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Crisis in Kaifeng:  Commentary by Prof. Jordan Paper


by Jordan Paper

In 1964, I attended a summer session on Chinese linguistics. As a budding Sinologist, I developed a rapport with two fellow attendees who were high-ranked officers in U.S. Army intelligence. This was before the buildup of American forces in Vietnam, and they were of the opinion that the U.S. could not win a war there. A year later, I was with CIA analysts at the McLean headquarters, and they were of similar opinion. Obviously, intelligence specialists were ignored, and only after millions died did officials like McNamara admit that the U.S. escapade was a mistake. More recently, the younger Bush when President sent back intelligence reports regarding Iraq to be rewritten to reflect what he wanted to see. Again, only years later did it become clear that the original intelligence reports were correct and ignoring them led to disaster.

The March 2009 (24/1) issue of Points East has an article of mine: “Chinese Policies Regarding Religion and Chinese Judaism.” I wrote the article because I found that many published statements “reflect a misunderstanding of the Chinese official attitude towards religion as well as of Chinese Judaism itself.” In summarizing the history of the interrelationship of religion and government in China, I pointed out that there has never been any indication of religious intolerance by any Chinese government, but there has always been tight control over religious institutions and foreign involvement in religion in China because of its history. Virtually all regime changes were due to religio-political movements. In more recent history, the forced attempt at Christianization backed by Western armies as a prelude to colonizing China led to hatred of those converted to Western religions as well as missionaries. I ended the article with a plea to cease trying to convert Chinese Jews to European Jews.

In a letter to the editor in the March 2013 (28/1) issue of Points East, I pointed to the irony of American Jewish racism against Chinese and the felt need by some to de-Chinese Chinese Jews, given the racism towards Jews in the U.S. Becoming alarmed about what was going on in Kaifeng by American Jewish missionaries, I wrote “Common Misconceptions about the Kaifeng Jewish Community,” which was published in the March 2014 (29/1) issue of Points East. The article concluded with the following sentence: “Some American tourists, out of ignorance of Chinese and Jewish history and culture, are leading the remnants of the Kaifeng Jewish community to potential disaster.”

In the subsequent issue of the newsletter, there were two responses. One by Dr. Wendy Abraham concluded, “Dr. Paper’s article should be required reading for anyone thinking of visiting Kaifeng or doing research in this field.” The second by Barnaby Yeh castigated me for being ignorant of Chinese history and geography, as well as the Chinese government’s attitude towards religion and concept of Minorities. The editor published a rebuttal by me in which I reversed those charges, apparently to little effect.

In the last issue of Points East (July 2016, 31/2), I sadly learned that the inevitable had taken place: embryonic Jewish institutions had been suppressed, Jewish tourism within Kaifeng was suspended, and Barnaby Yeh was not welcome in China. In a note from him published in Points East, the blame was put on the financial shenanigans of particular individuals and families. While I have no doubt that a primary interest, at least by some of the Kaifeng community, is in the money they can wring out of Jewish institutions and tourists, which my wife and I directly experienced in Kaifeng in 2014, it seems not yet understood that the actions of foreigners in Kaifeng are the root cause of the Chinese government’s action.

Instead of working with the Chinese government from the beginning, Chinese laws and procedures were not just ignored but violated by foreigners. It seems the government was willing to turn a blind eye to this, since it affected a small number and encouraged tourism, so long as no one rocked the boat. Well, the boat was rocked by multiple factors.           

I detect that the government’s action remains totally misunderstood. The imperial government came to understand Western missionaries as seditious in the early 18th century (the Japanese came to understand it in the mid-17th century) and threw out all the missionaries. They came to understand foreign controlled religions as a threat to their sovereignty from the mid-19th-century, when missionaries and converts were protected by Western military forces. When China was unified in the mid-20th century, foreign controlled religions were disallowed and missionaries were again deported. Hence, the Chinese action was predictable.

The behavior of a number of foreign Jews in China, both tourists and temporary residents, while well meaning, is based on ignorance of Diaspora Judaism and of Chinese history, culture and government policy. In the first aspect, except for possible remnants of Jews remaining in Babylon, where Judaism as distinct from Israelite temple-based religion began, all Jews adopted the language, culture and physical appearance of where they ended up. In that regard, Chinese Jews are no different from Ashkenazi, Sephardi, South Asian, North African, South African, and North American Jews. For Chinese Jews to speak Chinese, etc., is no different than most American Jews speaking American English and adapting to American culture. Yet American Jews encouraged the Chinese (= Han) Jews to request Minority status; that is, not be considered Han (= Chinese). Minority status is somewhat similar to Native American status in the U.S.; it has some advantages and disadvantages. I do not see American Jews petitioning the U.S. government for Native American status, so why are they encouraging Chinese Jews to do the equivalent? Nor do I see American Jews petitioning the U.S. government to stamp “Jewish” on their passports and driver’s licenses; I trust they saw enough of that in Nazi Germany.

