Map of Henan Anhui Hubei Shandong Hebei Shanxi Shaanxi Shaanxi Shandong

Henan Province

Name ( nán) ['river' 'south'] Old Name Honan WG
Population100.377 million (7.30 %) [2nd] comparison table
Area167,000 km2 [64,479 mile2] (1.74 %) [17th]
GDP34,808 (13.97 %) [26th]
Position of Henan in China
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pagoda, Kaifeng, religion
The Iron Pagoda of Kaifeng, China, built in 1049 AD during the Song Dynasty.
Image by PericlesofAthens available under a Creative Commons license

Straddling the Yellow River that was the birthplace of Chinese civilization, Henan is an old province, within it are two of the ancient capitals of China: Luoyang and Kaifeng. Mountains to the west and center separate the Yellow River from the southeastern area (the Nanyang plain) which is drained by the Huai River. Floods from both the Yellow and Huai Rivers have punctuated Henan's long history. Indeed, Henan had cities right back in the Shang dynasty (1600 - 1046 BCE) with its capital at Jenshih (Anyang) just west of Zhengzhou. The meandering Yellow River in ancient times followed a course further north near to Anyang. Remains from even earlier, one of the earliest world civilizations - the ancient Yangshao Culture can be seen at a museum near Mianchi.

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The modern provincial capital of Zhengzhou is on the site of another ancient national capital. The coming of railways made Zhengzhou an important center and it has greatly expanded since 1949. Henan is the second most populous province with just over 100 million people. Favorable soil and climate make Henan an area of rich harvests, although nowadays it has become heavily industrialized.


Luoyang just south of the river was the capital of China for ten dynasties before it was sacked by Jurchen invaders in the 10th century. The philosopher Laozi is one of the many great figures associated with the city. It is sometimes known as the ‘eastern Imperial city’ but has few remaining ancient buildings after centuries of plunder. The City museum has many fine exhibits of Luoyang's days of pre-eminence. There is an annual Peony Festival which was brought into being by famous Tang Empress Wu Zetian. The city has grown far beyond its ancient limits and is a modern industrialized city. Baimasi (White Horse Temple) at Luoyang claims to be the oldest Buddhist monastery in China dating back to 68CE. The name refers to the legend that it was founded by two monks who arrived on a white horse.

Henan, buddha, Longmen Grottoes, deity
Buddhist carved figures at the Longmen Caves, Henan

The Longmen Caves , 7 miles [12 kms] south-west of Luoyang in Henan has a fine set of Buddhist carved figures dating back to Wei and Tang dynasties (500-900CE). There are over 1,300 grottoes with nearly 100,000 Buddhist statues of all sizes. Tang Empress Wu Zetian built the famous seated Buddha 56 feet [17 meters] which is the scene for the epic film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame . Longmen Caves provides evidence of China's long excellence in porcelain manufacture at the Jun Royal Kiln , Xuchang; dating back to Song dynasty times. The area also contains the tomb of the Tang poet Bai Juyi.

Henan, Kaifeng , monkey
Ancient decorated bricks of the Iron Pagoda, Kaifeng


Kaifeng, Henan became the capital city after Luoyang was abandoned and was at its zenith up until the invasion of the Mongols in the Song dynasty when it was looted and destroyed. Subject to periodic flooding many historic buildings of that time have been swept away leaving little trace. There is a viewing platform where the nearby surging Yellow River can be seen. The path of the Yellow River has changed greatly over time, only a few centuries ago it flowed south-east reaching the sea to the south of Shandong. The Shanshan Gan Guildhall is a heavily decorated Qing dynasty hall built by merchants. The Prime Minister's Temple (Da Xiangguo Si ) has been rebuilt on the site of the main Buddhist temple in the Song capital city. It is most famous for a large statue of the Buddhist Goddess Guanyin. Longting Park has been built in the Song dynastic style for the benefit of tourists. More authentic is the Fan pagoda located south of the city which dates back a thousand years. It was at Kaifeng that the Yellow River's levees have been deliberately breached, once in 1644 to hold back the invading Manchu (unsuccessfully) and again in 1938 when Chiang Kaishek attempted to flood the land and impede the Japanese invasion, killing one million Chinese people in the process. The city is also renowned for a small isolated community of Jews who settled at Kaifeng hundreds of years ago (see article that follows). The Iron Pagoda (made of rust colored bricks rather than iron) is another interesting tourist site reflecting its ancient heritage.

