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Volume 1, Issue 3 (October 2007 / Cheshvan 5768)
Article 1/10

The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions Revisited
By Tiberiu Weisz

Abstract: Our knowledge of the Chinese Jews derives from two primary sources: one is the stone inscriptions, carved in grey limestone by the Jews and the other the eyewitness reports of missionaries, travelers and adventures who encountered Jews in Kaifeng in the 18th century and later. Scholars scrutinized both sources and reported many inconsistencies in the eyewitness reports. The inscriptions, however, were a source of puzzlement. The Chinese text posed particular challenges, and scholars had to rely on the translation of Bishop Charles White, a missionary who resided in China for forty years and had a good command of the Chinese language but little knowledge of Judaism. Weisz’s new annotated translation of the Chinese text identifies many biblical sources veiled in the intricacies of the Chinese language. This article is a summary of his findings.

What are the Kaifeng stone inscriptions and why are they important? Why the need for a new translation? And most important of all, is there anything that the inscriptions tell us about ancient Judaism that can serve as a lesson for today?  These are just some of the questions that any sophisticated reader today has on his or her mind when thinking of the ancient stone carvings that the Jews in China engraved over five hundred years ago. For one thing, after living in China for over fifteen hundred years[1] devoid of any contact with other Jewish communities, the Chinese Jews felt that their community was on the verge of extinction. They were determined to record their existence in China and remind future generations that at one time some Jews played an important role in Chinese society: some acquired an education and competed in the examination system to become scholars; others earned the highest academic degrees to become officials and gained respect in the society. There were also prominent shopkeepers, artisans, traders and military officers.

But acceptance into Chinese society came at the expense of Judaism. Though the Chinese had never exerted any pressure on the Jews, or on any other minorities to convert, the social structure of Chinese society put enormous demands on the Jews and required them to accept and act according to local customs. The Confucian ethical code may have seemed to be compatible with many tenets of the Torah, but it was so inflexible as to accept nothing less than complete compliance. In addition, the rigid administrative system caused further erosion of the Jewish lifestyle. To climb the administrative and social ladder, Jews needed to devote considerable time and effort to the study of the Chinese classics.[2] All this came at the expense of study of the Torah. When the Jews felt that the end was near, they pooled their resources and inscribed their religious beliefs on a stele that was erected in the second year of the Hongzhi period, the equivalent of 1489. This was perhaps the most comprehensive and informative of the inscriptions, but to our disappointment it was long on rituals and short on historical details. This stele can be seen today encased in glass in the Kaifeng Museum of Jewish History. It is five feet tall, about thirty inches wide and about five inches thick, made of dark grey limestone and sits on a base that is about twenty inches high. Some of the Chinese characters are still decipherable; others are so faded that it is hard to read them. This inscription contains about 1800 characters. Its content is divided into three sections, the first telling us about the Chinese version of the biblical story of Abraham and how the religion was born. The second section tells us about the rituals and worship of the Chinese Jews at that time. The third segment recounts the imperial audience that was handed down in oral tradition.[3] Each segment seems to be composed by someone knowledgeable in his field. On the back of this stele is another inscription dated the Chinese equivalent of 1512, consisting of over 1000 characters. This inscription was composed by a Jew or someone who knew about Judaism. He stated that Judaism would not exist without the Torah.  This inscription was perhaps the most puzzling to scholars as it appeared to contain no historical indicators and therefore was considered of very limited historical value. But from a Jewish perspective, it provided a wealth of information about the life of the Jews at the time. It constantly compared Judaism with Confucianism, perhaps the first ever attempt to compare the two cultures.

The other stele was dated the equivalent of 1663 on one side and has not been seen since its disappearance from the gate of the Anglican Church where it had been placed by Bishop White in 1912.[4]  On the obverse side is engraved an incomplete text that appears to be the middle section of a text that largely pays tribute to the Jews who contributed to the restoration of the temple. This stele, according to White, is about two feet taller than the earlier stele. Fortunately, Bishop White preserved an ink rubbing that is reproduced in his book Chinese Jews.[5] Side one contains about 2200 characters written by a non-Jew who had Jewish friends or neighbors and made some very interesting observations about Jewish customs and rituals. It provided more historical details regarding the temple and the community in action. The composer also pointed out many similarities between Judaism and Confucianism.  The reverse side of this stele is an acknowledgment of those Jews who had contributed to the restoration of the temple and the community. Since the introduction and the ending are missing, we have no way of dating it so by default it was dated 1663b, though it is more likely that it was composed at a later period.