Minority status in China means a people who are not Han (ethnically Chinese) in having a non-Sinitic language, distinctive traditional dress, often different social patterns (for example, the Naxi, with whom I am familiar, are matrilineal, matrilocal and matrifocal), and living on the fringes of China in the same geographic location where they have lived for many, many generations. It is not a religious designation; for example, Chinese Buddhists and Christians are Han and do not have Minority status. The anomaly are Chinese Muslims, as the name of an ethnic group in northwestern China who are Muslim, the Huihui, was generalized to all Muslims (later recognized as an error, definitely not to be repeated, and corrected where feasible – I have long been close friends with researchers on Minorities at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and elsewhere). Han Muslims registered as Huihui still consider themselves Han but are happy to accept the goodies given Minorities (to maintain loyalty) by the government (see my “A Note on a Recent Visit to Xi’an” in Points East July 2014). If the Chinese Jews were accorded special status, then Chinese Buddhists and Christians could claim the same. If everyone in China claimed special status for economic benefits (the reason given by Barnaby Yeh for claiming Minority status for the Kaifeng Jews in his criticism of me in Points East July 2014), then there would be no Chinese, the government would go broke and collapse, and there would be anarchy.

The Kaifeng Jews were encouraged to replace the designation of being Han (or Chinese) with the recent term Youtai (meaning foreign Jew), applied to them for a while in error a few decades ago. The term Youtai is not the traditional name for the Chinese Jews, which was Qingzhen (Purity and Truth) – also the name for Chinese Muslims. The Chinese perceived little difference between the two; the major identification was the color of the caps they wore – Chinese Jews wore blue caps and Chinese Muslims wore white caps, as elder males still do.

The term Youtai probably was created by Protestant Christian missionaries in the early 20th century to designate foreign Jewish merchants (virtually none of the missionaries would have been aware of the Jewish descendants in Kaifeng). Christian missionaries, typically anti-Semitic, taught the Chinese that Youtai means miserly and mercenary, and that meaning continues today, as is apparent in modern Chinese dictionaries. Although the term is simply using Chinese logographs for the sound, its double meaning determines the term to be pejorative. Furthermore, the logograph chosen by Christian missionaries for the you sound is itself derogatory, suggesting Jews are dogs – there are other more common logographs for the sound you. The term Youtai is not found in Giles’ massive dictionary (1912) but is in the missionary Mathew’s dictionary (1943), (it is also not in the major Chinese encyclopedic dictionary) so it had to have been created sometime between these dates. (One finds constantly repeated in Wikipedia that Youtai first appeared in an 1830 translation of the Bible without providing chapter and verse; there is no 1830 translation.)

According to Bishop White, who resided in Kaifeng in the very early 20th century, before he arrived, the Kaifeng Jews called themselves Tiaojin Jiao (Religion of Plucking the Sinews – referring to koshering red meat), which was the name of the street where the synagogue was located. Shortly before he arrived, they instead called themselves Jiaojing Jiao (Religion of Teaching the Canon [Torah]), this name being more felicitous. Do the current remnants of the community remember this?

A corollary of being encouraged to give up their status of being Chinese is that the Kaifeng Jews were expected to be converted to Ashkenazi Judaism (when reaching Israel), that is, a foreign Judaism rather than the traditional Chinese Judaism; in other words, Chinese were to be converted into foreigners. The French language version of the treaty following the Second Opium War granted Chinese converted to Christianity extraterritoriality (to be legally non-Chinese and not subject to Chinese laws). The resulting hatred towards converts led to many thousands of converts and missionaries being slaughtered during the so-called Boxer Movement.

The Jewish foreigners working with the Kaifeng community were de facto missionaries, whom the Chinese government, for reasons I made clear in my earlier articles, do not tolerate, nor does it tolerate the conversion of Chinese into non-Chinese for security reasons. The situation is exacerbated by the influx of foreign money, which the present government is rapidly disallowing. Even worse, the required conversions are under the supervision of a foreign body in Jerusalem. The Chinese government brooks no control by foreign bodies over any institution or religion in China. Hence, a Vatican-controlled Catholicism is not allowed in China, but there is an indigenous Catholic Church in China not recognized by the Vatican. Accordingly, neither will a Jerusalem-controlled Judaism be allowed. American and Canadian conservative Protestant missionaries seeking to encourage Chinese to take part in non-registered “house” churches (assumed by the government to be subversive) are deported or jailed when caught. One Canadian Christian missionary was deported after two years in jail as I write this essay.

