明朝 Ming Dynasty


[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]

[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]


By 1368 the Han Chinese regained control of the Middle Kingdom and expelled the Mongolians. Domestically, there was a strong revival of Confucianism and Chinese traditions; civil service examination was back in full swing. Living under the rule of foreigners cultured sceptical view of outsiders amongst the Han Chinese. As such, the Han Chinese rulers sealed the borders of China. For the next 200 years, the Jews of Kaifeng lost all contact with the rest of the world.



Emperor HongWu, the first emperor of the dynasty, assumed that role after leading a peasant revolution against the Mongolians of the Yuan Dynasty. He was the one who closed the borders of China out of distrust for outsiders. 

Emperor Hongwu (洪武帝朱元璋), at 16 years old, witnessed his parents and siblings dying from starvation. In order to survive, he became a wandering monk, begging for food. At 25, he joint and eventually lead a peasant revolt and became the founding emperor of Ming dynasty. In his 5th year on the throne, he decreed the intermarriage law.  [Public Domain]

Emperor Hongwu (洪武帝朱元璋), at 16 years old, witnessed his parents and siblings dying from starvation. In order to survive, he became a wandering monk, begging for food. At 25, he joint and eventually lead a peasant revolt and became the founding emperor of Ming dynasty. In his 5th year on the throne, he decreed the intermarriage law. [Public Domain]

Within China, he wanted to ensure social harmony amongst its people, so he introduced an intermarriage act, which required ethnic minorities to marry outside of their own communities. 

As such, Jewish men began to marry Chinese women. Because of the patriarchal nature of China, women, after they were married, were to completely integrate into their husband’s family and traditions, and forget about their own. Thus, it can be speculated, that these families continued to maintain a primarily Jewish lifestyle. 

However, this led to the dilution of Judaism on a large scale. Firstly, Judaism follows a matrilineal descent. In the strictest sense, therefore, all of these children were not technically Jewish. Secondly, since men were the breadwinners of the family, the Jewish fathers were out working most of the time, whilst the Chinese mothers were the ones raising the children. Because the mothers, themselves, were Chinese, they did not have the knowledge to teach their children about Judaism, even if they wanted to. And most of the time, they did not.

The reason parents were reluctant was because of the social structure of China, which placed a large emphasis on social standing. Chinese society was divided into four groups (albeit not in the same way as it was in the Yuan Dynasty). At the bottom was the lower class which comsisted of merchants. Then, came craftsmen. Then, were the humble agricultural laborers. At the very top, were the civil servants.

There was a degree of social mobility in China; to become a civil servant, at the very pinnacle of society, one had to pass a series of Imperial Examinations, which tested knowledge of Chinese teachings and literature – such as the writings of Confusions and other prominent philosophers and writers.

Therefore, even if the Chinese mothers knew about Judaism perfectly, and could recite the Torah, this kind of teaching would still be secondary because the only thing that would benefit their children, and guarantee them a prosperous life, was if they learnt about Confucius – not Moses – and passed the Imperial Exams.


Religious Studies vs Secular Duties

Analects by Confucius, a must read for all civil service examinations.  [Bjoertvedt, Östasiatiska Museet, Stockholm]

Analects by Confucius, a must read for all civil service examinations. [Bjoertvedt, Östasiatiska Museet, Stockholm]

During this dynasty, the Jews were active participants and extremely productive members of Chinese society. Some continued to be merchants, a profitable but less respected profession, whilst a disproportionately large number of them, in fact, passed the Imperial Examination and gained high ranking positions as civil servants.

As these great Jewish minds thoroughly studied Chinese classics in order to pass the Imperial Examinations, they had to sacrifice time which could otherwise be spent on learning the teachings of their own culture: stories of Abraham and Moses. In essence, they had to abandon the study of who they were in order to succeed in the secular world. 


Chinese Last Names

Emperor Yongle (永乐大帝朱棣).  [Public Domain]

Emperor Yongle (永乐大帝朱棣). [Public Domain]

In 1421, Emperor Yongle (永乐大帝朱棣, 1402-1424) conferred the surname Zhao (赵) to a Jewish physician. In order to fully embrace this group of people who have been exemplary citizens and make them feel more at home on this foreign land, Emperor Yongle eventually granted all Jews in China one of eight Chinese surnames – Ai, Gao, Jin, Li, Shi, Zhang (two Chinese characters - both 张and 章), and Zhao. Three of these names, Jin (金), Shi (石) and Li (李) are believed to be equivalent of common Jewish names in the west: Gold, Stone and Levi, respectively.

