The Jews of China and the Ancient Silk Road: Discovering the Diasporas that Changed the Western World

Wes Ervin
Jewish Culture & History / History

Course Description

Why did Jews establish diaspora communities? The usual short answer is that they were fleeing persecution. Indeed, that was often the case in Europe. But when Jews ventured to Asia, they were more often bold pioneers chasing economic opportunity. In this lecture, Dr. Ervin develops that theme by exploring the fascinating thousand-year history of the Jewish diasporas of the Silk Road, the network of trans-Asian trade routes that had connected China and Europe since Biblical times.
Jewish merchants in the diasporas of the Persian Empire emigrated north to Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent and other oasis-cities along the Silk Road. The Chinese emperors of the Tang (618–907AD) and Song (960–1279AD) dynasties patronized the Jews and granted them, like other ethnic and religious minorities (Zoroastrians, Nestorian Christians, Muslims), religious freedom. The speaker will show how Jews provided the crucial links for the long-distance trade between the Chinese superpower and the Frankish Empire in medieval Europe. Historians have called this the “Golden Age of the Jews.”
The Jews transported silk, gems and other luxury goods from China. But much more important in the long run, they brought advanced mathematics and medicines to a medieval Europe still mired in the Dark Ages. In fact, many of the financial inventions that facilitated the birth of capitalism in Renaissance Europe (e.g., the decimal number system, advanced algebra to compute long-term interest-rates, etc.) came from China and India via the Silk Road.
With the advent of long-distance sea trade in the 16th century, the overland Silk Road trade declined. But the Jewish diaspora communities remained and adapted. Even in their faded glory today, the legendary Silk Road cities have a haunting beauty that is breathtaking to behold. When you see these images, you can almost hear the ghosts of Jewish traders, goading their camels, loaded high with bales of exquisite Chinese silks, onward across blistering desert to the next oasis.

About the Instructor

  • Wes Ervin, PhD, received his BA, MA, and PhD in Asian Art History from the University of Chicago. He has lectured at New York University, Harvard University, and numerous conferences in Europe over the last 25 years. After retiring in 2017, he presented a course on “Two Thousand Years of Jewish History in India” at the Osher/FAU Boca Raton. He also volunteers as a docent at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.