Although Jews are known to have lived in what is now China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region from as early as the 8th century ce, the most lastingly influential of all Jewish groups was that which came from India or Persia and settled in Kaifeng (once capital of Henan Province) between the 10th and 12th centuries. Completely isolated from other Jewish centres and absorbed into the surrounding Chinese Han and Islamic environment, this community went into decline during the 17th century and within about 200 years had effectively disappeared. From the mid-19th century, modern Jewish communities were established in concession cities (e.g. Shanghai, Harbin, Tianjin and Hong Kong) by British-Iraqi Jewish merchants from India, and immigrants from Russia, especially after the 1917 Revolution. However, the greatest influx of Jews into Shanghai resulted from Nazi persecution. All the modern communities, except those in Hong Kong, began to disintegrate after 1949.
Information concerning the Kaifeng Jewish community comes from local inscriptions and eye-witness reports of Christian missionaries. Although little is known about its music, brief and tantalizing observations have been made, often with vague and ambiguous terminology. The first Kaifeng synagogue was built in 1163. It was called a ‘mosque’ by the local people and looked from the outside like a typical Chinese Buddhist or Taoist temple. In its heyday, the Sabbath, Pesah and most other solemn occasions (except Hanukkah) were strictly observed, and the three periods of daily prayer were also kept. But there was also a powerful Chinese influence in rituals, the most indicative being the worship of the ancestors of the Jews, which took place in the synagogue twice a year.
In the 12th century Persian was the vernacular language of the Kaifeng community, and the overall character of the ritual was similar to that of the Persian Jews, with part of the piyyutim of Rabbi Sa‘adyah Gaon (882–942) and all rubrics (except for a few prayers and songs in Aramaic) recited in Persian, and with the schedule for reading the Torah and the 54 divisions of the Pentateuch following the Persian scheme. Some rituals, however, were very similar to those of the Yemenite Jews (e.g. Pesah Hagadah). The ritual followed talmudic prescriptions: the faithful prayed aloud or silently, and the Hebrew readings (pronounced with a Chinese accent as well as Chinese melodic intonation) were chanted without instrumental accompaniment. Wearing blue head-dresses and taking off their shoes, the worshippers stepped and bend forwards and backwards and bowed to the left and right as they intoned certain portions of the liturgy. A ‘monitor’ (a manla, from Arabic mullah), stood by the hazzan and corrected the reading or chanting. Where necessary, the manla was likewise attended by another monitor. The hazzan in Kaifeng was also a rabbi; originally he was known as an ustād (Persian), but later as a zhang-jiao (Chinese-Islamic). Processional rituals, especially the festival of Simhat Torah, are known to have been celebrated with the chanting of prayers. To call worshipper to pray, the leader of the synagogue would beat a jade chime (fig.17), a gong of black marble or a pair of wooden clappers – all typical Chinese Buddhist temple instruments. This practice, however, is paralleled among Chinese Muslim muezzins, who, in some cases, summon the faithful with the above instruments instead of the human voice.
Among the four Jewish communities in Shanghai, the British-Iraqis, especially during the 19th century, strictly adhered to the traditional Sephardi practice, taking instructions on religious customs directly from Baghdad. Their chant featured responsorial and perhaps even choral singing. The liturgy of the Russian Jews in Shanghai originally followed Sephardi practice, but it was later completely taken over by more Orthodox elements from the Polish refugees in the early 1940s. The majority of the Austro-German refugees, from the Reformist Liberal synagogue, created a congregation of their own, and employed the harmonium, a mixed male choir and even female soloists in their services. After 1938 there were about 20 hazzanim active in both Sephardi and Ashkenazi services; they formed the Gemeinshaft jüdischer Kantoren Shanghai in 1939.
The Jewish community in Hong Kong, the only one now surviving in China, are mainly of Iraqi and European origin, most belonging to the Orthodox denomination. Ohel Leah, built in 1901, is the only synagogue holding regular services in East Asia.
Jewish music, §III: Liturgical and paraliturgical
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