Jews in China: A Dialogue in Slow-Motion

By Wan-Li, Ho | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Jews in China: A Dialogue in Slow-Motion


Wan-Li, Ho, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Introduction: A Study in Contrasts

The experience of the Jewish people in their long sojourn in China contrasts dramatically with their experience in other lands. In China, their experience was that of a long dialogue, a dialogue in slow-motion, with Chinese culture, especially Confucianism, which produced a viable centuries-long syncretism. This essay examines the Jews of Kaifeng in China from the rise of their community in the twelfth century, through their prosperity, to their decline and near demise. My focus will be to inquire whether the Chinese Jews did, in fact, live at peace with their Chinese neighbors from the twelfth century until now. If they did, how did they achieve a peace that European Jews could not? (The story of the Jews in Muslim lands is yet another story.) I will also examine why the Jews nearly vanished from China as a race and a religion, as well as what remains of them today. In exploring the reasons for their longevity and decline, this essay offers a valuable model for interreligious dialogue--in this case, between Jews and Confucians.

The Jews were once an ancient people in western Asia with their own reli-gion and ethnic customs. They were united in a kingdom in the eleventh century B.C.E., first under Saul, then David, and finally his son Solomon. Thereafter, the Kingdom of Israel split into the northern and southern kingdoms. In the seventh century B.C.E. the northerners made the mistake of siding with Egypt in its war with Assyria and were carried off into Assyrian exile and oblivion. A century later the southerners made the same error by siding with Egypt in its war with Babylon and were carried off into Babylonian captivity. However, the Jewish community both flourished in that land for many subsequent centuries and, from there, also reestablished Jerusalem and the Jewish kingdom in the fifth century B.C.E. In the first century B.C.E., the Jewish kingdom was occupied by the Romans, and, after 70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, most Jews were driven from their homeland into exile. In the two millennia that followed, they spread across the world. They were often cruelly oppressed in these alien lands, but they still maintained their culture and religion.

Even though the medieval Christian policy toward the Jews can be understood only in the context of the broader Christian policy, (1) much of European anti-Judaism derived from the Christian sense of superiority and official church doctrine. (2) "In the Jewish history of blood and tears ... Christendom cannot avoid a clear admission of its guilt." (3) For example, "The Jews lived in Spain for some 1500 years, and [it] became the most important Jewish center in the world. The beginning of their end was in 1391. According to a tradition, a third [of the Jewish population] was murdered and another third was forced to convert to Christianity. The rest were expelled in 1492." (4) To cite yet another example, this time in Poland, a large-scale massacre against Jews was conducted in the City of Uman in 1768. (5)

Yet, all this was merely a prelude to the twentieth century's witness to the Holocaust. This evil, fanned by Nazism, brought the Jews under the knife and into the gas chambers. As we know, both religious and racial conflicts are loaded with violence. In Nazi-controlled Europe during World War II, 6,000,000 Jews were put to death, (6) one of the most frightful tragedies in history.

These historical facts and numberless others demonstrate that the Jews living in Western Civilization endured the cruelest persecution over time. However, the experience of China's Jews contrasted markedly with that of Jews elsewhere who survived only despite persecution. In China, "Kaifeng is a rare example of a Jewish community co-existing happily within a broader culture that accepted it." (7) History shows a civilization that traditionally welcomed Jews and in which there never was any anti-Judaism. Ancient China was "the Jewish Pure Land. …

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