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Chinese of Arab and Persian descent

Major Waves of Immigration

Tang dynasty

Non-Muslims from Persia fleeing the Islamic conquest arrive in China. Olopen, a Persian, who came to China in 635, is recorded as the first Nestorian Christian in China. descendants of Chinese Jews also date some of the first arrivals during Tang.

Song dynasty

Many Arab and Persian merchants come to China via the Silk Road over land and the Spice Route over sea.

Yuan dynasty

The Mongol rulers bring back Arabs and Persians from West Asian lands they conquered to serve as mid-level administrators between the local Chinese and the Mongol court.

West Asian immigrant contribution to China


The Sui emperor invited scientific researchers from a kingdom in Western Asia. Some of these foreigners stayed on in China. There was a 2-way exchange - Chinese researchers were sent to West Asian courts in return.

Tang and 5 Dynasties

Major Chinese sea ports (Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Quanzhou) hosted large populations of West Asians in "Foreign Districts".

Indian Jewish merchants brought cotton cloth into China. At that time, Indian homespun was valued in China. Not until the end of the 13th century did Chinese start raising and weaving cotton in China.1


Muslims from Arab countries and Persia traded in Changan, Quanzhou, Hangzhou, Kaifeng, YangZhou, Guangzhou.


The Persian Jamal ad-Din brought designs for the latest astronomical instruments from Persia and constructed an observatory in Beijing.


The founding emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, employed Muslim commanders in his army: Chang Yuqun, Lan Yu, Ding Dexing, Mu Ying and more.2

More recent West Asian immigrants also served in the armed forces. General Zhang Xing was the grandson of Tamudj, a cavalry captain who, because of his skill in archery, had been given the surname Zhang by imperial decree and raised to the post of Commander of the Yangzhou Guards.3

The Bureau of Astronomy (Qintianjian) had a special section for the study of Muslim calendrical science.4

Chinese Muslim merchants acted as middlemen in the commerce between China and Central/West Asia.

Intermarriage and assimilation


Despite government regulations discouraging intermarriages between Chinese and foreign immigrants, many West Asians settled in China, marrying local women. "Whenever a race migrates. the men always outnumber the women", says Wu, a Chinese scholar. "They are of course eager to marry local women when they arrive in an alien land." 5


The southern Song (1127-1279) government even made provisions for foreign merchants to take official posts. After his family has been living in China for 3 generations, a 'foreigner' could wed an imperial princess if at least one member of his household had an official title. 6

Yuan dynasty (Mongol rule in China)

The Mongols brought in large numbers of new West and Central Asian immigrants to help rule China. This was a deliberate racial policy which concentrated the anger of the Chinese people on the West Asian governors and tax-collectors instead of their Mongolian overlords.

Ming dynasty

During the fall of the Yuan, Chinese backlash against Asians from west of China raged for years. Many Arab and Persian tombstones were torn down to build Chinese city walls. The Ming administration, unable to contain the anti-West Asian violence, instituted an extreme policy of requiring all West Asian and Mongol men in China to marry native women, unless no willing Chinese could be found. 7

Qing dynasty (Manchurian rule in China)

Bloody clashes broke out between Chinese Muslim rebels and government forces in Northwest China. The Qing state gradually created a body of discriminatory legislation against Chinese Muslims. Huihui were punished more harshly. Historian Lipman notes: "These punishments are one to several grades heavier than those meted out to non-Muslims for the same offences" 8

Chinese Muslims continued to achieve high ranks in the Qing military, and were at times called upon to put down Muslim rebellions.

Republic of China period

Chinese Ikhwan (Muslim religious school) leader Hu Songshan promoted a new Chinese-Muslim identity based on Chinese pride. Lipman writes in Familiar Strangers: "After the Japanese invaded China proper in 1937, Hu SongShan .. invoked Koranic authority to urge sacrifice in the anti-Japanese struggle. To spread his message more widely, he penned a prayer in Arabic and Chinese, had it printed bilingually and posted it in all mosques, schools, and Muslim gathering places in the area..." 9

All Jewish communities except the one in Kaifeng, had been lost to assimilation. Most Jews had been intermarrying with non-Jews for many generations. Many Jews converted to Islam or Christianity to keep the worship of one God. Even the Kaifeng community no longer practice Judaism.