It should also be understood that Chinese values are closer to traditional Jewish values than American values based on Protestant Christianity. The American government promotes religions of individual salvation, that individual freedom is more important than society. Judaism does have individual salvation, but more important is the redemption of the Jewish people as a whole, if not the world. China has always considered society more important than the individual, and that the good for many is far more important than good for the few. The major social value, at least for the last twenty-five hundred years, is harmony (see the introduction to my “The Issue of the Jewishness of the Chinese Jewish Magistrates” in Points East March 2016). Anything that disrupts social harmony is to be eradicated. Considering Jewish values, as reflected in the Prophets, rather than American values, should help in understanding Chinese political values.

So what can be done to ameliorate this deplorable situation? At the moment, given that not only the Kaifeng community but the direction of the Chinese government in a number of regards is in flux, nothing. Complaining to the Chinese government that they are prohibiting religious expression will only make matters worse. The Chinese are acting on a perceived threat to social harmony and possible sedition; to their understanding, the Kaifeng situation has nothing to do with religion. Such protestations would reify that what was going on was subversive. Chris Buckley, a reporter, writes: “The local office of the party’s United Front Department, which manages ethnic and religious affairs, referred questions to the city’s state security service, which deals with political threats and espionage. Officials there declined to comment.” (“Chinese Jews of Ancient Lineage Huddle Under Pressure,” The New York Times online: 24 Sept 2016).

The Chinese Communist Party is confused about religion. It is officially atheistic from a Marxist meaning. Yet it has been quietly encouraging the return of Chinese Religion since the early 1980s, after attempting to destroy it during the Cultural Revolution, as Chinese Religion is the basis of Chinese social order and ethical behavior. Chinese Religion is not recognized as “religion” in China, since it is not recognized outside of China, but as the basis of Chinese culture, which it is. The Chinese government only recognizes “religions” that are recognized in the West, since “religion” itself is a foreign concept.

I have been invited to China to lecture on religion a number of times. Most important were lecture series to advanced scholars I gave in Beijing in 2012: one series was on Chinese Judaism, which few know about, and one was on a theoretical framework of religion that fits Chinese Religion (subsequently published in Taiwan). In 2014, I was again invited to Beijing to lecture on the traditional Chinese government as a religious institution (part of that lecture is reflected in my article in Point East March 2016). My lectures were actually created to communicate with the government. I know that I succeeded in reaching the government, as I received a friendly mild “correction” from the Party during the discussions in 2014. But encouraging a revised broader understanding of religion in China will take considerable time.

Once things settle down, the situation still cannot be ameliorated until those supporting the Jewish remnants reconsider what they have been doing and what they can and should be doing. But since the Kaifeng community is fragmented, and different Jewish organizations were working at cross purposes in Kaifeng, I am pessimistic that this will take place. The Chinese government is correct in understanding Chinese Judaism to be defunct. It has been so for a century and a half.

Chinese Judaism was both fully Chinese (see my The Theology of the Chinese Jews, 1000-1850) and fully Jewish (see Simons, Jewish Religious Observance by the Jews of Kaifeng China). Just as most American Jews fully take part in Americanism (with its symbols, values, and holidays – Thanksgiving and July 4th), so the Chinese Jews fully took part in those aspects of Chinese Religion which were compatible with Judaism. Their synagogue was as much Chinese as it was Jewish (see the Grand Mosque in Xi’an which is still there and very similar to the synagogue that was in Kaifeng), as were their homes. Their Chinese neighbors understood them to be fully Han, with adjunct religious practices, similar to their perception of Chinese Buddhists. That the Chinese Jews were not considered different, save in a minor aspect, is why they could have had civil and military officials far out of proportion to their population. This is also why the Kaifeng synagogue community lasted at least as long as any synagogue community in Europe, over eight centuries. Chinese Judaism was perhaps the most successful experience in the history of Diaspora Judaism, for only in China did Judaism exist in an utterly benign atmosphere (with one known brief and minor exception during Mongol rule which also was applied to Muslims).

But are the remnants of this community aware of this great tradition? Or have they been taught that only northern European Judaism is real Judaism, and that to be Jewish, they must adopt a foreign culture. Their origins were in Persia, and originally they spoke and wrote Judeo-Persian, the lingua franca of the maritime trade. When they came to China, Ashkenazi Judaism was in its embryonic stage. Yet it was Ashkenazi missionaries who were sent to them, not Mizrahim, to help them return to Judaism. If they must be converted, then it is an admission that they are not Jewish, supporting the Chinese government’s understanding. “Purification” through a Mikvah and, of course, circumcision for males could take place in China without calling it “conversion.” There must be no consideration of becoming foreign Jews or being subject to foreign rabbis. Most American Jews do not consider themselves subject to the recent equivalents of popes in Jerusalem, so why is this expected of those in Kaifeng, with a considerably longer history? The only alternative is to arrange for those who wish to do so to immigrate to Israel, be converted to non-Chinese Judaism and become Israelis.

