Matteo Ricci & the ‘Discovery’ of Kaifeng Jews

Statue of Matteo Ricci at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Beijing. [Nicholas Zhang Archive]
Statue of Matteo Ricci at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Beijing. [Nicholas Zhang Archive]

In Matteo Ricci’s book, De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, he recorded that in 1605, while in Beijing, he was visited by a Kaifeng Jew named Ai Tian.

Ai Tian had already passed the civil service examination and was in Beijing to secure a position in the Imperial Court. He heard there was a group of foreigners in town who were monotheists but were not Muslims. Although Han-Chinese found it hard to distinguish between Jews and Muslims, for neither of them ate pork, Ai Tian knew better. Since he had never heard of Christianity before, he was certain this group of foreigners were followers of Judaic faith. Ai Tian arranged to meet them.

Ai Tian was excited as the Kaifeng Jews had not had any interaction with the outside world, much less those of their own faith, for over 200 years. Ricci was equally excited. He learned Christianity had entered China long ago, perhaps as early as the 7th century, but he had not managed to locate any of their descendants. Ricci was sure he was about to finally meet a Christian in China. He invited Ai Tian to the Jesuit mission house.

In the mission house, there was a picture of Mary, with baby Jesus on one side and John the Baptist on the other. Ricci placed the image there in order to served two purposes. One was for his own worship, the other as a conversation starter with his guests – when the visitors saw the portrait, they would ask who were the people in the drawing, Ricci would then be able to very naturally share the Bible stories and evangelise.

When Ai Tian saw the picture, he thought they represented Rebecca with her two sons, Jacob and Esau. When Ricci bowed and worshipped them, Ai Tian stated that he did not worship images although he did follow as a gesture of politeness and as an act of showing respect for his ancestors.

In the room, there was also a picture of the four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Ai Tian inquired if there should be 12 people in this image instead. Ricci answered yes, thinking Ai Tian must have meant the 12 apostles. When Ai Tian pressed further, saying since there were only four men here, what happened to the other eights sons of Jacob, Ricci couldn’t help but finally admit to the fact that his visitor was speaking completely in the context of the Old Testament, and that he was not a Chinese Christians, but a Chinese Jew. Ai Tian told Ricci there was an entire community of Jews in Kaifeng, and that they even had their own synagogue(礼拜寺), rabbi, and Torah scrolls.

When Ai Tian went back to Kaifeng, Ricci sent Jesuits with him. The Jesuits noted the Jews in Kaifeng observed Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They celebrated all Jewish holidays, circumcised their boys and did not eat pork. They said the same prayers and had all the important Hebrew manuscripts, including Torah scrolls. Although the Jesuits did not look in detail the entire collection of Torah scrolls, they did copy some of the beginnings and endings which were found to be identical to the Hebrew Bible in the west.

Three years following Ricci’s meeting with Ai Tian, Ricci wrote to the chief rabbi in Kaifeng, telling him the Messiah they had been waiting for had arrived – Jesus. The chief rabbi replied, saying the Messiah would not come for a long time.

Ricci passed all this information back to Rome, describing these Jews as having been in China “from time immemorial.”

Subsequent to the west discovering the community of Jews in Kaifeng, many missionaries visited and tried to convert them. So far, no record of baptism has been found.

About the Author
I was born in Hong Kong and currently studying in a school in Oxford, UK. I am fascinated in 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 would like to share what I learn on my academic journeys with everyone.
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