The Jews first arrived in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) and settled as businessmen, civil servants and professionals. They assimilated into Chinese society and lost their Jewish character. The next wave came in the mid-19th century with the opening of the treaty ports and settled in Shanghai. They went into trading, especially opium, and diversified into property, manufacturing, finance, public transport and retail. Another Jewish community settled in Harbin after the opening of the China Eastern Railway in 1903. They also prospered in trading and business. Both communities built synagogues, schools, social clubs and welfare institutions. During World War Two, 25,000 Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe took refuge in Shanghai, one of the few cities in the world open to them. Many received visas from Asian diplomats who defied their governments to issue them. The Japanese military refused the Nazi demand to carry out ‘the final solution’ of the Jews in Shanghai. After 1945, inflation, civil war and Communist rule made most Jews leave China for new homes in Israel, North America, Australia and elsewhere. The new state of Israel worked hard to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic; it became an important supplier of weapons in the 1980s. But it took 42 years for the two countries to sign the ties, in 1992. Since then, relations have blossomed and China has become one of Israel’s biggest foreign investors. In the reform and open-door era, Jewish people have returned to China and form important communities in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other cities. Part of this narrative are remarkable individuals who have left a deep imprint on China – Karl Marx, Sir Victor Sassoon, Silas Hardoon, the Kadoorie family, Henry Kissinger and Sigmund Freud.
To tell this extraordinary story, Mark O’Neill conducted many interviews with rabbis, businessmen, entrepreneurs, professors and journalists in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Israel. It is, largely, a joyful page in Jewish history.
“I believe in God and the hand of providence. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we can see God's guiding hand, and the story of the Jews in China is one of those lucky times. We see God's guiding hand, we have seen providence”
– Rabbi Asher Oser of Ohel Leah synagogue, Hong Kong