China has a history of Jewish immigration and settlement that dates back for centuries. You might even be surprised by what there is to learn about the fascinating exchange between the Middle Kingdom and the People of the Book. Seek out the stories, past and present, of China’s Jewish community in these Chinese cities.
Not even historians can be certain about precisely when Jewish people first set foot on Chinese soil, a gap in history often answered with a combination of guesswork and Jewish mythology. Earliest records point to Jewish merchants from Central Asia who journeyed to the Middle Kingdom along the legendary Silk Road. Trade documents in an ancient form of Hebrew have been found dating back to 400 A.D. These records mark the first of many chapters of Judaism in the pages of Chinese history. For those of you wanting to know more, visiting these 4 cities is a must.
China Jewish Museum in Shanghai
Photo by Bernhard Wintersperger via Flickr
The port city was home to more than 20,000 European Jews who fled Nazi Germany during World War II. Learn stories of refugees who lived in the former Shanghai Jewish Ghetto with WildChina Jewish expert Dvir Bargal and drop by Ohel Moshe Synagogue, once the center of Shanghai’s Jewish community. Today, the synagogue has been transformed into a museum with documents, photographs, films, and personal items donated by the local Jewish community all on display.
The Children’s Palace, the former mansion of the Kadoories, a wealthy Jewish family from Baghdad is an opulent reminder of Shanghai’s pre-Cultural Revolution history. The Children’s Palace is now a state-run after-school program for children to learn arts and sciences. Fun for children, adults can also marvel at the diverse talents of the students during the many special performances that you can catch year-round.
Jewish Ablution Bowl from synagogue in Kaifeng
Tim Evanson via Flickr
Jewish merchants came to trade in the ancient capital of Kaifeng during the Song Dynasty and left a lasting mark on the region. In the local Jewry you can listen to old tales from a family descended from one of the original Jewish settlers and the Jewish Stelae features inscriptions that tell important events and religious practices of Kaifeng’s Jewish Community from the 15th to 17th centuries.
You will notice a continuous push and pull in Kaifeng between the city’s rich Jewish heritage and the forces of modernization. Unfortunately, the original site of the 12th century Kaifeng Synagogue now sits beneath the streets of the city but visitors can stop by quaint Jewish history museums that have opened up nearby. Those interested in Jewish history should also take a stroll down Torah Lane, a narrow backstreet which was once the heart of a vibrant Jewish Quarter.
Stairs at the Jewish Museum in Harbin
Photo by Alexandra Moss via Flickr
Many Jewish immigrants moved to Harbin following the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the 19th century to escape persecution by the Russian Tsar. The Jewish population reportedly topped 20,000 at its peak in the 1920s. The Jewish community’s presence can be seen and felt in the city’s streets and architecture. The Harbin New Synagogue is the largest synagogue in East Asia and is newly reopened as the Harbin Jewish History and Culture Museum. Jewish architectural wonders are the perfect backdrop for a stroll through the European-influenced Central Street and the old Jewish Bank stands in the same place as it has for decades. What’s more, Royal Hill Cemetery is the largest Jewish Cemetery in the Far East with more than 600 well-preserved gravestones.
Jewish Synagogue in Tianjin
Photo by bricoleurbanism via Flickr
Tianjin hosted China’s third largest Jewish population from the 1920s and the 1930s. Due to its proximity to the port and a willingness to accept Jewish migrants, Tianjin falls third only to Shanghai and Harbin as centers for Jewish life. At that time Jewish people established hospitals, churches, charities, cafeterias, cemeteries, and schools around the city. Some even published newspapers. A visit to the gothic-style Tianjin Synagogue built in 1939 recalls the melange of Jewish, Russian, and Chinese architectural styles at the turn of the century. Although not many Jewish buildings remain today, the residential neighborhood, “Five Great Avenues,” is home to Jewish residences. Within the Small White Building district, you’ll find small white buildings that provide a peek into the lives of Tianjin’s Jewish residents.
Ready to experience China’s intangible Jewish heritage and explore the Middle Kingdom with a kosher twist? Plan a Jewish Tour of China where we’ll take you to all these historical remnants of Jewish history and culture.