Symposium of the International Musicological Society
Kaifeng Jewish Community:
Exotic Elements in Liturgical Music – A Process of Cultural Involution
by Professor Tang Yating, Shanghai Conservatory of Music
1. Brief Description of the Historical Context of Kaifeng Jews
2. Outlines of Jewish Liturgical Music in Kaifeng
3. Exotic Elements in the Liturgical Music
4. Conclusion

The paper attempts to tackle the Kaifeng Jewish community, focusing on the exotic elements out of different cultures in its liturgical music, mainly those from Persia, Yemen, Han Chinese, and Chinese Muslims, concerning things around rituals such as prayer books, language, terms, musical instruments, synagogue, dress, chanting styles and ritual itself.

This study might help to delve into the origin and migration process of this community.

By including all the above, the paper tries to further prove Clifford Geertz's (1963) and Elman Service's (1971) anthropologist concept of “cultural involution” – a process of making something strange involved and thus the original complicated.

This is the means for a tradition in migration - such as Jewish culture - to exist in the milieu of strange cultures.


1. Brief Description of the Historical Context of Kaifeng Jews

Information concerning the Kaifeng Jewish community comes from some local inscriptions and the eye-witness reports of Western Christian missionaries.

They were mainly three stone steles from 1489, 1512 and 1663, and quite a few reports from such Jesuits as Fathers Matteo Ricci(1552-1610), Jean-Paul Gozani (1659-1732) and Jean Domenge (1666-1735).

In the North Song Dynasty (960-1127), a cohesive Jewish group of some 1,000 people settled around the 10th century at the invitation of the Emperor in Kaifeng, then capital of the country (in present Henan Province, central China), an active big commercial town with a million people at the time.

According to an immigrant register book, the year for the Jews' arrival was 998.

Probably they were experts in the production of cotton fabric including dyeing and pattern printing, which was well developed in India, and China wanted to introduce to meet the acute silk shortage.

With their business smoothly progressing, their religious life became normal, and 1163 saw the rise of the first synagogue, around which they lived.

It was completely rebuilt after a flood from the Yellow River in 1642 and their 13 sacred scrolls of torah (Pentateuch) was also restored.

Actually before the flood, the naturalization and assimilation of Kaifeng Jews into Chinese society had started. Owing to the impact of Confucianism, some Jews gave up their study of Judaism and joined in the Chinese scholarship and competition for officialdom.

And after the flood, the community fell into rapid decay. Mainly as a result of its complete isolation from other centers of Jewish life, they had to break the limitation of inner marriage, intermarried with Han Chinese and especially Muslims around them and absorbed into the more influential Islamic surroundings, considering Henan was a major province for Muslim inhabitants.

By the middle of the 19th century, the Jews in Kaifeng could read no Hebrew, and had no rabbi, nor religious life. They lived so poor a life that some of them even sold their sacred scrolls to the Westerners. In 1854, the synagogue became a ruin. In 1900 only 140 souls of the community left. Now their descendents in Kaifeng are one thousand or so, over half of the total in China.


2.Outlines of Jewish Liturgical Music in Kaifeng

Although very little is known about any music of Kaifeng Jews, brief and tantalizing observations have been made through the ages, often with vague and ambiguous terminology such as “chanting”, “reciting”, and “reading”.

In its heyday, except Hanukkah - the Feast of Light, most solemn occasions such as Day of Atonement, Tabernacles, Rejoicing of the Law, Passover, Festival of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost were strictly observed.

But there were something different, e.g. the Song of Moses for the Rejoicing of the Law was read the day before, not on the festival day, though most of the rest were the same, e.g. processional rituals with chanting prayers.

Services for the Feast of Av (fifth month of the Jewish religious year in July and August) and for Purim are also included in their liturgies.

Their celebration of the New Moon as a festival is the proof of a Talmudic tradition.

Besides, four Sabbath days a month were kept (from Friday evening to Saturday evening), praying. reading aloud and in silence.

