China and Jews go back as far as the Tang Dynasty. In those days Jewish traders that plied the Silk Road went into China as part of big caravans–to better defend themselves against bandits–and were frequently part of caravans led by Arab traders. They got along just fine in the interest of “international trade.”
By the Northern Sung dynasty (960-1127AD), a thriving Jewish community existed in Kaifeng, a city south of Beijing that was then the capital of China. From various records, we now know that Jewish traders were granted audience with the emperor who bade them to revere and preserve the customs of their ancestors, consistent with well established Chinese tradition. The synagogue in Kaifeng was built in 1163AD and a Rabbi Levi was in charge of the first congregation.
Apparently the emperor also bestowed seven surnames to eight Jewish families living in Kaifeng. The surnames were Ai, Gao, Jin, Li, Shi, Zhang and Zhao. The descendants today still refer themselves as belonging to “qixingbajia,” seven surnames in eight families. One speculation is that these surnames sounded Jewish.
Of course in more recent modern history, you are probably familiar with the story of the Chinese consul general in Vienna who issued visas to Jews as fast as he could stamp their passport to enable them to get out of Europe ahead of Hitler’s Gestapo. Many of these lived through WWII in a ghetto in Shanghai and had some of their bitter sweet memories of surviving cramp quarters alongside understanding and kindly Chinese neighbors.
After Deng Xiaoping opened China and launched economic reform, Jews from Europe and Israel were among those entering China to begin business relationships. The Chinese basically have not learned to discriminate between a Jewish person and any other members of the white race. If China later became more partial to the Israelis, it was because of the the technology Israel had to offer.
Dr. Wendy Abraham, noted lecturer and authority on Jews in China, has said more than once that China is the only nation in the world that has never persecuted the Jews on account of their beliefs. On a personal note, I have two Jewish brothers-in-law and they both love the Chinese cuisine. Now that’s a tie that binds.
Categories: Chatham House Rules