China

China is home to about 2,500 Jews. A small ethno-religious minority, the Chinese Jewish community has deep historical roots that go back centuries. There is currently no Jewish community representative body in China, although there are small active communities of expatriates in Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. 


History

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.

 

The Years of the Holocaust

Because Shanghai did not require entry visas, the city became a haven for Jewish refugees during the Nazi period. Between the 1933 -1941, approximately 17,000 Jews found refuge there.

Arriving in Shanghai, many of these Jewish refugees had trouble finding work. Stripped of most of their assets before arriving to China, many had to rely on charity to survive.

Still, quite a number of German and Austrian Jews were able to establish themselves commercially in Shanghai. The Eisfelder family operated Café Louis, where refugees gathered during the war years. Other refugees set up restaurants, nightclubs, bakeries, and shops, or earned a living as doctors, dentists, teachers, architects, and builders, among other professions.

With Japan’s capture of Shanghai in 1937, most Jews were forcibly relocated to semi-internment camps in the Hongkew district. Following Kristallnacht in 1938, Shanghai’s refugee population experienced a sudden increase that left the already existing Jewish refugee community hard-pressed to provide the resources necessary to help needy families. By 1939, more than half of the population required financial assistance in some form. In 1940-1941, about 2,000 Polish Jews who had been given visas by Chuno Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in the Lithuanian capital of Kaunas (Kovno) , found refuge in Shanghai. Among the Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust years in Shanghai were Michael Blumenthal, who would become U.S. Treasury Secretary, Israeli businessman Shaul Eisenberg, and composer Otto Joachim.

After the war, most Jews left for the United States, Britain and other destinations abroad.

Demography

The 2010 census places the Chinese Jewish population at 2,800 people out of a total population of 1,339,724,852 – constituting 0.0002% of the population. Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola provided the same 2,500 figure for 2015.

The Jewish community in China is spread throughout the major cities. Kaifeng, Beijing, and Shanghai are some of the locations of some of the more sizeable Chinese Jewish communities. No Jews are known to be living in China outside of these cities.

 

Community Life

Jewish communal life in China is complicated and convoluted, representing the precarious situation of a community caught between the international, economic aspirations of a rising superpower and a ruling party intent on exercising and retaining complete authority. While the Jewish community in China has no official communal representative body, there still exists some form of communal activity in the country, primarily in international hubs such as Beijing and Shanghai, where there are sizeable Jewish expatriate communities. Cities such as these have organized and centralized Chabad Houses that provide a variety of Jewish services.

 

Religious and Cultural Life

Jewish religious life in China is almost exclusively run through regional organizations and institutions. There are almost no independently-run synagogues in China; instead, religious ceremonies are conducted through regional Chabads and other centers for Jewish life in China’s major cities (the Shehebar Sephardic Center even has a branch in Shanghai.)

Kosher food can be found in China’s major cities through their Chabads and other Jewish religious institutions. The Shanghai Jewish Center has a kosher café, and the Chabad in Beijing provides Kosher meals and has a kosher market. Additionally, Beijing also has a kosher restaurant. Kosher food elsewhere is rare, if not non-existent.

Jewish Education

Jewish kindergarten and day schools are offered through Chabad.

 

Information for Visitors

There is a small Jewish museum in Kaifeng on the old Teaching Torah Lane. Additionally, several museums in Kaifeng contain exhibits on Chinese Jews throughout the ages. In Shanghai, visitors can see the site of the former Hongkew ghetto and visit the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which contains artifacts and exhibits on Jewish life in China during the years of the Holocaust. There is also a Jewish cultural museum and cemetery in Harbin.

Israel

China and Israel maintain full diplomatic relations, with the two states working closely together in economic, technological, and military capacities.

Embassy of Israel in Beijing
No. 17 Tianzelu, Chaoyang District
Beijing 100600
China

Telephone: 86-10-85320500
Fax: 86-10-85320555

updated

December 2017

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