoused by Confucianist doctrine and the Jewish emphasis on fulfilment of God's will: "…Confucianism is a humanistic, rational and secular worldview, a social ethic, a political ideology, a scholarly tradition, and a way of life, sometimes viewed as a philosophy. But to reiterate what was said above, it is not a religion. This is critically important for an understanding why the Kaifeng Jews never hesitated to use Confucian sayings and customs in the synagogue. Since Confucianism has nothing to do with religious faith, they saw no conflict with Judaism." Expounding on Donald Leslie's (1979, 161) argument that in the inscriptions of the stelae "… the ideas expressed are sometimes Jewish in Confucian garb," Xu (2003, 119) suggests that the couching of Jewish concepts in Confucian terminology was often a linguistic convenience. Since Chinese language simply did not possess the theological equivalents of many Jewish concepts, it was necessary to adapt these concepts to the existing socio-cultural milieu. The 1489 inscription, for example, refers to the Sabbath as "four times a month"; this is because at that time there was no weekly division of the Chinese calendar, so that it was senseless to describe the Sabbath as a weekly event. Xu, however, goes further than stating that the camouflaging of Jewish theology in Confucianist terms was not a point of contention: he believes that, from an ethical standpoint, the two shared distinct commonalities: "… Moreover, as has often been noted, Judaism is not so much a religion as a way of life, and this may have made it similar to Confucianism in the minds of Kaifeng's Jews" (Xu 2003, 120). Reaffirming this suggestion is the 1663 inscription which reads: "The composition of the Scriptures, although written in an ancient script [Hebrew] and of a different pronunciation, is in harmony with the principles of the six classics [of Confucianism], and in no case is there anything not in harmony with them."


The following verses appearing towards the end of the 1489 inscriptions, amongst many in the stelae extolling the virtues of Confucianism, provide an example of several elements of cross-cultural value confluence:


"Although the religion of Confucius and this

religion are similar as a whole, and different in details.

Both are determined and set in ways.

Nevertheless they also

worship the heavenly Dao.

Honour the ancestors

Respect the relationship between Prince and Minister

Filial to their fathers and mothers

Peaceful to their wives and children

Have order in their social ranks

Interact with friends

And do not make exceptions to the Five Relationships

… May the Great Emperor of the Ming

His virtue surpass Yu and Tang

And His Highness that of Yao and Xun

His intelligence and intuitive wisdom

Be bright like the Sun and the Moon…" (Weisz 2006, 17-18)


According to Xu (2003, 121) "… the real implication of the 1489 inscription is that Confucianism and Judaism agree on essential points and differ only on secondary issues." The veracity of Xu's statement is paramount in understanding how the external "garb" of Confucianism could nonetheless potentially serve as a means of transmission of an essential, internal Jewish identity, even in the midst of extensive assimilation. The similarities delineated in the inscription include the acknowledgement of a higher moral authority, honour bestowed to the ancestors, respectful social and familial relationships, a stable social order and benevolent human interaction. Furthermore, in the closing salutation to the Emperor we find commendations of virtue, intelligence and wisdom.


The regular usage in all of the lapidary inscriptions of the Chinese words Dao (道, "the Way"), or Tian (天,"Heaven"), as an appellation for God is evidence to White (1966) that the Jews of Kaifeng had strayed far from their scriptural source. Xu, by contrast, indicates the compatibility of this term with the notion of a formless deity that is the essence of Judaism's monotheistic belief and its divergence from Christianity. In fact, he calls attention to a synagogue plaque describing the Divine donated by a Kaifeng Jew named Ai Shi-de which read: "Its presence is not impeded by visible form; its absence does not imply an empty void; for the Way is outside the limits of existence or non-existence." The thought expressed therein resonates with one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith formulated by the renowned Jewish codifier Maimonides: "I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is not a body, and that He is free from all the accidents of matter, and that He has not any form whatsoever"(Xu 2003, 117). Although the Torah, in stark contrast to the abstract Chinese concepts of Dao or Tian, describes God in anthropomorphic and androcentric terminology, the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 71a) explains that "the Torah speaks in the language of human beings" for the sake of comprehension; all Jewish sources concur, however, that God has no intrinsic physical form or gender.


More important than the terms utilized is the overarching concept that each culture acknowledged a higher moral authority that motivates human beings to act in a proper manner for the benefit of the collective whole. "Confucianism does not involve a religious belief system. Unconcerned with deities, the spiritual, or what happens after a person's death, it focuses on the establishment of a harmonious society, based upon a fixed idea of what each person's position and conduct demands—a society in which everyone does the right thing, especially in relation to others" (Xu 2003, 115). Although Judaism couches these moral imperatives as Divine commandments, the essential aim is the same: the creation of a just society. Commandments such as filial respect and honour; conjugal obligations; the honour due to a monarch; the hierarchy of the priestly (Kohen) and Levite castes; and reverence owed to a Torah scholar were all designed to ensure the preservation of a harmonious social order.


