Israel in Asia
January 1971

“Israel in Asia,” Ensign, Jan. 1971, 70

Israel in Asia

Recorded scripture, the teachings of the living prophets, and a fascinating array of historical evidence abundantly witness that descendants of Israel have been scattered into the far reaches of Asia—that the peoples of the Orient are legitimate heirs of the promises made unto Father Abraham. And while many writers have identified contemporary European and American races with particular tribes of ancient Israel, few have considered the dispersal of Israelites into Asia.

Regarding this dispersion, the Lord declared through the prophet Amos: “I will sift the house of Israel among all nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth.” (Amos 9:9.) In partial fulfillment of that prophecy, it is recorded in the Bible that “in the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, and took Ijon, and Abel-beth-Maachah, and Janoah, and Kedesh, and Hazor, and Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria.” (2 Kgs. 15:29.)

Those captives of Israel exiled in the north beyond the Euphrates have never returned as a whole to Palestine, as did many of their brethren, the captives of Judah. (See Ezra 2:1.)

As to the return of the remnant of captive Israel, Isaiah prophesied that they should be recovered from the four corners of the earth. (See Isa. 11:11–12.)

That the gathering of these scattered tribes has been a concern for the latter-day prophets is revealed in the prayer offered by the Prophet Joseph Smith at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.

“And may all the scattered remnants of Israel, who have been driven to the ends of the earth, come to a knowledge of the truth, believe in the Messiah, and be redeemed from oppression, and rejoice before thee.” (D&C 109:67.)

As though in answer to the Prophet’s fervent plea, a band of intrepid Latter-day Saint missionaries penetrated the continent of Asia to share the gospel of Christ as early as 1850. But Elder Orson Hyde, one of their number who was greatly concerned with the gathering of Israel, would view with amazement, if not disbelief, the recent missionary activity in the Mormon pavilion at Expo ’70 in Japan.

From these early beginnings, when even Russia was dedicated for missionary labor, there has been a surge of Church growth in Asia. Today there are nine Asian missions. The Book of Mormon has been translated into several Asiatic languages. The numbers of baptisms in Asia have been increasing at an impressive rate, particularly since World War II.

On a broad front throughout Asia, which accounts for a third of the world’s population, there is renewed vigor to heed the call of the opening verse of the Doctrine and Covenants, which says in part:

“… Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea. …” (D&C 1:1.)

Concomitant with this spreading missionary effort in the Far East, there is considerable interest in ancient but recurrent Israelite influence throughout Asia. Evidence suggests that some of the discovered artifacts can be traced to the time when Israel was scattered. This look into the ancient past could be of great significance to the present-day Church in its expanding worldwide setting and certainly is of profound importance to Asian people who view their ancestors with such reverence. Possible connecting links between the Asian peoples and scattered Israelite progenitors could be one explanation of the impressive responsiveness to the message of the gospel by various peoples of Asia.

Ancient Metal Plates of the Malabar Jews. On the Malabar coast of India in Cochin a community of “White Jews” has had in its possession two brass or copper plates on which are engraved, in the ancient Tamil language, certain privileges granted to a Joseph Rabban many centuries ago by the Hindu ruler of Malabar. The plates are cherished by these Jews as their most precious historical documents—their charter, their original settlement deed—and are deposited in an iron box, known as Pandeal, in the “Paradesi” Synagogue.1

The following is a narrative of events relating to the arrival of these Jews:

“After the second Temple was destroyed (which may God speedily rebuild) our fathers, dreading the Conqueror’s wrath, departed from Jerusalem, a numerous body of men, women, priests, and Levites came into this land. There were among them men of repute for learning and wisdom; and God gave the people favour in the sight of the king, who at that time reigned here, and he granted them a place to dwell in, called Cranganore. He allowed them a patriarchal jurisdiction within the district, with certain privileges of nobility; and the Royal grant was engraved, according to the customs of those days, on a plate of brass. This was done in the year from the creation of the world, 4250 (A.D. 490); and this plate of brass we still have in our possession. Our forefathers continued at Cranganore for about a thousand years, and the number of Heads who governed were seventy-two. Soon after our settlement, other Jews followed us from Judea; and among these came that man of great wisdom, Rabbi Samuel, a Levite of Jerusalem, with his son Rabbi Jehunda Levita. They brought with them the silver trumpets, made use of at the time of the Jubilee, which were saved when the second Temple was destroyed; and we have heard from our fathers, that there was engraved upon those trumpets the letters of the Ineffable Name. There joined us also from Spain, and other places, from time to time, certain tribes of Jews and Israelites who had heard of our prosperity. But at last, discord arising among ourselves, one of our chiefs called to his assistance an Indian King, who came upon us with a great army, destroyed our houses, palaces, and strongholds, dispossessed us of Cranganore, killed part of us, and carried part into captivity. Some of the exiles came and dwelt at Cochin, where we have remained ever since, suffering great changes from time to time. There are amongst us some of the children of Israel, who came from the country of Ashkenaz, from Egypt, from Tsoba, and other places, besides those who formerly inhabited this country.”2

There are two general classes of Jews living in India, the Jerusalem or White Jews and the so-called Black Jews.