Because China followed the paternal lineage, the descendants of Kaifeng Jews today almost exclusively have these eight surnames.

This significant honour and landmark event served as a turning point in the complete acceptance of Jews into the mainstream Chinese society. From this juncture forward, the Jews participated actively in the civil service examinations and served in high ranking civil service positions at significantly higher proportion compared to the size of their population. 

However, Emperor Yongle’s goodwill - the replacement of Hebrew surnames with Chinese ones, made it even more difficult to distinguish Chinese-Jews from Han-Chinese. 


Stone Tablets of 1489 & 1512

The stories of the Kaifeng Jews were mainly captured on three stone tablets, that of 1489, 1512 and 1663 (see Qing dynasty.)

This stone tablet now resides in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum.  [Kaifeng Jewish History Memorial Center]

This stone tablet now resides in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum. [Kaifeng Jewish History Memorial Center]

At five feet tall and five inches thick, the 1489 stone tablet was the oldest and most comprehensive, containing about 1,800 inscribed Chinese characters.

It told the biblical stories of Abraham, Moses, Ezra and the origin of Judaism; it mentioned the Judaic essence of praying, fasting, and repentance; it compared Judaism with the three main Chinese religions - Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism; it explained the basic concepts of Judaism within the context of Chinese culture and understanding; it stated that Jews immigrated to China from India during the Han Dynasty; it captured the twelve precious words bestowed on the Jewish community by a Song Emperor and cited the names of 70 Jews with Chinese surnames; it commemorated the construction of the synagogue in 1163; and it praised family ancestors who served in the Imperial Court and military.

More specifically, it mentioned in 1421 Ming Emperor Yongle (永乐大帝朱棣, 1402-1424) conferred the surname Zhao (赵) to a Jewish physician named An Cheng. It also described the 12 blessed words bestowed on them by Song Emperor Zhengzong (宋真宗赵德昌, 997-1022), welcoming them to settle in Kaifeng - 归我中夏,遵守祖风,留遗汴梁 (Be a part of our country, practice your traditions, and live in Kaifeng).

The stone tablet was erected to commemorate the reconstruction of the synagogue after the flood of 1461.

The 1512 stone tablet had about 1,000 Chinese characters inscribed on it. It provided information about the daily life of Jews. It included details about Jewish religious practices and stated that Judaism could not exist without the Torah; it placed heavy emphasis on the parallelism between Judaism and Confucianism; it talked about the Jews first came to china during Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC) via India; it mentioned other Jewish communities in China and that they had already established contact with each other; it stressed loyalty from Kaifeng Jewish community to the Chinese Imperial Court, and that the Jews had served as merchants, officials and soldiers. 

Both of these tablets now reside in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum. 


“Discovery” of Kaifeng Jews


First Portuguese-Chinese dictionary.  [Public Domain]

First Portuguese-Chinese dictionary. [Public Domain]

Matteo Ricci was born in 1552. At the age of 19, he joined the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. On top of the three traditional vows to the Catholic Church – poverty, chastity and obedience – the Jesuits took on a fourth vow: to go wherever in the world the Pope may send them. Jesuits placed heavy emphasis on education and scholarship. Thus, as part of his training, Ricci learned mathematics, cosmology and astronomy, as well as theology and philosophy.

This was the time of Counter-Reformation in the west. The Catholic church wanted to evangelise the world and China, with a population about that of entire Europe back then, was a huge part of the project.

In 1582, at the age of 30, Ricci arrived in Macau, a then Portuguese colony, and focused his study on Chinese language and culture. Two years later, Ricci created the first European-style map in Chinese, referred to as the Great Map of Ten Thousand Countries (万国图) by the locals. It showed China’s geographical location in the world, and for the first time, opened China’s eyes to the world. Ricci also compiled the Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, the very first dictionary that linked Chinese characters to Latin alphabets.

Ricci’s expertise in astronomy, particularly his ability to predict the solar eclipses, impressed the Imperial Court. In 1601, he was invited by Ming Emperor Wanlin (万历帝朱翊钧) to Beijing and became the first Westerner allowed to enter the Forbidden City. While in Beijing, he founded the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (圣母无染原罪堂, Or 宣武门天主堂, or 南堂), the oldest Catholic church in Beijing which still stands today.

