An ancient trading nation, the Chinese have had contacts with traveling Jewish merchants since the 8th century. The first Jewish settlers arrived through the Silk Road during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), establishing a community in the city of Kaifeng, in a far Western region of the country. Able to maintain their religious traditions while also immersing themselves in Chinese culture, the Jewish community experienced great success in China, with some members taking and passing China’s prestigious civil service exams.
Though there were other Jewish communities in China besides the one in Kaifeng, they were largely scattered and isolated in comparison. Jews further prospered following the Mongolian invasion of the 13th century, when the conquerors overhauled the legal system in order to decrease Han power. Despite this, however, the new rulers were a mixed blessing for the Jews, as they banned ritual slaughter, thus impeding on this important Halakhic tradition.
The Jewish community experienced a golden age in the 14th century after the Han regained power. Chinese Jews were able to fully participate in public life and government affairs, and were even granted land and privileges from the emperor. A large number of Chinese Jews passed the civil service exams during this time, allowing them to become Chinese officials.
Chinese Jewry began to experience a decline in the 15th century. A disastrous flood devastated the community and the increasing activities of Christian missionaries sparked a general distrust of those deemed “foreign” by the Chinese; Jews fell into this category. This decline was somewhat halted when Ashkenazi Jews came to Shanghai as the city opened to foreign trade in 1842. Fleeing persecution and pogroms, these Jews – almost entirely Eastern European – mixed with the already established Sephardic community.
Over the next several decades the Jewish community continued to decline, despite efforts by Egyptian and Iraqi Jewish merchants to revive the Kaifeng Jewish community. In 1914, the Jews there were largely unable to read and understand Hebrew and had sold their synagogue.
By the mid-1930’s, before the arrival of Jews fleeing from persecution in Nazi Germany, Shanghai’s Jewish community consisted primarily of two groups – approximately 700 descendants of Iraqi Jews who had come there in the mid-1800’s, and several thousand Jews who had fled from Russia following the October 1917 Revolution. The latter group built three synagogues and published numerous Jewish periodicals – including a Hebrew newspaper.
Following the 1937 Sino-Japanese war, large sections of Shanghai fell under Japanese control, including the so-called International Settlement, referred to as Hongkew, where the city’s Jews lived.
Today, the Chinese Jewish community is a small, concentrated minority within China. A large number of Jews from around the world have been coming to Beijing to part in the economic development of China. The relative lack of religious affiliation among members of the community is largely due to strict surveillance of religion under the Chinese government – and the censorship and crackdowns against “foreign” influences. For most Chinese Jews, religious identity is celebrated individually and privately.