Nicholas Zane

A (Jewish?) delegation reached Kaifeng in 998 CE

Niweini [Zane Archives]

Kaifeng Torah during Father Ricci’s time dated to the year 1008 CE

On 18th August 1723, Father Antoine Gaubil (1689–1759) wrote to Father Jean-Baptiste Du Halde (杜赫德, 1674–1743). The letter said, “Father Matteo Ricci found that the content of the Pentateuch of the Kaifeng Jews that he saw was exactly like that of the Hebrew Pentateuch that he had…. The Jews claimed that this scroll had been in Kaifeng for six hundred years.”

Father Matteo Ricci sent his representatives to Kaifeng to copy their ancient Torah Scroll in 1608. Since this scroll had been in Kaifeng for 600 years, it must have arrived in China sometime around the year 1008, during Emperor Zhen-zong (宋真宗, reign 997–1022), ruler of the Northern Song Dynasty.

According to the 1489 Stele, Jewish delegation paid tribute to a Song emperor

According to the stone inscription of 1489: the Jewish religion entered China from Tianzhu to obey divine command. Over seventy clans came, including Li, An, Ai, Gao, Mu, Zhao, Jin, Zhou, Zhang, Shi, Huang, Li, Nie, Jin, Zhang, Zuo and Bai. A tribute of western cloth was paid to the Song Court. The emperor said: Be part of my Middle Kingdom, follow the custom of your ancestors, stay in Kaifeng (出自天竺,奉命而来,有李俺艾高穆赵金周张石黄李聂金张左白七十姓等,进贡西洋布於宋,帝曰,归我中夏,遵守祖风,留遗汴梁).

According to Professor Chen Chang-qi, Niweini arrived Kaifeng in the year 998 CE

Chen Chang-qi, a Chinese History professor at the Zhenzhou University (郑州大学), pointed out that, according to Annals of Zhen-zhong (真宗紀) — part of the History of Song (宋史): “On the 20th February 998, the Monk Niweini came to the Imperial Court from a region west of China; he said the journey took seven years (咸平元年春正月……辛巳,僧你尾尼等自西天来朝,称七年始达).”

Professor Chen equated the group headed by Monk Niweini and who visited the Song Court with the group that included the Li Clan and paid tribute to the Song Court, as per the stone inscription of 1489.

Thus, Professor Chen concluded that Monk Niweini was the leader of the Jewish congregation that came into Kaifeng on 20th January 998. This happened in the first year of Emperor Zhen-zong’s (宋真宗) reign, 38 years into the founding of the Northern Song Dynasty.

Jewish and Niweini delegations have the same place of origin

According to The Jews of China Volume 2: A sourcebook and Research Guide, by Jonathan Goldstein, there are five significant similarities between the early Jews who first entered Kaifeng and the group led by Monk Niweini.

The 1489 Stone Inscription stated that the group came from Tianzhu (天竺). The Annals of Zhen-zong (真宗紀) noted that the Monk Niweini entourage came from Xitian (西天). In ancient China, Tianzhu and Xitian referred to the same place, a region west of China.

Jewish and Niweini delegations share the same purpose of the trip

The North Song Dynasty has generally sought peace and unity with the outside world. Foreigners were allowed to retain their religious faith and preserve their customs and traditions. Many came to China to pay tribute to the emperor and traded actively with the locals.

The 1489 Stone Inscription noted that the Jewish congregation “brought tribute.”

The Annals of Zhen-zong noted that the Niweini delegation came “to the Court.” Both entourages visited the Imperial Court and paid tribute accordingly.

Jewish and Niweini delegations both paid tribute to a Song emperor

The 1489 Stone Inscription recorded that: the group paid the tribute of western cloth to the Song Court and the emperor said: Be part of my Middle Kingdom, follow the custom of your ancestors, stay in Kaifeng (进贡西洋布於宋帝曰归我中夏,遵守祖风,留遗汴梁). In this case, the recipient of the tribute was the Song emperor.

The Annals of Zhen-zong stated, “Monk Niweini and his entourage went to the Imperial Court from a region west of China (僧你尾尼等自西天来朝).” This meant the recipient of tribute was also the Song emperor. Thus, the recipients of the tribute are the same, the emperor of the Song Dynasty.

Jewish and Niweini delegations share the same status as private individuals

Since both the inscription of 1489 and the Annals of Zhen-zong did not mention any official country-affiliation of the visitors, they are assumed to be private individuals.

It is possible official Chinese sources did not record these visits as thoroughly because they were private individuals rather than officials sent by foreign governments.

Jewish leader and Niweini are likely the same name

In the 1489 Stone Inscription, seventeen clan surnames were listed; the first was Li (李). In ancient China, the order of the listing typically carries significance — the earlier the position on the list, the more significant the role. Thus, this surname Li is believed to have derived from an earlier version of Liwei or Liewei, derived from the western surnames Levy or Levi.

