清朝 Qing Dynasty

1644-1912

[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]

[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]

 

The Manchus who founded the Qing dynasty were fond of Chinese civilisation. They worshipped Buddhism, respected Taoism, and based many of its ruling policies on Confucianism. During its ruling period, there were five large Muslim rebellions which were brutally suppressed by military force. Since most Chinese did not know the difference between Jews and Muslims, the Jews had to hide their Jewish identity in order to avoid oppression.

 

Synagogue Rebuild and the Stone Tablet of 1663

The last Emperor of China Aisin Gioro Puyi (爱新觉罗溥仪) was forced to abdicate his throne in 1912, the year the 1663 stone tablet disappeared.  [Public domain]

The last Emperor of China Aisin Gioro Puyi (爱新觉罗溥仪) was forced to abdicate his throne in 1912, the year the 1663 stone tablet disappeared. [Public domain]

After the complete destruction of Kaifeng in 1642, the city was abandoned until 1662 when Qing Emperor Kangxi (康熙帝爱新觉罗玄烨, 1661-1722) rebuilt it. Kaifeng never regained its previous glory, it became a rural backwater of minimum importance.

In 1663 the synagogue was rebuilt under the direction and financial support of a Jew, Zhao Yingcheng (赵映乘; Hebrew name: Moshe ben Abram), with help from his brother, Zhao Yingdou (赵映斗). The Zhao brothers were fluent in both Hebrew and Chinese. They passed the civil service examinations and were highly ranked mandarins in the Imperial Court. Together, they gathered the scattered Jews and assisted them in relocating back to their previous homes.

The Kaifeng Jewish community erected a stone tablet to commemorate the new synagogue. The tablet described Zhao Yingcheng as “fearing that the members of the religion, owing to the ruin of synagogue might disperse and never come together again, and unable to contemplate the work his ancestors had built up and preserved through the centuries suddenly destroyed in a single day … sent troops to patrol and protect the remnants of the synagogue day and night.” The tablet also told that the Zhao brothers traced down “the actual foundation of the former synagogue” which was covered under heavy Yellow River silt, and therefore set the location on which the new synagogue was built.

The tablet inscription illustrated the shared value system between Judaism and Confucianism - a life of service, emphasis on family, tradition and education. It captured the rebellion of Li Zicheng, the fall of Ming dynasty and the founding of Qing dynasty. It described the incredible difficulty the community faced during the dynastical transition when the synagogue was destroyed by the rebels and anything of value looted; but optimistically concluded that despite all the chaos, the community stayed together and hang on hard to their religion.

Unfortunately, this stone tablet disappeared in 1912, along with the last of Chinese dynasties.

Thirteen hand-copied Torah scrolls, mostly donated by other Jewish communities in China, were eventually placed inside this new synagogue.

 

Structure of the Synagogue

Emperor Yongzheng (雍正帝爱新觉罗胤祯, 1723-1735) found the concept of having his subjects being loyal to the Pope rather than to him unacceptable. In 1723, he passed a decree to ban Catholicism and deport all missionaries from China.

Just before the ban, in 1722, Father Jean Domenge visited Kaifeng. He recorded extensively Jewish life in Kaifeng and sent everything back to Rome.

The Kaifeng Synagogue. Original sketch by Father Domenge in 1722.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

The Kaifeng Synagogue. Original sketch by Father Domenge in 1722. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Father Domenge made detailed sketches of both the interior and exterior of the synagogue and noted that the Jewish community took extreme care and great pride in the maintenance of their house of worship. He observed that the synagogue was very Chinese in architecture, with courtyards, wood carvings and strong bilateral symmetry.

The synagogue was called the Temple of Purity and Truth (清真寺) by the locals, the same name they used in referring to the Muslim mosques. The synagogue had a separate hall for ritual slaughter. Special booths were decorated and dedicated to their well-known ancestors, and incense sticks were burned in honour of their patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The synagogue was decorated by many large trees. Typical of local tradition, the main entrance was closed all year round except during Chinese New Year time. People normally entered the synagogue by the two side doors. The Holy of the Holies was a special room that no one except the rabbi could enter, and only during special times of the year. The stone tablets were placed in a visible spot to the right-hand side of the courtyard.

It was further recorded that there were 13 copies of the Torah scroll, each enclosed in a silk case. On Sabbath, the Jews had the tradition of placing the Torah on a special “chair of Moses” before reading it. Above the chair hung a plaque that said, “Long live the Emperor (皇上万岁),” a requirement for all places of worship by the Imperial Court. The Jews were wise - in Hebrew characters which the Chinese could not understand, above plaque, they placed the Shema. The Shema stated, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” With this, the Jews knew in their heart that their God was above everything.

