唐朝 Tang Dynasty

618-907

[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]

[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]

 
[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]

[Minneapolis Institute of Arts]

China experienced an unprecedented Golden Age during the Tang Dynasty, a period which saw the Middle Kingdom flourish in all aspects: philosophy, art, music, literature. It was, moreover, a period of liberalism, one which saw women with a greater degree of personal freedom than before, for instance, in terms of more revealing clothing. A nation at its top shape economically and socially, China became increasingly attractive to foreigners and merchants who would begin to, on a larger scale, use the Silk Road as a means of trading with the vast Middle Kingdom. Indeed, some historians think that it was during this dynasty that Jewish merchants first entered China and began to settle down, forming the foundation of the Chinese- Jews.

 

Why were so many Jews bankers?

[Johny Sysel]

[Johny Sysel]

Despite their already almost indefinite sources of wealth, the nobilities were set on becoming even more prosperous, as if their work-free income from taxation did not already suffice. They were irresistibly lured by a way of making easy money: Usury, the practice of loaning money at an unethically high rate that significantly enriched the lenders. Or at least they tried.

Even stronger than their fondness of wealth was the nobles’ fanatical devotion to the Christian faith, to the Bible, and the Bible proved to be an obstacle to their get-rich-quick scheme, stating on many instances that one should not charge interest.

 You are not to lend him silver with interest or sell him your food for profit.
— Leviticus 25:37

In fact, the Bible not only condemns it, it also alludes at the blasphemous nature of the act.

He lends at interest and takes a profit. Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.
—  Ezekiel 18:13

However, to the avail of the avaricious nobles, there is a loophole around this. The Holy Book states that although one may not charge his brothers, fellow Christians, interest, one is free to charge foreigners, non-Christians, interest.  

You may charge interest to a foreigner, but to countrymen you shall not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land which you are about to possess.
— Deuteronomy 23:20

This meant that the nobles could charge Jews interest without defying the words of God. And if the nobles wanted to loan money to Christian peasants at a high interest, the nobles would use Jews as the middlemen. Since the nobles had authority over the Jews, the Jews could not refuse the job and earned very little from the transaction compared to the nobles, despite it still being lucrative.

 

Why were Jews top merchants?

[Public Domain]

[Public Domain]

During the time of Silk Road, there were already many communities of Jews scattered around the world - in Europe, Arab countries, Persia and India. While most of the Arabs and Persians could not speak the language of Europeans and Indians, the Jews within each of these communities could all speak enough Hebrew to communicate with each other.  Thus, the Jews were uniquely well-positioned for international trade. 

Furthermore, as tension escalated between various religious groups, many of them refused to interact with each other; the Jews on the other hand, had no problem buying or selling goods to their kinsmen throughout the region. Regardless of ups and downs of the world around them, the Jews stayed tight as a community, carried on trading amongst themselves, across national boundaries. 

 

Earliest Evidence of Jews in China

Judaeo-Persian manuscript founded in Dandan Oilik, dated to year 718.  [Public Domain]

Judaeo-Persian manuscript founded in Dandan Oilik, dated to year 718. [Public Domain]

The earliest evidence of Jews’ existence in China dates back to the year 718, in a business letter written in Judaeo-Persian language that was found in Dandan Oilik (丹丹乌里克). Dandan Oilik, also called “the houses of ivory,” was an important outpost along the Silk Road. It is located in the Taklamakan desert (塔克拉玛干沙漠), in today’s Xinjiang Province ((新疆省). The letter was written on paper. The author of the letter, a Persian-speaking Jew, wrote to a fellow Jew asking him to help him to sell some inferior grade sheep. Indeed, the fact that paper was used is evidence of Jews in China because at the time paper was a commodity which could only be found in the Middle Kingdom.

More evidence of Jews in China during this period comes from the caves of Dunhuang (敦煌), which is in today’s Gansu Province (甘肃省). Contained in the caves, stretched over 25 kilometres, are 492 temples which contain a collection of priceless manuscripts and artworks which have been uncovered in the past few centuries. This collection notably contained a penitential prayer from the Psalms written in Hebrew

The earliest historical writings that referenced the existence of Jews in China were by Abu Zayd Hasan of Siraf, an Arab explorer. Hasan wrote about a rebellion in 878 lead by Huang Chao (黄巢), that severally weakened the Tang Dynasty government. When Huang captured the city of Guangzhou (广州), his army killed 120,000 foreign residents; and, amongst them, Jews.