Ricci completely embraced a Chinese lifestyle. He mastered written as well as classical Chinese, and lived and dressed like any mandarin on the street. Ricci believed the best way to get close to people, especially those of authority and influence, was by interesting them with the latest scientific discoveries from Europe. Thus, all the knowledge and wisdom he acquired from a faraway land, he shared them enthusiastically and freely. As a learned European gentleman, Ricci was charming, personable, and exceptionally well liked by the locals.


Ricci Hall (利玛窦宿舍), founded in 1929 by the Society of Jesus in memory of Father Matteo Ricci, is an all-boys residence hall at the University of Hong Kong.

Commemorating the 400th anniversary of Father Matteo Ricci’s death, a musical production depicting the life of Father Matteo Ricci was performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Commemorating the 400th anniversary of Father Matteo Ricci’s death, a musical production depicting the life of Father Matteo Ricci was performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Ricci believed that it would be more effective to use written words, rather than pure speeches to get his message across to the well-learned Confucian scholars, for they held a strong love for reading. Ricci translated a significant portion of Christian text to Chinese which made Christianity more accessible to the locals.

Ricci reasoned that details of Christianity should not be unveiled in one go for it would be extremely difficult for the potentials converts to accept. He disclosed information very little at a time, made sure receivers understood before moving forward. He held back from emphasising the most difficult parts - crucifixion, resurrection and the concept of the divine trinity. Instead, he focused on mother Mary and baby Jesus.

Ricci postulated that telling people what they knew was completely wrong was not a strategic way to engage an audience and that it was important to draw a parallelism between Christianity and the local culture. He adapted the Chinese concept of “lord of heaven (天主)” as the diving entity to be worshipped, a terminology still used today by the Chinese in referring to Catholicism and Catholic God. Ricci also allowed for ancestor worshipping because it was such a dominant part of the native tradition.

Ricci respected that different regions had different values. He completely embraced and endorsed the local culture while he evangelised. In many ways, he was more successful than the other missionaries who attempted to convert the Chinese by applying the same methodology used in the new world.

Today, Ricci is remembered as the first Christian missionary in China. He is revered for his extensive knowledge and love of learning; he is celebrated for his humility in understanding and accepting the Chinese culture; he is honoured as a legendary figure in the history of cultural exchange between China and the west. His legacy is taught in many classrooms and his name decorates some of the most significant landmarks in the region.




Father Matteo Ricci

Italian Jesuit Priest and Missionary. [Public Domain]

In Ricci’s book, De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, he recorded that in 1605, he was visited by a Kaifeng Jew named Ai Tian.

Ai Tian had already passed the civil service examination and was in Beijing to secure a position in the Imperial Court. He heard there was a group of foreigners in town who were monotheists but were not Muslims. Although Han-Chinese found it hard to distinguish between Jews and Muslims, for neither of them ate pork, Ai Tian knew better. Since he had never heard of Christianity before, he was certain this group of foreigners were followers of Judaic faith. Ai Tian arranged to meet them.

Ai Tian was excited as the Kaifeng Jews had not had any interaction with the outside world, much less those of their own faith, for over 200 years. Ricci was equally excited. He learned Christianity had entered China long ago, perhaps as early as the 7th century, but he had not managed to locate any of their descendants. Ricci was sure he was about to finally meet a Christian in China. He invited Ai Tian to the Jesuit mission house.

In the mission house, there was a picture of Mary, with baby Jesus on one side and John the Baptist on the other. Ricci placed the image there in order to served two purposes. One was for his own worship, the other as a conversation starter with his guests - when the visitors saw the portrait, they would ask who were the people in the drawing, Ricci would then be able to very naturally share the Bible stories and evangelise.

When Ai Tian saw the picture, he thought they represented Rebecca with her two sons, Jacob and Esau. When Ricci bowed and worshipped them, Ai Tian stated that he did not worship images although he did follow as a gesture of politeness and as an act of showing respect for his ancestors.

In the room, there was also a picture of the four Evangelists - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Ai Tian inquired if there should be 12 people in this image instead. Ricci answered yes, thinking Ai Tian must have meant the 12 apostles. When Ai Tian pressed further, saying since there were only four men here, what happened to the other eights sons of Jacob, Ricci couldn’t help but finally admit to the fact that his visitor was speaking completely in the context of the Old Testament, and that he was not a Chinese Christians, but a Chinese Jew. Ai Tian told Ricci there was an entire community of Jews in Kaifeng, and that they even had their own synagogue(礼拜寺), rabbi, and Torah scrolls.

