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Chinese Jews - History of Jewish Community in China

Archaelogical evidence suggests that Jews were in China as early as the 8th Century, having arrived from Persia along the Silk Road. In 1163 the Emperor ordered the Jews to live in Kaifeng, where they built the first Chinese synagogue. Marco Polo recorded that Kublai Khan celebrated the festivals of the Muslims, Christians and Jews, indicating that there were a significant number of Jews in China in the 13th Century.

A Ming Emperor conferred on the Jews seven surnames - Ai, Lao, Jin, Li, Shi, Zhang and Zhao. To this day Chinese Jews will only have one of these seven names. Christian missionaries also recorded meetings with Chinese Jews. At least one synagogue was constructed, and the community was active for about eight centuries. Currently, the Vatican holds letters from Jesuits in the 18th Century describing the daily life and religious practices of Jews in Kaifeng, and drawings of their synagogue.

Westerners lost touch with Kaifeng Jews in the mid-1700s. It was not until 1900 that an effort was made to re-establish contact.

In the late 19th century, Russian Jewish communities were founded in Harbin, Tianjin and elsewhere. The project to construct a Russian railway to East Asia was centered in Harbin. Anxious to populate the city, the Russian government provided incentives to minorities, including Jews and Karaites, to settle there. In the early years of the 20th century, Jews fleeing pogroms in the Pale of Settlement and demobilized soldiers from the Russo-Japanese War joined them, raising the Jewish population of Harbin to approximately 8,000 by 1908. The Russian Revolution of 1917 practically doubled the size of the community, and served as a stimulus to Zionist activism. Japanese annexation in 1931 brought increased restrictions on many facets of life, and many Jews left for free countries. Most of the Russian Jews remaining at the end of World War II emigrated to the West. Some were repatriated, both voluntarily and involuntarily, to the Soviet Union.

The development of the port city of Shanghai as a Jewish center parallels that of Hong Kong. Sephardi families from Baghdad, Bombay and Cairo, including the Kadoories, Sassons and Hardoons, established a communal structure in Shanghai in the 19th century. By 1903, there were three synagogues in the city, and the number of Jews totaled to 30,000. However, most of them fled when the Communists took over in 1949. 

The Chinese government now recognizes Jews as an official Chinese ethnic group.  On Sept. 29, 2000, Rosh Hashanah services were held at the Ohel Rachel Synagogue for the first time in nearly 50 years. There are also a Jewish library and a Jewish museum in the city.


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