Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Remarkable History of Kaifeng’s Jewish Community

Tuesday, October 2, 2012 | By: The Editors You might be surprised to know that there exists a small Jewish community in Henan Province’s Kaifeng region. Even more astonishing, however, is that the community claims to have descended from the same Jewish merchants who arrived in China during the 8th century, in the late Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). History tells us that the prosperous trade route of the Silk Road proved irresistible to China’s sole Jewish community. Sometime after its arrival, the community united to vow adherence and loyalty to China’s laws and emperor, thus affording them the right to settle down in what was then one of the early Northern Song Dynasty’s (960-1127A.D.) most thriving business centers, Kaifeng. A photography of two Kaifeng Jewish descendants taken in 1906. The community held steadfast in the practice of the beliefs and traditions of their ancestors, until China came under the rule of the mid-Qing Dynasty in 1644. By the time the dynasty’s influence had passed in the year 1911, the community had undergone a significant metamorphosis, as a result of intermarriage with the Han Chinese and nearly 300 years of isolation from its place of origin. In 1952, two Jewish representatives from Kaifeng were invited to attend National Day celebrations with state leaders of China, an occasion that would mark the peak of the community’s fortunes with the government. Largely due to assimilation, the population has dwindled to around 1,000 inrecent years, many of whom are unable to read or write in Hebrew. The commune’s claim has been repeatedly challenged by skeptics who doubt the ancient tribe’s unique heritage, but DNA tests have shown that the blood of those within the community bears a striking resemblance to that of the ancient Jews of Iraq and Iran. Some members even sport the long beards for which those of Jewish descent are famous. But despite all this and the fact that they still consider themselves Jews in a cultural sense, Judaism has not been practiced since the early 20th century. As a result, the Jewish synagogue in Kaifeng now only exists in a few historical photographs and people’s memories. In order to restore some of the traditions lost, several of the community’s members, led by Mr. Zhang Xingwang, have recently taken the initiative to seek outside help from experts. Their search has led them to the gates of Nanjing University, where they are now attending classes on Hebrew. In addition, the members are also making efforts to observe the Sabbath every week. The seemingly anomalous juxtaposition of the community with China’s native population has garnered international attention, and as a result, more and more tourists are arriving each and every month. The locals have embraced this fortune, evident in one family by the name of Zhao, receiving waves of guests from abroad and other parts of China into their home every month. Perhaps this attention will help those remaining descendants of the brave explorers, who long ago entered the borders of a far and distant land in hopes of prosperity, to further explore the realms of their profound heritage and cherish not only who they are but what they can be. -Information provided by MKJourneys http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2012/10/holiday-blog-1-the-remarkable-history-of-kaifengs-jewish-community/

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