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Last days for China's forgotten Jews

OVER DINNER in the central Chinese city of Kaifeng, 68-year-old Zhao Xiangru put down his chopsticks. "I was born in Kaifeng in 1930," he said. "My ancestors were Jewish, I have got Jewish blood. All of this was given by God, it is not a personal choice. I feel proud that I am a Jew." Conspicuously absent from the table, given that this was China, was any pork.

The existence of mainland Chinese who claim to be of Jewish descent is one of China's more curious historical legacies. Sometime during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126AD), about 500 Jewish Silk Road merchants decided to settle in Kaifeng, the splendid imperial capital with a flourishing population of one million. The Jews were probably from Persia, but scholars are not certain. They were welcomed by the Emperor, built Kaifeng's first synagogue in 1163, and were known in Chinese as "the sect which plucks out the sinews".

Over several centuries they maintained Jewish traditions and religious rituals, including circumcising boys and abstaining from pork. An early Ming dynasty (1368-1644) emperor specified seven surnames for the Jews of Kaifeng: Ai, Lao, Zhao, Zhang, Shi, Jin and Li. But assimilation into the Chinese community and inter-marriage took its toll on the Jewish identity. The last Rabbi died in about 1800, and by 1860 the synagogue had fallen into disrepair and disuse. It was demolished, and in 1912 the plot was sold to Canadian missionaries. On the site now stands the No. 4 People's Hospital. To this day, however, there are those in Kaifeng who claim their Jewish ancestry keenly - if not always fruitfully.

Some have tried, and failed, to seek recognition from Peking for China's Jews to be classified as a national ethnic minority. Others have attempted, also unsuccessfully, to attract international Jewish and Israeli investment to Kaifeng. Several have been turned down for emigration to Israel, where Kaifeng's descendants are not recognised as Jewish because in China the religion was passed down through the father, not matrilineally.

Xu Xin, China's only Professor of Jewish Studies, estimates that there are 500 to 1,000 people in Kaifeng who are descendants of the old Jewish community. They have little contact with each other, and few are as committed as Mr Zhao. Knowledge of Hebrew and the religious texts is long dead, and the avoidance of pork is really the only enduring custom. But a few elderly descendants, like Mr Zhao, still recall distant memories of Jewish home life. Mr Zhao remembers celebrating Passover, Yom Kippur, and other Jewish holidays as a child. "From my earliest memory, there was no pork in the family." A record of the family's 14 generations, written in Hebrew and Chinese, was taken by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, he said.

Dr Wendy Abraham, an American Sinologist who has researched Kaifeng's Jewish history, interviewed elderly Kaifeng descendants in the 1980s. Shi Zhongyu, then 66, told her he remembered seeing brass Stars of David wrapped in red silk hidden in a medicine chest, and the preparation of cakes containing no yeast.

Few signs are left of Kaifeng's Jewish ancestry. In the floor of the hospital boilerhouse is a carved round flagstone, the lid of the old synagogue's well. Two nearby lanes are still called North and South Teaching the Scripture Lane, but the last Jew in this old quarter died years ago.

Climb to the top floor of the city's decrepit museum and there is a low- lit "Exhibition on the History and Culture of Ancient Kaifeng Jews", normally kept locked. Here are the most important exhibits: two inscribed stelae from the old synagogue, 1489 and 1512. The latter reads in part: "The founder of this religion is Abraham ... After him Moses, who transmitted the scriptures ..." A stone basin from the synagogue, and reproductions of documents now outside China, complete the small exhibit. The museum's curator, Mo Huomin, said: "Ordinary Chinese people are not interested, but we open for visitors, experts and foreign groups. Very few Kaifeng Jewish descendants come here. Since these stelae have existed for many years, they all know about them."

Kaifeng's sensitive authorities are uncertain how to handle the city's unique Jewish history. "In the last few years," said Mr Xu, "there were a few people in Kaifeng who marked their Chinese ID cards as 'Youtai' [Chinese for Jewish]. Unfortunately, I heard that last year the Public Security Bureau asked them to change 'Youtai' to something else." When the Independent on Sunday applied to the government authorities to meet some of the Kaifeng Jewish descendants, officials declined to help. Jewish proselytisers are certainly not welcome.

Perhaps attitudes would change if Kaifeng's Jewish history proved more profitable. Since 1993 there have been attempts to encourage Jewish investment in Kaifeng, but all have come to nothing. Neither Kaifeng's mere 650,000 population, nor its ageing chemical, textile and machine industries, make it an obvious choice for foreign investment.

Tourism, aimed at Western Jews, seems the most obvious area to promote, but Xia Feng, of Kaifeng's tourism bureau, said there were no plans to encourage this. There is little to see. Dr Abraham runs "Jewish Historical Tours of China" which last month brought its fourth tour group of Americans to Kaifeng. The highlight of any such tour is, of course, the chance to meet some Jewish descendants with memories from the 1930s. But even this attraction will soon die out.