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Kaifeng Torah

This scroll was specially prepared for one of the farthest-flung and most remarkable religious communities of history: the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng. For a thousand years they are said to have maintained an outpost of Judaism on the banks of the Yellow River, but ended up as victims of their own success at integrating with other Chinese.

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Kaifeng Torah

Torah Scroll, Kaifeng, China, 17th century. Genesis 35:1
BL Add. MS 19250
Copyright © The British Library Board

How come Jews were living in China?

Formerly known as Bianliang, Kaifeng was one of the seven ancient capitals of China. It is in eastern Henan province deep in the middle of China, on the banks of the Yellow River.

No-one is sure how or why they got there - a plausible theory is that they were originally Persian traders - but the Jewish community of Kaifeng and its synagogue is said to have existed for many centuries up to about 1850. The community itself maintained they had been there since the first century. A business letter from 718, written using Hebrew characters but in Persian, is cited as the earliest evidence of a Jewish presence here.

There are half-a-dozen passing references to Chinese Jews by various travellers up to 1605, when a Jesuit missionary wrote back to the Vatican about Kaifeng. The 'discovery' excited some interest, but serious research didn't begin until the 1800s, by which time virtually all recognisable traces of Judaism had disappeared.

Like another famous Jewish outpost at the fringes of the Diaspora - the longer-lived and 'more Jewish' one in Cochin, in India - the Kaifeng community is said to have been small, secure and prosperous. They experienced no persecution or official harassment, and indeed seem to have been regarded with affection and esteem by their neighbours. The community took pride in its historical welcome from the emperor and proudly displayed various official gifts it had received over the centuries.



Map of China from 1800 graphically showing the Yellow River - Kaifeng is prominently marked in a red circle on the south bank towards the mouth

What happened to the Kaifeng Jews?

The Kaifeng community's everyday activities incorporated some customs unusual for China (such as abstinence from pork) as well as many elements of Confucian thinking and traditional Chinese practice (binding of feet, and the taking of second wives). It is generally asserted that they had rabbis (the last dying in 1810), observed Torah readings in their synagogue, kept the sabbath, and circumcised their boys until the 20th century, though some Chinese historians dispute this.

Eventually the Kaifeng community assimilated so far that they disappeared into the Chinese mainstream. Certainly by the mid-1800s their synagogue (which, confusingly, early visitors described with a word which also means 'mosque') had fallen into disrepair, and there was nobody who knew enough Hebrew to read the Torah.

Recent reports suggest that several hundred Chinese in today's Kaifeng still claim to be Jewish. Like all their recorded predecessors, they have standard Chinese surnames. A new synagogue has been constructed in Kaifeng, and today is used by many Jewish visitors from abroad. Pictures of the Kaifeng Jews, whether modern or ancient, show people indistinguishable in appearance from fellow Chinese.

The standard view of the Kaifeng community is that they were long-lost Jews of some kind. However, some Chinese historians (such as Zhou Xun of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London) believe that the 'Jewishness' of the Kaifeng community was largely a western cultural invention.

Why were Kaifeng Torahs so important?

Jesuit missionaries in the 1600s were particularly intrigued by the Kaifeng community. They hoped that thanks to their long isolation from mainstream Judaism, Kaifeng might have Torahs that would turn out to be 'uncorrupted originals' of the Hebrew Bible, perhaps even shed new light on Christian interpretations of the Old Testament.

In the 1800s, in response to the growing academic and religious interest in what Torahs they might have, the Kaifeng community obliged collectors by selling them several hitherto unknown copies. The contents of these Kaifeng Torahs turned out to be identical to that of conventional scripture. The Kaifeng community had no Chinese translations of the scriptures, and certainly in the 1800s could read hardly any Hebrew, so few of them claimed familiarity with the contents.

When and how was this scroll made?

It may have been made between 1643 and 1663, and used in the synagogue there until around 1800. What is known for certain is that in 1851 it was acquired in Kaifeng by missionaries, and in 1852 was presented to the British Museum.

The scroll is made up of 94 strips of thick sheepskin sewn together with silk thread, rather than with the customary animal sinew. It has 239 columns of text copied in a Hebrew square script similar to that used by the Jews of Persia, without signs to show any vowel sounds. Of the 15 Torah scrolls that are said to have been held in the Kaifeng synagogue, only seven complete scrolls have survived.