TEAL Exhibitions

Traces of the Jews in China: Tang, Song and Yuan (618-1368)

Map of Asia

Map of Asia showing Silk Road routes via land and sea during Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) Dynasty.

From Jews in Old China: Studies by Chinese Scholars.

A large number of foreigners were brought to China by the Silk Road in the Tang dynasty. To promote a more stable and prosperous society, the emperors made an open-door policy towards foreigners which attracted many Arabs, Persians and other peoples to settle in China. It’s not surprising that some Jews had already lived in China during the Tang dynasty.

A business letter written in the Judeo-Persian language, found at Dandan Uiliq, an important Buddhist trading center on the Silk Road in present-day Xinjiang, China and the page of Hebrew penitential prayers from a massive trove of documents in the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas of Dunhuang are two pieces of tangible documentary evidence showing the presence of Jews in China.

"The early period and formative stage of the Kaifeng Jewish community extended from the time of their arrival to the first half of the 14th century." The Chinese emperors permitted the Jews to remain in Kaifeng and to observe their own laws and customs. And they were allowed to acquire property and enjoy the same privileges as the native-born subjects of the empire during this time.

Fragment of a Judeo-Persian letter

Fragment of a trader’s letter, written in Judeo-Persian in 718 C.E.

It was discovered at Dandan Uilik Site in Khotan, Xinjiang, China, by Aurel Stein, a British archaeologist in 1901.

The British Library. (BL Or. 8212/166)

Page of Hebrew Prayer

Page of Hebrew Prayers, late 8th century or early 9th century.

It was discovered by French archaeologist Paul Pelliot, in 1908 at Dunhuang, Gansu, China.

The Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France). (Hébreu 1412)

Page from <i>Yuanshi</i>

Page from Yuanshi (《元史·文宗二》, 四庫全書本).

Zhuhe (珠赫) was believed as a reference to Jews in Chinese history. This piece has the same content as the one below but uses a different name to refer to the Jews.

There are three steles made by the Kaifeng Jews recording their history. According to the inscription of the 1489 stele, the Kaifeng Jews built the first synagogue under the guidance of “Ustad Levi” and “Andula” in the year of 1163. However, no tangible evidence remains.

There are several convincing references of the Jews in China in the Chinese historical records during the Yuan Dynasty, but none of them referred to the Kaifeng Jewish community. The names they used to refer the Jews including shuhu (术忽), zhuhe (珠赫), wotuo (斡脱), zhuhu (竹忽), etc.

The two pages provided here are from Yuanshi, which is the official history of the Yuan Dynasty. They show the same content but use different expressions due to the different versions.

Page from <i>Yuanshi</i>

Page from Yuanshi (《元史·文宗二》, 武英殿二十四史本).

Shuhu (术忽) was believed as the first reference to Jews in Chinese history.

Translation of the red-lined sentence:

April 19, 1329:

“ Buddhist and Taoist priests, Nestorians, Jews, and Ta-shih-man, who engage in trade, to be taxed according to the old regulation...”

(Translation from The Survival of the Chinese Jews: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng.)

(Contents on this page contains texts quoted from The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, Culture, and Religion and The Survival of the Chinese Jews: The Jewish Community of Kaifeng, and images from China Photographers Association, The Palace Museum, Beijing, China, The British Library (BL Or. 8212/166), National Library of France (Hébreu 1412), and Chinese Text Project 中国哲学书电子化计划. For full bibliography information, please refer to the reference page. For single image source and metadata, please click the image.)

Traces of the Jews in China: Tang, Song and Yuan (618-1368)