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Persian Shiites and Arab Sunni Muslims would sometimes be at war with each other, or with Hindu Indians or with Christian Europeans, yet the Jewish community stayed united and continued trading between countries.
As there were a disproportionately high number of Jews in the trading profession, it should not be surprising that some of these Jews became involved in trade with China.
Most evidence supports the theory that a significant number of Jews, hundreds or perhaps thousands, migrated from Persia to Kaifeng some time during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).
Some historians believe the Jews of Kaifeng originated in Bukhara, a city in Uzbekistan that was once part of Persia.
The Jews, who kept giving their children Hebrew names for their first eight or nine generations in China, kept their religion yet immersed themselves in Chinese culture and society.
Perhaps no two cultural groups revere scholarship more than the Jews and the Chinese, and this common bond perhaps made the Jews feel at home.
The Jewish migrants entered Kaifeng during its most glorious years, as between 960 to 1127, Kaifeng was the capital of Song Dynasty’s China, and is believed to have had a larger population than any other city in the world at the time.
A pillar outside the Kaifeng synagogue infers that a significant number a Jews fled with the imperial family to Hangzhou, the new Song capital.It is also possible that these Jews had been drawn to Kaifeng by tales of the city’s beauty and comfort, yet one can only speculate why such a large group of Jews would leave Persia, a nation where they had lived since the Babylonian Exile in 586 BCE, to venture to the distant and unknown city of Kaifeng, China.While a cloud of mystery remains around the Jews’ long trek and early years in China, the history of the city they traveled to, Kaifeng, is well known.While some Jews continued to be merchants, a profitable yet less respected profession, the most talented became scholars of either Jewish culture or Chinese culture.The scholars of Judaism because Jewish leaders, while a great number of Jews studied to take China’s prestigious civil service exams, which Jews passed disproportionately.
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Up until the past century, there was a significant Jewish population in Persia, and since the Persian Jews traded with the West, there is no reason to think they did not trade with the East as well.