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Marco Polo, Kublai Khan and Jews of Ancient China

Fabien Baussart 8-10 minutes

Marco Polo was in China from 1274 to 1291

Between 1274–1291, Marco Polo (1254–1324) lived in China and served an active role in the Yuan Imperial Court.

Shared experience in China with a fellow prison inmate

In 1295, Marco Polo returned to Venice; between 1298–1299, he was imprisoned with Rustichello da Pisa (鲁斯蒂谦) in Genoa (热那亚). Pisa recorded the stories that Marco Polo told him about his experiences in the Court of Kublai Khan and published it as The Travels of Marco Polo (马可波罗游记).

Saracens and Jews were reprimanded

Kublai Khan defeated Tartar Prince Nayan (乃颜) in battle.

The Saracens and Jews ridiculed Nayan, a Christian, claiming that the Holy Crosses he drew on his flags did not help him. “When the Jews and Saracens perceived that the banner of the cross was overthrown, they taunted the Christian inhabitants with it, saying ‘Behold the state to which your banners and those who follow them are reduced.'”

The Christians brought this matter up with Kublai Khan, who immediately reprimanded the Saracens and Jews around him.

Kublai Khan observed Jewish festivals

Kublai Khan always observed and honoured the major Christian festivals, including Easter (复活节) and the Nativity (耶诞节) — the basis of Christmas — in Khanbaliq (汗八里, Beijing). Moreover, “Kublai Khan observed the same at the festivals of the Saracens (撒拉逊人), Jews (犹太人) and idolaters (偶像崇拜者).”

When asked about the reason for doing so, he responded as follows, “there are four great Prophets who are reverenced and worshipped by different classes of mankind; the Christians regard Jesus Christ (耶稣) as their divine (神); the Saracens (撒拉逊人), Mahomet (谟罕默特); the Jews (犹太人), Moses (摩西); and the idolaters (偶像崇拜者), Sagamoni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) who was the first god of the idols; and I do honour and reverence to all four.”

Jews still used Jewish surnames, did not look Chinese

When Marco Polo was in China, the Jews in Kaifeng had not yet fully assimilated. They continued to use their Jewish surnames and looked physically distinct from their Han Chinese neighbours.

Many Jews in Beijing

Marco Polo noted that there were many Jews in Beijing. They likely formed their own social circles and established their own distinct way of life. They worshipped their own God and celebrated their own festivals while commanding the respect of Kublai Khan and the ruling dignitaries.

Jews ordered to follow Tartar marriage practice

The group was significant enough for Kublai Khan to issue an edict, ordering the Saracens and Jews to enter marriage in adherence to the laws of the Tartars.

Jews ordered to follow Tartar way of slaughtering animals

Moreover, the group was prohibited to slaughter animals by cutting their throats; instead, they were supposed to cut them in the belly, as was common practice amongst the Tartars.

Met Jews in the Imperial Court of Kublai Khan

In 1286, Marco Polo confirmed that he met Jews in the Imperial Court of Kublai Khan, in Khanbaliq.

For more, check out our website https://www.chinesejews.com/.

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 https://www.chinesejews.com/.

Other Jewish communities in Ancient China

Before the end of the Ming dynasty (1644), other than Kaifeng, there were several other Jewish communities in China. It is still unknown how all these communities eventually perished.

HANGZHOU (杭州)

Hangzhou became an important city in Chinese history when the Sui Dynasty (隋朝, 581–618) made it the southern terminus of the Jing-Hang Grand Canal (京杭大运河). The Grand Canal connected Hangzhou (杭州) to Beijing (北京), passing through the provinces of Zhejiang (浙江), Jiangsu (江苏), Shandong (山东) and Hebei (河北). It also linked the Yangzi River (长江) to the Yellow River (黄河), completely flourished inland trade and prospered China. It is still the longest and oldest man-made river in the world.

When the Northern Song Dynasty (北宋,960-1127) was defeated by the Jin Dynasty (大金,1115-1234), a large portion of the Kaifeng population moved with the Imperial Court to Hangzhou, the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋, 1127-1279). Many Jews followed this move.

An Arab explorer and scholar named Ibn Battuta visited Hangzhou in 1346. He recorded that he entered the city via the “Jews Gate”, alarming to him the existence of Jews in the vicinity.

During their meeting in 1605, Ai Tien told Matteo Ricci that there once was a large community of Jews in Hangzhou and that they even had their own synagogue.

NINGBO (宁波)

When the Ming Dynasty (明朝, 1368-1644) closed off Silk Road by land, Ningbo became an important trading port for the Maritime Silk Road.

The 1489 stone tablet mentioned that the Jewish communities of Ningbo and Kaifeng had a very good relationship with each other and that when the Kaifeng Jews lost their holy texts to the flood, the Ningbo Jews presented their brethren in Kaifeng with two Torah scrolls in 1461. The tablet detailed, “When the synagogue was rebuilt, Shi Bin, Li Rong, and Gao Jian, and Zhang Xuan went to Ningbo and brought back a scroll of the Scriptures. Zhao Ying of Ningbo brought another scroll to Kaifeng and respectfully presented it to our synagogue”.

It is believed the Ningbo Jewish community was fairly sizeable for a smaller one would not be able to spare two Torah scrolls. The availability of these scrolls could also mean the Ningbo Jewish community was vibrant and observant.

YANGZHOU (扬州)

Yangzhou, also located at the southern terminus of the Grand Canal, was the headquarter of the salt administration during the Tang dynasty (618-907). The salt traders became immensely wealthy and Yangzhou flourished as a trading centre.

The 1512 stone tablet mentioned the Jews in Yangzhou donated a Torah Scroll and funded the building of a second gateway to the Kaifeng synagogue. It is also believed that the 1512 inscription was written by a resident of Yangzhou.

NINGXIA (宁夏)

Ningxia was where mountains and deserts met the Yellow River, a key caravan stop along the ancient silk road that connected China to Central Asia. This was where China conducted active culture and goods exchanges with the Arab world.

Both the 1489 and 1512 stone tablets mentioned a Jewish community in Ningxia. The 1489 tablet noted that the Jin clan was of high social standing in Ningxia. One member of the clan, Jin Xuan donated an altar, numerous vases and candles to the Kaifeng synagogue in its rebuilt after a flood. His younger brother, Jin Ying, funded the production of the stone tablet. The 1512 tablet stated that a Jin Ren from Ningxia sponsored part of the fund needed for the expansion of the Synagogue.

From this, it is possible to deduce that the Ningxia Jewish community and the Kaifeng Jewish community were close to each other, over an extended period of time.

BEIJING (北京)

The Yuan Dynasty (元朝, 1271-1368), being the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China, made Beijing its capital and Beijing became, for the first time, the capital of entire China.

Marco Polo, the famous Italian traveller, lived in China from 1275 to 1292. He worked as a special advisor and envoy for Yuan’s founding emperor, Kublai Khan. Marco Polo wrote about China’s astonishing size and prosperity and that Chinese people had “all things in great abundance.” He recorded there were Jews in Bejing in 1286 and that Emperor Kublai Khan showed much respect for their religion.

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 https://www.chinesejews.com/.