According to the Old Testament, only those from the Levy family could offer sacrifices, which means the Levy family was effectively the administrators of the Israelite religion. This could explain why they were listed first on the inscription.

In The Jews of China, Jonathan Goldstein gave two examples about the significance of the Li’s in Kaifeng. Firstly, during the construction of the synagogue in 1163, Ustad Liewei was in charge of the community’s religion (列微五思达领掌其教). He was part of the Li Clan.

During the rebuilding of the synagogue, after it was wiped out by the Yellow River flood of 1642, Rabbi Li Zhen led the congregation; he was also clearly a member of the Li family.

The Niweini from the Annals of Zhen-zong could probably be split into Niwei Ni, with Ni being possibly a rhetorical interrogative particle. It is then possible that both Niwei and Liewei shared the Jewish surname Levy, although each had a different transcription. In transcribing foreign names, the use of different characters on separate occasions was extremely common.

Thus, it could be argued that Niweini, leader of the entourage, was part of the Li Clan, just like the head of the Jewish delegation, who was also a Li. One dates back to 998, the other to 1008; they could have been the same people, and the decade in-between them a margin of error.

A monk (僧) and a rabbi

Indeed, according to the Annals of Zhen-zong, the word Monk was attached to Niweini.

Even though the word monk () was primarily used to refer to male Buddhist monks, it is a term that can refer to followers of other religions as well. During the Song Dynasty, the Jewish faith was relatively unknown to the Chinese populace; hence, the term monk () to refer to a man of any religion is more than reasonable.

Furthermore, merchants belonged to the lowest social class in Confucian China. Along the Silk Road, they were closely monitored — each individual was issued travel passes that recorded the parties they travelled with, the animals and goods they carried and the exact order in which their travel route could take. Thus, if they could travel with fewer items, many merchants would travel under professions such as monks and adventurers in exchange for more freedom of movement.

Jewish and Niweini delegations are possibly the same group of people

Based on all five reasons above, it is reasonable to assume that Niweini, who appeared in the Annals of Zhen-zong in the year 998 CE was the same person as the Li who headed the Jewish congregation and paid tribute to the Song emperor, as described by the stone inscription of 1489.

Professor Zhang Qian-hong supports this theory

Professor Zhang Qian-hong, born in 1964, is a native of Henan Province. She is a renowned Chinese scholar of Judaism and authored papers such The Causes for assimilation of Kaifeng Jews in History (历史上开封犹太人被同化的原因) and Some Observations on the Descendants of the Jews in Kaifeng (关于开封犹太后裔的几个问题). On the issue of the Jewish identity of the modern-day descendants, Professor Zhang, in her article, The Descendants of the Kaifeng Jews in the 20th Century, wrote, “Today, most of the descendants in Kaifeng knew nothing about Jewish life, religion and culture. They think they are complete Chinese and, of course, profess a strong sense of patriotism to China — their motherland. But, on the other hand, compared with the Han Chinese, they still have a special feeling for their Jewish roots. They do know that they are Jewish descendants and always ask their children to remember this fact.” Professor Zhang is also the Vice Principal of Zhengzhou University (郑州大学).

Professor Zhang supports the theory that the early Jews entered China on 20th February 998, based on the fact that the History of Song (宋史) recorded a 僧 (a word typically used to refer to a Buddhist monk, but, especially in ancient times, also used to refer to the worshipper of any religion) by the name of Niweini (你尾尼) travelling seven years from India to China to pay homage to Emperor Song Zhen-zong (宋真宗, reign 997–1022); and that this Niweini was indeed the Jewish rabbi who led an entourage into the Middle Kingdom.

The delegation settled down in Kaifeng

Kaifeng was the capital city of the Northern Song Dynasty and perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Its status as the capital of the Middle Kingdom and proximity to trade routes meant that it was a bustling hub of commerce and trade — merchants and intellectuals from the seven seas would frequent Kaifeng. As a result, the economy was booming; the population was around one million.

In an era of industrialization, Kaifeng benefited from proximity to coal and iron mines. The city was also known for manufacturing, especially in porcelain, textile, paper and printing. In addition to the traditional silk, rice and tea, these productions were heavily sought after by the West. The transport of goods was done both via the Silk Road and the Indian Ocean. In return, Kaifeng received an abundance of camels, horses, ivory, cotton, gems, and spices, which were then sent throughout the interior of China.

Life was generally affluent and luxurious. Restaurants, tea shops and beautiful clothing were abundant. Life was enjoyable. It is easy to understand why the Jewish entourage and many other foreigners wished to settle down in Kaifeng.

About the Author
I was born in Hong Kong, completed my secondary education in the United Kingdom and now pursing higher education in the United States. I am fascinated by Jewish history, particularly in China; this points towards Jewish communities in Shanghai, Harbin, Hong Kong, and above all Kaifeng. This is a fairly niche area of interest and I would like to share what I learn on my academic journeys with everyone. For more, please check out our website
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