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Forgotten history of the Kaifeng Jewish community

Diploma Programme (DP) student Nicholas Zhang wrote a book and created a website about the Jews living in China, in hopes to keep the community’s legacy alive and promote tolerance.

Diploma Programme (DP) student Nicholas Zhang in Kaifeng, China.

The existence of a Jewish community in Kaifeng, China is not well known to the world, but Nicholas Zhang, a Diploma Programme (DP) student at St Clare’s Oxford, UK is making it his mission to raise awareness of their history.

‘‘Exactly where Chinese Jews came from and when they arrived in China is still debated, but they did settle down in Kaifeng almost a thousand years ago’’, says Nicholas. The first known synagogue was built in 1163. Through generations of intermarriage, the Kaifeng Jews have assimilated with the indigenous Han population but there remains a community of around 1,000 people.

Nicholas, who describes himself as a, “cultural and history junkie”, grew up in Hong Kong and says the story of the Kaifeng Jews simply intrigued him. Two years ago, he decided to travel there all by himself to meet members of the community including a woman who runs a Jewish museum in her home.

Nicholas Zhang’s book Jews in China: A History of Struggle / Credits: Amazon

When he returned, he decided to set up a website and write a book titled Jews in China: A History of Struggle. “As I met with the Kaifeng Jews and saw their treasured possessions written both in Chinese and Hebrew characters, I was bestowed with an idea, a tangible one: to combat intolerance by sharing the beautiful coexistence of two ancient cultures, that of Judaism and Chinese, in one location and for one people,” he writes on the website.

Over the past year, the site has had about 2,700 visitors from 78 different countries. His book is on sale on Amazon in the UK and U.S., and he has presented at his school and given talks at the Council of Christians and Jews (as their youngest speaker ever) and Oxford University.

“The book shows his highly developed intellectual curiosity and his deep passion and unflagging efforts to promote the Kaifeng Jews and give them a voice. The St Clare’s community is immensely proud of him and his work,” says Elena Hesse, Vice Principal, Pastoral at St Clare’s.”

Nicholas, who also wrote his DP extended essay on the topic, has recruited fellow students to be ambassadors to champion the cause. “My school has people from 40 different countries, and I’ve been able to condense my book into a five-page PDF so that it can be translated by my peers into Russian, Italian, German, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Hebrew,” he says.

The project has given him the opportunity to display various IB learner profile attributes. “I am a huge believer in the IB and see the embodiment of all these attributes as essential in being a responsible citizen of the world. I think the most notable attribute is being a, ‘risk-taker’, because when I set off on my journey to Kaifeng, I had zero experience and absolutely no idea where this was going to take me.”

Nicholas credits his history teacher, Andrew Young, for inspiring his love of the subject. “History is a compilation of the best and most significant moments of the past. Being in history class is like watching the NBA [National Basketball Association] playoffs highlights— except for 5,000 years”

This article is part of a series of stories from IB World magazine that bring to life the wonderful initiatives undertaken by IB students and educators from around the globe. Follow these stories on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn, and email us for chance to featured!

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