It is believed that the Black Jews arrived in India long before the others, but that their darker complexion and resemblance to the European Jews indicate that they were detached from the parent stock in Judea before the Jews in the West. The Black Jews relate many tales of other Jewish colonies in India and China. When the noted scholar Claudius Buchanan visited the Malabar coast just after the turn of the nineteenth century, he was provided with a written list of sixty-five such colonies.

“I conversed with those who had lately visited many of these stations, and were about to return again. The Jews had a never-ceasing communication with each other in the East. Their families indeed were generally stationary, being subject to despotic princes; but the men move much about in a commercial capacity; and the same individual will pass through many extensive countries. So that when a thing interesting to the nation of the Jews takes place, the rumour will pass rapidly throughout all Asia.”3

Non-Chinese in China. Western people tend to regard Orientals as all of one race, thinking that Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais, and Indonesians are somehow indistinguishable from one another. There is no such thing as an Asian race. The Asian continent is a giant marketplace of many different races.

The Chinese certainly are not all of the same ethnic stock, and it would be as inexact to speak of “the Chinese race” as it would be to speak of the “European race.” The Irishman would likely find as much in common with the Bulgarian in speech and manners as the native of Shansi with the Cantonese.

Professor Lo Hsiang-Lin’s study of Chinese clan genealogies shows numerous historical migrations among clans within China, as well as widespread intermarriage of Chinese with other ethnic groups—including racial strains from the far reaches of Southwest Asia.4 Among these various infusions there have been many groups of Semitic and Caucasian peoples. As Rodney Gilbert has observed: “In the time of Confucius there were blond Aryan tribesmen occupying tracts in what is now North-west China, and light eyes and hair in very frequent throwbacks testify that, while the majority of those blonds migrated, a certain number were absorbed. Colonies of Indians, Arabs, Jews and Russians have been absorbed. … Within the bounds of China proper there are scores of fragments of non-Chinese peoples who still maintain their racial identity and their own non-Chinese languages but who are slowly but surely being absorbed and who would, with improved communications, be as Chinese as any others in two or three generations, retaining few traditions of an alien origin.”5

These historical differences illustrated in “foreign” groups are still clearly distinguishable in various areas of China. Rene Grousset has pointed out that oasis dwellers in the Tarim Basin are agriculturalists who still differ from the Altaic nomads who surround them: “Their physical appearance, even today, is not Mongolian, but very similar to the Iranian variety of Caucasian.”6

Jewish Merchants and Asian Caravan Routes. G. F. Hudson has shown that communication, travel, and substantial cultural and economic intercourse existed between China and the Mediterranean world from earliest Roman times. During Han dynasty times (roughly two centuries before and after Christ) the silk trade between the East and the West reached its height, which brought foreign merchants and traders as well as soldiers and hostages to mingle with the sons of Han. Men risked their lives by land and sea to carry the precious materials to Rome, materials that were, at that time, to be procured only in China.7

There is evidence that Israelite colonies had already settled in Central Asia as much as 200 years before the writing of Isaiah 49:12 [Isa. 49:12], which tells of the presence of Israelites in China (“the land of Sinim”8). China was interested in keeping open the roads to the western world at least a thousand years before the Christian era. The antiquity of the camel caravan routes is shown by the fact that the camel, a native of Central Asia, was known in ancient Babylonia by 2000 B.C.

When Israelite colonies reached the trade cities of the Iranic Medes in 720 B.C., a direct road to China had long been marked out for them by the line of Iranic oasis trade colonies reaching clear across Central Asia. These Israelites did not have the task of pioneering through uncharted deserts battling with unknown savages. In every oasis, by means of Iranic speech, they were in contact with nomads who were anxious to trade with them.

Two Jewish fragments already illustrate the significance of Chinese Turkestan for Judaism. Sir Aurel Stein found at a place on the northern caravan route a Persian business letter, written in square Hebrew characters. It has been dated A.D. 708. The other manuscript came from the southern caravan route, some fifteen years earlier, from the ancient city of Tunhuang in eastern Turkestan. In a buried cloister library, Professor Paul Pelliot, the French scholar, found a sheet of paper with antique Hebrew writing. Philippe Berger and Moise Schwab, who published it, date it also in the eighth century. It is, then, the oldest Hebrew manuscript thus far known. It is a simple devotional sheet, composed of passages from the Psalms and prophets. But it is written on paper, which at that date was made only in China.9

The Kaifeng Jews. Man’s knowledge of the travels and settlement of “the dispersed of Judah” in China is still very inadequate. Western interest in this subject began in 1605, when a Kaifeng Jew named Ngai T’ien visited the Jesuit missionary and scholar, Matteo Ricci, in Peking. From then on to the closing years of the nineteenth century, foreigners have taken a great interest in these Jewish remnants. Father Ricci’s account of the initial discovery of Israelites in East Asia was a dramatic revelation to the European world. It led to a flurry of research consisting at first of Catholic missionaries, later of Protestants, and finally of Jews.

