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The Sino-Judaic Institute

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Current Issue Highlights: 2 Articles

Youtai or Yicileye:  Jew or Israelite?  Kaifeng Judaism Today

By Noam Urbach

Excerpted from his essay “Kaifeng Judaism Today: Revival or Reintroduction?” in Becoming Jewish: New Jews and Emerging Jewish Communities in a Globalized World, Tudor Parfitt and Netanel Fisher, eds. (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016).

While there has been much hype over the last three or four decades concerning the prospects for a Jewish revival in Kaifeng—prospects that are hindered by strong political constraints—the extent to which such a revival is, should, or could be a reversion to the sinicised Sino-Judaism that was once a living part of the city, or, instead, that Judaism might flower contemporary Kaifeng on the model of the Judaism which we are familiar with in Israel and North America…

This chapter is based primarily on five months of field work in Kaifeng in 2000, several shorter visits there in 2005 and 2007, as well as extensive interviews and collections of primary sources in China, Israel, the United States and Canada…I will distinguish between two approaches I term Youtai vs. Yicileye: the former concentrates on reintroducing “authentic” Judaism to Kaifeng, while the later would revive the sinified Judaism unique to Kaifeng…I will argue that the latter approach, in addition to having greater historical and cultural significance, stands a better chance of gaining the support of  the local government and harmonizing with the Chinese social and political environment.

Two Approaches to Reclaiming Judaism in Kaifeng

…there is an apparent distinction that may be drawn between two approaches, which I suggest calling the Youtai approach and the Yicileye approach. As noted, both are transliterations: Youtai, the transliteration of Yehudi chosen by Protestant translators of the Bible into Chinese in the 19th century,[i] is the standard contemporary Chinese term for “Jews” as well as “Judaism” (Youtai jiao). Yicileye, a transliteration of “Israel” found only on the historic tablets from the synagogue, is the term for the sectarian Sino-Judaic religion of the past. Youtai is Judaism as known to us today; Yicileye is the sinicized syncretic religion studied by [Irene] Eber and [Andrew] Plaks.[ii]

The Youtai approach, I suggest, contemplates a Jewish revival in Kaifeng in which Judaism – as understood in Israel, the United States, and other Jewish centres – is the focus. Because Judaism in Kaifeng has disintegrated over the centuries, such a revival requires that “'true” Judaism be reintroduced to Kaifeng from the outside.

The Yicileye approach, on the other hand, focuses on reviving the autochthonous Sino-Judaic faith of Kaifeng, where it developed through the meeting, a millennium ago, of the Judaism that came from the West with local Chinese or Confucian culture. It is this unique phenomenon that is worthy of being revived.

I argue that the Yicileye approach carries greater historical and religious significance, is more acceptable politically, and is therefore a more feasible goal. The strong antagonism toward Bishop White and his attempt to take custody of the meager assets of a deteriorated community in the early 20th century expresses something that is not limited to that era. A similar antagonism may be aroused (and to some extent has already been) by a foreign-led Youtai revival today. Historically, foreign-led religious change is regarded in China with suspicion, if not as outright taboo. The case of Buddhism's penetration of China is the most obvious example: rather than being viewed as a religion introduced or an outside invader, Buddhism is perceived in China as a religion that China sought out and imported, which then, by way of sinification, became “legitimately” Chinese. A locally led revival of the Yicileye sect might be far more acceptable than the re-importation of the foreign Youtai religion.

The Youtai approach is continuously challenged by the need to prove to outside Jewish institutions that the descendants are “true Jews,” because claiming to be Jewish by descent tends to impress only the most liberal denominations in North America. Conversion is an individual act that does rest on any prior identity as Jews. With the Yicileye approach, on the other hand, revival of sinicized Judaism in Kaifeng does not require and is not dependent on foreign recognition of local Judaism—not by any American Jewish organization or stream, not by any Christian denomination, and not even by the Israeli Rabbinate. Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with Zionism or a fulfillment of prophecies about the exiles’ return from the four corners of the world or even particularly from “the land of Sinim,” wherever we locate that country today.[iii] It can simply be viewed as what it is: the reconstruction not of Judaism (Youtai), but of the local Yicileye sect.