The three periods of prayer were also kept throughout the day; i.e. in the morning (at 3 to 5 o'clock ), at noon (at 11-13), and in the evening (at 19-21).

This corresponds with Psalm (55:17), not with the Mishnah (Ber. Iv.1) (the first part of Talmud), though part of the Mishnah were quoted in their prayer books.

Besides keeping regular Hebrew festivals and fasts, they practiced circumcision and adhered to kosher practice.

The ritual followed Talmudic (Rabbinic) prescriptions: Before entering the synagogue they washed their bodies, both men and women.

The faithful, towards Jerusalem (westwards), after bowing, prayed first silently, then aloud with hands raised, and chanted in Hebrew without instrumental accompaniment.

The worshippers were made to step and bend forwards and backwards and to bow to the left and right as they intoned certain portions of the liturgy, and in the end made kowtow to the Lord.

A monitor, standing by the hazzan (cantor), who had a veil of gauze over his face like Moses and wore a red silk scarf, dependent from the right shoulder to the left arm, would correct the manner of reading or chanting, or would act as an assistant with practical matters regarding sacred scrolls, and where necessary, the monitor was likewise attended by another monitor.

It is interesting to point out that, according to Infeld, there were remarkable parallels between the practice of Kaifeng Jews and that observed by the Jews in Central Europe (e.g. Cracow ):

The prayers were guided by the cantor.
He sang the first words of each chapter and the whole synagogue was his chorus.
It was his business to choose melodies, to give the tempo and the proper swing.
Great variations were possible in the ritual….
After the quietest part of the performance was finished the cantor began to sing, and the whole congregation joined him….
(Leopold Infeld: Quest, New York, 1941)


3.Exotic Elements in the Liturgical Music

Elements from Persia

This Jewish colony may have followed a different ritual in olden times, but the ritual during the last 300 years clearly came by way of Persia .

The prayer books show the liturgy belong to the geonic (Ga'onic) time (7th-11th century when Babylonian Judaism was leading the Jewish world).

The overall character of the ritual was Persian, with part of the piyyutim (liturgical hymns) of Rabbi Sa'adyah Gaon (882-942), nearly all rubrics (directions for prayers) as well as the colophons at the end of the Pentateuch sections in modern Persian.

The schedule for reading the Torah and the 53, rather than the normal 54, divisions of the Pentateuch followed the Persian scheme.

Apart from the Pentateuch, Kaifeng Jews had most of the 24 books of the Old Testament, but the only complete one is the Book of Esther, a book about Persian Jews finished in 4th-3rd century BC.

In the Hebrew language there are 22 letters, but Hebrew letters used by Persian Jews to spell Persian words are 27, which is found in Kaufeng scriptures.

The hazzan in Kaifeng was called ustad, a Persian word.

Besides, according to some Western missionaries who visited Kaifeng either in the 12th century or in the 17th and 18th centuries, the vernacular of the Jews there spoke New Persian, a language which formed after the 9th century.

Another evidence to support the Persian origin is that a few prayers and songs are in Aramaic, e.g. Elijah (song for the close of Sabbath), as well as the announcement of the New Moon. Aramaic, the language used in Daniel of the Old Testament, was a language of the northwest branch of Semite group.

It was the common language of the Near East in the 7th- 6th century BC, even replaced Hebrew, and later became Persian official language.

Only until 650 AD was it replaced by Arabic.

All the above can support the hypothesis that Kaifeng Jews might have come from Persia via Bukhara or Samakand, two important towns of Persian Jews in Central Asia.

Elements Similar to Yemenite

The Kaifeng liturgy was more akin to the Ashkenazic than the Sephardic rite, which was also the case with the Yemenite rite.

One point is clear that some rituals used by Kaifeng Jews were identical with those laid down by Maimonides (12th century) in the Mishnah Torah, which was also followed by Yemenite Jews.

One example is Pesah Hagadah, the reading of Exodus at Passover.