When Ai Tian went back to Kaifeng, Ricci sent Jesuits with him. The Jesuits noted the Jews in Kaifeng observed Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They celebrated all Jewish holidays, circumcised their boys and did not eat pork. They said the same prayers and had all the important Hebrew manuscripts, including Torah scrolls. Although the Jesuits did not look in detail the entire collection of Torah scrolls, they did copy some of the beginnings and endings which were found to be identical to the Hebrew Bible in the west.

Three years following Ricci’s meeting with Ai Tian, Ricci wrote to the chief rabbi in Kaifeng, telling him the Messiah they had been waiting for had arrived - Jesus. The chief rabbi replied, saying the Messiah would not come for a long time. The rabbi further offered Ricci his position in Kaifeng, under the condition Ricci would give up pork.

Ricci passed all this information back to Rome, describing these Jews as having been in China “from time immemorial.”

Subsequent to the west discovering the community of Jews in Kaifeng, many missionaries visited and tried to convert them. So far, no record of baptism has been found.


Kaifeng Torah Scrolls & Missionaries

Kaifeng Jews no longer have in their possession the ancient Torahs from their forefathers. Instead, they try to collect whatever they can to re-connect themselves to their place of origin, as displayed in this Kaifeng Jew household.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Kaifeng Jews no longer have in their possession the ancient Torahs from their forefathers. Instead, they try to collect whatever they can to re-connect themselves to their place of origin, as displayed in this Kaifeng Jew household. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

The Jesuits had a theory that the “original” Old Testaments contained passages foretelling the coming of a Christian messiah, in language so explicit that even the Jews had to accept Jesus as the true Messiah. They suspect these relevant sections had been removed by the Jews. They believed if they were proved right, there would be a mass conversion to Christianity.

A well-guarded Torah scroll at the home of a modern Kaifeng Jew.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

A well-guarded Torah scroll at the home of a modern Kaifeng Jew. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

The Jesuits believed the Kaifeng Jews might be different. Due to their extensive isolation in China, they lacked a strong connection with the mainstream Jewish world in the west. They were also not aware of the existence of Christianity, as per Matteo Ricci. They came to China before the birth of Christ, brought with them Torah from the pre-Christian era, and had no motivation to make any changes. The Kaifeng Torah might, therefore, be the “original”, untampered holy manuscript. Thus, the Jesuit missionaries were extremely keen to obtain a copy to verify their theory.

The Jesuits tried on many occasions to either take a look at the Kaifeng Torah or buy the Kaifeng Torah. The Kaifeng Jews time and again refused their request, claiming only the rabbi was allowed to enter the Holy of Hollies and touch the scrolls; and that these holy books were definitely not for sale. The Jesuits offered financial assistance to the community, even to upgrade and expand the synagogue as an exchange. Unfortunately, their requests were met with only rejections, until the middle of the 19thcentury. (For more on this, please see Qing Dynasty.)

When the Jesuits finally had full access to the holy text, they were disappointed to find out there was no difference between the Kaifeng Torah and the European Torah.


Theory on When Jews Arrived in China

During Father Matteo Ricci’s many interactions with the Kaifeng Jews, he learnt not only did the Kaifeng Jews not celebrate Hanukkah, they were not even aware of its existence. This lead to the theory that Jews might have left holy land and settled in China sometime around the second century BC, prior to the Maccabean Revolt (167 – 160 BC) and the origin of Hanukkah. (For more, please see Han Dynasty.)


Flood of 1642

[Liu Hongda, Xinhua]

[Liu Hongda, Xinhua]

The Yellow River flood of 1642 was devastating to the city of Kaifeng and the Kaifeng Jews.

Kaifeng was located on the southern bank of Yellow River. With ground level 10 meters (33 feet) below the river bed, Kaifeng had seen more than its fair share of violent floods.The 1642 flood, however, was a man-made disaster.

By mid-1400s, the Ming Dynasty had perfected a flood-control system that generated great success for over a century.

