Modern China

First Opium War - Destroying the Chinese war junks.  [Edward Duncan]

First Opium War - Destroying the Chinese war junks. [Edward Duncan]

In China, the Jews have always found a safe place from the pervasive anti-Semitism found elsewhere in the world. The major faiths of China – Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism – are all philosophical schools of thought and practices which do not have conflicts of interests with Judaism, as did Christianity and Islam in the west. Furthermore, the Jews were able to live in harmony with the Chinese because of shared values, such as emphasis placed on education and respect for the elderly (filial piety and ‘honour thy father and thy mother’.)

Today, they share even more. The Chinese and the Jews both experienced unfathomable suffering during World War II - six million Jews died in the hands of the Nazis, whilst 35 million Chinese perished in the hands of the Japanese.

 Modern China is often defined to have begun at the outset of the First Opium War when China was forced to open its door to international trades. Therefore, Jews who immigrated to China after the war can be thought of as Modern Jews in China.

Shanghai Jewish Chronicle, published in German, ran from 1937 to 1945.  [Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum]

Shanghai Jewish Chronicle, published in German, ran from 1937 to 1945. [Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum]

The Jews who arrived in China (Kaifeng, in particular) before the First Opium War are physically indistinguishable from their Han neighbours because of generations of intermarriage. However, the Jews who arrived in China after the First Opium War did not intermarry and therefore remained ethnically different from Han Chinese citizens. 

This new wave of Jews, upon enlightenment, did indeed reach out to their Jewish brethren in Kaifeng, hoping to help them re-discover their Jewish heritage and reconnect with their Jewish roots.

The category of Jews who entered Modern China can be divided into three waves. The first wave comprised of Sephardic Jews who came from Iraq and India to gain wealth and create business empires; the next wave were Ashkenazi Jews who, seeking to escape the Pale of Settlements and the anti-Semitic atmosphere of the Romanov Dynasty, travelled eastwards and ended up in China; finally, came another wave of Ashkenazi Jews who similarly sought refuge from anti-Semitism – these Jews were fleeing Hitlerism.