Viewed this way, a reconstruction of the Hall of Purity and Truth (qingzhensi), should the plan be revived, would be seen for what it is – the revival of a local tradition, which amalgamated foreign and Chinese religious ideas and traditions. Although the international significance of such a reconstruction need not be denied, it can still be regarded as a wholly Chinese event, as integral to local Chinese tradition as the nearby Xiang guosi Buddhist temple. International political sensitivities need not be aroused. That, rather than immigration to Israel (en masse or individual), would revive the unique Yicileye jiao that was born in Kaifeng. Reconstruction depends completely on the government. As officials argued in the 1910s and again in the early 1990s, the restoration of a forgotten local cultural asset in the public space of Kaifeng is a service to Chinese culture in general and to Kaifeng in particular. Therefore, it is fair to say that the failure to carry through with the reconstruction plan did a disservice to Kaifeng and China. 

A focus on aliya is related to the Youtai approach, due to the legal conditions for aliya. Since Shi Lei's failed attempt in the early 2000s to gain recognition by the Interior Ministry as ethnically Jewish, aliya from Kaifeng has been based exclusively on conversion to Judaism. Because conversion is a process technically indifferent to historical background (any non-Jew is free to convert), the aliya of individuals from Kaifeng, regardless of numbers, carries no weight in terms of Israeli recognition of the descendants as Jews. Furthermore, it creates an atmosphere where the more a descendant adopts more purely Jewish beliefs and practices (Youtai), i.e., the more he distances himself from the Sino-Judaism of Kaifeng (Yicileye), the better his chances are of being accepted by Shavei Israel for aliya.

As in any discussion of religion in China, besides the official layer, we must look for the folk religious layer. In my collection of photos taken in Kaifeng, by myself and by many others before and since, the Jin family graveyard is a recurring theme. In some pictures from the 1980s, American Jewish tour groups are seen led by their rabbi in reciting the kaddish mourner’s prayer; in others they are seen picking up a small stone from the ground and placing it on a tombstone, in keeping with a Jewish custom. On the other hand, in several photos from around the same period, family members are seen visiting the same graveyard during the Qingming festival, also known as the “grave sweeping festival,” with no accompanying foreign visitors. Here, they are holding a handful of paper, the type used in China for the ritual of burning paper that is part of ancestor worship in Chinese folk religion.

Clearly, the two rituals practiced in the same small family graveyard are of two different traditions. Their contemporary practice is not mixed. Foreign Jews do one thing; the family members, when on their own, do another. The lure of aliya promotes Youtai culture, which essentially denies all Chinese elements that are central to the sinified Yicileye culture. It is rituals such as the burning of paper at a grave, a Chinese ritual inherent to the Sino-Judaism that developed in Kaifeng through the sinification that Eber and others have written about, that should be maintained as part of the revival of Yicileye culture in Kaifeng. 

As the final touches were being made to this chapter, dramatic news arrived from Kaifeng about an apparent government campaign to halt all Jewish communal activity. The Jewish centre was recently ordered to shut down, the Sino-Judaic Institute and Shavei Israel educational programs stopped; descendants report that they are being monitored more closely than before. Tours of “Jewish China” have been denied access to Kaifeng. But the most severe measure, reportedly, is the removal of signs marking the former Jewish area and synagogue. Former SJI president Anson Laytner, who reported this news,[iv] posits that the main reason for the crackdown is the recent application for political asylum in the United States, on grounds of religious persecution, by one individual from Kaifeng. If true, it seems reminiscent of the 1995–6 change of policy which culminated in the campaign to delete Youtai as an ethnic group from the residential documents. That measure too was a direct response to the actions of a few individuals who attempted to gain recognition by Israel as Jews. In both cases, a severe measure was applied with a similar goal – to eradicate any quasi-official recognition of the existence of a group called “Jewish descendants,” Youtai, or any other variant, in contemporary Kaifeng. This also indicates that however lenient the government may seem toward quiet initiatives to rejuvenate Jewish life—Passover seders and Sabbath dinners, teaching stints by foreign volunteers, or even selective aliya to Israel—once an overt step has been taken, even if by a single individual trying to challenge the status quo, the government will have no qualms about introducing measures aimed at delegitimizing any claim of a Jewish presence in Kaifeng. It also demonstrates that the re-establishment of an open Jewish presence in Kaifeng continues to depend on government support. Whether such a presence would be of an imported Youtai type or a localized Yicileye type may impact both its short-term and long-term sustainability.


