Wan-Li HO

Entrance to a synagogue in China. In 1163 the Kaifeng Jews were the first in China to erect a synagogue, which remained for almost seven hundred years as a place of worship for Jewish believers in China. Today a small Jewish community still exists in the city. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

Drawn by China’s rich culture and, for most of its long history, by its religious tolerance, many traders, missionaries, and scholars from abroad settled permanently in this vast country. China’s environment was particularly attractive to Jews, and those wishing to emigrate formed sizable communities in many Chinese cities.

For most of its many centuries China was a reasonably tolerant country. That factor, combined with its rich culture, made it an attractive place to which many traders, missionaries, and scholars were eager to emigrate. Sizable communities of Jews formed throughout China’s history, particularly in the cities of Kaifeng, Shanghai, Harbin, and Tianjin.


Kaifeng’s thriving economy attracted many Jewish traders and merchants who most likely came from central Asia along the Silk Roads. Although the exact date of the Jews’ arrival in Kaifeng is not known, most scholars believe that they arrived during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Unlike Jews who settled in other Chinese cities to flee persecution, the Jews who moved to Kaifeng did so by choice and enjoyed a relatively positive relationship with Chinese authorities. The Jews greatly respected the Chinese rulers and their laws, and the Chinese officials, in turn, were tolerant of Jewish religious practices and beliefs.

For centuries the Kaifeng Jews maintained a remarkable balance between assimilating into Chinese society and preserving their Jewish identity. They adopted Chinese names as well as the Chinese language, dress, and way of life, but they adhered strictly to their traditional religious practices and customs. In 1163 the Kaifeng Jews were the first Jewish community in China to erect a synagogue, which remained for almost seven hundred years as a place of worship for Jewish believers in China. They observed most or all of the holidays, Sabbath services, and rites of passage and preserved the Torah scrolls and Hebrew prayer books.

During the second half of the fourteenth century the Kaifeng Jewish population reached its peak—a golden age, so to speak—in which a majority of the Jews prospered in trade, intellectual pursuits, and civil service. Some served as court officials or military officers and others as scholars and physicians.

At the start of the nineteenth century the Kaifeng Jewish community had been in steady decline. When the Kaifeng line of rabbis passed away with no successors between 1800 and 1810, the knowledge of Hebrew in the community passed away with them. As a result of both natural and human-made disasters, most of the Kaifeng Jews had fallen into extreme poverty by 1860, leaving them unable to maintain their synagogue.

Today a small Jewish community still exists in Kaifeng and has become a major tourist attraction for Jewish visitors because the homes and streets in the Jewish section of the city have been preserved. Treated as a minority ethnic group, Kaifeng Jews receive a monthly allowance from the government and are not required to abide by the one-child policy. Recent visitors to Kaifeng have reported that the few surviving Jewish descendants in the city still have a strong Jewish identity and seek to preserve the Kaifeng Jewish legacy.


As an open city on the east coast of China, Shanghai had no immigration restrictions or visa requirements and thus became a haven for refugees from all sorts of persecution. Three major groups of Jews came to Shanghai: the Sephardic Jews who arrived in the early nineteenth century, the Russian Jews who settled in the early years of the twentieth century, and finally the refugees from Hitler’s Europe in 1938 and 1939. Shanghai was also a transit station for twenty thousand to thirty thousand refugees who were looking to emigrate to the United States or Palestine in the years before World War II.

The majority of the Jews who arrived in Shanghai in the late 1930s were middle-class, white-collar workers, skilled artisans, professionals, and businessmen. At the time of their arrival Shanghai was undergoing an economic crisis that prevented most of them from finding livelihoods. As a result, many were forced to relocate to other countries. The ones who did stay settled mostly in the Japanese-occupied district of Hongkou and kept to themselves, rarely interacting with other foreigners or even the Chinese. During this time Shanghai was under Japanese rule. But rather than echo the racial policies of their Nazi allies, the Japanese occupiers to some extent perceived the Jewish refugees as professionals and businessmen. Although treatment of the Jewish population ranged from indifference to militaristic abuse, the authorities welcomed refugees into China and did not implement any organized policy of extermination. By 1967, however, records indicate that only fifteen Jews remained in Shanghai, and a Hong Kong newspaper reported the death of the last Jewish refugee in Shanghai in 1982.

