The earliest evidence showing the presence of Jews in China is from the beginning of the eighth century: a business letter written in the Judeo-Persian language, discovered by Marc Aurel Stein. The letter (now housed in the British Museum) was found in Danfan Uiliq, an important post along the Silk Road in northwest China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The text is thirty-seven lines in length and was written on paper, a product then manufactured only in China. It was identified, by David Samuel Margoliouth, as dating from 718 C.E. Ibn Zeyd al Hassan of Siraf, a 9th century Arabian traveler, reports that in 878 followers of the Chinese rebel leader Huang Chao besieged Canton (Guangzhou) and killed a large number of foreign merchants, Arabs, Persians, Christians, and Jews, resident there.
Sources indicate that Jews in China were often mistaken for Muslims by other Chinese. The first plausible recorded written Chinese mention of Jews uses the term Zhuhu (竹忽), or Zhuhudu (朱乎得) (perhaps from Arabic Yehoud, or from Hebrew Yehudim, "Jews") found in the Annals of the Yuan Dynasty in 1329 and 1354. The text spoke of the reinforcement of a tax levied on "dissenters" and of a government decree that the Jews come en-masse to Beijing, the capital.
Famous Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who visited China, then under the Yuan Dynasty, in the late 13th century, described the prominence of Jewish traders in Beijing. Similar references can be found in the notes of the Franciscan John of Montecorvino, first archbishop of Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Beijing at the early of 14th century, and the writings of Ibn Batuta, an Arabian envoy to the Mongol Empire in the middle of 14th century.
Genghis Khan called both Jews and Muslims Huihui (回回), calling the Jews Zhuhu Huihui (竹忽回回), when he forbade Jews and Muslims from practicing Kosher and Halal preparation of their food, calling both of them "slaves" and forcing them to eat Mongol food, and banned them from practicing circumcision.
Among all the alien peoples only the Hui-hui say “we do not eat Mongol food”. “By the aid of heaven we have pacified you; you are our slaves. Yet you do not eat our food or drink. How can this be right?” He thereupon made them eat. “If you slaughter sheep, you will be considered guilty of a crime.” He issued a regulation to that effect ... all the Muslims say: “if someone else slaughters we do not eat”. Because the poor people are upset by this, from now on, Musuluman Huihui and Zhuhu Huihui, no matter who kills will eat and must cease slaughtering sheep themselves, and cease the rite of circumcision.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), a Ming emperor conferred seven surnames upon the Jews, by which they are identifiable today: Ai (艾), Shi (石), Gao (高), Jin (金), Li (李), Zhang (張), and Zhao (趙); sinofications of the original seven Jewish clan's family names: Ezra, Shimon, Cohen, Gilbert, Levy, Joshua, and Jonathan, respectively. Interestingly, two of these: Jin and Shi are the equivalent of common Jewish names in the west: Gold and Stone.
The first modern Western record of Jews residing in China is found in the records of the seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries in Beijing. The prominent Jesuit Matteo Ricci, received a visit from a young Jewish Chinese man in 1605. Ricci mentioned this man's name as Ngai, who has since been identified by the French sinologist Paul Pelliot as a Jew named Ai T'ien, who explained that the community he belonged to was monotheistic, or believing in only one God. It is recorded that when he saw a Christian image of Mary with the child Jesus, he took it to be a picture of Rebecca with Esau or Jacob, figures from Hebrew Scripture. Ngai (Ai Tian, Ai T'ien) declared that he had come from Kaifeng, and stated that this was the site of a large Jewish population. Ricci sent an ethnic Chinese Jesuit Lay Brother to visit Kaifeng; later, other Jesuits (mostly European) also visited the city. It was later discovered that the Jewish community had a synagogue (Libai si), which was constructed facing the west, and housed a number of written materials and books.
The Jews who managed the synagogue were called "Mullahs". Floods and Fire repeatedly destroyed the books of the Kaifeng synagogue, they obtained some from Ningxia and Ningbo to replace them, another Hebrew roll of law was bought from a Muslim in Ning-keang-chow in Shen-se (Shanxi), who acquired it from a dying Jew at Canton.
The Chinese called Muslims, Jews, and Christians in ancient times by the same name, "Hui Hui" (Hwuy-hwuy). Crossworshipers (Christians) were called "Hwuy who abstain from animals without the cloven foot", Muslims were called "Hwuy who abstain from pork", Jews were called "Hwuy who extract the sinews". Hwuy-tsze (Hui zi) or Hwuy-hwuy (Hui Hui) is presently used almost exclusively for Muslims, but Jews were still called Lan Maou Hwuy tsze (Lan mao Hui zi) which means "Blue cap Hui zi". At Kaifeng, Jews were called "Teaou kin keaou "extract sinew religion". Jews and Muslims in China shared the same name for synagogue and mosque, which were both called "Tsing-chin sze" (Qingzhen si) "Temple of Purity and Truth", the name dated to the thirteenth century. The synagogue and mosquers were also known as Le-pae sze (Libai si). A tablet indicated that Judaism was once known as "Yih-tsze-lo-nee-keaou" (israelitish religion) and synagogues known as Yih-tsze lo nee leen (Israelitish Temple), but it faded out of use.
A Muslim in Nanjing told Semedo that four families of Jews converted to Islam since they were the last Jews in the area, their numbers diminishing.
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