The Chinese Repository [6] published a translation of the 1489 and 1512 inscriptions and Bishop Charles White improved it with his own translation in the 1940s. In addition, he also annotated the text, identified some of the Chinese sources and expressed his surprise that the inscriptions contained no biblical references. That was, as far as I know, the last English translation of the stele and it became the accepted, if not the “official” guide to the inscriptions. Many scholars and researchers intrigued by the topic of the “orphaned colony”[7] of the Chinese Jews published articles and books on the subject, basing their research on White’s translation. Then in 1972 Donald Leslie, an Australian scholar, published a monograph, The Survival of the Chinese Jews, [8] that was intended to be a definitive resource book about the Jews in China. It dealt with the many facets of the Jewish presence in China, and it incorporated many new details derived from local gazetteers but, as far as the inscriptions were concerned, White’s translation was the standard. Leslie also agreed with White’s conclusion that “we hardly find passages from the Jewish Law translated into Chinese” (Leslie, p. 102), and expressed his frustration that the inscriptions lacked any solid historical landmarks. He attached little importance to the 1663a inscription as most of the material seemed to be addressed in the 1489 stele. He also wondered why the 1512 inscription was written. I addressed these issues and reported my preliminary findings in two articles published in Points East, a newsletter of the Sino-Judaic Institute.[9]   

So why was there a need for a new translation? Differences of opinion would not justify such an endeavor, but when inaccuracies and mistranslation of characters went undetected for almost a century, that prompted me to take a closer look at the Chinese text. I came upon those errors while researching my book on a comparative cultural study of Judaism and China. A literary analysis of Chinese and Hebrew sources pointed to an indirect but unmistakable link between the land of Israel and China as early as the seventh century BCE. The wisdom of Solomon (965-926 BCE) had reached the ears of Laozi[10] (604-531 BCE), the composer of a five-thousand-character book called the Daodejing [The Annals of the Way and Virtue] and, in some ways, comparable to biblical wisdom literature. How did Laozi incorporate biblical literature into the Daodejing?[11]  This prompted me to re-examine the stone inscriptions with a Jewish and Chinese historical context in mind. To my disappointment, neither Western nor Chinese literature published on the Chinese Jews correlated the inscriptions to any historical context, let alone in to a Jewish context. I asked myself, why not?  The obvious reason could be that the original text did not contain history, and the uninterrupted and unpunctuated text left us a story that we did not understand. Some of the style was standard Chinese but some extended segments contained irregular grammatical structures that appeared completely meaningless and incomprehensible. Could it be that those segments held the key to the inscriptions? They puzzled researchers and went unexplained until now.

To start with, I broke the Chinese text into individual phrases and sentences and set each phrase on a new line. The key was in the details and I kept an open mind to every possibility. The text contained many parallel structures and incomplete quotes that I found to be traceable. As I traced those quotes to their source, I started to get a picture that was very different from any previously translated texts. The 1489 inscriptions, for instance, revealed three different styles that I attributed to three different composers. I made a note of this in the introductory chapter on the “Testimony of the Inscriptions”     (p. xix) in my book The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions. Then the style of the1512 inscription reminded me of the writing of some Chinese neo-Confucians that depicted a tapestry of daily life in China.  But the real revelation came when I realized that the last segment of the 1512 inscription resembled a Hebrew prayer. This particular segment puzzled many scholars because it contained a peculiar structure that hardly related to anything. It portrayed a vision and since it invoked the name of Heaven, I realized that it was a prayer. And indeed when I juxtaposed it with the Hebrew prayer book, I realized that it was the Chinese version of the Amida, a prayer that the Chinese Jews had memorized and, as time passed, composed their own version. Nevertheless it was the Eighteen Benedictions. This information also shed some light on the antiquity of the Jews in China: the text emulated a pre-Yavneh version composed in exile by members of the Great Assembly (Knesset Hagdola ca. 500-300 BCE). It did not include the birkat haminim (benediction against the heretics) or the nineteenth benediction which was added later, in the first century CE. I also realized that the English language compounded the problem. The Chinese Jews did not know English or any other Western languages, and they handed down the prayer through oral tradition in the original Hebrew. As time passed they remembered less of the Hebrew but still remembered the spirit of the Amida and composed a Chinese version. The Chinese Jews added the text of the prayers to remind future generations of their tradition.[12]

