Jews in China: Living in the dragon’s den for 14 centuries

By Erica Lyons, December 19, 2013
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Today in China there are both synagogues without Jews, and Jews without synagogues, as in Beijing, where the growing community has created places of worship in renovated flats.

The first reference to a Jewish presence in the country dates back to the seventh century CE and describes a community in the city of Kaifeng, about 400 miles south of Beijing. These Jews, who are thought to have originated from Persia, eventually assimilated and married Chinese partners.

At various times over the centuries, Jews have settled in different parts of China — Qiqihar, Tientsin, Harbin and Shanghai.

Hong Kong boasts a community that dates back to the 1850s — the only one that has remained in continuous existence since it was founded.

The question, who are or who were the Jews of China, demands an exploration of each separate settlement, as well as each specific time period — each story is unique.

The community of Shanghai perhaps best illustrates the point. Established in the middle of the 19th century, it was at first predominantly Baghdadi. An influx of Russian Jews followed in the early part of the 20th century.

Shanghai is, of course, best known for its role as a haven for European Holocaust refugees in the 1930s. Now there is a new and growing expat Jewish community there.

In the north-east city of Harbin, there are two historic synagogues but no Jews to worship in them.

One of the shuls, the Main Synagogue, is to be renovated by the local government.

Meanwhile, the descendants of that original Kaifeng community are rediscovering their Jewishness and making aliyah.

Erica Lyons is editor-in-chief of the Asian Jewish Life journal

Last updated: 4:45pm, December 19 2013