Jewish roots in China can be traced from the 9th century when Jewish merchants thought to be from Persia reached China by way of the Silk Road, and settled in Kaifeng. These Jews remained secluded for hundreds of years, eventually integrating into Chinese society.
During the late 19th century, Jews again started to move to China, this time from Russia. Jews came to the Manchurian city of Harbin due to the building of the Manchurian connection to the Chinese Eastern Railway. Jewish life thrived in Harbin between the 19th and 20th centuries, making it an attractive place to take refuge from the anti-Semitism and political unrest of the Russian revolution of 1917.
During the Holocaust, China was one of the few countries that did not require immigration visas from Jews trying to escape Nazism. From 1932 [?] until 1940, over 15,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and other occupied European territories came to China, and took refuge in the Hongkew district of Shanghai. They lived under very precarious conditions, hoping to avoid Nazi persecutions, but also succeeded in developing a dynamic cultural life, and visual arts, music, theater, literature and communal life were actively pursued.
Jewish presence in Harbin and Shanghai eventually came to a halt, especially with the rise of the Maoist regime in 1949. Thousands of Jews began immigrating to the United States, Israel and Australia leaving behind the schools, communal organization and synagogues they built. By the mid-1950’s there was only a handful of Jews left in China. These Jews and their descendent still keep fond memories of their Chinese sojourn, and have maintained ties among themselves, and with China, that span across many continents and cultures.
The holdings of the Magnes include many primary sources documenting the Jewish experience in China in modern times. Personal papers, photographs, books and artifacts kept in the Archive, Library and Museum collections present minute details about individuals, families, organizations, events and living conditions in China, as well as the emigration of Jews to California.
You can view an interactive gallery of images and resources by clicking here.
This Digital Narrative was created by Warren Klein and Francesco Spagnolo.