Israelites in China
By Tiberiu Weisz
Published in The US-China Review, Spring 2019 vol LIII, 2
This topic of the Israelites in China has puzzled scholars and researchers ever since a limelight was shone on the remnant of the Jewish community in Kaifeng in 1605. On that day, a Chinese Jew named Ai Tian walked into the office of Mateo Ricci, a Jesuit priest serving in Beijing, and revealed that the he was a descendant of Chinese Jews. It caught Ricci totally by surprise, and he was in disbelief. Nobody in the West had the slightest indication that Jews lived in China, let alone Jews of Chinese origin. After that meeting, a swirl of activities surrounded scholars, diplomats, missionaries, and Jewish travelers and adventurers in the West who embarked on a search for the Chinese Jews. They wrote reports, articles, and books that were cycled and recycled to explain this strange event in Western media, but none came close to explaining the story of the Chinese Jews. It did not help that the translation of the Kaifeng stelae by Bishop White (1873-1960) could not find any trace to biblical references in the Chinese text, nor did it help that the Jewish artifacts found in Kaifeng could not provide conclusive results of their origin (attributed to late 17th-18th century imports from Persia).
And of course it did not help that the dynastic Chinese language was very difficult to interpret, let alone make sense of in translation. The Chinese characters youren 猶人 for Israelites [Jews] appeared in the earliest Chinese literature.They were a tribe and treated as such, but never occurred to Westerners or translators to verify their roots, though some Chinese commentators suggested biblical origin. Unlocking the mystery of the community without a thorough knowledge of literary Chinese proved to be elusive.
We almost got a break in the mystery of the Chinese Jews with the introduction of the term youtairen 猶 太人 into the Chinese vocabulary. This combination was attributed to an article written by Dao Guang (1821-1851), and had been hastily accepted as the official term for Israelites/Jews. But prior to this, youtairen had no history. Yet, the tribe of youren had a recorded history in Chinese literature, and “by any other name” they were Israelites.
Neither Chinese lexicographers nor commentators found an appropriate definition to the term of youren. Though this term was used in the writings of Laozi (7th century BCE), Confucius (551-479 BCE), and later in dynastic histories, it was translated as either “other people” or “as if, like…” It frustrated Chinese commentators to the point that the most famous commentator Zhu Xi, (d. 1200) declared that there was a “defect in the text.” These sages were the bedrock of Chinese civilization, yet when they encountered youren, they did not realize that they faced people of a tribe who followed biblical customs. Only the sage Mencius (372-289 BCE) left us a fragmented description of some of their customs that I found to make sense in a Sino-Judaic context. But spiritual belief in China was a matter of tribal privacy.
So who were the youren and how did they find their way to China? Their identity is revealed for the first time in my book A History of the Kaifeng Israelites, that digs deeply into Chinese literature, in Chinese, to trace their presence and activities.
The earliest reference to China in Western literature can be traced to King Solomon in biblical times (9th century BCE). According to biblical history, King Solomon’s agents purchased war horses in a place called Kve/Kue: “…and the king’s traders bought them [fine horses] from Kue/Kve at a price” (1 Kings 10:28). Until recently, Kve was believed to be a place in Anatolia [Turkey today] but when juxtaposed with comparative Chinese literature we learn that the market place for the finest warhorses was in Kucha [Kocha] in the Western Regions (south Azerbaijan today). Kucha was famous for breeding the finest “Heavenly Horses” (as the Chinese called them) and traders from “the four corners of the world” had come to purchase them. Incidentally, allowing for linguistic variations, the Hebrew name for Kue was identical to the Chinese name of Kucha. In other words, King Solomon’s agents purchased warhorses in the same place where the Chinese military purchased “Heavenly Horses”. Even if trade often was conducted through intermediaries, each side could have heard, or even come in contact with each other.
Almost simultaneously, a reference to a biblical God in Chinese literature was enshrined in a ballad of a tribe, descendants of the Shang Dynasty in the Book of Songs, (ca. 7th century BCE) called the “Black Bird”:
“The Ancient God commanded Adam (Wutang)
To occupy the four corners of the world”.
In rendering this translation, I followed the Chinese commentaries that pointed out that “since everything originated in Heaven, God can be called Ancient God, therefore it referred to the Israelite biblical God. Wutang was the Chinese name for biblical Adam.” Other translations had overlooked the connection between Ancient God, and Wutang to the biblical God and Adam. Yet, these clues were important indicators that the ancient Chinese had been aware of biblical stories just about the time that the Prophet Isaiah mentioned the “Land of Sinim” (Isaiah 49:12) (7th century BCE). The word “Sinim” is the Hebrew word for China.
Was it a coincidence?
In re-reading early Chinese literature (in traditional Chinese characters) I noticed that the characters youren had also been used in the Chinese sage literature as early as the 7th century BCE, if not earlier. In the writing of Laozi, a mythological figure in the 7th century BCE, and the founder of Daoism, he clearly referred to the religion and activities of youren when he said: “How could a belief survive if it did not have enough followers? The teachings (religion) of youren [Israelites] were sacred, and people would say that they [youren] acted just as like us, the natives” (Guodian: Laozi). Evidently, Laozi was aware of the religion of the youren, he had either heard of them, or perhaps even encountered them in his travels. Even Confucius mentioned youren when he talked about court proceedings and praised them for their debating skills (Lun Yu). While these two sages referred to youren directly, Mencius had an apparent encounter with a Western tribe, whose features seemed to him to be that of hanren (Chinese), but with very strange attributes and customs. Only when the text was framed in Sino-Judaic context, it became evident that Mencius described the conduct and activities of Israelite priests, or cohanim in Hebrew. This is perhaps the first sighting of youren as Israelite priests in China in 4th century BCE, and had already been sinicized, according to Mencius.
