China’s Jewish Problem

By Anson Laytner

Why do certain Chinese authorities seem so intent on obliterating the identity of the Kaifeng Jewish descendants, this miniscule group of people?

For over a thousand years, there has been a Jewish community in Kaifeng. The decline of the community coincided with China’s decline in the 1800s and by the turn of the 20th century only memories sustained its members.  Nonetheless, they leapt at any chance to revive their community, pleading time and again with visiting Western Jews and Christian missionaries for help in rebuilding their now demolished synagogue.  In censuses taken in the 1920s and early 1950s, some Kaifeng Jewish descendants wrote “Jew” as their nationality affiliation, an identity that was confirmed in local identification papers until the mid 1990s—testimony to the persistence of Jewish memory and identity despite great odds. 

After China opened up in the 1980s, Chinese authorities allowed, or at least turned a blind eye to, Western Jewish efforts to help resuscitate the community, which today numbers approximately one thousand souls.  A school was established and communal gatherings commenced under guidance of Western Jewish teachers, some from Israel, others from America.  Some Kaifeng Jewish descendants immigrated to Israel but maintained close ties with their families back home.  The Kaifeng Jewish descendants were beginning to connect with their Jewish heritage in a significant and more knowledgeable way.

But all this came crashing down in 2015 when certain authorities precipitously began a crackdown on all aspects of Jewish life in Kaifeng. They shut down Shavei Israel’s school; expelled Western Jewish teachers; closed all museum exhibits on the Kaifeng Jews; took down all historical signage and markers that designated the ancient Jewish neighborhood; filled in and closed off the well revered by the Kaifeng Jews as the last remaining part of their long-destroyed synagogue complex; suspended Jewish group tours to Kaifeng; and prohibited the Kaifeng Jews from meeting collectively, although individual Jewish families still are able to gather to observe Jewish holy days as best they can.

Some China experts link these actions to similar tactics used by the authorities to curtail the activities of unauthorized new Christian churches, but the Kaifeng community is, after 1000 plus years, all but indigenous.   They are not embracing a foreign religion; they are attempting to reconnect to their own Sino-Judaic culture and faith. 

But China has a “Jewish problem” that goes back to the early years of the People’s Republic.

At the heart of China’s “Jewish problem” is a contradictory policy first set down in 1953 by the Central United Front of the Communist Party which decreed that “Kaifeng Jewry should be treated as a part of the Han nationality” along with the caveat that the authorities should “educate the local Han population not to discriminate against or insult them. This will gradually ease away the differences they might psychologically or emotionally feel exists between them and the Han.”  However, simply by stating the issue in this way showed that a distinction in identity existed in the authorities’ minds, just as it did with the Kaifeng Jews, who time and again self-identified as Chinese Jews.

The 1953 document legitimately denied the Kaifeng Jews ethnic minority status in China.  Given their tiny population, the Kaifeng Jews do not warrant ethnic minority status. The Chinese government has a single objective standard by which it determines national ethnicity, one that, by its own criteria, excludes the Kaifeng Jews (and other small groups as well).  That is its prerogative.  

Given the on-going suppression in Kaifeng, I could enter 2018 on a depressed note but three things give me hope for a better future there.  First, over the past thirty plus years, the Kaifeng Jews have been given a booster shot of Jewish content that should sustain them well beyond the current crisis.  Second, foreign Jewish individuals are still able to visit Kaifeng and meet with Jewish residents there.  This people-to-people contact remains an essential lifeline during these trying times. Third, and most importantly, Kaifeng Jews now living in Israel can return home to visit, bringing with them first-hand knowledge and direct experience of living Judaism. 

The Kaifeng Jews have survived for over a thousand years as a distinct group and some desire to maintain a connection with their Jewish heritage.  Ideally, the Chinese authorities should make some accommodation for the unique status of the Kaifeng Jews (neither as a national minority nor as an official religion) so that they can maintain their identity as Chinese Jews without harassment or fear.




Kaifeng Then and Now

China Journal, 1982 

By Barbara R. Stein 

[Barbara Stein visited Kaifeng in the summer of 1982 on a Henan China Archaeological Study Tour organized by the Center for East Asian Studies, University of Kansas in cooperation with Zhengzhou University, China International Travel Service (Zhengzhou Branch), and the University of Missouri.

