汉朝 Han Dynasty

206 BC – 220

[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]

[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]


Alexander the Great (336BC-323BC)

Alexander the Great.  [British Museum]

Alexander the Great. [British Museum]

Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, was the king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon at its peak. He was tutored by the renowned philosopher Aristotle until he was 16. Then starting from the age of 20, Alexander the Great built and ruled one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to north western India. Over twenty cities bore his name, most notably Alexandria in Egypt. His reign helped to spread Greek culture eastward which resulted in a brand new Hellenistic civilisation.

Alexander took over Jerusalem in 331 BC and made it the capital of the then Greek province of Judaea. Alexander was known for his tolerance of the people he conquered. During his reign, Jerusalem flourished into an important commercial centre, Jews lived and traded prosperously throughout the land. When Jews were living away from their capital, they continued to learn Hebrew language and customs, and paid a special tax for the up keeping of the Jerusalem Temple.



In 323 BC, Alexander the Great, at the young age of 33, fell violently ill. As he had no heir, he was asked on his death bed, whom he would like to bequeath his empire. He replied with a simple “to the strongest” hoping the strongest man would be able to hold together and continue to expand his kingdom. 

Alexander the Great’s wish, however, did not come true. The years following his death were marked by several major civil wars fought amongst his generals which tore apart his empire. Judaea fell into the hands of the Egyptians in what would become the Ptolemaic dynasty (305 BC - 30 BC). Judaea remained free from major upheavals for most of the third century BC. ln 198 BC, it was taken over by King Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire. This was a man who would wreak havoc upon Jerusalem and make life for Jews a perpectual nightmare


Seleucid Empire (312 BC to 63 BC)

The Seleucid empire, founded by one of Alexander’s leading generals – Seleucus I Nicator - was a Greek Hellenistic state. It was arguably the largest successor states to Alexander’s Macedonian empire, with a population of 50-60 million people, comprised of tens of different ethnicities.

The rulers built large Greek cities throughout its conquered land, and encouraged Greeks to migrate to these cities. They followed the Greek system of government by having assemblies, councils and elected magistrates. They tried to assimilate the locals, forcing them to adopt Greek philosophical and religious thoughts. There was also a distinct hierarchy in the society where people of Greek ancestry were generally ranked higher than the natives.

Over time, many of the cities, especially those located far away from the capital, began to break away from the heart of the empire


Antiochus III (222 BC–187 BC)

Antiochus III.  [Carole Raddato; Louvre]

Antiochus III. [Carole Raddato; Louvre]

Antiochus III, the sixth emperor of the Seleucid empire (also known as Antiochus the Great), attempting to reproduce the conquests of Alexander the Great, tried to take back lost provinces and restore the greatness of the empire.

He fought the Ptolemaic Kingdom, and failed in conquering Egypt in 217 BC, but was successful in annexing Judaea in 199 BC. Josephus recorded him as friendly towards the Jews of Jerusalem and recognized their loyalty to him. He lowered taxes, provided funding to the Temple and allowed the Jews to live “according to the law of their forefathers.”


Antiochus IV (175 BC–164 BC)

Antiochus IV.  [José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, Altes Museum]

Antiochus IV. [José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, Altes Museum]

As a son and potential successor of Antiochus III, Antiochus IV lived part of his early years as a political hostage to the Roman Republic. He was allowed to return home when his brother succeeded his father to the throne and his nephew was taken as a political hostage in his stead. In 175 BC, Antiochus IV seized the throne for himself.

Antiochus IV held a different view towards the people in the Seleucid Empire. He insisted that all people under his rule conformed to the Greek way of living, including religious rituals and worship. He believed in a more aggressive approach based on a stronger army. He wanted a much faster Hellenization process, accompanied by a ruthless application of force.



Wanting to surpass his father, and unite the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms into one super-empire, Antiochus in 170 BC conquered all of Egypt except Alexandra. In 168 BC, he went to Egypt again to capture Alexandria but was stopped by Rome. 

