Notes and source readings on when and how the Jews arrived in China

We may accept that the Jewish Diaspora had spread well beyond the confines of the Middle East long  before the time f Christ. However, the view of most of the earlier western scholars, in particular the Judaic ones, that Jews had also reached China at this early stage is entirely speculative, and even if true, of little historic interest. We do best to ignore the host of speculations about the “ten lost tribes”, based on similarities of physiognomy and rites, or of philosophy and religious beliefs, at least hen we come to China. Knowledge of China in the Mediterranean area (and vice-versa) was very poor, and we have no early references connecting Jews with China. The passage from Isaiah 49, 12 “those from the land of Sinim” is now accepted as not referring to China. There is probably no Jewish reference to China before Geonic times, c. 9th Century.
There is only one piece of concrete evidence for a Chou-time (c. 1100-221 B.C.E.) origin of Judaism in China. The 1663a stone inscription from the Kaifeng synagogue writes:
The religion started in T’ien chiu (“India”) and was first transmitted to China during the Chou. A ts’u (“ancestral hall”) was built in Ta-liang (i.e. kaifeng). through the Han, T’ang, Sung, Ming, and up till now, it has undergone many vicissitudes.
The information at the beginning of the letter by Gaubil of 4 September 1725 (absent in his 1723 letter) seems to be based on this 1663 inscription:
Dans le tems que la Dinastie de Tcheou regnoit en Chine, les Juifs de Perse, et du Corasson venoient dans cet Empire, et its avoient des sepultures et des endroits destines a honorer leurs parents morts.
Sous les princes de la Dinastie de Han 70 familles Juives du Corassan et de Perse, vinrent par terre en Chine. Une grande partie s’etablit a Caifonfou et y batit une sinagogue. On n’a aucune conoissance des livre qui’ils aporterent, et les Juifs de Caifon ne surent dire ni dequel endroit ilts sont venus, ni s’ils sont de 10 tribus menees en captivite par Salmanazar.
p. 4 This suggestion of a Chou-time entry of Judaisim into China is made dubious b the failure of the other inscriptions to mention it. The stone inscriptions of 1512 and 1512 and 1679, though still not the earliest one of 1489, date the first entry of Judaism into China (though still not to Kaifeng) as during the Han (206 B..E. to 221 C.E.)
The Han-time entry is supported by the Jesit missionaries. Gozani’s 1704 letter mentions an oral tradition of the community for a Han-time origin, but his unpublished letter in Latin from Peking of 25 August 1712 is more precise:
Judaei in dynastia Han, Regnante Han mim ti (Ming Ti, 58-75 C.E.) venerunt in Sinas.
Domenge (letters of 25 October 1723 and 20 December 1724) also mentions the community tradition which cnames Han Ming Ti. Gaubil confirms this date, for hsi earlier letter, of 1723, writes that they told him they entered China 1650 years before, from Si-yu (Persia). It is not clear whether these dates refer to the arrival in China or in Kaifeng.
Brotier (White I, p. 66) sums up the Desuit view:
Let us now turn to the question of the time when these Jews entered China. They have constantly asserted to all the missioanreis that they came there under the family of the Han, and their records say the same thing. The Han dynasty began in the year 206 BC. It was therefore about that time that the Jews penetrated to China; they may have gone thither before the downfall of their empire, but it is more natural to believe that it was not until after the terrible catastrophe of Jerusalem that, scattered in all directions, those of Korassan and of the Transoxane spread into China. This supposition becomes practically a certainty when it is recalled that several of these Jews asserted that they arrived during the reign of Ming Ti. This Prince ascended the throne in the year 56 A.D., and died in 78. (Actually 58-57). The dates could not better agree with the destruction of Jerusalem, which was in the year 70. The colony at K’ai-feng Fu is indeed less ancient …
Several scholars have argued from the highly likely participation of Jews in the lucrative silk trade from China to Rome. Jews would have been active in most of the staging posts of the overland caravan routes in the Middle East and probably in Central Asia. L. Boulbois writes:
Silk — dyeing — glass –caravans: the combination of these four elements might well lead us to suppose that they took some part in the far-eastern silk trade.
 p. 5 The extrapolation that some of them joined the caravans, and possibly even ships, all the way to China and back, is acceptable, but the conclusion that they actually settled there is less convincing. Trading and migration need to be distinguished, even though one does lead to the other. Nevertheless, the hypothesis helps to substantiate the Jesuit suggestions. A Han-time penetration of Judaism into China, with the arrival of the Kaifeng settlers only in the Sung, is entirely feasible.