The 34-member study group arrived in Shanghai May 30, 1982. While there they visited Fudan University, the Shanghai Museum and other cultural sites, as well as the Pengpu Peoples' Commune, which specializes in growing vegetables. They travelled by overnight train to Kaifeng and visited the Fan Pagoda, the Iron Pagoda, and the Dragon Temple.  The tour continued in the area along the Yellow River, cradle of Chinese civilization, for the next eleven days. On June 14, tour members flew to Beijing to visit sites in and around the capital city for four days before the tour officially ended.

The following excerpted entry comes from Ms. Stein’s notes of her visit in Kaifeng.  Ed.]

June 1st, Shanghai 

… After dinner we went to the train station—16 hrs to Kaifeng. 

June 2nd, Kaifeng Guest House 

Arrived in Kaifeng in time for lunch. We are at the “very best” hotel in town! The food here, however, is much better than in Shanghai—not so greasy and with lots of veggies…

June 3rd, Kaifeng Guest House 

…And finally we stopped at the Kaifeng Museum. It was only after much negotiation as it was not open to the public. We first viewed a courtyard with row after row of gravestones inscribed with the bibliographies of the deceased. These had been removed from tombs in the area but had never been properly prepared for display. After much nagging, a curator was brought out who indicated to us two sets of stone tablets, purportedly the stelae describing the building and the rebuilding of the temple in Kaifeng. Jews lived in Kaifeng during the Jin Dynasty (~1100 AD) and the tablets date from the 14th and 15th C. Pictures were not allowed to be taken but it did not matter as the stones had been so worn that very little of the inscription was readable. The curator said, however, that there were four such stones, not three as the guidebook indicated.

This afternoon we will drive down the main street of what was formerly the ghetto in Kaifeng. None of the inscription was in Hebrew. 

After lunch, our first stop was a guild, not a temple per se, but more a meetinghouse constructed by the people from three provinces. Today it is used as a grade school. This was followed by a trip to the site of the old synagogue. Nothing is left there and no marker indicates the past. A hospital has been built on the site but, nonetheless, I feel a sense of history, of roots. I took Grant’s (Goodman) picture and he took mine. The next alley over was that of the former ghetto. The street sign translates to mean “road of the scriptures”, or some such thing. I took a picture of the sign and the alley. A group of people wanted to walk down the lane and when I caught up with them I found that Chae-jin (Lee) had asked a local boy if he knew of any descendants of Jews who might still live in the area. And sure enough, one woman still exists. She has no artifacts and knows nothing of Jewish history and culture, only that as a child she was told that she was of Jewish ancestry. I took her picture.


A Visit to Kaifeng, Autumn 2017

By Poloni b. Poloni

[Poloni b. Poloni is a pseudonym for the author, who chooses to remain anonymous given the current situation.  Ed.]

My wife and I did get to Kaifeng just for an overnight visit.  Through a friend of my son who had spent the last few years in China, we were able to meet up with T., a descendant of the Jews of Kaifeng.  T. met us at our hotel for breakfast along with a friend and then spent a good part of the day with us.  

He took us to the location of the synagogue on the ancient Jewish lane.  There we met an older woman who also keeps a small museum and makes paper cuts.  She joined us to walk around the neighborhood and to the former location of the mikvah (or ancient well), which was the last remaining item on the grounds of the original synagogue first constructed in the 12th century. It was filled in by local authorities in 2016. When we were there, a group of workmen appeared to be preparing to build something.  

A young man from the neighborhood, not Jewish but very interested in and knowledgeable about the topic of Jews in Kaifeng, and his parents came along.  He is in his last year of high school, aiming for admission to Peking University (China’s top university) and spoke pretty good English.  My wife speaks some Chinese, very rusty, and not adequate for detailed conversation, so he was a great help.  Otherwise we were relying on my wife's limited Chinese and Microsoft Translator, so some of the details were not always clear.  

T. showed us a building where gold was traded by a Jewish group, possibly the Shi family, photos of his grandfather's grave with Star of David, etc.  He said there were about 2,000 people who can trace their roots to Jewish ancestors, and about 500 of those who identified as Jewish.  26 Kaifeng Jews have made aliyah.  

We had hoped to see Jewish artifacts in the museum, but were told that these are no longer open to tourists.  

T. was more than willing to talk about the Jewish community, their history, and their dreams, but unwilling to talk about the recent government crackdown, or for that matter, anything related to the government.  He only suggested that we talk to our friend who had introduced us when we got home, in order to understand the current situation. The situation does not appear to have changed much since foreign media outlets reported on the tightened restrictions on the community in 2016.

Despite being less than clear about many of the details, and the hints of difficulties with the government, the day with T. and the others in that neighborhood was certainly a highlight of our recent stay in China, a true spiritual journey.