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 culture and faith.  Furthermore, excepting a few publicized actions, Chinese officials continue to permit many unauthorized churches to function; but the Kaifeng community remains in lockdown. 

Others blame it on the publicity given the community in the foreign press.  But this coverage had been positive and one might think that China would welcome and celebrate the fact that, almost alone in the world, it has never persecuted its Jewish community.  One might even expect them to turn this fact into an opportunity to advance tourism in Kaifeng just as has been done in Shanghai and Harbin.

Another rationalization for the crackdown is that it represents official Chinese anger—collective punishment, if you will—for the political asylum sought by a Kaifeng Jew while visiting New York.

But whatever the precipitating factor, China also 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.  

But the Kaifeng Jews have survived for over a thousand years as a distinct group and so would seem to merit some arrangement that would enable them to reestablish and maintain a connection with their Jewish heritage.  The only way this may be accomplished in the beginning is if they are allowed to connect with foreign Jews and learn from them.  Ultimately more knowledgeable Kaifeng Jews will be able to lead their own community members in an effort to revive the distinctive Sino-Judaic culture that is their patrimony.

After Chris Buckley of the New York Times published his major piece on the crackdown in Kaifeng, one would have hoped that American Jewish organizations and the Israeli government might have made some inquiries on behalf of that beleaguered community.  Inquiries by this author and others have proved fruitless in turning up any evidence that this has taken place—although in one case concern was expressed about the eradication of the Jewish historical presence in Kaifeng.  But of the living people?  Not a word. 

Either efforts are being made to help them that demand the upmost secrecy (even from those most concerned) or no body is willing to risk troubling Jewish/Israeli – Chinese relations for the sake of a thousand or so Jewish descendants.  I pray that the former is the case but sadly suspect it is the latter.  What ever happened to kol Yisrael averim zeh b’zeh (all Jews are responsible for one another)—or does this not apply to the Chinese Jews?



Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews: A Collection of Biographical Reflections by Maisie Meyer. Blacksmith Books, 2016. $22.95. 479 pages.

Reviewed by Gao Bei

Following a series of influential articles on the subject, the publication of Maisie Meyer’s first book in 2003, From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Jewish Life in Shanghai (University Press of America), secured her position as the authority on the history of Sephardi/ Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai. Meyer’s new book, Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews: A Collection of Biographical Reflections (Blacksmith Books, 2016), takes a different approach than her previous study and focuses on the first-hand experiences of people from this unique community in the modern city. Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews uses personal histories to provide readers with a vivid and accessible account that will complement existing scholarship by giving this community a human face.  

In recent years, as the lives of wartime European Jewish refugees in Shanghai have drawn increasing attention from both scholars and general public, numerous Shanghai survivors have published their stories in memoir form. Scholars have also employed the personal and biographical approach in relating their experiences. For example, Irene Eber’s 2009 volume, Voices from Shanghai: Jewish Exiles in Wartime China (University of Chicago Press) translated and edited many of the former refugees’ letters, poems, stories, and diaries. Steven Hochstadt interviewed more than 100 of these Shanghai-landers and published his transcripts in Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Maisie Meyer’s Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews makes yet another contribution to this genre by examining individual lives within a community of Jews who established themselves much earlier in the burgeoning metropolis.

In Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews, Meyer asks “To what extent did the Shanghai Baghdadi Jews identify as Baghdadi Jews and how secure were they in their identity? What enabled them to preserve their identity and ethnicity, in spite of cultural accommodation to the British? What factors underpinned their heightened sense of community? What was the character of their Jewish communal institutions? How did the community contribute to the development and administration of the Treaty Port? How did they represent themselves to the wider society and to Jewish communities worldwide?” (46) Meyer grapples with these questions carefully in the book’s introduction/overview. In doing so, she breaks little more new ground than she did in her 2003 study. However, in addition to her thorough description of the origin, uniqueness and development of the Baghdadi Jewish community in Shanghai, this portion of her book introduces the biographical accounts around which the volume is constructed and explains how they serve as evidence to support her argument, that “Each contributor provides a different aspect of Baghdadi Jewish life in Shanghai.” (48)

As for the archival sources on which the author relies, Meyer exploits materials regarding Sir Elly Kadoorie from the Hong Kong Heritage Project, which was founded by the Kadoorie family in 2007. The Hong Kong Heritage Project itself has, since 2010, published several slim studies concerning the Kadoories, among them Shanghai, Hong Kong, the Kadoorie Family. Meyer also obtained access from the Sassoon family to Sir Victor Sassoon’s diaries from 1927 to 1961. Currently, Southern Methodist University’s Degolyer Library houses a collection called “Sir Ellice Victor Elias Sassoon Papers and Photographs.” This consists of 35 diaries, correspondence and 15 photograph albums from the years 1928 to 1961. It would be valuable to know whether this collection has duplicated or holds different materials than the one belonging to the Sassoon family.