Near Kaifeng is the Baogong Temple built in memory of Bao Zheng renowned for his fair administration of justice. Guanlin Temple commemorates Guan Yu of the Three Kingdoms period who was worshiped as a 'god of War'. The Dragon Pavilion at Kaifeng is another ancient temple.

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Song Shan

The sacred mountain of Songshan is a famous scenic site south east of Luoyang. At 4,902 feet [1,494 meters] it is an impressive peak with scary paths leading to the summit. The Temple of Songshan is the oldest stone pagoda in China as it dates back to Northern Wei times (523CE). The Daoist ‘Temple of the Central Mountain’ is older but has been rebuilt over the centuries since its foundation in Han times. On the foothills of Mount Song is the Gaocheng Observatory , a World Heritage site, dating back to the Yuan dynasty which recorded accurate astronomical observations for centuries. A gnomon was erected in the Tang dynasty here to help measure the circumference of the Earth (the ancient unit of distance was derived from this). It allows for very accurate measurement of shadows and from this the date and length of the year. The measurements were not surpassed in Europe for hundreds of years. The main observatory was restored in the Ming dynasty. Songyang Academy has two ancient cypresses called the Lesser and Greater Generals believed to date back two thousand years and given by Han Emperor Wudi in 110BCE.

Henan, Shaolin , martial arts
Shaolin martial arts display Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Close to Mount Song is the world famous Shaolin monastery (literally ‘Small Forest Temple’) immortalized by the 'Kung Fu ' series of the 1970s. It is a Zen Buddhist temple and dates back to the Wei dynasty when Indian Da Mo founded the monastery and instigated the Wushu martial art. Nearby is the Pagoda Forest (Talin) of 200 tombs dating back as far as the Tang dynasty. The tombs of the early Song dynasty emperors are close by at Songshan, between Zhengzhou and Luoyang. Not much remains now apart from the statues marking the Sacred way to the tombs.


China's Ancient Script

China's Ancient Script


The discovery of a huge number of 'oracle bones' has added greatly to the knowledge of the origins of China's written script. It pushes back the written language to at least 3,500 years ago. Careful study of the inscriptions is still revealing information about life in Shang dynasty times.

Anyang is the most ancient of the cities, it is built on the remains of the Shang dynasty capital of Yin. There is a museum housing many remains from this period including the oracle bones inscribed with early Chinese characters. Nearby is the tomb of Yuan Shikai, the Marshall who tried to found a new dynasty in 1915.

Near Anyang is a more recent achievement of human labor, the Red Flag Canal . It was built between 1960-1974 with the same large scale of labor as the Great Wall, it provides irrigation and transportation in the arid northern part of Henan.

Henan, Zhengzhou, architecture, skyscraper
A view of Zhengzhou skyline at sunset, Henan


The modern, provincial capital of Henan is Zhengzhou which has only a few old buildings but does have an extensive provincial museum. Yellow River Park to the northwest gives good views of the river. Zhengzhou has an annual Martial Arts Festival every September.

Henan Climate

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Climate chart for Henan
Both Temp Rainfall ° C/mms ° F/ins Key
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Kaifeng Jews

Kaifeng, jews
Jews of K'ai-Fun-Foo (Kaifeng Subprefecture), China. A picture from the public domain en:Jewish Encyclopedia. Available under a Creative Commons License

Discovering a Jewish synagogue in Kaifeng came as a great surprise to Europeans in the 19th century. Although the synagogue was built in Chinese traditional style it had a copy of the Torah and was following traditional Jewish teachings. It opened up all sorts of intriguing possibilities. Could the scriptures of an ancient isolated community provide answers to key questions in Christianity as well as Judaism? Was the Jewish community a long last tribe with origins going back to Biblical times? How could have an isolated mono-theistic society have survived in China for so long?

The Chinese regarded the Jews ( Yóu tài) as belonging to a branch of Islam and called them ‘blue Muslims’ because of the color of headdress and shoes. For centuries the Chinese considered all three Abrahamic religions as sects of a single religion. The Jews were also known as 挑筋 Tiǎo jīn jiāo 'extract tendon teaching' as a description of the way that meat was prepared by removing any tendons to conform with the Torah. A synagogue is called a yóu tài jiào táng or qīng zhēn sì (this term is also used for a mosque).

