Assimilation  

 

In China, the Jews of Kaifeng found a civilization untouched by Biblical religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Where the Jews may have had a conflict of interest in the interpretation of the Old Testament with the Christians, they had no such issues with the Chinese. As such, the Jews in Kaifeng were never singled out as a group in a negative sense. China was a haven in which they could live freely, and anti-Semitism was a concept they need not worry about.

During their integration into the vast Middle Kingdom, the Kaifeng Jews not only faced no troubles, they were in fact viewed highly, as exemplary citizens for attaining a disproportionately high number of positions as civil servants through Chinese Imperial Examinations (there is more on this in the Ming Dynasty chapter). The community took great pride in this and therefore publically displayed any gifts received from emperors over many centuries.

Kaifeng Jews during Qing dynasty.  [Kaifeng Jewish History Memorial Center]

Kaifeng Jews during Qing dynasty. [Kaifeng Jewish History Memorial Center]

The non-religious aspect of the Jews’ life came to be very similar to that of the Chinese, especially after the Ming Dynasty. They adopted the Chinese language (only rabbis and Jewish scholars continued to study Hebrew, although this ended in 1810 when the last rabbi past away), cuisine (apart from pork and some other non-kosher dishes), clothing, and secular education. In the Qing Dynasty, Jewish men began to wear pigtails, when it became new custom following a decree passed by Qing conquerors.

Their religious traditions were also largely influenced by local norms. From their very early days in China, the Jews of Kaifeng added great Chinese classics to the studying of Hebrew and the Torah. Their most beloved synagogue, when constructed in the 12th century, followed Judaic law insofar as the lack of idols and paintings on the walls (with exceptions later explained), but different in that the exterior of the synagogue was purely oriental. Indeed, a perfect example of Jews maintaining the integrity of their religion while adapting to the local surroundings this was.

A model of the original Kaifeng synagogue, exhibiting Chinese temple architectural style on the exterior.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

A model of the original Kaifeng synagogue, exhibiting Chinese temple architectural style on the exterior. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

The Chinese influence was by no means a decisive force in shaping the religious experience of Jews in Kaifeng, it supplemented Jewish tradition instead by, for instance, adding in the Chinese practice of offering food and drinks, and burning incense to deceased friends and relatives.

However, in many other regards, the Jews of Kaifeng did indeed blend into their surroundings and gradually became more like their Han neighbours than their predecessors. The assimilation of the Kaifeng Jews can arguably have been excessively extreme to a degree which can be categorised as fatal to the existence of Judaism in China.

 

“For the student of Jewish culture, Kaifeng is the opposite of the usual story of survival in the face of persecution,” said Dr Karen Wilson, Research Fellow at the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, “Kaifeng is the rare example of a Jewish community coexisting happily with a broader culture that accepted it.” [1986]