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Li Kuang-t'ien and the Defense of Kaifeng
By Peter S. Horvitz

As early as 1160, when they erected their first synagogue, there was a Jewish community in the Chinese city of Kaifeng (also called Kaifeng Fu, Ta-liang, and Pien,) capital of Honan province. The origin of the Kaifeng Jews is a mystery, though they probably came from somewhere in the Middle East along the silk routes. Other Jewish communities may have existed in China, but if so, they have left no trace. But the history of the Jewish community of Kaifeng is well documented and filled with incidents of moment. Today, the Jewish community of Kaifeng is gone, its only remnant a few people who still remember that once their ancestors had been Jews. But the material remains of this community, their history, as recorded in stone monuments and documents, remain a fascinating and unique chapter in Jewish history.

In the present article, I will not attempt to outline the history of the Kaifeng Jews. Rather, I wish to focus on a remarkable individual of this community whose greatest achievements are related to the establishment of a mint in Kaifeng.—1

Li Kuang-tien was the third and youngest son of Li Jung. Somehow during the early part of his life he came to be recognized in the city at large as a man of outstanding ability in administration and as a leader of men. This had nothing to do with scholarly achievements (though a number of the Kaifeng Jews gained prominence through their studies and success in the complex Chinese civil service,) for Li Kuang-fien held no literary degrees. Furthermore it seems that Li Kuang-fien was known for courage, at least he certainly was recognized for it later.

In 1642, a series of rebellions broke out in China against the ruling Ming dynasty. The rebel Li Tzu-ch'eng laid siege to Kaifeng. For purposes of defense, the eighty-four wards of the city were organized under five defense sectors. Leaders were selected to head these sectors and the volunteer forces of civilians that had been recruited for each. One of the leaders that had been appointed, when informed of his appointment, pleaded illness, so Li Kuang-fien was named in his place as Chief (Tsung-she) of the Left Sector, which included the Jewish quarter of the city. A messenger was sent to the house of Li Jung, for Li Kuang-fien lived with his father, to tell him of his appointment. But the messenger got confused and when he arrived he told the father, Li Jung, that he had been appointed Chief of the Left Sector. The father was shocked, for he was old and sick, and he refused the appointment. But when the message was more carefully examined, the mistake was discovered. But Li Kuang-fien was away from home. The next day, however, Li Kuang-fien was officially appointed to his post.

The course of the siege was harsh and took a terrible toll on the people of Kaifeng. Famine ravaged the city and it is even reported that human flesh was sold in the markets of the city as food.

The original five chiefs were soon reduced to a single chief, Li Kuang-fien, with command over the entire area of Kaifeng. (This must certainly be one of the most powerful military positions a Jew has ever held in a non-Jewish army.)

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