The 1663a inscription confirmed my findings. It was composed by a non-Jew who described either what he had seen or what he had been told by his Jewish neighbors. Like the previous inscriptions, the 1663a stele described the rituals but, unlike the other stele, did not repeat the actual words of the prayers. The reason: the composer was a bystander who neither knew the prayers nor understood them. He jotted down his observations and noted that the Jews prayed three times a day and that was “when man was to see Heaven”. What he added after this observation was interesting. He recapped what he had heard the Jews say or chant at the conclusion of the ceremonies and when I juxtaposed this with the Hebrew text, I realized that it was the pronouncement of the birkat hakohanim [Priestly Blessing]. That custom was prevalent during the Temple periods when the kohen hagadol [high priest] performed the sacrificial rites. Then he would come down from the altar and, raising his hands over the whole assembly of Israel, pronounce the Priestly Blessing or the birkat hakohanim (Numbers 6:24-26). Though the words in the inscriptions were Confucian in nature, the structure and the intent coincided with the biblical Hebrew version. Another interesting aspect of this inscription was the composer’s descriptions of some of the practices of the Jews that corresponded to similar practices in China. He often quoted from Chinese literature to show that the Jews practiced something that was not too different from the Chinese. Inadvertently, he created the first comparative study of Judaism and China. 

Long on rites and prayers and short on history, the inscriptions seemed to be of little historical significance. None of them elaborated on the past or on how and when the Jews settled in China. The little they did say about their past was hard to corroborate and their origin was shrouded in mystery. Even more puzzling was the fact that they mentioned an audience with a Song emperor (960-1279) without further explanation. This sentence became critical in recreating the history of the community, and unfortunately, a mistranslation diverted the attention of scholars who then built on the incorrect translation. Once I corrected the translation, the text displayed evidence of the roots of the community that could be traced to antiquity and their history could be corroborated by both biblical and Chinese sources. After captivity and exile, a group of Levites and kohanim [priests] left Babylon and wandered eastwards,[13] first heading toward India where they stayed for several generations. Later, after several more generations, the descendants continued their journey northwards where they came across a place that answered a biblical description. (Psalms 104:8-10). Being devout believers, they saw a biblical prophecy come true. They settled there and lived in isolation for several more generations until they were accidentally discovered by a Chinese military expedition in 108 BCE.[14] They would have stayed anonymous had not General Li Guangli left us a sentence describing their appearance as strange. That description was deemed insignificant in the massive amount of Chinese annals and very few scholars paid any attention to it. But from a biblical point of view that description depicted the (distinguished) headdress of observant Jews who lived by the precepts of the Torah. When the Chinese army withdrew from the Western Regions,[15] they encouraged the more domesticated tribes to come and live under the protection of the Chinese administration. For China this was a policy of pacification, the tribes would serve as a buffer zone between them and the Huns, and at the same time the settlers would be exposed to the Chinese culture. This was the first step of sinicization.  Many, if not most of the domesticated tribes preferred the protection of the Chinese to the uncertainty and unpredictability of the Tatars. They migrated and settled in the area of Gansu Province of today. At the beginning of the second century CE, when the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) started to disintegrate, the Chinese abandoned the Western Regions and the settlers followed their journey unobstructed into the heartland of China.  Thus the descendants of the isolated Jewish community, who left Babylon several centuries earlier and established a settlement at the outskirts of the Taklamakan Desert, found itself migrating again, this time into China proper. Based on the reading of the inscriptions, part of the community remained in the Gansu area while others dispersed to other regions. With the rising anti- Buddhist sentiments in the Tang Dynasty (609-960 CE), the Jews joined the mass exodus of religions out of China and went back to the Western Regions. Then, at the invitation of Emperor Taizong (976-998), the second Song emperor, the Jews returned to China and were bestowed land to build their place of worship.[16] They remained in obscurity until 1605 when Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary, reported an encounter with a Chinese Jew in Beijing. Later missionaries also confirmed the existence of the community, but the strongest evidence of the legacy of the Jews in China was contained in the stone inscriptions.  

