Did the Kaifeng Ancestors Arrive During the Yuan Dynasty?

Sino-Judaic scholars have proposed different times and modes of entry for the Kaifeng Ancestors. The former ranges from the Han to the Ming and the latter are the overland Silk Road or the maritime sea route. The major consensus is that they arrived during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) using the overland Silk Road. While I no longer accept the land route (a paper arguing in favor of the sea route is forthcoming), I accept the Song since the original 1489 stone, the first of the three major Jewish inscriptions, lists this as their initial time of entry. However, I have recently come across new data in my studies that makes the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) another attractive option. This paper will serve as a brief introduction to the subject in place of a more detailed study which I plan to do at a later date.

The reason that scholars favor the overland route is because the Kaifeng liturgy is written in Judeo-Persian, Persian transliterated with Hebrew,[1] an offshoot of New Persian which developed on the trade routes of Central Asia during the 8th-century.[2] Another reason is that the Persian is a particular dialect associated with the Central Asian city of Bukhara, which lies along the northern Silk Road route.[3] However, it’s more likely that these documents made it to China after the Song Dynasty since a recent study found that they have linguistic similarities with Judeo-Persian texts from the 14th-century onward.[4]

These documents could have come overland during the following Yuan Dynasty. Liu Yingsheng explains: “The Mongols conquered Central Asia earlier than the Chinese Song (960-1279) Empire, and consequently large numbers of Muslim soldiers, officials, merchants, scholars, and slaves accompanied the Mongol troops when they entered China and most of them finally settled in China.”[5] Frederick Mote adds that these Semu (people of varied categories), the favored class of foreigners brought in to help administrate the country, included Uighurs, Turks, Arabs, Persians, and Europeans.[6] Jews certainly would have been among these people.[7] In addition, Persian was one of the official languages of the Yuan, as well as the lingua franca of diplomats, scientists, and the Hui (回) Muslim ethnicity.[8] Persian-speaking Jews would have flourished in this environment.

Given this information, it’s very possible that the Kaifeng Ancestors came during the Yuan. The Semu were given preferential treatment by the Mongol rulers and shared in the culpability of marginalizing the Chinese people. Zhu Jiang points out that broken Arab and Persian tombstones discovered in the foundation of an early Ming-era wall in Yangzhou show that there was anti-foreign sentiment after the fall of the Yuan.[9] The hatred for foreigners at this time was so extensive that the first Ming emperor issued a 1368 decree against the “killing, pillaging, destruction of buildings, or desecration of graves, of the vanquished.”[10] Therefore, the reason that the 1489 stone sites the Song Dynasty could be because the Jews wanted to predate their entry in order to deflect the anger of their Chinese neighbors. This might explain why the proceeding 1512 and 1663 stones date their entry further back in time to the Han and Zhou Dynasties, respectively. In essence, the predating was a protective maneuver; it was their way of claiming that they were just as Chinese (read: loyal to the Chinese empire) as their neighbors.

This might also explain certain discrepancies in the aforementioned stones. For instance, the 1489 inscription casts the Jews as being fully Sinicized with Chinese surnames upon their arrival during the Song. Past researchers have noted that the Jews most likely took surnames sometime during the Yuan-Ming period.[11] This could be an example of “telescopic history,” in which the Kaifeng Jews mixed events from their past (taking surnames during the Yuan) and present (engraving the stone during the Ming) to create a sort of folk history (having Chinese surnames in the Song). Also, the same stone refers to Kaifeng as Bianliang (汴梁), which was the name of the city during the Yuan, not the Song.[12]

There may have been a Yuan-era inscription that predates the 1489 stone. This is because a law enacted by the Mongols dictated that all houses of worship had to erect a stone describing their religion. This stone could have been destroyed by the Chinese in the fray at the end of the Yuan dynasty. On the contrary, it could have been destroyed by the Kaifeng Jews to hide their association with the Mongols. Yin Gang believes that the latter scenario is the most likely. He writes:

The Han people resumed their regime with the establishment of the Ming 明 Dynasty. In case of their being brought to account by the Han people, both the Jewish and the Muslim community destroyed their biographical documents during the Yuan Dynasty, which is why we could not find any historical account written by either community. This was especially true for the Kaifeng Jews […] Among the documents destroyed, there must have been a brief history of each foreign community and the basic doctrine of their religious beliefs engraved on stone tablets, since the Yuan rulers asked them to do so and the stone tablets had to be placed at the entrance of all synagogues and mosques.[13]

The purposeful destruction of material would explain why there is a conspicuous lack of information on the community during the Yuan Dynasty. This deserves more focused study in the near future.

