One of the greatest anti-stereotype legends is that of the British Jew with western features and dark curly hair who goes to China, visits a synagogue and finds it full of Chinese-looking people. When asked why he has come, he explains he is Jewish and wants to attend a service. "That's strange," says the Chinese Jew, "you don't look Jewish".
The joke lay in both the reversal of roles, and the incongruous thought that Chinese Jews even existed. However, that mythical tale could easily be said in earnest today in view of the surprising resurgence of Jews in China as the country at large undergoes a massive economic and cultural shift.
Far from not existing, Chinese Jews can trace their lineage back to the 12th Century, when their ancestors came from the land of Israel along the silk route via Persia and India to settle in Kaifeng.
What is remarkable is the name given to the street in which it was situated: Plucking Sinews Street. 'The people who pluck sinews' is the term by which Jews were known, referring to the Jewish custom - still practiced today - of not eating the thigh-sinew of animals because of a command in the Book of Genesis (32.33). It bemused the local Chinese population and hence became their distinctive description.
In Europe at the time, society was riddled with Christian anti-semitism, based on the negative attitude of the Gospels to the Jews and resulting in persecutions and ghettos. But China had no such bias and welcomed Jewish settlers.
The Jews gradually integrated into Chinese society, took on local customs and inter-married with them. Jewish numbers declined, although some practices remained and were reinforced by the surrounding culture of Chinese ancestor-worship.
Conditions were difficult during the Maoist period when religious life was severely restricted, but have blossomed anew in today's more liberal climate. Families gather together to hold services in their homes, there are plans to restore the ancient synagogue, and books on Jewish life are being imported so as to catch up on lost traditions.
However, there are two curious problems: one is that existing Chinese law only recognizes five faiths (Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam and Taoism). It enables them to hold large gatherings, whereas other groups cannot do so. The result is that Jewish services cannot have more than ten people attending, lest they risk being classified as a subversive meeting and invite police attention.
Chinese Jews are currently pressing for the law to be changed, although there is no suggestion that it is deliberately anti-Jewish, being more a reflection of the relatively small number of Jews when the law was framed.
The other oddity is that Jewish descent is generally determined through the matrilineal line, a tradition going back over two millennia. However, as part of the process of acculturation, Chinese Jews adopted the Chinese custom of taking their identity through the patrilineal line.
It means that while Chinese Jews have no doubt about their Jewish origins, according to the rest of the Jewish world they do not have full Jewish standing. They could not, for instance, marry in a synagogue in Israel or England. Until now, Chinese Jews caught in this discrepancy between identity and status, have undergone individual conversion procedures, but as more and more such Jews emerge, it begs the question of whether world Jewry needs to reassess their situation and give them blanket recognition.
Having survived centuries of Chinese warlords, imperial rule, Japanese invaders and the Cultural Revolution, it would be deeply ironic if Chinese Jews now found themselves rejected by their co-religionists.Suggest a correction