Although Pollack (1998) speaks disparagingly of the introduction of Confucian ancestor worship rituals as an aberration, as Xu (2003, 118) puts forward, a comparison of the prayer of ancestral veneration found in the Kaifeng Memorial Book differs very little from the Yizkor (memorial) prayer recited in the synagogue today to recall deceased family members. Most prayers in the Jewish liturgy address God as אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו (elohaynu v'elohay avoteinu), i.e. "our God and God of our ancestors" (Ganzfried 1963). Perhaps more than other cross-cultural commonalities, the veneration of ancestors in each tradition enabled the Kaifeng Jews to preserve the dual identity of Han Chinese and Judaism without contradiction.


As in Confucianism, where scholarship was considered to be the highest level of social achievement, so too, the tradition of Torah scholarship was always held in high esteem. In the Jewish tradition, a Torah scholar is to be given more respect than one gives to his own father, since "…his father has given [him] life in this world, while his teacher prepares him for life in the world to come" (Ganzfried 1963, 143:1-2). Although little is known about the way in which Jewish education was perpetuated in Kaifeng, in 1712 the Jesuit Gozani describes how Jews in Kaifeng "…start learning how to read Hebrew from childhood, and many of them know how to write it; I have seen them reading and writing with my own eyes " (Pollak 1998, 108). Although this linguistic knowledge was very basic, a small group of more educated scholars and rabbis preserved core Jewish knowledge until the middle of the 19th century. Xu (2003, 89) calls attention to the mention in the 1663 inscription of Zhao Yincheng and his brother Zhao Yingdou, each of whom is said to have written scholarly works of scriptural exegesis.


As mentioned before, the Jewish inclination to erudition led many Jews to succeed in the prestigious civil service examinations, and, as Pollak (1998) has noted, this success led to their assimilation and advancement in Han culture. It is not clear, however, that assimilation with Han culture necessarily entailed the abnegation of Jewish tradition. The biography of Zhao Yincheng, mentioned above, exemplifies the way in which Han acculturation was capable of co-existing with a strong Jewish identity. Zhao was born in Kaifeng in 1619, received his juren (举人) degree in 1645 and the following year the ultimate jinshi (进士) rank. After being appointed as the department director of the Ministry of Justice, he was sent to Fukien Province, where he was successful in cultivating a strategic victory against an insurgency of armed bandits. Furthermore, he was also acclaimed in subsequent gazetteers as having "…promoted schools…cleared up judicial cases… The people were delighted to be free of calamity…" Yet, despite his achievements as a Chinese citizen, Zhao did not shirk his obligations as a Jew. After the death of one of his parents in 1653, Zhao returned to Kaifeng to begin the three year period of mourning. During this period, he became involved in communal Jewish affairs. More competent in Hebrew than other laypeople, he assisted the rabbi Li Zhen with the collation of Torah parchments that had been recovered from the devastating flood of 1642. Together with his brother Yingdou and cousin Zhengji, he succeeded in locating the foundations of the inundated synagogue. From his own income, which must have been significant for a man of his social prominence, he funded the total costs for three sections of the rear hall in the reconstructed house of worship. During this period he authored the book of biblical commentary The Vicissitudes of the Holy Scriptures. In 1656 he was appointed assistant surveillance commissioner in Hubei Province but died a year later, lavishly eulogized in three Chinese gazetteers (Pollak 1998, 327-328).


The confluence of ethical values in both Judaism and Confucianism enabled Zhao to embrace Han culture while fully partaking of his Jewish heritage. There is evidence that many more of the Kaifeng kehillah shared this dual affiliation, which, while integrating them into the host culture permitted the conservation of their original ethnic identity.