Notes

[1] Donald Leslie, The Survival of the Chinese Jews: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng (Tʻoung pao, 10. Leiden: Brill, 1972), 118-119
[2] Bo Utas, “Semitic in Iranian: Written, Read and Spoken Language,” in Linguistic Convergence and Areal Diffusion: Case Studies from Iranian, Semitic and Turkic, ed. Éva Ágnes Csató, Bo Isaksson, and Carina Jahani (London: Routledge Curzon, 2005), 72.
[3] Elkan N. Adler, Jews in Many Lands (London, 1905), 221.
[4] Fook-Kong Wong and Dalia Yasharpour, The Haggadah of the Kaifeng Jews of China (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 59.
[5] Liu Yingsheng, “A Lingua Franca along the Silk Road: Persian Languages in China between the 14th and the 16th Centuries,” In Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea, ed. Ralph Kauz (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010), 87.
[6] Frederick Wade Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University press, 1999), 490.
[7] George Hourani explains that the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate Dynasty of Baghdad called for “Muslim unity” between Persians and Arabs by requiring Iranian converts to speak Arabic. This caused 9th-century Arab records about Middle Eastern merchants traveling to the east to mention “Persians” less and “Arabs” more (George Fadlo Hourani and John Carswell, Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), 65). He explains, “Arabic-speaking Moslems of Iranian origin would naturally be classed as [Dashi 大食], Arabs” (Ibid, 62). The term Dashi may have also been used to designate speakers of Persian since it is originally a transliteration of the Persian word “Tāzīk” or “Tāžīk,” a term that distinguished Iranians from Turks (Ye Yiliang, “Introductory Essay: Outline of the Political Relations between Iran and China,” in Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea, ed. Ralph Kauz (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010), 5.). Therefore, Jews speaking languages associated with Muslims may have led to the two being conflated by the Chinese. Yin Gang suggests that some of the Semu who graduated the Yuan imperial exams with the prestigious rank of Jinshi (进士) may have been Jews since they have surnames similar to those of the Kaifeng Jews (Yin Gang, “Between Disintegration and Expansion: A Comparative Retrospection of Kaifeng Jewish and Muslim Communities,” in Peter Kupfer, Youtai: Presence and Perception of Jews and Judaism in China, ed. Peter Kupfer (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2008), 192).
[8] Liu, “A Lingua Franca along the Silk Road,” 87-92.
[9] Zhu Jiang, “Jewish Traces in Yangzhou,” in Jews in Old China: Studies by Chinese Scholars, ed. Sidney Shapiro (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1988), 146-147.
[10] Ibid, 146.
[11] Leslie, The Survival of the Chinese Jews, 27.
[12] William Charles White, Chinese Jews: A Complication of Matters Relating to the Jews of K’ai-Feng Fu, 2nd ed (New York: Paragon Book Reprint, 1966), vol. II, 21 n. 14.
[13] Yin, “Between Disintegration and Expansion,” 193.

Bibliography

Adler, Elkan N. Jews in Many Lands (London, 1905).

Hourani, George Fadlo, and John Carswell. Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Mote, Frederick Wade. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University press, 1999.

Leslie, Donald. The Survival of the Chinese Jews: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng. T’oung pao, 10. Leiden: Brill, 1972.

Liu, Yingsheng. “A Lingua Franca along the Silk Road: Persian Languages in China between the 14th and the 16th Centuries.” In Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea, ed. Ralph Kauz, 87-95. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010.

Utas, Bo. “Semitic in Iranian: Written, Read and Spoken Language.” In Linguistic Convergence and Areal Diffusion: Case Studies from Iranian, Semitic and Turkic, ed. Éva Ágnes Csató, Bo Isaksson, and Carina Jahani, 65-78. London: Routledge Curzon, 2005.

White, William Charles. Chinese Jews: A Complication of Matters Relating to the Jews of K’ai-Feng Fu, 2nd ed. New York: Paragon Book Reprint, 1966.

Wong, Fook-Kong, and Dalia Yasharpour. The Haggadah of the Kaifeng Jews of China. Leiden: Brill, 2011.