Noam Urbach has a Master’s in East Asian Studies from Hebrew University, with a thesis on the Kaifeng Jewish Revival in Post-Mao China.  In 2005-07, he was a teacher of Hebrew and Talmud at the Centre for Judaic and Interreligious Studies at Shandong University, China.  Currently, he teaches Chinese language at Bar-Ilan University and hopes to complete his Ph.D. research at the University of Haifa on the politics of religion in China.  His published essays on the Kaifeng Jews include: “What Prevented the Reconstruction of the Chinese Synagogue?  Kaifeng Jews between Revival and Obliteration,” in Youtai—Presence and Perception of Jews and Judaism in China, Peter Kupfer, ed. (Peter Lang, 2008). Noam is also founder of, a mobile communications app.

[i] See Zhou Xun. Chinese Perceptions of the 'Jews' and Judaism: A History of the Youtai (Richmond: Curzon Press, 2001), 12-16. The term Youtai also carries a derogatory connotation. The first of its two characters, pronounced you, includes the radical for “dog.” The Protestant translators clearly made reference to the Chinese trend of adding a “dog” or “animal” radical to the names of foreign peoples, to express the view that all non-Chinese are barbarians. Although most people today are not aware of the derogatory connotation of Youtai, this knowledge provides Kaifeng descendants another reason to prefer Yicileye over Youtai.

[ii]   [Editor:  See Irene Eber, “Kaifeng Jews Revisited: Sinification as Affirmation of Identity,” Monumenta Serica 41 (1993): 231-47 and Andrew H. Plaks, “The Confucianization of the Kaifeng Jews: Interpretations of the Kaifeng Stelae Inscriptions,” In The Jews of China. Volume One: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, edited by Jonathan Goldstein, 36-49. New York: M.E. Sharpe Armonk, 1999.  To these essays, one should also add Jordan Paper, The Theology of the Chinese Jews, 1000-1850, Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2012.]

[iii] “Behold, these shall come from far, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Sinim” (Isa. 49:12), a verse that has repeatedly been romantically quoted as referring to China. The notion is absurd, because the use of “sin” to refer to China was introduced to the west only during the Qin dynasty, centuries after the text was written.  

[iv] Anson Laytner, “Jewish Troubles in Kaifeng.” Times of Israel, April 28, 2016,


Matrilineality and Female Conversion with Regard to the Chinese Jews

By Jordan Paper

One of the reasons often provided for not accepting the descendants of the Chinese Jews as Jewish is that because of assimilation, they follow the Chinese pattern of patriliniality rather than the Jewish pattern of matrilineality. But when did the question of Jewish identity move from having a Jewish mother to one of “matrilineal descent”? Where did this understanding of Judaism being matrilineal come from? In, we find:

...the biblical inference for matrilineal descent: “You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for he will cause your child to turn away from Me, and they will worship the gods of others” (Deuteronomy 7:3–4).[i]

Yet this quotation from the Torah has nothing to do with matrilineality but solely concerns endogamy.

The Chinese Jews, at least in the past, partially followed this biblical injunction regarding endogamy, as they did not marry their daughters to non-Jews, because in China, women followed the religion of their spouse. This was not a problem, with regard to sons, because of they married out, their wives would follow Judaism, the religion of their spouse.        

There would have been little need for young women to find spouses outside of the Jewish community, but for male literati, the situation was different. Jewish literati would probably have had at least two wives, and there may have been insufficient women in the community, given their need to carry out both familial and official duties in two different locations (as Chinese officials could not serve in their home areas). Besides, marrying outside of the community would be necessary to maintain sufficient genetic variety for a healthy small population.          

The literal meaning of matrilineal is that descent and inheritance is understood as based on the mother. There is nothing in the Torah to suggest matrilineality in Israelite culture, and the entire work unquestionably points to patrilineality. All descent lines found there are patrilineal. And thus traditional prayers to today refer to the Patriarchs not the Matriarchs, which they must if Judaism is matrilineal. And there is no question that the Chinese Jews revered the Patriarchs, as a wing of the Kaifeng synagogue was dedicated to rituals honoring them.          