The conditions surrounding this initial discovery of the Kaifeng Jewish community and some of its possible implications were reported by Ricci:

“We have likewise discovered, as will be explained below, Jews who are living according to the ancient law of Moses. But they number only a few families and as far as we know, they have no synagogues elsewhere except in Kai-feng Fu, the capital of Honan province, and in Hangchow fu, the capital of Chekiang province. In it (in the Kaifeng synagogue; tr.) the Pentateuch of Moses is without vowel signs, on sheepskin parchment rolled up according to the old fashion. They do not have other books from the Old Testament and also did not know which ones they did not possess. They have preserved the ceremony of circumcision and, moreover, they abstain from eating pork and any kind of meat with sinews according to their ancient ritual.

“It was only a few years ago that we learned for certain that there exist also Christians, especially in the northern provinces, who are called worshippers of the cross. Sixty years ago they flourished to such an extent in regard to the number of their families and their literary and military abilities that the Chinese became suspicious of them; they were perhaps instigated by the Mohammedans who everywhere are our enemies. The Chinese, therefore, wanted to catch them and thus they all went into hiding, some of them as Turks (Mohammedans; tr.) or Jews, but most of them became gentiles (Chinese Confucianists, Buddhists, or Taoists; tr.). Their churches were changed into temples of idols and their descendants, although many preserved the custom of making the sign of the cross over their food and drink, remained so afraid that they did not want to confess to be the progeny of the followers of the cross; and there is nobody, either among them or others, who knows of any occasion to make these crosses. But this symbol of theirs clearly demonstrates that they are the offspring of alien people in China. …” 10

A book written by Ricci came into the hands of a Jew who came from the province of Honan and whose surname was Ai. Having read this book of foreigners staying in China who worshipped only the “King of Heaven,” he sought out the home of the priests, convinced that they would be followers of the Mosaic law. Through this visit, it was learned that there were ten or twelve Jewish families living in Kaifeng and that there was a beautiful synagogue there, containing courtyards, pavilions, and a central enclosure on the north side where washings and ablutions were performed. On the south side was a slaughterhouse, where animals were killed by the synagogue authorities in the prescribed way. The Kaifeng Jews kept with veneration the Pentateuch of Moses, written on sheepskin parchment, rolled in five scrolls.11 Other Jews lived in Hangchow and other parts, the families dating back at least 600 years in that region.

This Chinese of Jewish descent told many stories of the Old Testament, using interesting pronunciations. For instance, Jerusalem he called Heirusoloim, and the Messiah, who he said was still to come, he called Mosicia. He said that many in Kaifeng knew Hebrew, although he himself did not.

Imprint of Israelites in Japan. The Japanese archipelago, composed of four main islands and hundreds of smaller ones stretching over more than 1,500 miles along the eastern shore of the Asiatic continent, is far removed from the homeland of ancient Israel. Yet the accessibility of these islands by sea would permit settlers to come from widely separated geographic regions. Many came from the Asian continent and others from the coastal regions of Southeast Asia and from Polynesia.12 The earliest known settlers included the enigmatic Ainu, a Caucasian people today surviving only in small numbers in the northern areas of the country; and as in China and Korea,13 ruddy-skinned, long-nosed Semitic and Aryan types have also appeared.14 There can be no question but that among the many groups of wayfaring immigrants who have reached the Japanese islands over the distant past, remnants of ancient Israel have been included among their number.


  1. See Walter J. Fischel, “The Exploration of the Jewish Antiquities of Cochin on the Malabar Coast,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 87 (1967), pp. 230–48.

  2. Quoted in Claudius Buchanan, Christian Researches in Asia (London: G. Sidney, 1812).

  3. Ibid., p. 225.

  4. Cf. “A Study of Chinese Genealogies,” Supplement and Gazette, University of Hong Kong (vol. 14, no. 1, November 1966); also, Wolfram Eberhard, Local Cultures of East and South China (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968) furthers the theme of widespread population changes in early China in conjunction with “foreign” intrusions.