Ye, Yiliang. “Introductory Essay: Outline of the Political Relations between Iran and China.” In Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea, ed. Ralph Kauz, 3-6. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010.

Yin, Gang. “Between Disintegration and Expansion: A Comparative Retrospection of Kaifeng Jewish and Muslim Communities.” In Youtai: Presence and Perception of Jews and Judaism in China, ed. Peter Kupfer, 185-200. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2008.

Zhu, Jiang. “Jewish Traces in Yangzhou.” In Jews in Old China: Studies by Chinese Scholars, ed. Sidney Shapiro, 143-158. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1988.

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4 thoughts on “Did the Kaifeng Ancestors Arrive During the Yuan Dynasty?

  1. what is the deep reason of anyone to start the chines jews history ? the first jews arrival in China isn’t known with precision and any else date. But, if we are leaning on the stelae we know that the Emperor of Han Dinasty became the jews that returned to Kaifeng from india where they were refugees after different wars< If this declaration "existed" it was about – 206 BC. That is to say that Jews were living in China before -206 BC. There are also statues of radanites and also tatters from selichot books prayers from 700 CE, That is to say that they were in China before Yuan dinasty. As I declared yet . it is not impossible that they arrived in China by different waves or movements and it seems that the first is after the exile of Salmenasar in -770 BC a second wave also perhaps after Nabuchodonosor exile in -586. There are many proofs and also many computations and all about the jewish history from the beggining till today !

    1. It’s important to figure out a general time frame for their arrival because this will hold clues to where they might of come from, how they got there, and what their culture was like. I think you might be conflating information from two different stones. The 1489 inscription states a Song emperor allowed them to settle in China. The later 1512 inscription states they arrived during the Han Dynasty. There is no stone mentioning a Han emperor giving them permission. If all inscriptions are viewed in chronological order, the Kaifeng Ancestors’ arrival gets pushed back further and further in time. As I state above, this was most likely a protective maneuver.

      It’s possible that Jewish merchants were doing business in China during the Han, but there is no evidence for long term settlements from that time. Chen Yuan asks: “Yet in the more than one thousand years from Han to [Song,] if there were settlers of Jews, why have they not left a single trace of any person, event, or structure?” I fully accept that Jews arrived in several waves to China; this is something I’ve mentioned in previous entries. But there is no way to verify that known Jewish communities from centuries past (e.g., the Tang) were in anyway connected to the Kaifeng community. This is especially true considering that Jews were among those slain by a Chinese rebel during the Tang.

      The majority of researchers accept the Song as the Kaifeng Ancestors’ time of entry. My upcoming paper arguing in favor of the sea route will show that traveling by boat was the preferred mode of transportation for merchants active in the Islamic world during the time that coincided with the Song Dynasty. I will also show that tribute missions to China during the Song came primarily by boat. These envoys entered in through the coastal port cities. Remember that the 1489 stone mentions the Jews bringing a tribute for the unnamed Song emperor.

  2. The Yuan-entry theory gains credence when one examines their liturgical manuscripts, which as you noted some time ago are a close match with those in the Mishneh Torah. One could say that the “nusach” (text) was in use long before Maimonides codified it, but such a close match is likely to be a result of copying from a master document rather than recording the existing tradition. (See also the communities of Yemen and Cochin.) For this to have happened, the MT had to have been released and in circulation, which would be in the Yuan period rather than the Song.

    Also, there are other references to Jewish communities in (near-)port cities such as Ningbo and Quanzhou. (A KF community member speculated that since my [maternal] ancestors are from there, then that means I have a potential Jewish connection, which is just as outlandish as me claiming I was descended from Dutch Sephardic traders in Formosa!) There was even an account (I think from a Jewish traveler) that there were Jews in Canton (Guangzhou) who were among the victims of a rebellion!

    Still, this doesn’t settle the question of why Jews would choose to settle in KAIFENG, the capital of the Northern Song and subsequently the Jurchen Jin, rather than the Mongol Yuan capital of Khanbaliq (Beijing).

    1. Thanks for the encouraging remarks. I guess as long as I’m speculating, it’s possible that they could have moved to Kaifeng from elsewhere in China when the city regained its former status as the capital at the beginning of the Ming. Other researchers are free to pick up where I’ve left off if so desired. My intent was just to highlight another avenue of research.

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