Mixed Race Chinese Muslims

Intermarriage almost always involved a Muslim male taking a Chinese wife who converted to Islam. 10 Adoption of Chinese children into Muslim homes also accelerated acculturation of West Asians.

Notable Chinese Muslim Individuals

The incorruptible and upright judge Hai Rui, (Ming dynasty) universally extolled in Chinese history, came from an ex-Muslim family.

The admiral-eunuch, Zheng He, of the Ming dynasty. He was the Chinese envoy and commander in chief of 6 great naval expeditions to nations in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, as far as the Red Sea. (1405-1421)

Zheng He was born Ma He to a Muslim father in Yunnan, China. (Foreign immigrants in China often take the first syllable of their native name to be the Chinese family name, hence the children of Mahmoud, or Mohammed may be surnamed "Ma" or "Mo" respectively) The surname "Zheng" was later bestowed by the emperor Yongle. 11 Ma is a common surname among Chinese of West Asian descent, though not all Ma's are of foreign extraction.

Hybrid traditions

xiaojing: Chinese phonetic system using the Arabic alphabet (Most mosque teachers in Northwest China were illiterate in Chinese, but they could represent sounds with Arabic) 12

Huihuihua: local Chinese dialect with Arabic and Persian words

The Han Kitab: Islamic texts written in Chinese

Further reading:

Mixed Race Chinese Jews

It cannot be over-emphasized that these are Jews of COLOR who came to China from Arabia, Persia and India. Too many people, even some of color, conjure up images of white Europeans at the word "Jew" and deny the existence of brown and black Jews.

The longest lasting Jewish population center was in Kaifeng. (one-time capital and Silk Road destination) Jewish settlements also existed in other Chinese commercial centers.

Notable Chinese Jews

Li Guangtian was the leader of the defense of Kaifeng in 1642 when the city was besieged by rebel forces. Li and the defenders held out for many months until half the city's inhabitants starved to death. Li then decided to break the dikes of the Yellow River to force the enemy to retreat, knowing full well that himself and the people in the city would very likely be drowned together with the enemy. Li drowned in the deluge.

An San, a soldier, demonstrated his loyalty to Ming emperor Cheng Zu by reporting plans for an armed coup by the emperor's brother, his commander. The emperor rewarded him with a promotion to a Lt Colonel, and the permission to change his last name from An (foreign origin) to Zhao (ethnic Chinese).

Hybrid traditions

Parallels between Jewish and Chinese creation and flood stories: The Chinese Jews equated Adam with Pangu, a Chinese mythological figure who created the universe. They also transliterated "Noah" as "Nuwa", the name of a Chinese goddess who stopped the Great Flood by patching the sky with multi-colored stones, thus making the first rainbow.

Passover: Sidney Shapiro's compilation Jews in Old China contains an account of a Chinese Jewish family.

"Shi Zhongyu's father Shi Taichang at the time of the Chinese Spring Festival would dip a brush in red cinnabar and draw a line on the couplet scrolls flanking the doorway in typical Chinese style. This is clearly a remnant of the Passover custom of smearing the doorposts with the blood of a lamb -- to indicate that this was a Hebrew household to be "passed over" by the Lord when the angel came to slay the first-born of every Egyptian household." 13

Further reading:

  1. Pan Guandan, "Jews in ancient China -- a historical survey", Jews in Old China, ed. Sidney Shapiro, p81
  2. Jonathan Lipman, Familiar Strangers, a history of Muslims in Northwest China, p39
  3. Zhu Jiang, "Jewish Traces in Yangzhou" (1983), Jews in Old China, ed. Sidney Shapiro, p152
  4. Lipman, p39
  5. Wu Zelin, "An Ethnic Historian Looks at Chinese Jews" (1983), Jews in Old China, ed. Sidney Shapiro, p165
  6. Lipman, p29
  7. Lipman, p38
  8. Lipman, p100
  9. Lipman, p210
  10. Lipman, p45
  11. Lipman, pp43-44
  12. Lipman, p46
  13. Wang Yisha, "The descendants of the Kaifeng Jews", Jews in Old China, ed. Sidney Shapiro, p179