  5. Rodney Gilbert, What’s Wrong with China (London: John Murray, 1926), p. 51.

  6. The Rise and Splendour of the Chinese Empire (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1953), p. 70.

  7. G. F. Hudson, Europe & China: A Survey of their Relations from the Earliest Times to 1800 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961). Art objects from the seventh century portray many westerners, unmistakable by dress and appearance. This is covered in Jane Gaston Mahler, The Westerners among the Figurines of the T’ang Dynasty of China (Rome: Instituto Italiano Per II Medico Ed Estremo Oriente, 1959).

  8. “Sinim,” of variant spellings, was a common western word for all of China before the time of Christ. It derives from Ts’in or Ch’in, a small state that became dominant between 221 B.C. and 206 B.C.

  9. See Allen H. Godbey, The Lost Tribes a Myth: Suggestions Towards Rewriting Hebrew History (Durham: Duke University Press, 1930), p. 39.

  10. In Rudolf Lowenthal, “The Early Jews in China,” Folklore Studies (Peking: The Catholic University of Peking, 1946), vol. 5., pp. 393–95.

  11. William C. White made a thorough examination of the physical remains of the Chinese Jews in 1919. His findings were originally published by the University of Toronto Press in 1942 and republished in 1966 by Paragon Book Reprint Corporation in New York under the title Chinese Jews. White also wrote an interesting illustrated article, “Chinese Jews,” in Asia Magazine (January 1936), pp. 54–61.

  12. In suggesting that present-day Japan represents an amalgam of racial and cultural strains and the minor strains of influence have converged from the far reaches of the Pacific, we are reminded of Hagoth and other seafaring explorers who set out from the shores of the American continent toward the Pacific and were “never heard of more.” (Alma 63:5–8.) In substantiating the theory behind this famous Kon-Tiki expedition, Thor Heyerdahl, in his book American Indians in the Pacific (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1952), shows that early voyages into the Pacific have had a predominant tendency to take a western course from America. His data show that such historic expeditions have reached Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan.
    Contacts between “Yamato Japanese” and the aboriginal Ainu, and the former’s conscious effort to absorb them into mainstream Japanese race and culture, are covered in John A. Harrison’s The Ainu of Northern Japan (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, April 1960). On their known religious traditions see Neil G. Munro, Ainu Creed and Cult (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963).

  13. Perhaps the most vivid indication of early Korean connections with the peoples of Southwest Asia are the images of tall, lean figures with long noses, sculptured on the walls of the Sokkuram Cave Temple at Mt. Toham, in Kyongju, South Korea, dating from the eighth century. At least one scholar has observed: “The faces of these figures have a distinctly Jewish cast.” See Charles Allen Clark, Religions of Old Korea (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1932), p. 58. There is supporting evidence of another type in E. A. Gordon, “Some Recent Discoveries in Korean Temples and their Relationship to Early Eastern Christianity,” Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 5, no. 1 (1914), pp. 1–39.

  14. On artifacts and anomalies dealing with Hebraic influence in Japan, the following are of special interest: Herman Dicker, Wanderers and Settlers in the Far East: A Century of Jewish Life in China and Japan (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962), pp. 156–60; my study of an old Japanese myth, “Did Christ Visit Japan?” Brigham Young University Studies (Winter 1970), pp. 135–60; and Arthur Lloyd, The Creed of Half Japan: Historical Sketches of Japanese Buddhism (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1911), pp. 49–55, 219.

  • Dr. Palmer is coordinator of Asian studies at Brigham Young University and a professor of history and religion in the College of Religious Instruction. He has been an LDS chaplain in Asia and is a former president of the Korea Mission. A popular speaker and writer, his latest book is The Church Encounters Asia. He teaches Sunday School in the Edgemont Eighth Ward, Sharon East Stake.

The two ink-squeezes, above, were taken from the opposite faces of the earliest memorial stone at K’ai-feng. At the left is the first inscription, dating from 1489. The one at the right was made in 1512. Both tell of “the religion of the Israelites” coming to China in the time of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.A.D. 220) and of another immigration by way of India in the twelfth century.

A resonant, black marble chime or gong called the worshipers to three periods of prayer each day during the years that the synagogue flourished. The chime is now in the Royal Ontario Museum. It is twelve inches wide, and the four Chinese characters on its face mean “the jade chime of spiritual essence.” Certain characteristics indicate that it was made during the Ming Dynasty.

Stone image in Korea’s Sokkuram Cave Temple. This tall, long-nosed Aryan or Semitic figure indicates early foreign influence from South and Southwest Asia. It dates from the eighth century.

Facsimile of the brass plates of the Malabar Jews of India. These were inscribed in the fifth century. Courtesy of Cambridge University Library, England.

This painting of a Chinese Jew at Hankow by the American artist, Betty Bryne, vividly portrays the blending of races incident to the wanderings and colonization of Hebrew people throughout the world.

Exterior View of the K’ai-feng Synagogue