In sum, Shanghai’s Baghdadi Jews is a welcome addition to the popular literature on this under-appreciated subject. It is lively and engaging, and the author has a sharp eye for personalities and revealing anecdotes. As the author notes, we need to bear “in mind that memory is not history, but a past seen from the perspective of a present, its value lies in the fact that it individualises the larger historical picture, allowing readers to see events through the lives of men and women who played a role at the time...” (51)

Gao Bei is assistant professor of History and International Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  She can be reached at


The Image of Jews in Contemporary China. Edited by James Ross and Song Lihong

Academic Studies Press, 2016.  ISBN: 9781618114204. $79 USD. 256 pages

Reviewed by Bev Friend

What a wealth of fascinating information is housed in these eleven varied contributions, many of which had received prior publication in English or Chinese academic journals and are now fortunately available to a wider reading public.  Citing chapter titles offers a glimpse into the broad scope covered, often noting but always going far beyond the usual stereotypes – rich, brainy, and overwhelmingly successful. Insights abound. One I found most fascinating – noted by Lihong Song in the book's concluding essay – is that among all the Jewish studies in China, there is no study of Jewish liturgy.

A brief overview of what is covered can only serve as an introduction. Each essay is worth a close reading.

•       "Perceiving Jews in Modern China," by Zhou Xun, offers an analysis of contemporary images (positive and negative) and discusses the growth of the Jewish community in Beijing with its modern mikvah, and thriving kosher restaurants.

•       "Images of Jews in Contemporary Books, Blogs and Films," by co-editor James R. Ross, focuses on popular culture examining specific authors and works that spread stereotypes and misunderstandings. Are these evidence of philo-Semitism rather than anti-Semitism?

•       "Distinctiveness: A Major Jewish Characteristic," by Fu Youde, examines the differences between Chinese and Jewish ways of thinking, especially on such topics as freedom and equality.

•       "Chinese Policy toward Kaifeng Jews," by Xu Xin, traces changing historic reaction from ancient times to the present, explaining why the government has denied the Kaifeng Jews recognition as an ethnic group. It is especially interesting to learn the designation "descendants" rather than "Jews" was chosen because it shifts emphasis by "denying Kaifeng's connection with the Jewish people and Israel as a Jewish state."

•       "Sukkot and Mid-Autumn Festivals in Kaifeng: Conundrums at the Crossroads of Sino-Judaic Cultural Identity," by Moshe Y. Bernstein, follows and is a welcome continuation of Xu Xin's essay as he delineates the various factions now present in the city. This description lays the groundwork for some understanding of what is currently happening in Kaifeng and a changing government policy that is now inhibiting Jewish life and tourism there. (For further information in this, see

•       “Understanding the Bible among the General Public in Mainland China: A Survey on the 'Bullet Curtain' of the Bible," by Meng Zhenhua, notes that Chinese are learning more about the Bible from television than from printed sources.  "Bullet Curtain" refers to interaction from viewers as they react – shooting metaphorical bullets.  All Chinese translations are the work of Christians and include both Old and New Testaments.

•       “The Changing Image of the State of Israel in the People's Daily, During the Cold War," by She Gangzheng, points out how changes are linked to domestic fluctuations in China, including the economic reforms of the 1980's.

•       "The Reception of Contemporary Israeli Literature in China," by Zhong Zhiqing, examines popular and classical works citing translation data: 114 books and anthologies, 74 works of prose, 5 books of poetry and 27 children's books – and doubtless even more since this writing. A highlight was the visit of Israeli author Amos Oz in 2007.

•       "China's Relationship with Israel, Opportunities and Challenges: Perspectives from China," by Chen Yiyi, breaks new ground by examining the implications of China's rapid economic growth in the past 10 years and the resulting purchases of Israeli technology in agriculture, water purification and telecommunication.

•       "Holocaust Studies and Holocaust Education in China," by Glenn Timmerman, was one of the first studies of this topic, and illustrates the increased interest when coupled with studies and exhibits on such atrocities as the Nanjing Massacre. As of now, there are no institutes with Holocaust Studies but a study of Shoah is included in most Jewish Studies programs.

•       "Reflection of Jewish Studies: A Comparative Perspective," by co-editor Song Lihong, asks a provocative question: "Should we face inward toward satisfying academic colleagues, or should we face outward and endeavor to leaven an undistorted, meaningful, and accessible knowledge of the Jewish people to a broader Chinese audience?"

Certainly, this fine volume is a first step towards providing such knowledge for all potential audiences.

Beverly Friend, PHD, is Executive Director of the China Judaic Studies Association, a Board Member of the Sino Judaic Institute, and has been honored by the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute for Jewish and Israeli Studies at Nanjing University for her work in promoting Jewish Studies there.  She may be reached at

There is a 30% discount when this book is ordered directly from Academic Studies Press.  Use the promotional code TFN95TE at