Jews in Ancient China: A Lost History

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Jews of Kaifeng, late 19th or early 20th century

When did Jews first come to China? This is still a mystery in Chinese history. Some historians suspect that the ancient Jews might arrive at China before the Christian era. But there is still no evidence supporting this hypothesis.

Today most people believe that Jews and Judaism first entered China through the Silk Road or the South China Sea from Central Asia or India in early Tang Dynasty about 7th century. Jews have resided in various places in China since then. The most famous groups include the Kaifeng Jews who moved to Bianliang, capital of the Northern Song Dynasty and today’s Kaifeng, Henan province, about 10th century.

Hypothesis: Jews Entered China before Christian era

But some historians suggest that Jews might come to China as early as Zhou Dynasty (about 1,000BC-221BC). For example, in his book Christianity and Kaifeng Jews in Ancient China published in 1982, Dr. Jiang Wenhan said that two historical records indicate that Jews could enter China before Christian era.

The first is that Kaifeng Jews historically called themselves Yi Ci Le Ye, the transliteration of Israelites, and called Judaism Yi Ci Le Ye Jiao, the Israelite religion. In their records, Kaifeng Jews never used the word Jews, which has been widely used in Middle East since 6th century BC.

The second is that ancient Kaifeng Jews only had Torat Moshe and other few chapters of the Hebrew Bible, which might be finished between 9th and 4th century BC. They hadn’t have any scripture written after 4th century BC and didn’t know who was Jesus, until modern Jews re-entered China in the past few centuries.

But all these records could only suggest that Jews might leave ancient Kingdom of Israel before 4th century BC. They could have resided in Central Asia or India for hundreds of years before entering China.

Zhengde Stele and Han Dynasty Jews

Another record shows that Jews might first come to China in the Late Han Dynasty (25AD-225AD). According to a stele with inscriptions dating from 1515, the period of Zhengde Emperor of Ming Dynasty, Jews entered China from India in Han Dynasty.

In his article Research for Jews in China published in 1935, Chinese scholar Huang Yi deduced from the stele that Jews could enter China about 34AD. But there is no any other evidence supporting the conclusions from the Zhengde Stete inscriptions and Huang Yi too.

References:

  1. Dr. Jiang Wenhan (1908-1984), Knowledge Publishing House, Christianity and Kaifeng Jews in Ancient China, 1982
  2. Huang Yi, Culture Construction, Volume 1 and First Issue, Research for Jews in China, January 10, 1935