Adam L. Silverman, PhD*
In the comments to Mr. Habakkuk's most recent post, commenter Dag asked if there were, indeed, Jews in China. The answer is yes, but there are very, very few left. Above you can see drawings of the exterior and interior of the Jewish Temple at Kaifeng, which is where the very small remnant of China's Jewish community survives. The history of Judaism in China is long, dating at least to the 8th Century BCE, but references to what appear to be China can be found in the book of Isaiah and communities of Jews have been documented in China as far back as the 1st Century BCE, if not earlier. I even remember once seeing a reference, while studying comparative religion for one of my master's degrees, that one of the oldest extant pieces of writing ever found was an ancient Chinese dialect written in paleo-Hebrew script found in a cave along what came to be called the Silk Road. While that is most likely an apocryphal and mythological reference, it should provide some indication as to just how far back the group of people that would eventually become known as the Jews have been interacting with the Far East**. Once the Jews got to China they were very successful. Unlike most of their interactions when going west into Europe, they were far better able to enter the societies and cultures in Central, Southeast, and East Asia. For instance, in India Jews found a way to work themselves into the caste system and became very successful members of society in Cochin and the same was ultimately true in China.***
Jewish succes in China was partially the result of the communities acceptance by the Confucian Emperor under the restored Song Dynasty. Imperial edict allowed the Chinese Jews to participate in the civil service and there are a number of surviving records of Jewish mandarins. According to some traditions once the synagogue complex was built at Kaifeng the Emperor is said to have sent the community a gift: Confucian ancestor worship fire pots. The story goes that the Jewish community, not wishing to offend the Emperor found a way to work the Confucian ritual objects into their worship by simply adapting their use. When reciting the lines of the Amidah (The Eighteen Benedictions), the synagogue authorities would light the fire pots upon reaching the portions dealing with the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (crisis averted...).
The success of the Jewish community in China, its being welcomed into the community and allowed to fully participate in the life of society and state, ultimately led to its eventual demise (and now resurrection). The Jews, sometimes called the sinew-pluckers or the Chinese with the Blue Hats****, essentially assimilated themselves. The population dwindled as assimilation into the larger Sino-Confucian community took place. There are copies that can be read of desperate letters sent from the community at Kaifeng to their last contacts (often long dead) in parts of Europe begging for a rabbi to be sent. And while the West rediscovered the Jews of China because of interaction with the Jesuits, the story is that when the first Jesuit arrived in China word reached the community at Kaifeng that a skull capped, bearded religious scholar wearing robes had arrived from the West. They wrote to him and asked if he would take up the spiritual leadership of the community, but that he would have to give up eating pork, which they had been told he had been seen to consume.
Eventually time and no external threats took their toll on the Jews of China and they, for all intents and purposes, simply became Chinese. While there were several attempts at revival, it has only been over the past generation that the community has made something of a comeback with descendants of the last Jews of Kaifeng rediscovering their religious traditions and, for all intents and purposes, converting back to their ancestral faith. There is even a (very basic) blog of one of a member of the community. The story of the Jews of China, both in Kaifeng and other locations, is one of both success and failure. It shows the best of humanity - not discriminating on the basis of religious otherness, as well as what happens to a tradition when there is no external pressure to maintain it.
*Adam L. Silverman is the Culture and Foreign Language Advisor at the US Army War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army War College or the US Army.
** I've also seen these types of references for interaction with the ancient Celtic world. In that case it was to one of the sons of an Israelite king being married to a Princess of Tara - one of the ancient Celtic kingdoms in Ireland. Moreover, one of the most interesting attempts to figure out just what the Holy Grail was (is?) and where it went is an argument that it was actually the copy of the Torah (Law) that Jesus prepared for his Jewish followers and that it was transported by one of them (a son of Joseph of Arimethea) in a coast hopping vessel out of the Mediterranean, up the coast of Europe, and to the remnants of this Hebraic/Celtic community of Ancient Britain for safe keeping.
*** Full disclosure: Professor Katz was the major advisor of my MA in Comparative Religion. He is a specialist in Asian religion, as well as in Judaism in Asia. I searched youtube for a copy of his lecture on the Jews of China, but it is, unfortunately, not posted. It is from Professor Katz that I know a pretty fair amount about this topic.
**** Sinew plucker refers to the (for all intents and purposes) now lost butchery practice of removing the tendon from the rear legs of beef cattle so that they could be consumed as Kosher. Jews are forbidden to eat cuts of meat from the hind quarters of beef cattle in honor and deference to Jacob, who according to tradition was wounded in the sciatic nerve during his wrestling bought with an Angel of the Lord that earned him the name Israel (one who grapples with G-d). The blue hats refer to the color of the skull caps that the Chinese Jews wore. In fact once Muslims came to China they were often referred to as the Jews with the White Hats as they practiced a similar, and to Confucian and Taoist eyes, likely variant, religion, but wore white skull caps. Jews in China are also called Yodai.