Our first historical references to Jews in China are by Arab geographers and travellers dating from the 9th and 10th century.
It is well-known that most of te trade from Europe to India and to China from the 8th to 13th Centuries was in the hands of the Arabs and other Persian speakers, mostly Muslims. The main route was now by sea from the Persian Gulf around India to Sumatra and Tongking, and as far as Canton, Chu’uan-chou, and Hangchow, and other coastal ports of China. Trading communities were established in various ports all along the route. We would expect Jews t be active in this trade, even though less noted for their seafaring prowess. We have convincing evidence of Jews on the Malabar Coast (Cranganore, Coilan, Calicut, ending up in Cochin) and also in Ceylon, with flourishing communities at this time. So far, there is no specific proof of Jews anywhere in South East Asia, (apart from a flourishing community in Malacca in the 16th Century).
We would similarly expect Jews to b e travelling the overland caravan routes. These grew less used as the sea route flourished, but were never entirely closed. With the Mongol Pax, the Central Asian routes became fully open again. We have clear evidence of Jewish communities at many of the overland posting stations as far as Khorassan, “Gateway to China”. That Jews joined those going further is suggested by the Judaeo-Persian fragment found in Dandan Uiliq, and by the page of Hebrew prayers found in Tun-huang, both of about the 9th Century. It is worth pointing out, with Rabinowitz, that at a time of Christian-Moslem animosity, when many trade-routes were blocked, Jews were the best equipped to carry out the trade from Asia to Europe ….end of p. 5
p. 8 This story is repeated with minor variations, by Mas’udi in 943… who had taken it from Abu-Zaid. All report the slaughter of a large number of foreigners, including Jews, in Khanqu (or Khanfu).
This report by Abu-Zaid is perhaps based on the information of Ibn-Wahab, who claimed ot have been in Cha’angan, capital of China. The earlier anonymous report of 851, attributed to Sumaiman, does not mention Jews in China, but has an interesting section on the appointing by the Chinese authorities of Muslim leader in Khanfu to be responsible for his co-religionists. We do not now if the Jews too had such a leader at this time.
One cannot know how many jews were included in this vast number, nor whether any survivors were able to form a viable community thereafter. But it gives a hint that there were Jews living also in or near the Muslim quarters of the coastal cities, …
*1 It is a little unfair (since Pelliot, BEFEO 4, p. 215, …. in Louis Rabinowitz, p. 71 “It is in the 9th century that we hear of ews in Canton (latourette, pp 204 and 210). Jews suffered in the asack of Quinsay in 878 (Jacobs, p. 197) and, according to Abu-Zaid Hassan al. Sirafi, in the year 884. Jews … were massacred in Canfu” (Renaudot-1733, p. 42, and others). All these are referring to the single reference in Abu-Zaid.
p. 9 Canton, CH’uan–chou, Ningpo, Hangchow. We may note that Ibn-khurdadhbih and Abu-Zaidwere amongst the earliest Arabwriters to describe China in any detail. There may well have been Jews as well as Muslims established on the China coast even before this time. However, towards the end of the T’ang, the toleration of foreigners diminished.
These Arab reports are entirely convincing. We may add to them the suggestion of the Kaifeng Jew Ai, quoted by Rigcci in 1605:
He said that they had preserved the tradition that many Moors, Christians and Jews had come with the king Tamerlae, when he conquered the whole of Persia and also China 800 years ago (i.e. c. 800).
There can be no doubt that Jews were travelling to and from China at this time, both by sea and by land. One might expect some references in early Jewish sources. However, it is unlikely that nay of the known Jewish travellers ever visited China, and what little they tell us is probably hearsay and full of marvels.