The effects of globalization on a revitalized cultural identity for Kaifeng's Jewish descendants


The 1605 meeting between Cardinal Matteo Ricci and the Kaifeng Jew Ai Tien, a documented incident that often reads like a comedy of errors, was seminal in the Western awareness of the existence of a Jewish community in China. Ai Tien, who had heard of the arrival in Peking of a group of white-skinned aliens from a faraway land, believing in one God and yet denying any connection to Islam, naturally assumed that these barbarians were in fact Jewish. Ricci, by contrast, presumed from Ai's professed monotheism that he had discovered a representative from an extraordinary Nestorian Christian enclave in China. Ai mistook Ricci's genuflection before a painting of the Madonna, St. John and the Christ child to be his reverence towards the matriarch Rebecca and her two sons Esau and Jacob; he further misconstrued a portrait of the four Christian evangelists on the chapel wall as a likeness of four of Jacob's twelve sons. Only later in Ricci's study did the religious identity of each man finally become clarified (Pollak 1998, 4-7). According to Pollak, the original intention of Ai's visit was the expectation that if "…some form of continuing communication could then be instituted with the centres of Western Judaism through the good offices of the recent immigrants, Chinese Jewry would at long last be given an opportunity to reforge its severed links to the mainstreams of its faith" (Pollak 1998, 5).


In the years that followed, even in the aftermath of near complete linguistic and cultural attrition, the Jewish descendants of Kaifeng persisted in appealing to the Jewry of the Diaspora to help them re-establish their fading ethnic identity. A letter written on behalf of the kehillah addressed to T. H. Layton, the British consul in Amoy, and dated August 15, 1850, the year of the death of Kaifeng's last rabbi, summarizes the community's predicament: "For the past forty or fifty years our religion has been but imperfectly transmitted, and although its canonical writings are still extant, there are none who understand so much of one word of them. It happens that there yet survives an aged female of more than seventy years, who retains in her recollection the principle tenets of the faith… Morning and night with tears in our eyes and with offerings of incense, do we implore our religion may again flourish… Daily, with tears, have we called on the Holy Name! If we could again procure ministers and put in order our temple, our religion would have a firm support for the future; and its sacred documents would have a secure repository" (Pollak 1998, 144-145). Due to both incredulity at the existence of a community of Chinese Jews and circumstantial priorities, the request of Kaifeng's Jews went unheeded. Fifty-two years later they sent a delegation to the wealthy Jewish community of Shanghai, where, once again, financial assistance to the Jews of Eastern Europe took precedence over the needs of this obscure, acculturated community of Chinese Jews (Xu 2003, 60).


Ironically, where appeals to the Diaspora have failed, the policies of Deng Xiaoping which opened China to global influences, including tourism, have succeeded in revitalising the small group of Jewish descendants in Kaifeng. Although their plea to both the Chinese and Israeli governments for recognition as Jews has been rejected, the remaining Kaifeng Jews, according to Ehrlich and Liang (2008, 311) numbering close to 1,000 individuals, have recently begun a process of restoring their lost cultural heritage. "The general interest in Judaism is high," write Ehrlich and Liang. "Though strongly patriotic as Han Chinese, there is great interest in studying English and Hebrew and in modernizing." As governmental suspicion of their religious activity gradually eases, the community has invested money and time into their future as a viable minority culture: they have recently rented a small room for their activities which presently include the communal observance of Friday night Sabbath dinners, festival celebrations and Hebrew classes taught by Israeli or American Jewish students from Henan University. The Sabbath kiddush (i.e. sanctification of the day) is recited in Hebrew and the meal is followed by a talk in Chinese on the weekly Torah portion. There are over thirty people, ranging from high-school age to pensioners, who currently study Hebrew twice a week. Although a dozen or so have immigrated to Israel in recent years, most of those who remain in Kaifeng, like Guo Yan (A Jew in Kaifeng,
2009), a schoolteacher of Chinese language and organiser of many of the kehillah's current activities, share the sentiments she expresses on her website: "…I cannot but intensely hope that on the world's edge [sic], in Kaifeng, extremely remote from our homeland Jerusalem, a Torah and a Hebrew culture can be preserved." Recently, the Israeli organization Shavei Yisrael, dedicated to the restoration of lost Jewish communities across the globe, sponsored a year-long visit to Israel for seven of the kehillah's younger members, where they will study Hebrew and undergo formal conversion. One of them, 23-year old Yaakov Wang, also aims to enter into the rabbinate. "My dream," he declares, "is to complete the process of converting to Judaism and become a certified rabbi, after which I will return to my community and serve as its first rabbi since the dissolve [sic] of the Jewish community some 150 years ago" (Chinese descendants of ancient Jewish community make aliyah, 2009).




During the eight centuries in which Jews resided in Kaifeng, despite bouts of official xenophobia and occasional tensions with the Moslem community, there is no recorded incident of Han anti-Semitism. Furthermore, unlike Jews in other Diaspora communities, the Jews of Kaifeng were free to advance economically and socially. Finally, the many similarities in the ethical parameters of Confucianism resonated with many primary Jewish values. All of these factors, compounded with normative language shift, served to hasten the assimilation of Kaifeng Jewry into the culture of its Chinese host. Yet, in spite of a syncretistic religious culture that bore little resemblance to that of their Western co-religionists, many of the descendants of Kaifeng's original Jewish migrants, though not technically Jewish, have maintained a unique sense of Jewish cultural identity up until the present.