In 1642, the dykes were deliberately busted by Ming army, hoping the floodwater would break a six-month siege on the city of Kaifeng by peasant rebel leader Li Zicheng. The Siege did end, but the flood also killed roughly half of Kaifeng’s 600,000 residents. The ensuing famine and plague lead to even more death.

This was the most destructive event in the history of Kaifeng Jews. It destroyed the synagogue, submerged the Torah and other sacred texts, and scattered the community.


Other Jewish Communities in China

Before the end of the Ming dynasty (1644), there were several other Jewish communities in China. It is still unknown how all these communities eventually perished.

Hangzhou (杭州)



Hangzhou became an important city in Chinese history when the Sui Dynasty (隋朝, 581–618) made it the southern terminus of the Jing-Hang Grand Canal (京杭大运河). The Grand Canal connected Hangzhou (杭州) to Beijing (北京), passing through the provinces of Zhejiang (浙江), Jiangsu (江苏), Shandong (山东) and Hebei (河北). It also linked the Yangzi River (长江) to the Yellow River (黄河), completely flourished inland trade and prospered China. It is still the longest and oldest man-made river in the world. 

When the Northern Song Dynasty (北宋,960-1127) was defeated by the Jin Dynasty (大金,1115-1234), a large portion of the Kaifeng population moved with the Imperial Court to Hangzhou, the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋, 1127-1279). Many Jews followed this move. 

An Arab explorer and scholar named Ibn Battuta visited Hangzhou in 1346. He recorded that he entered the city via the “Jews Gate”, alarming to him the existence of Jews in the vicinity.

During their meeting in 1605, Ai Tien told Matteo Ricci that there once was a large community of Jews in Hangzhou and that they even had their own synagogue.


Ningbo (宁波)



When the Ming Dynasty (明朝, 1368-1644) closed off Silk Road by land, Ningbo became an important trading port for the Maritime Silk Road. 

The 1489 stone tablet mentioned that the Jewish communities of Ningbo and Kaifeng had a very good relationship with each other and that when the Kaifeng Jews lost their holy texts to the flood, the Ningbo Jews presented their brethren in Kaifeng with two Torah scrolls in 1461. The tablet detailed, “When the synagogue was rebuilt, Shi Bin, Li Rong, and Gao Jian, and Zhang Xuan went to Ningbo and brought back a scroll of the Scriptures. Zhao Ying of Ningbo brought another scroll to Kaifeng and respectfully presented it to our synagogue”.

It is believed the Ningbo Jewish community was fairly sizeable for a smaller one would not be able to spare two Torah scrolls. The availability of these scrolls could also mean the Ningbo Jewish community was vibrant and observant.


Yangzhou (扬州)



Yangzhou, also located at the southern terminus of the Grand Canal, was the headquarter of the salt administration during the Tang dynasty (618-907). The salt traders became immensely wealthy and Yangzhou flourished as a trading centre.

The 1512 stone tablet mentioned the Jews in Yangzhou donated a Torah Scroll and funded the building of a second gateway to the Kaifeng synagogue. It is also believed that the 1512 inscription was written by a resident of Yangzhou.


Ningxia (宁夏)



Ningxia was where mountains and deserts met the Yellow River, a key caravan stop along the ancient silk road that connected China to Central Asia. This was where China conducted active culture and goods exchanges with the Arab world.

Both the 1489 and 1512 stone tablets mentioned a Jewish community in Ningxia. The 1489 tablet noted that the Jin clan was of high social standing in Ningxia. One member of the clan, Jin Xuan donated an altar, numerous vases and candles to the Kaifeng synagogue in its rebuilt after a flood. His younger brother, Jin Ying, funded the production of the stone tablet. The 1512 tablet stated that a Jin Ren from Ningxia sponsored part of the fund needed for the expansion of the Synagogue.

From this, it is possible to deduce that the Ningxia Jewish community and the Kaifeng Jewish community were close to each other, over an extended period of time.


Beijing (北京)



The Yuan Dynasty (元朝, 1271-1368), being the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China, made Beijing its capital and Beijing became, for the first time, the capital of entire China.

Marco Polo, the famous Italian traveller, lived in China from 1275 to 1292. He worked as a special advisor and envoy for Yuan’s founding emperor, Kublai Khan. Marco Polo wrote about China’s astonishing size and prosperity and that Chinese people had “all things in great abundance.” He recorded there were Jews in Bejing in 1286 and that Emperor Kublai Khan showed much respect for their religion.