Patrilineality is often associated with patrifocality. Indeed, Judaism is one of the most patrifocal religious traditions in human history, whereas Chinese culture through the long sweep of its history has never been as absolutely patrifocal. For example, from the standpoint of theology, in China the numinous has always been understood to be a complimentary conjoining of female and male essences, necessary for creation and life; e.g., yin & yang and Sky & Earth. And religious rituals required equal complementarity. When the emperor as chief priest of the world made offerings at the Sky and Earth altars outside of the palace, his consort carried out parallel rituals inside the palace, thus maintaining gender complementarity [ii] There have long been female Daoist priests along with male priests, and Buddhist nuns could be abbots of mixed gender monasteries (males and females each have their own wings). Chinese are as likely to call on nuns for priestly needs regarding masses for the family dead as they do monks.          

In Ashkenazi Judaism, the only mode of Judaism I am familiar with aside from Chinese Judaism, descent is clearly reckoned patrilinealy:

1) One inherits religious roles, such as being a cohan, from the father not the mother.

2) One is called to the Torah, etc., by one’s Hebrew name, which is so-and-so son of so-and-so (one’s father).         

The culture is also unquestionably patrifocal, and sometimes misogynist:

1) Religious education and study is traditionally for males only.

2) Ritual roles in the synagogue are traditionally for males only, and the synagogue at other times functions as a male clubhouse.

3) The minyan traditionally is exclusively male—as are many of the mitzvot, especially those that are time-bound.

4) All power in a family belongs to the male (e.g., only a male can divorce a spouse).          

Matrilineality is usually found in combination with matrilocality and matrifocality. Prior to horticulture, it seems that descent was not formally reckoned or was bilateral. For example, Northwest Coast indigenous traditions of North America, traditionally dependent on fishing, hunting sea mammals and foraging shellfish and berries, developed a very elaborate culture with complex rituals. Individuals inherited ritual prerogatives from both their mother’s and their father’s clan.         

Matrilineality seems to begin with horticulture, with matrilineal clans controlling the horticultural (female gardening) fields and the matrilineal and matrilocal clan longhouse residences, often under the control of the “clan mother”. It is only with agriculture (male farming) and herding that we first come across patrilineal patterns, especially after socio-economic hierarchies develop.          

Based on ethnology of the last century, in matrilineal cultures certain patterns seem to be universal, extending extending the meaning of matrilneal beyond its literal meaning of inheritance and descent lines. For example, the role of father that we are familiar with in patrilineal cultures is found in maternal uncles, who relate to their sister’s children as fathers do in patrilineal cultures. Hence, if Judaism were matrilineal, then

1) One’s ritual name would be so&so son of so&so (one’s mother – not one’s father).

2) Ritual roles would be inherited from the mother, such as being a cohan. Indeed, one would expect that cohanim would be women, who would inherit the role from their mothers.

3) Uncles would be responsible for their sister’s children’s religious upbringing not the father.         

Moreover, matrilineal cultures are often matrifocal, so that the chief rabbis in Jerusalem would be women not men, and wives not husbands could divorce their spouses. If the above appears un-Jewish, then it merely emphasizes that Judaism is patrilineal not matrilineal.          

Identification by having a Jewish mother is now a requirement of membership in the Jewish community; this is not the same as matrilineality. There is no indication that any mode of Judaism is or ever was matrilineal. Thus, if matrilineality is a necessary aspect of a Jewish community, then there simply are no Jews nor have there ever been Jews, because Judaism is clearly patrilineal.         

A second reason often provided as to why the Chinese Jews were never Jewish is that when Jewish merchants reached Kaifeng and took Chinese wives a thousand years ago, the women did not convert according to the halacha, i.e. traditional norms. But it is exceedingly unlikely that there existed in Kaifeng in the 11th-century, three rabbis to form a rabbinic court; indeed, it is most unlikely that there were any rabbis there at all during the early stage of community development. For a Jewish community to seek and hire a rabbi, they would need to have sufficient numbers to build and support a synagogue, and this would take more than a single generation.         