This similarity might have come from some exchange between Kaifeng and Yemen, or at least an exchange from a third party, in the earlier years.


Elements from Han Chinese

“By the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jews had blended into their environment so completely that they were indistinguishable from their Chinese neighbors.
Their religious practices also were not too dissimilar from those of their neighbors.”
(Eber, :29)

The reading of the Torah was in Hebrew, but naturally with a Chinese accent as well as Chinese melodic intonation, which might be shown from the numerous discrepancies in the accents of biblical recitation between the Kaifeng Torah books and those standard versions used in other parts of the Jewish world.

Such changes might be the result of the influence from the Chinese environment.

As Alexander Knapp(1998:112) pointed out that “they might reflect, in visual terms, a later attempt to simplify the highly complex modality of Persian cantillation, with all its microtonal inflections.”

Unlike the other parts of the Jewish world, musical instruments were used in Kaifeng synagogue, but only for the calling of the worshippers to pray.

It is a habitual way in Chinese rural areas to collect people together, often with a gong.

So we have found the following synagogal instruments, a gong of black marble, or a jade chime or were a pair of wooden clappers, all typical Chinese Buddhist temple instruments.

Besides, Kaifeng synagogue at the site of a Han Chinese drum tower, looked from outside like a typical palace-styled Buddhist or Taoist temple.

The only difference: its gate was eastwards, unlike Chinese temples with gates southward, and prayers faced westwards – the direction of Jerusalem.
(Gabriel, 1997)

As to the most powerful Chinese influence in rituals, the most indicative was the worship of ancestors, which was held in the synagogue, with oxen, sheep and fruits, twice a year in spring and in autumn.

Elements from Chinese Muslims

Apart from some similarities in customs with their neighbouring Islamic people, e.g. circumcision and pork prohibition there are also a few similarities in the rituals of Kaifeng Jews with Islam (e.g. monotheism, Sabbath).

“It is conceivable that Jews prayed from the floor, as is the practice in Jewish worship in the Muslim world”
(Steinhardt, :20), and also in Han Chinese Buddhist and Taoist rites.

Besides, there were some loans in names, such as manla, an Arabic term similar to another Arabic term mawla, or to Persian mullah, i.e. a religious teacher in the mosque, and also in found the Kaifeng synagogue.

The hazzan in Kaufeng, also as rabbi, was called zhang-jiao, i.e. a man taking charge of religious matters and service, which was also from Muslims.

The Kaifeng synagogue was called, for a time, the mosque by local people.

To call worshippers to pray, the leader of the synagogue would beat some instruments as mentioned above. The practice came from Chinese muezzines, who, in some cases, summon the faithful with the above-mentioned instruments, rather than call in human voice like most Muslims do in the Islamic world.

As most Chinese at the time were unable to tell Muslims from Jews, most of the Chinese at that time were unable to distinguish Jews from Arabs and Persians.

All of the three peoples were called “Se-mu”, i.e. people with colored eyes.

In addition, Kaifeng Jews wore blue head-dress to distinguish themselves from white head-dressed Muslims. As a result, they were called “blue head-dressed Muslims”.

“Sometimes Jews were considered Muslims because of obvious but superficial similarities. In any event, the acceptance of Muslim identity appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon, related to the weakening of kin and sectarian identity and the severing of links to their native place, Kaifeng .”

In the sea of Han Chinese culture, minorities were vying with each other, only to lose their own identities and merge into Han society.


4. A Brief Conclusion

My brief conclusion is that in the migration, a culture - here a Jewish culture in ancient China - had to assimilate new elements from neighboring cultures – in this case, Persian, Yemenite, Han Chinese, Islamic Chinese - in order to adapt its tradition to new surroundings.

This process of involution, aiming at tradition maintenance, i.e. to complicate and stabilize Jewish culture itself, involved acculturation of many cultures.

This is the fact also reflected in the experiences of other Jewish, or even any, diasporas in the world.

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