Jews have been coming to China as tradesmen for a very long time. Some may have arrived as early as the Tang dynasty (618-906) to do business at the lively Chang’an Market. One of the earliest records of a Jew in China — a written prayer for selichot — was found in Dunhuang, the traditional gateway to Central Asia. As paper was not in general use anywhere but China, the writer of the prayer had most likely been in China and had left by the overland route. Permanent communities, though, were not founded until some centuries later in trading centers like Kaifeng, Ningbo, Yangzhou, or Ningxia. Unfortunately, all but one — the Jewish community of Kaifeng in Henan province — have disappeared without a trace.
Kaifeng was then the capital of the Song dynasty (960-1278), a flourishing, cosmopolitan city that attracted international trade. The Jewish traders probably came well before the mid-1120s, when warfare by Central Asian tribes engulfed most of North China. Return to their countries of origin was out of the question with marauding soldiers everywhere. Although a peace treaty was signed in 1141, by then many or most of the newcomers had decided to remain in Kaifeng, and, 20 years later, the first synagogue was erected. Although we have no way of knowing whether Jewish women accompanied the men, it is highly doubtful that these tradesmen would have taken their women along. But, as Sephardim, they were polygamous, and they could take Chinese wives depending on their finances. Primogeniture was not practiced in China, and children of secondary wives had equal rights together with the offspring of primary wives.
Having Chinese children paved the way into Chinese society for the Jews. This was further facilitated when Kaifeng Jews received Chinese surnames and the Chinese mode of family lineage was adopted. In the Chinese context, a lineage traced its origin to one ancestor, went by one surname, was domiciled in one locality, and held some properties, including a burial ground, in common. Two sources confirm the transformation into lineages: four ancient stone slabs with inscriptions erected at different times in the synagogue courtyard with versions of the community’s history in Kaifeng, and the mention of family cemeteries, rather than a Jewish cemetery for the entire community. Eventually, identification with the larger Jewish community elsewhere began to recede as family identity and lineage in China predominated.
The Jews were apparently regarded as a sectarian religion (or teaching), similar to those that flourished on the North China Plain. Like other sectarians, the Jews had a special sanctuary, a set of scriptures that only they read, a leader of the sect, and special dietary practices. The integration (or sinification) of the Jews into Chinese society included the rise of some families to prominence. Like the Chinese, the Jews struggled with overwhelming political, economic, and social problems, which eventually led to the decline of the community. Their last rabbi died in 1821 and the synagogue no longer existed by 1866.
Despite the widespread assumption that Kaifeng’s Jews have disappeared altogether, a number of descendants of the ancient community have reasserted their identity in recent years. Some are learning Hebrew and others are traveling to Israel to study or convert in order to be officially recognized as Jews.
Modern Shanghai, on the other hand, has hosted three distinct Jewish communities. In the mid-19th century, Iraqi Jews arrived, together with British and other traders. Toward the end of that century, Russian Jews began to arrive and then, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, some 6,000 more came. The last large influx of Jews came from Central Europe — some 18,000 after 1933 when Hitler rose to power. A last small contingent of mostly Polish Jews arrived from Japan in 1940. Despite cultural and linguistic differences, most newcomers managed to establish themselves. Altogether, there were probably around 27,000 Jews in Shanghai — although accurate figures are not available.
Shanghai was, by its very nature, unique in its layout as a mosaic of discreet areas: Chinese areas, the International Settlement, and the French Concession, each with its administrative structure until 1941. Shanghai’s population, both foreign and Chinese, was heterogeneous, made more complex by the large number of Chinese refugees who came to Shanghai after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War.
Finding housing was a major problem, and many Jews were housed in dormitory-style facilities that included communal kitchens. Desperate to escape from these facilities, some Jews found rooms in Hongkou, a dilapidated and partially destroyed district of Shanghai where small eateries, coffee shops, and groceries appeared, thus providing modest sources of income. Though jobs were scarce, cultural life was more robust, and journalists, musicians, and even actors could earn small incomes. As many as ten German and four Yiddish newspapers — even if short-lived — appeared in the refugee community. There were German and Yiddish dramatic performances as well as popular singers, such as Raja Zomina.
Unfortunately, much of this ended in February 1943, when “stateless” (that is, German) refugees were ordered by the Japanese occupier to move into a “ghetto” where overcrowding, hunger, and disease were rife. Russian Jews were exempt from this relocation because Japan was not at war with Russia, and so they assumed responsibility for the German community; to that end, they created the Shanghai Ashkenazi Collaborating Relief Association.
Though the war ended in Shanghai in August 1945, the exodus from the metropolis was slow and gradual, lasting well into the 1950s. Only a few of the erstwhile Shanghailanders elected to return to their native homes. Most left for Australia, Canada, Israel, or the United States. Today, Jews who grew up in Shanghai remember that childhood as years of experiences so rare they now seem dreamlike.email print