Eldad Ha-Dani of the late 9th Century left some travellers’tales of doubtlful reliability. Here is Carmoly’s translation:
Ces impies adoraient le feu, et ne reconnaissent point le Dieu du ciel et de la terre. Eldad ne cessait de leur enseigner la vraie croyance; lors qu’enfin ils le conduisirent dans la terre d’ Alzin, et qui’l fut achete par un Juif pour trente-deux pieces d’or. La, le pieux Danite s’embarqua et vogua jusu’au continent. Ayant parcouru la Perse et la Media …
Rabinowitz’s text is slightly different, and he translates by :
I was brought to Tsin where a Jewish merchant of the tribe of Issachar purchased me for 32 golden coins and returned with me to his country, beyond the land of Medes and Persians.
Rabinowitz is impressed by the fact that some of the names in Eldad’s stories are only known elsewhere among hte Kaifeng Jews; but Eldad may have picked upthese names in Central Asia. Most other scholars treat Eldad as unreliable, but his reference to fire-worshippers is interesting. Adler’s translation writes as Azania, but the interpretation of AZYN (Alzin) or Zin as China is hardly disputable, however doubtful the actual story.
p. 10  Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish traveller of the 12th Century treated by most scholars with more respect, is also vague and inaccurate as he nears China (in mind, for he does not actually claim to have gone so far). His route is not established. From Khulam (Quillon?), where the inhabitants, sun-worshippers, are all black, and the Jews too, it takes 23 days by sea to reach Ibrig (taken by some to be Ceylon). The inhabitants there are fire-worshippers, and are called Duchbin; among them are about 3,000 Jews. He continues:
Thence (from Ibrig) to cross over to the land of Zin is a voyage of forty days. This is the uttermost East and some say that there is the Sea of Nikpa.
There need be little doubt that Zin refers to China, though the suggestion that Nikpa is Nignpo is speculative. Benjamin does nto mention Jewsih residents there, nor even traders.
The return journey is also uncovnincing. the place-names not identified with certainty. 15 days to Al – Gingalaeh, (Cranganore?) where dwell 1,000 Israelites; 7 days by sea to Chulan, which has no Jews; 12 days to Zebid, where live a few Jews. From there it is 8 days journey to India, which is on the mainland, called the land of Aden.
A further travellers’ tale of considerable interest is found in the 10th Century work attributed to the Persian Buzurg (and rightly translated as “Libre des Merveilles”!. Isaac, son of the Jews, left Oman and returned there in 300 (i.e. 914) after 30 years. He claimed to have been in China with his own ship, bringing back “sekbadj cooked in China”. He visited a city called Lubin, almost certainly Hanoi (Lung-pien), then the southernmost port of China.
Also of some interest is the 10th Century report of Abu-Dulaf Mis’ar that there were Yemenites (though he does not mention Jews) who reached Kulaybu, but did not continue on to China.
From China itself, we have no direct evidence of a Jewish penetration. Little importance can be attached to the undoubted Middle Eastern (Semitic and Persian ) features of several extant T’ang sculptures (see pl. I), for these are just as likely to be based on Arabs or Armenians as on Jews.
More significant is that we can trace the entry, not only of Islam, but also also of Manicaheism, Zoroastrianism and Nestorianism, to about this time. Surely Judaism was also permitted to take root in the great flowering of civiilization of the T’ang. As Pelliot puts it:
A Ning-po, comme dans toute cette region de l’embouchure du yang-tze, aventuriers et commercants debarques des larges jonques persanes, gens de toutes races et de tous cultes, manicheens et mazedeens, musulmans et nestoriens, se heurtaient a des freres venus par l’autre route, par le Turkestan et le Kansou. Il serait etrange que les Juifs se fussent seul tenus en dehors de ce courant passant …
…For the Chinese , it has not been easy to distinguish between these foreign religions, most of which came to China from Persia. The Jews in any case were usually looked on as a sect of the more numerous Muslims. There were borrowings and influences, though who borrowed from whom is not always clear.

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