Kaifeng, ark
A Chinese Jewish worshiper reading the Torah. Image by Jean Domenge available under a Creative Commons License

It is now believed that the Jews formed a permanent settlement in the 9th century when Kaifeng was an important trading city at the end of the Silk Road (it was capital of China 960-1126). It was an attractive location for many Central Asian traders and bankers. The founding families may have moved from near Bodrum on the Turkish shore of the Mediterranean to Xi'an (Chang'an) and then on to Kaifeng. Three of four original steles have been discovered that were located at the synagogue. They date from 1489, 1512 and 1619; they are inscribed with details of the community. The 1489 stele describes the building of the first synagogue in 1163 when 70 families moved to Kaifeng to form a permanent settlement. It also compares Judaism to the three main religions of China and identifies them as Rabbanite Jews - followers of Maimonides.

The community flourished in the 14th/15th century with about a thousand members; in 1489 70 families are noted in the community. In 1605 the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci met 60 year old Ai Tian in Beijing who had come to take the Imperial exams. Ricci was intrigued when he realized Ai presumed him to be an Israelite rather than a Christian . Ai told Ricci that there were 7 or 8 families in Kaifeng and that there was a fine synagogue with five books of the Old testament over 500 years old. He also reported that there was a larger Jewish community in Hangzhou. Ricci sent a Jesuit convert to check out the story and it all proved true. Ricci had hopes of converting them to Christianity.

However rebels destroyed the community (along with much of Kaifeng) at the start of the Qing dynasty and the last rebuild was in 1653 by Zhao Yingcheng after damage by the 1642 Yellow River flood - Zhao Yingcheng was an accomplished scholar (jinshi grade) and was appointed a vice commissioner. Many Jews rose to achieve high office in the Chinese government. In the Ming Era the Emperor gave them seven Chinese family names: Ai, Jin, Lao, Li, Shi, Zhang and Zhao. Modern day descendents can still be traced from the family names and this has been confirmed by DNA tests .

Kaifeng, Jews
This is a photo of an exhibit at the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv - en:Beit Hatefutsot. This is a model of Kaifeng Synagogue. Image by Sodabottle available under a Creative Commons License

The Kaifeng Jews continued to flourish in the 18th century before going into decline in the 19th century . There were Jewish groups elsewhere in China: at Beijing, Hangzhou and Quanzhou but these groups did not last long. In 1810 the aged Rabbi died leaving no-one to replace him because knowledge of Hebrew had not been passed on. By 1853 the synagogue was in ruins and a flood in 1866 destroyed it completely. This was not due to persecution, partly it was because of the general decline of Kaifeng as a major city and also because floods of the Yellow River had repeatedly inundated the city. The community had intermarried with local Chinese and had no longer a distinct identity. By 1904 only 6 families remained.

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The Kaifeng Jews

When Christian missionary activity grew in the mid 19th century, James Finn (1806-72) came across mentions of Chinese Jews when studying the writings of the Jesuits in London. His book ‘The Jews in China’ published in 1843 created quite a stir, he followed this up with ‘The Orphan Colony of the Jews in China’ in the 1870s. The books produced a great deal of interest in the West - even Charles Dickens commented on the curious discovery. Researchers brought back to Europe some members of the community as well as Hebrew texts. The Torah scrolls were found to contain no unknown content and supported the view that the community had been founded no earlier than the 6th century CE.

In the 1920s David Solomon Sassoon (1880?1942), a Baghdadi Jew who had traded in Mumbai, India set up a flourishing business in Shanghai; he then made plans to revitalize the Kaifeng Jewish community with new settlers but the Japanese invasion of 1936 put paid to that. In recent years the descendents of the Kaifeng Jewish community have been able to cash in on their ancestry, and have been given special status by the government. Building a new synagogue has been mooted over the years, it would undoubtedly attract many visitors to Kaifeng.

The history of this long-standing Jewish community that lasted a thousand years is surely proof of a good level of religious tolerance within China.

Major CitiesPopulation
Anyang 561,673
Hebi鹤壁 322,964
Jiaozuo 570,671
Kaifeng 587,565
Luohe 322,222
Luoyang 1,110,900
Nanyang 523,739
Pingdingshan 663,395
Shangqiu商丘 894,800
Xinxiang 633,173
Xinyang 391,862
Zhengzhou 2,021,700


Zhengzhou Xinzheng International Airport 郑州新郑国际机场 CGO IATA / ZHCC ICAO
The airport has 1 terminal and is located 18.6 miles (30.0 kms) from Zhengzhou
See map of location Zhengzhou Xinzheng International Airport

City populations for 2012, Province statistics National Bureau of Statistics 2014

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