Kaifeng Jews, Kaifeng, Henan and more of China
Jews settled in China at least 1000 years ago. According to the theory based on stone inscriptions left by the Jews of Kaifeng in 15-17th centuries, they are descendents of Cohanim and Levites who came to Northwest India together with prophet Ezra during Babylonian exile and later migrated to China by Silk Road. During Tang dynasty (618-907) Jews were active in many Chinese cities and flourished in the capital city Bianliang on the Yellow river bank (today Kaifeng in Henan province) during Sang Dynasty (960-1127). At that time it was one of the largest cities in the world with population of almost a million people, a cosmopolitan capital of trade, wealth, science and entertainment. In 1161 the Jews built a synagogue which was named the Temple of Purity and Truth with adjusted study hall, ritual bath, communal kitchen and butchery. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the Jewish community reached its peak of about 5000 people. The emperor gave them surnames, by which they are still identified today: Ai from Ezra, Shi from Shimon, Gao from Cohen, Li from Levi, Zhang from Joshua and Zhao from Jonathan. The existence of the Jews in China was unknown to Europeans till 1605 when a Jesuit missionary based in Beijing was visited by a Jew from Kaifeng. Despite isolation, the community managed to preserve their traditions for many centuries, but began to decline in the 17th century due to natural disasters and assimilation. The synagogue was destroyed several times by floods and fires and has remained in ruins since 1852. The last rabbi died in the mid 19th century. Cultural Revolution in China added to declension and assimilation of the Jewish community. Today there are about 500 Jews in Kaifeng. Since China officially recognizes only five religions and Judaism is not one of them, practicing Judaism is still illegal in China. The music and traditions of the Jews of China were totally lost, but the liturgy descriptions were meticulously documented. The songs and prayers were in Hebrew, Aramaic and Persian. The Kaifeng Jews celebrated all feasts except for Chanukah (another indicator that they left Israel before the Second Temple). They admire the Jewish Persian queen Esther, whom they tenderly call Mama Esther.