Between History and Mistery: Imaging “The Synagogue of the Chinese Jews” (1827)

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Friday January 27 2012

I am delighted to share a guest post by Albert Wu, PhD candidate in the Department of History at UC Berkeley. It resulted from conversations we started at THATCamp Bay Area 2011 (a digital humanities conference we both attended), and continued with a shared exploration of the holdings of The Magnes, both online and on site. (Francesco Spagnolo)

Between History and Mistery: Imaging “The Synagogue of the Chinese Jews” (1827)
by Albert Wu

Much of the history of Jews in China is shrouded in mystery. Scholars have debated the date of the Jewish entry into China – one camp believes that Jews arrived in China as early as the first century ACE, during the Han dynasty, while others argue that they arrived almost a thousand years later, during the Song Dynasty. Scholars have questioned whether we can even speak of a Jewish identity existing in China at all before the 17th century. The historian Zhou Xun, for example, has argued that the story of the Kaifeng Jews is a “pure Western invention,” created by the Jesuits in the 17th century.1 Scholars have also debated whether this image of the Chinese synagogue at Kaifeng is an accurate portrayal of the synagogue in Kaifeng, or whether this was fantasy.

Print: [67.1.13.8] Sinagoga degli Ebrei cinesi (Synagogue of the Chinese Jews), 1827

Sinagoga degli Ebrei cinesi (Synagogue of the Chinese Jews), 1827, 67.1.13.8

What is undisputed is that the “discovery” of the Jews in China in the West begins with the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. In a letter to his superior general in 1605, Ricci described a chance meeting with a self-proclaimed Chinese-Jew, Ai Tian. Ricci at first thought that Ai was a Chinese Christian, but after several theological discussions with Ai, realized that he was Jewish. Ricci further described a Jewish community in the city of Kaifeng, which had a synagogue and was the center of their faith. This letter was later published and generated much interest among Jesuits and other Catholic missionaries, leading to scholars and missionaries seeking to visit and discover more about this previously un-known Jewish community.

Why were the Jesuits so interested in the Kaifeng synagogue? The Jesuits were in particular concerned with finding a Chinese Jewish Bible, which could be used as evidence to prove the corruption of the existing Jewish Bible by rabbinic scholars throughout the ages. The Jesuit Charles Le Gobien wrote, “the Chinese Jews may well own texts of the Scriptures which have been preserved in a pristine state and are free of those defects which our scholars and theologians believe they have found in the texts currently available to them.” The search for an “uncorrupted” Hebrew Bible drew widespread interest from Western intellectuals, including Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who thought that Chinese ideograms could perhaps provide the key for unlocking the mysteries of a universal language. This print from the Magnes Collection, although produced in the early nineteenth century, illustrates the voyage of Father Giampaolo Gozani in the 18th century, in his search for the original Kaifeng Bible. But the Jesuits were unsuccessful – the Hebrew biblical manuscripts that they found in Kaifeng had no significant differences from the Hebrew Bibles in Europe.1

But other than the search for a “pristine” version of the Bible, the Jesuit interest in Jews in China was also fueled by another source – the Chinese Rites Controversy. After the initial Jesuit penetration into China, the Catholic missions fragmented along two general lines: accommodation or non-accommodation. The Jesuits advocated an accommodationist line, arguing that Chinese ancestral rituals were a social, rather than a religious practice. The Jesuits also believed that the Catholic missions should target high-ranking Confucian officials, and hope for a top-down conversion of Chinese society. Jesuit missionaries thus adopted Chinese dress, and tried to pass themselves off as learned Confucian officials (The most well-known image of Matteo Ricci is him dressed as a Confucian scholar.)

360px-Matteo_Ricci_2.jpg

The Dominicans and Franciscans rejected this position, preferring to spread the Gospel first to the people at the bottom-ranks of society. They also saw the Confucian and traditional rituals as idolatry, and forbid the Chinese Christians they converted to continue attending these rituals.

This image from the Magnes Museum collection is a perfect representation of the Jesuit’s ideological program. What is striking about this image are the grid-like lines, the perfect angles. The image projects a sense of rationality and order. The attempt to portray China as a civilized society with a vibrant diversity of religious belief was part of the Jesuit agenda to “market” China to the West. The Jesuits wanted to show its Western backers – above all the Vatican – that China was an ancient civilization that needed to be treated with respect. By demonstrating that the Chinese had a long tradition of Jewish tradition that pre-dated the Catholic missions of the 17th and 18th century, the Jesuits argued that China had developed its own indigenous forms of Jewish identity. It was not just Jewish culture, but Christianity as well. The Jesuits uncovered Nestorian tablets, and hoped to show that China was a place that had deep connections with the Christian and Jewish past in the Occident.

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Contrast this with other Western images in China in the mid-nineteenth century. Much had changed in the ensuing century. China had lost in two devastating wars. The image of the Chinese, instead of that of a rational, elevated culture, was that of a weak, sick man of Asia. Western missionaries in China now portrayed China as filled with opium smokers and unruly, menacing mobs. This type of “Yellow Peril” discourse about China peaked with the Boxer Uprising in 1900. Missionary periodicals throughout the West proclaimed that in order for China to become a modern country, it needed to reject its Confucian past. Christianity was the antidote to China’s problems.

YellowTerror.jpg

Chinese observers and historians were cognizant of this shift in missionary attitudes towards China. The Chinese historian Chen Yuan, a foundational scholar in the history of religions, drew on the Jesuit tradition and produced a series of studies of “foreign religions” in China. He wrote about the Kaifeng Jews in China, and promoted the idea that the Jews had entered China in the Song Dynasty. But Chen’s larger argument was an appeal for the missionaries to return to an older Jesuit tradition of more sympathetic engagement with traditional Chinese culture. Western missionaries had instead adopted a position of missionary chauvinism in the 19th century. China was, as the Jesuits believed, a tolerant, religiously diverse society that needed to be respected. Chen, like the Jesuits in the 18th century, was more interested in presenting China in a positive light to Western observers than the actual content of the Jewish faith in China.


  1. Zhou Xun, “The ‘Kaifeng Jew’ Hoax: Constructing the ‘Chinese Jew,’” in Orientalism and the Jews, edited by Ivan D. Kalmar and Derek J. Penslar (Brandeis University Press, 2004).
  2. See Jonathan Goldstein, ed., The Jews of China (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1999).
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