Foreign Jewish authorities have insisted that the Chinese Jews are not Jews, supporting the government’s understanding that the descendants ceased to be Jews long ago. The Haredi control of immigration and citizenship in Israel, trying to limit recognition to their own supporters, led to the proclamation that Judaism is a matrilineage. That of course is utter nonsense from every aspect of Jewish religious practice and the scholarly use of the term in anthropology. They are using a criteria for inclusion to exclude, and that deems the Chinese Jews not to be Jews. Indeed, they can claim that most Jews are not Jews; they have proclaimed that almost all North American Jews are not Jews. Therefore, the Chinese self-proclaimed Jews must be converted to be Jews, and they must be converted by foreigners. Thus, the case cannot be made internally for recognition of continuing Chinese Judaism, because there are no Chinese Jews, and there never have been Chinese Jews, since intermarriage took place as soon as male Persian Jewish merchants became permanent residents in China and slowly became Chinese Jews a thousand years ago. By the way, the same logic means that there are no Ashkenazi Jews, since the Askenazim are descended from merchants who took local wives around the same time in northern Europe, and their descendants probably merged with the Kazars who became Jewish en masse and thus did not undergo modern rabbinic conversion (see the first chapter of my book).

There is no reason why Chinese Judaism cannot be resurgent in China, if there is a real desire among the descendants for this to happen. But it must actually be Chinese Judaism, and it is possible because the general knowledge of their particular practices has not been lost, and Mizrahi Judaism remains viable. I am certain the Chinese government would have no problem with this, if they can be made to understand it. Given recent events, this will be far from easy. However, given that a major interest of many claiming Jewish ancestry is to immigrate to the West due to poverty and low social status, especially in Kaifeng given its weak economic situation, the consideration of Judaism as a foreign religion may be perceived positively. Judaism may be understood as a way out of China.

This affair has all the makings of classical Greek drama. It started with hubris and ended in inevitable tragedy. At the moment, any further involvement by foreign Jews will only make a bad situation worse for the Kaifeng community. Patience is crucial.

ADDENDUM at the request of the Editor (pardon the repetition)

If the Chinese Jews are to be recognized by the Chinese government, assuming this is now possible given the present circumstances, to my understanding, the following steps need be taken. The first three steps are in regard to the actions of foreign Jews; the last two steps are for the Chinese Jews in order to be in accord with the Chinese constitution and legal procedures:

1. There must be strong support by non-Haredi Jews for acknowledgment that the Chinese Jews are Jews, for either they are or they are not. If they are not recognized as Jews outside of China, then why would they be so recognized inside of China?

2. The insistence by foreign Jews that one cannot be both Chinese (Han) and Jewish must cease, for that is a denial of the reality of Chinese Judaism. No one denies that Christian Chinese and Buddhist Chinese are Chinese, then why deny that the Chinese Jews are Chinese. If for the Chinese Jews to be recognized as Jews means to cease being Han, then government recognition would be impossible, because it means that for a Chinese to be Jewish necessitates a Chinese being transformed into a foreigner.

3. The negative pressure from foreigners over the affair is simply understood in China as typical anti-Chinese American propaganda to destabilize China that has been going on for over sixty years. This makes it impossible for Chinese Judaism to be recognized by the government, since the issue will then continue to be understood as one of state security rather than religion. Rhetoric of understanding will be far more fruitful than rhetoric of condemnation.

4. The Chinese Jews must themselves re-establish their Judaism, assuming they are so inclined. There must be sufficient numbers willing to work very hard for a long period of time to bring back their Judaism. They must send people, both men and women, abroad to study Mizrahi practices and bring them back, because traditional Mizrahi women’s practices are highly compatible with Chinese women’s normative religious practices in the home. At least one must be trained as a Mizrahi rabbi. They must study what is known of the practices of the Kaifeng Jews that are specifically Chinese and revitalize them (at least some already practice aspects); they are parallel with those aspects of Chinese religion that are compatible with traditional Mizrahi practices. In summary, they must recreate the synthesis that existed before but, of course, in a contemporary mode.

5. Working with recognized Chinese scholars, they must establish an internal authority to authenticate their religious practices and certify that they are in accord with the constitution regarding religion (support “social harmony” and be congruent with “socialist principles”). This should not involve any foreign authentication, although foreign recognition would be very important. This is the first required step before proceeding to the two relevant governmental authorities for official recognition as a religion.


Jordan Paper is Professor Emeritus, York University (Toronto), and Fellow, Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, University of Victoria (BC).  He may be reached at