Yet, the word youren was not entered the Chinese lexicography. It had neither dictionary form nor definition. Perhaps due to the lack of dictionary entry, scholars, translators, and Chinese commentators found this combination troublesome. In modern Chinese it means “still, as if, like” but in Classical Chinese it is a different matter.
To give you an idea of how words in Classical Chinese change, I will illustrate this point with a recent example. A colleague of mine who had lived and taught in China for a long time, asked three Chinese scholars to help him translate a text on an ancient vessel. When he got the translations back, there were three different versions. He was puzzled and asked me how was it possible. My answer surprised him. I acknowledged that all three translations could be correct, depending on how the text was segmented, measured and punctuated. It was an eye-opener for him. Doing research on China based on translations, or with only a rudimentary knowledge of the language carries its own perils.
But, segmentation did not apply to the identification of people, tribes, religions, etc. in Classical Chinese. Characters for a place, country, nationality, or religion followed by the character ren, (people, person) were quite straightforward and meant the person, people, tribes from that place, country, religion. Thus, a Chinese person was called hanren, a mongol was manren, an arab was huiren, a teacher of religion was jiaoren, but when it came to youren these rules seemed to evaporate. For lack of a proper definition, translators usually rendered youren as “other people” or otherwise omitted it.
Not only was youren lost in translations, so were the texts of the four Kaifeng stelae. Bishop White, a missionary with the Anglican Church, rendered the most comprehensive translation of the Kaifeng stelae into English in the 1920s. Almost instantly it became the “official” translation. Unfortunately, the translation missed several critical Chinese historical markers, and the use of local vernacular, that later led to major misunderstandings. He also missed the Neo-Confucian style of the 1512 inscription, and any references to Judaism contained therein. This particular inscription frustrated scholars to the point that they asked, “Why was this written?”. Aggravating the problem was that Chinese scholars did not have enough knowledge of Judaism to recognize the distinctive Jewish characteristics of the texts. It followed that misconceptions became so ingrained in Western circles that they were convinced that Jewish traders were the original settlers in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE).
But, a reading of the Kaifeng stelae in both native Chinese setting and Sino-Judaic context, offered a completely different picture. Perhaps “Western cloth” was contributed by Jewish merchants, but those who presented their case to the Song Emperor were descendants of a long line of Israelite Cohanim/Levites (priests) who had established sanctuary in China since biblical times. Their presence was interrupted by their expulsion in the Tang Dynasty in 845 CE, along with all other non-native Chinese religions, but with the establishment of the new Song Dynasty in 960 CE, they returned at the invitation of the emperor.
The eloquent Chinese presentation of the Israelite priests to the Emperor cannot be conveyed in translation. They were well-versed in both Jewish and Chinese customs, rituals and court proceedings. They also had a good command of the Chinese language, and followed the proper protocol that was indistinguishable from that of any high-ranking Chinese official. It was impressive by any standards, and even the emperor was in awe of the erudition of the Israelites. He bestowed upon them land to build a place of worship (details in Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions).
They were the youren, or the youshang (Israelite priests) as they were called in the local Kaifeng literature. Priests had a special status in Chinese society and irrespective of their beliefs, they were granted equal rights. Emperors bestowed land on priests to build their temples, a benefit that did not apply to other classes, certainly not to merchants. Traders were the lowest class in the Chinese social ladder, below the status of the uneducated farmers.
The Jews of Kaifeng came into the limelight when Prime Minister Li Gang (1083-1140?), a Chinese Jew, assured the emperor in 1127 that the “Israelite monks (youshang 猶商) were utterly loyal to the empire and would die defending Kaifeng.” What Li Gang called youshang in local Kaifeng dialect, was what Laozi and Confucius called youren. In other words youshang 猶商 and youren 猶人 in Chinese literature were synonyms, meaning Israelite monks, priests. I devoted an entire chapter to the story of the Chinese Jew and Prime Minister, Li Gang in my book, A History of the Kaifeng Israelites.
In summary, a group of Cohanim and Levites (Priests) seemed to have found sanctuary in China after exile (6th century BCE), while a Chinese tribe, descendants of the Shang Dynasty had immortalized the biblical Israelite God in one of their ballads. Chinese sages highly respected the youren for their erudition, medical skills, and musical abilities. In addition, since the beliefs of youren were congruent with the Chinese, their integration was followed by rapid sinicization. The youren had already lost its original meaning in antiquity as the Chinese considered them natives and indistinguishable from han Chinese. Only their faith remained, a private affair that survived the vicissitudes of history. For over 2500 years, Jewish minorities lived in China in the shadows of the Han people, but their spiritual life was “like water without a source, a tree without roots” 无源之水, 无本之木 wu yuan zhi shui, wu ben zhi mu (Mao Zedong: On Practice), but their legacy is not extinct, and a day may still come that they may celebrate their faith in the open.
About the author:
Tiberiu Weisz, an independent scholar of Chinese. He pursued his interest in Classical Chinese and comparative cultural studies of Judaism and China for 40 years. He taught Chinese and served as an in-house China consultant to a Minneapolis based company, while continuing to write and translate from Chinese. He has authored three books and published over a dozen articles about Judaism and China. This article is based on his latest book, A History of the Kaifeng Israelites (2018). Currently, he holds workshop classes on Chinese calligraphy in retirement.