Nowhere in the Tanach is there mention of formal conversion, although there are references to Israelites marrying non-Israelites, including Moses, who was given an Egyptian wife by a pharaoh. Ruth is presented as an exemplary woman, yet she was a foreigner married to an Israelite with no consideration of formal conversion, although it is clear that she adopted the religion and ethnicity of her mother-in-law after her husband’s death – clear evidence of patrilocality. In traditional Chinese society, which was patrilocal, a woman was never a member of her natal family, but of the family into which she married or even to which she was betrothed, which usually took place at an early age, as it was an arrangement between families.         

Since the focus of Chinese Religion is on family itself, including the dead, the living, and those yet born, a Chinese woman was of the religion of the family into which she married. Her filial piety, the major religious imperative, is primarily directed to her in-laws, and only secondarily to her own parents. On her death, her name-plaque will be on the altar of her husband or betrothed’s family and she will be buried among the graves of that family. A female who dies unbetrothed or unmarried has no one to care for her, to feed her spirit, and she is understood to become a wandering ghost prone to possessing people. If the possession proves to be beneficent rather than malevolent she may come to be understood as a deity. Major deities such as Guanyin (in general Chinese Religion, not especially as a Buddhist Bodhisattva) and Mazu (the only deity recognized by UNESCO at the request of the current Chinese government) were unmarried women. For this reason, natal families will pay a poor man to marry a deceased unmarried girl (usually as a second wife), that is, her ghost, so that her spirit will have a family to bury and care for her. The marriage procession is combined with a funeral procession and is a most strange sight to behold.          

Hence, a Chinese woman who married a Chinese man would expect to carry out the rituals in the household appropriate to her husband’s religion, as well as other rituals expected of her, such as the use of the mikva (ritual bath) after menstruation. (It is interesting to note that purification after menstruation also is not foreign to Chinese customs.) If we lived in China at that time and we perceived a woman keeping a kosher home, preparing for shabbat and properly lighting the candles, and using the mikva when appropriate, would we not perceive her as Jewish? If invited to eat in her home, would we ask to see a properly signed certificate before eating? Would she not be, like Ruth, a Jewish woman without the benefit of modern conversion?          

When the Khazar kingdom became Jewish, were there individual formal conversions of the entire kingdom? Similarly, when a kingdom in Yemen became Jewish or when Berber tribes became Jewish, did they undergo individual formal conversions? It is possible, of course, but unlikely. When Jewish merchants went up the Rhine to northern Europe, settled there and married local women, did these women formally convert? How would that have been possible, there being no rabbis before a community grew large enough to build a synagogue and need one? Ashkenazi formed from a synthesis of Germanic, Slavic and Jewish elements and amalgamated with the Turkic Khazars when they were forced northwards out of their traditional region, which later became the Russian Pale.[iii] The point of this is that if the Chinese Jews are not Jewish because initially the women were not formally converted, then neither are the Ashkenazim.          

One of the primary reasons that the Chinese government does not recognize the current descendants of the Chinese Jews as Jews is because the Jewish community in general, and Israel in particular, does not accept these Jews as Jews. A major reason often given by Jews outside of China is that the Chinese Jews shifted from matrilineality to patrilineality due to assimilation. But this is nonsense; Judaism is not and never has been matrilineal. A second major reason given is that the descendants of the original Jewish settlers in China are not Jewish is because they did not have Jewish mothers, that is, Chinese women were not formally converted, but instead simply adopted Jewish religious practices and entered into their husbands’ clan and people. Logically these requirements should apply to all modes of Judaism in their distant past, not just China, so if this is a necessary standard, then none of the Ashkenazim today are Jewish.

If the Chinese Jews could be accepted as Jewish by the larger Jewish community, this would go a long way in helping the Chinese Jews today reestablish their unique mode of Judaism, to the enrichment of Judaism globally.


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 .


[i]. [accessed 7 January 2017])

[ii]. For further discussion on this topic, see Jordan Paper, The Spirits Are Drunk: Comparative Approaches to Chinese Religion (State University of New York Press, 1995): Chapter 8: “Female Spirits and Spirituality in Chinese Religion.”

[iii]. Based on linguistics (re. Yiddish), genetics and the formal clothing of the Haredi. For a number of references in this regard, see Jordan Paper, The Theology of the Chinese Jews (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012): 5-16.

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