Three of the four inscriptions were dedicated to the rebuilding of the temple. The community went to extraordinary lengths to preserve and restore the temple and one may wonder: what was so important about the temple to deserve such dedication? Reading the existing literature, the impression is that it was an ordinary synagogue: it functioned as a place of worship and community center. But when the text was juxtaposed with biblical history, it revealed that the temple played a far more important role. The Jews in China continued the biblical tradition that accorded the servicing of the temple to the Levites and kohanim (priests) who performed the rituals that were associated with the First Temple (960- 586 BCE). The temple became the focal point of the community. Besides being used as a place of worship and sacrifice, it was also a source of pride that provided the Jews a sense of belonging, and they attributed their long survival to the Temple. In the absence of the temple, the function of the kohanim would have ceased to exist and the community would have vanished without a trace. In addition, the temple work (avodat kodesh) supplemented the income of the kohanim who received a salary from local sources and from teaching. Each time the temple was destroyed, the kohanim lost this source of income and they could barely provide the necessary services to keep the community together. After each disaster, the community lost members and some of them dispersed never to return.  To rectify this situation, the entire Jewish community in China contributed resources to rebuild the temple. Some contributed their salary; others contributed labor, while the kohanim contributed their skill to restore the scriptures.

Each time the temple was rebuilt it was in Kaifeng, even though that city ceased to be the seat of the Chinese emperor after 1126 CE.  The Chinese court relocated to Hangzhou to establish the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and Kaifeng became the abandoned capital. Yet the Chinese Jews built and rebuilt the Temple in Kaifeng. Why?  From a Jewish perspective, the events that led to the destruction and the fall of Kaifeng and the subsequent fall of the dynasty in 1126 CE were reminiscent of the Jewish experience in antiquity. The First Temple that was built by King Solomon in ca. 960 BCE was looted and destroyed along with the sacred city (Jerusalem) in 586 BCE. That also brought an end to the Kingdom of Israel, the Ten Tribes being led into exile. Seventy years later, Ezra, the last prophet that the Chinese Jews mentioned, rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem and asked the exiles to return. These events were ingrained in the mind of the Chinese Jews, and they viewed the conditions in China at the time (ca. 1100-1163 CE) as a prophecy come true. Their own times mirrored the events that led to the exile of their distant ancestors in the Land of Canaan. Kaifeng suffered the same fate as Jerusalem: it was destroyed the course of conquest, the Chinese emperor was driven into exile and the dynasty fell into the hands of the Jurchen “barbarians” who established the Qin Dynasty. The Temple in Kaifeng became the symbol of Jewish persistence in China, directly epitomizing their fate and indirectly the fate of the sacred city, Jerusalem. Equipped with the biblical blueprint of the Temple envisioned in Ezekiel, it was completed in 1163 and was modeled to be as imposing as the Bet  Hamikdash  [Temple].

In light of the new translation and readings of the inscriptions it is evident that the orphaned colony was Jewish in origin with roots that went back to the exile period. Does that mean that the Jews in Kaifeng today and their offspring are Jewish? Efforts were made by some Jewish organizations to recognize them as Jews but most of the Jewish authorities refused to recognize them as such. Their objection is based on the halakha [law] that says that every male Jew must be circumcised on the eighth day after birth (or after conversion), and follow the dietary laws of the Torah. A further obstacle was imposed by the “Who is a Jew” clause that stated that a Jew is a Jew only if born to a Jewish woman. Since none of these conditions prevailed, they are not Jews. The former commandment was biblical in nature while the latter one was halakhic, meaning that it originated in the Oral Law. Since they could not perform circumcision safely, they had to abandon that practice. The 1512 inscription indicated that the Jews in China made every effort to follow the biblical commandment of the dietary laws. And since marrying a foreign woman was not a biblical precept, the Chinese Jews continued the tradition that was widely practiced in exile. They followed a tradition that was pre-rabbinic, and they had never heard of any development in Judaism that was post-exilic. The halakha started to develop after Ezra returned to Jerusalem and did not become the Oral Law until several centuries later, by which time the Chinese Jews had already been isolated for generations. They had never heard of Mishna, Midrash, Talmud etc., such terms being unfamiliar to them. They were unaware of the split between Judaism and Christianity, still calling themselves Israelites.  In a sense we have a pure sect of observant Jews that lived according to the precepts of the Torah and not the oral tradition.  Circumstances forced them to adapt to the environment, and to maintain their beliefs, formulating their own halakha incorporating many of the local customs. They did the same thing that our sages did in Jerusalem, Babylon and the Diaspora: they developed a set of rules that accorded with the local conditions without compromising the sanctity of the Torah. They followed their own halakha for over 1500 years in isolation and, even as late as the 18th century, when the missionaries encountered the Jews of Kaifeng, were still living by the same precepts. They never abandoned the ways of the Torah and never ceased to believe in Elohim; they built and rebuilt the temple, the symbol of their existence, and the Kaifeng Jews left the stone inscriptions so that future generations might know how to be a Jew in the sea of Chinese culture. 