 

Destiny of the Kaifeng Torah Scrolls

A set of Kaifeng Torah, bought by missionaries in 1851 and presented to the British Museum in 1852.  [Public Domain]

A set of Kaifeng Torah, bought by missionaries in 1851 and presented to the British Museum in 1852. [Public Domain]

Jesuit recordings showed that even in the early 1700s Judaism was still actively practised in Kaifeng - children were able to read and write Hebrew and rabbis were still being trained.

From 1724 to mid-1800s, China turned to isolationism and Kaifeng Jews again lost all contact with the West.

In 1810, the last of Kaifeng’s rabbis died. With his death, there was no one in the community who could read Hebrew anymore.

A British government official visited Kaifeng in 1849, he wrote that there were only 1,000 Jews remained. None of them knew any Hebrew and they all looked completely Chinese. The community still tried to maintain a sense of identity and a few Jewish practices remained, such as maintaining their own burial grounds, no mixing of milk with meat, and no consumption of pork, blood and other un-kosher meat. The lack of rabbi, however, meant they no longer knew how to worship or celebrate Jewish holidays properly. In a desperate appeal to stay connected with their roots, they even posted Hebrew books in Kaifeng town centre and offered rewards to anyone who could read it, but no one could.

As China declined politically and economically towards the end of the Qing dynasty, so did this small community of destitute Jews. Facing extremely poverty, the Kaifeng Jews had no choice but to let go of their most valued possessions. Beginning in 1851, they started selling their Torah scrolls and liturgical books to Christian missionaries, in return for few pieces of silver. The Protestant missionaries purchased and preserved any and all manuscripts they could find.

Of the 13 Torah scrolls that were said to have been held in the Kaifeng Synagogue since 1663, only seven complete sets remained.

They are now preserved in museums and libraries throughout the world, including the British Museum.

A collection of Jewish Prayer books written in Hebrew and Chinese characters can be found in the library of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. The collection includes portions of the Torah and prayer books. The payer books for the Sabbath, estimated to be from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), contained the names of the participants. The manuscripts were acquired in the 1920s from a missionary society.

 
Ming dynasty Sabbath prayer book with men’s names —from the Zhao clan, in Hebrew and Chinese. Collection from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.  [huc.edu]

Ming dynasty Sabbath prayer book with men’s names —from the Zhao clan, in Hebrew and Chinese. Collection from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. [huc.edu]

Ming dynasty Sabbath prayer book with women’s names in Hebrew and Chinese. Collection from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.  [huc.edu]

Ming dynasty Sabbath prayer book with women’s names in Hebrew and Chinese. Collection from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. [huc.edu]

 

It is said that a collection of holy text ended up on Hong Kong’s antique market, Cat Street in the 1970s and are now housed in Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue.

 

Final Destruction of the Synagogue

The River flood of 1854 finally swept away the Kaifeng synagogue. It was never rebuilt. The Kaifeng Jews scattered into China’s vast countryside, very few returned this ravaged city.

In 1914, this poverty-stricken community sold the site of their beloved synagogue to an Anglican Bishop and parted with the land they had worshipped upon for over 700 years. 

The only remnant today of the synagogue is a water-well which was closed off in 2014.

Jiao Jing Hutong, or Teaching Torah Lane, a street on which Jews centred themselves during the glory days of the synagogue, lives now only the Zhao clan.

Zhao family came back to their ancestral home after the flood of 1854 receded.  [Kaifeng Jewish History Memorial Center]

Zhao family came back to their ancestral home after the flood of 1854 receded. [Kaifeng Jewish History Memorial Center]

Kaifeng street sign - North Teaching Torah Lane.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Kaifeng street sign - North Teaching Torah Lane. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Though no longer visible, Kaifeng Synagogue is still in the heart of many Kaifeng Jews, its location easily identifiable.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Though no longer visible, Kaifeng Synagogue is still in the heart of many Kaifeng Jews, its location easily identifiable. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

 
Ten feet beneath this gate lies the main entrance to the Kaifeng synagogue.  [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Ten feet beneath this gate lies the main entrance to the Kaifeng synagogue. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

The Kaifeng Synagogue now sleeps, buried beneath 10 feet of Yellow River’s silt. Above it sits the Kaifeng Chinese Medicine Hospital.