Bishop White, in his translation and analysis of the centuries-old lapidary inscriptions, alleged that the Kaifeng Jews had abandoned their heritage and completely assimilated into Han culture. There are many today, particularly more orthodox Jews, who might similarly dismiss the significance of this community, given their inconsequential numbers and heterodox orientation. Others, like Tiberiu Weisz, who claims to have corrected many of the shortcomings in White's original translation, argue that the Jews of Kaifeng preserved a high degree of Judaic observance, albeit camouflaged in the linguistic and cultural referents of their habitation. According to Xu Xin, "Some scholars maintain that these writings were heavily influenced by Chinese culture, Confucianism in particular, and were inspired by and taken from Chinese teachings. Others hold that they were inspired by the Jewish spirit and express nothing but Judaism… Even a cursory glance makes it obvious that the writings of the Kaifeng Jews are a mixture of Confucianism and Judaism." More importantly, due to the complementary nature of these teachings, the dichotomous identities managed to re-enforce one another for over a thousand years.


Further research is required as to whether or not this cultural phenomenon is unique to Kaifeng Jewry's integration into Han culture, or whether any immigrant group, in the wake of language shift, is capable of anchoring its original ethnic identity through the cultivation of confluent values. Additionally, the recent phenomenon of cultural renewal through the effects of increased globalization is worthy of academic attention. After a hiatus of a thousand years, Kaifeng Jews are finally in contact with the Jewish Diaspora and with it, a number of varied influences. How these will affect the syncretised balance of Han and Jewish cultures which have imbued the Kaifeng kehillah with its distinctive sense of identity is unpredictable. What seems fairly certain, however, is that, despite their small number, the faint spark of identity which tenaciously endured among Kaifeng's Jewish descendants throughout the centuries, has not yet been extinguished and continues to this day to glow with increasing luminosity.




Chinese descendants of ancient Jewish community make aliyah. 2009. Ynet News, October 22.

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/1,7340,L-3793399,00.html (accessed November

4, 2009).


Coulmas, F. 2005. Sociolinguistics: The Study of Speakers' Choices. New York. Cambridge

    University Press.


Ehrlich, M.A., ed. 2008. The Jewish-Chinese Nexus: A Meeting of Civilizations. New York.



Ehrlich, M.A. and P. Liang, 2008. The contemporary condition of the Jewish descendants of

Kaifeng. In The Jewish-Chinese Nexus: A Meeting of Civilizations, ed. M.A. Ehrlich, 278-315. New York. Routledge.


Fought, C. 2006. Language and Ethnicity. New York. Cambridge University Press.


Ganzfried, S. 1963. Code of Jewish Law. New York. Hebrew Publishing Company.


Kant, I. 1960. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. La Salle, Ill. The Open Court

Publishing. Quoted in Pollak, 1998, 334- 337.


Leslie, D.D. 1972. The Survival of the Chinese Jews: the Jewish Community of Kaifeng.



Paulston, C.B. 1994. Linguistic Minorities in Multilingual Settings. Philadelphia. John

    Benjamins Publishing Company.


Pollak, Michael. 1998. Mandarins, Jews, and Missionaries: The Jewish Experience in the Chinese

Empire. New York. Weatherhill, Inc.


Shapiro, S., ed. 1988. Jews in Old China: Studies by Chinese Scholars. New York. Hippocrene

    Books, Inc.


Xu, X. 1995. Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng. Hoboken. Ktav Publishing House.


Xu, X. 2003. The Jews of Kaifeng China: History, Culture and Religion. Jersey City. Ktav

Publishing House.


Weisz, T. 2006. The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions: The Legacy of the Jewish Community in Ancient

China. New York. iUniverse, Inc.


White, W.C. 1966. Chinese Jews: A Compilation of Matters Relating to the Jews of KÀi-Feng Fu.

    Toronto. University of Toronto Press.


Yan, Guo. 2009. A Jew in Kaifeng. http://kaifengjews.blogspot.com/ (accessed November 3,



Anonymous said...

Your post is an inspiration for me to study more about this issue. I must confess your limpidity widened my sentiments and I will immediately grab your rss feed to remain up to date on any succeeding articles you might write. Bravo for a well done post! Cheers, asbestos-emergency.com

Anonymous said...

I do like ur article~!!!...................................................

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I love readding, and thanks for your artical...................................................

Anonymous said...

量力而為,別勉強了,Cut your coat according to your cloth..............................................

Anonymous said...


彥安 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.