About the Author
Tiberiu Weisz, M.A. is a “cultural bridge builder” between Judaism and China. He is fluent in both Hebrew and Chinese and author of The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions: The Legacy of the Jewish Community in Ancient China (iUniverse, Inc. 2006). Currently he is working on his book: The Covenant and the Mandate of Heaven: An In-depth Comparative Cultural Study of Judaism and China (scheduled for publication in 2007).

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2007


[1] The consensus among scholars was that the Jews settled in China in the early Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), which would make them relative newcomers to China. However, in my book: The Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions: The Legacy of the Jewish Community in Ancient China. iUniverse, Inc., 2006 I have shown  that the Jews settled in China proper as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).

[2] The Jews had to master the Four Books: The Analects of Confucius, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean and The Works of Mencius. They also displayed competency of the Liji, [Book of Rites], an ancient text that incorporated similar topics to the Torah including the Book of Filial Piety, Book of History, Book of Poetry, etc.  In addition, they also had to master the interpretations of the classics by the neo- Confucian philosopher Zhuxi (1130-1200 CE), the Chinese Rambam

[3] This distinction was not evident in any previous translations. This inscription was written by three people at different times and different places. The section about the imperial audience, its meaning and ramification is presented here for the first time in a historical context. Among other things, it provides us an insight of what the Chinese Jews knew about Chinese etiquette and customs.

[4]  Bishop William Charles White was a missionary for the Anglican Church who went to China in 1897 and worked there for forty years, living in Kaifeng for twenty-five years, and returned to Canada in 1934. He was an accomplished archeologist and linguist, and later worked with the Royal Ontario Museum

[5]  William White, Chinese Jews: A Compilation of Matters Relating to the Jews of K’aifeng Fu, (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1942; 1966).

[6] Bishop George Smith, “Visit to the Jews in Honan: A Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jewish Synagogue of K’aifung fu,on behalf of the London Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews.” Chinese Repositary, Vol. IV, Shanghai, 1851.

[7] This term is borrowed from James Finn, The Orphan Colony of the Jews in China. London 1872.

[8] Donald Daniel Leslie, The Survival of the Chinese Jews. Monographies du T’ong Pao, Vol. X . Leiden:  Brill, 1972.

[9]Tiberiu  Weisz,  “Jewish Settlement in Han China,” Points East, 18:2 (July 2003), and “Life of the Jews in China According to the 1512 Stone Inscription,” Points East, 18:3 (Nov. 2003).

[10] Laozi was one of the sage philosophers in ancient China and his influence was equal to that of Confucius. He was the founder of the Daosit school of thought which became one of the three principal religions in China, and was on a par with Confucianism and Buddhism.

[11] This topic is dealt with in detail in my forthcoming book, The Covenant and the Mandate of Heaven: An In-depth Comparative Cultural History of Judaism and China (ms., anticipated publication 2007).

[12] The last segment of the 1512 inscription contained the Chinese version of the  Amida (see Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions, pp. 29-30)

[13] Graetz, H. History of the Jews, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1902. (6 vols.)

[14] Jian Bozan, Qin Han Shi [History of the Qin and Han] Taibei, Taiwan: Yunlong Publishing, 2003. (Copyright Beijing University Press, 1999) (Chinese).

[15] The Western Regions (Xiyu in Chinese) is roughly the area of today’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region in NW China. The Silk Route passed through it. 

[16] Some of the Chinese Jews still claim today that they had owned land in antiquity. The book, Kaifeng Stone Inscriptions traces that claim to the returning Jews and the imperial audience.


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