Little physical evidence remains of Shanghai’s former Jewish community. The Sephardic Jews built two beautiful synagogues in Shanghai. For a number of years Jewish study and research flourished in the Ohel Rachel (1920) and the Beth Aharon (1927). Unfortunately, the former was demolished in 1952 and the latter in 1985. In recent years former Shanghai Jewish refugees have returned in hopes of finding remnants of Jewish life that they could photograph, but most of the Jewish buildings have either been demolished or put to use for other purposes.


From the beginning of World War I to 1932, the Russo-Manchurian Treaty of 1897 allowed Russians to build the Chinese Eastern Railway. Harbin grew to become the administrative center of the Chinese Eastern Railway. Along with the Russians, many Jews came into Manchuria during this time. In the first half of the twentieth century Jews in the city numbered over twenty thousand, which made it one of the largest Jewish communities in China.

The Jews in Harbin created many cultural and social establishments for themselves, building synagogues and hospitals as well as forming clubs and newspapers. Harbin was hospitable to a Jewish community that contributed to the rich and diverse culture of the city and introduced the people of Harbin to European culture, values, and lifestyles. The Harbin Jews also greatly influenced the economics of the city, especially in industry, commerce, and real estate. Jewish businesses contributed significantly to the development of Harbin’s economy and international reputation.

The largest and best-preserved Jewish cemetery in Asia lies in downtown Harbin, although it has been closed for new burials since 1958. There were more than 3,100 graves in this cemetery, which has great historical significance as a publicly visible representation of the Jewish cultural styles of the first half of the twentieth century. About six hundred graves with tombstones (and some two hundred more marked with tablets) have been moved to a new cemetery site in Huang Shan, about 50 kilometers north of Harbin. In addition, Harbin was the home of the largest Jewish synagogue in northeast China, the New Jewish Synagogue, from 1921 to 1956. The Jewish community in Harbin survived for nearly a century, from roughly 1899 to 1985. However, by the 1930s Harbin
Jews had begun to scatter across eastern Asia due to economic crises and persecution by the Soviet army. After World War II many Harbin Jews moved away, mostly to Israel, the United States, Europe, or Australia. Some moved to Shanghai.


Jews began to settle in Tianjin as early as the 1860s. They came mainly in three waves. The first wave came with the European merchants who poured into Tianjin when it opened as a commercial port in 1860. The second wave occurred between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century and consisted of Jews fleeing czarist Russia. The third wave, by far the largest, occurred during the years leading up to World War II as Jews fled Nazi rule. By 1935 the Jewish population of Tianjin reached its peak at 3,500.

The Jews of Tianjin maintained their own living patterns, apparently able to co-exist peacefully with the native population. They found a home among open, tolerant people and were able to live successfully as merchants, employees, and professionals. A synagogue built in 1940 still stands but is now used for other purposes.

Other cities with identifiable Jewish communities include Xi’An, Beijing, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Yangzhou, Ninxia, Guangzhou (Canton), Quanzhou, and Nanjing. Under Communist Party leader Mao Zedong these communities were allowed to exist but certainly not to participate in the political life of the country. Today, however, the economic resurgence of China puts its Jewish communities in a new light as possible assets in the global economy, especially the worldwide tourism industry.

Further Reading

Goldstein, J. (Ed.). (1999). The Jews of China: Historical and comparative perspectives (Vol. 1). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Goldstein, J. (Ed.). (2000). The Jews of China: A sourcebook and research guide (Vol. 1). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

International Jewish Cemetery Project—China. Retrieved December 29, 2008, from http://www.jewishgen.org/cemetery/asia-pac-ind/china.html

Meyer, M. J. (2003). From the rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A century of Sephardi Jewish life in Shanghai. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Qu Wei & Li Shuxiao. (Eds.). (2003). The Jews in Harbin. Beijing: Social Sciences Documentation Publishing House.

Ristaino, M. R. (2001). Port of last resort: The diaspora communities of Shanghai. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Song, Anna. (Ed.). (2004). The Jews in Tianjin. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press.

Xu Xin. (2003). The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, culture, and religion. Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House.

Zhang Tiejiang. (2005). Jiekai Haerbin Youtairen lishi zhi mi: Haerbin Youtan ren shegu kaocha yanjiu [Reveal enigmas of the Jewish history in Harbin: A survey of the Harbin Jewish community]. Harbin Shi, China: Heilongjiang Renmin Chuban She.

Source: Ho, Wan-Li. (2009). Judaism. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1224–1227. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A man and young boy from the Kaifeng Jewish community, prior to 1901.

Judaism (Yóutàijiào ???)|Yóutàijiào ??? (Judaism)

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