While he was away, two fractions of Jerusalem Jews, Hellenised Jews and traditional Jews, started to fight against each other. Frustrated by his defeat in Egypt and the thought of a revolt in Judaea, he ruthlessly attacked Jerusalem, raided the Temple, and executed thousands of Jews.

According to 2 Maccabees 5:11-14, “He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.”

Subsequently, a statue of Zeus, with a face made to look like Antiochus IV’s was constructed in the Holy of Holies of the Temple and Judaism was outlawed.

i.        Assemble for Jewish prayers was illegal

ii.        Observance of Sabbath was illegal

iii.        Possession of scriptures was illegal

iv.        Circumcision was illegal

v.        Dietary laws were illegal

vi.        Worship of Yahweh was illegal

vii.        Pagan worship and pagan sacrifices were mandated

Antiochus IV called himself Antiochus Epiphanes or Antiochus the Magnificent, but the Jews, and history, called him Antiochus Epimames or Antiochus the Madman.


Han Dynasty (206BC - 200)

Map of the Eastern Hemisphere during second century BC.  [Thomas Lessman]

Map of the Eastern Hemisphere during second century BC. [Thomas Lessman]

During this time, many Jews escaped Judaea in order to continue living the Jewish way of life. Some of them eventually landed themselves in the Middle Kingdom - China. The descendants of these people would not have heard about what happened regarding the subsequent revolts and the celebration of Hanukah until 1605 AD, when a Chinese Jew named Ai Tian met Father Matteo Ricci in Beijing.

Far away in the east, China was experiencing an age of significant economic prosperity under the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220); many refer to this period as one of China’s most significant Gold Ages. The legacy of this dynasty is clear:  To this day, China's main ethnic group is called "Han Chinese", and the language “Han language”.

It must be pointed out that there is in fact no decisive evidence which supports the fact that the Jews arrived in China by the Han Dynasty; however, this approach is preferred by some historians because it fits into the narrative which is elaborated on in the Ming Dynasty section of the book. The stone tablet of 1512, which now resides in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum, mentioned the Jews first came to china during Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC) via India.

Alternative perspectives argue that either the Jews did not leave to China until the Tang Dynasty, during which Jewish merchants came to the Middle Kingdom; or, the Jews left Judea during the Han Dynasty and travelled eastwards to India, settling in the Ganges Valley before arriving in China.

Emperor Han Wudi (汉武帝, 141-87 BC).  [bestchinanews.com]

Emperor Han Wudi (汉武帝, 141-87 BC). [bestchinanews.com]

Emperor Han Wudi (汉武帝, 141–87 BC) was the emperor of China at the time. He officially endorsed Confucianism during his reign: this then fused into Chinese education, culture, politics and way of living for millenniums to come. This policy endured until the fall of China’s last dynasty - the Qing Dynasty, in 1911.

Emperor Han Wudi also launched several military campaigns against the Xiongnu (匈奴), a nomadic confederation along China’s western border. The ultimate Han victory expanded Han sovereignty into the Tarim Basin of Central Asia and helped establish a vast trade network – which came to be known as the Silk Road – reaching as far as the Mediterranean world. Some scholars believe this to be the route by which the Jews travelled to reach China.


Maccabean Revolt & Hanukkah

Collection of Menorahs, in a modern Kaifeng Jew household.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Collection of Menorahs, in a modern Kaifeng Jew household. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Whilst the conflict caused a diaspora which urged many Jews to move eastwards, some Jews remained in Jerusalem and joined Judas Maccabeus in his rebellion. The rebels employed guerrilla warfare, likely a decisive tactic which helped to ultimately bring about the defeat of Antiochus IV and his large army. By 165 BC, the Jewish revolutionaries regained control of Jerusalem. 

 Indeed, the Jews feasted their victory for eight days straight, a celebration which would soon come to be known as Hanukah.

The legacy of the war for the Seleucid Empire was nowhere near as long lasting, as it was a first step in the wrong direction for the empire, which was ultimately overthrown in 63 BC by Roman General Pompey.