In 1605, Matteo Ricci, the renowned Italian Jesuit missionary hard at work in China, reported back to Europe that he had discovered the existence of a community of Jews in Kaifeng -- a city situated on the Yellow River about five hundred miles to the southwest of Peking. He had learned of them when an elder of the community had come to Beijing, seeking out Ricci and his group who he thought just might be Jews themselves.

This initial encounter between Jesuit and Jew was only the first of a series of misunderstandings, and it took a while to get it cleared up. Thereafter, the Jews of China, small in number and mysterious in origin, took on a symbolic significance far beyond their actual influence. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these Chinese Jews, on the verge of extinction, would be joined by co-religionists from Europe and the Middle East whose practical impact on China and the world would prove far greater.

In 1992, Harvard University sponsored a conference entitled "Jewish Diasporas in China," and some of the fascinating papers there presented have finally found their way into print. Like the subjects themselves, the conferring scholars represented several countries, including the United States, Israel, China, and Japan. Once of purely antiquarian interest, the subject of Judaism in China now encompasses not only high scholarship, but also personal memoirs and searches for familial roots. Indeed, as China itself has become more connected to the outside world, Chinese scholars have become more interested in Judaism. Thus, the Institute of World History of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences has a center for Judaic studies, as does Nanjing University in central China. (The connection also reverberates outside the Chinese Academy: Commercially successful Chinese, some of whom have been called the Jews of Southeast Asia, have been victims of communal violence reminiscent of the experience of Jews in Europe.)

Even though pressures for assimilation and acculturation grew out of the sheer mass of the surrounding civilization, the Kaifeng Jewish community lasted for about seven centuries. The general view is that Jews settled there in the early twelfth century, though Jewish traders had probably been visiting China for centuries before that. Even today, there are Chinese in the city who speak of themselves as Jews, but the identification is a tenuous one. The community's last synagogue was destroyed in 1866. The Kaifeng Jews, as Professor Shirley Isenberg describes them, were by then

living in poverty, and no one among them knew Hebrew or Jewish liturgy. . . . Their pleas to outsiders for Jewish teachers, Holy Scriptures, prayer books, and Hebrew-Chinese grammars were all thwarted by fate or indifference . . . What was left to the Kaifeng Jews was only the knowledge that their ancestors had been Jewish.

Ironically, their fate seemed more important to Christians than to Jews. Their discovery by Europeans was, in its day, a large event. Were these people related to the Ten Lost Tribes? Would their texts and scrolls reveal something about the original Hebrew scriptures, something preserved in the pristine environment of China? Did the unexpected appearance of Jews in China mean that the Second Coming was that much closer? Would it not be a coup of some kind to convince the Jews of Kaifeng to embrace Christianity? (They never did.) These questions were widely discussed, and the small number of Jews in China became the subject of much larger theological and, occasionally, political debates in the Christian world.

The outside world's interest declined in the nineteenth century, while the real influence of other Jews, more recently arrived in China, proceeded to grow. Jewish families, originally from the Near East, built up important trading relationships with China, especially under British rule. Iraqi Jews, particularly, migrated first to India and then on to China, paralleling the march eastward of British power. The legendary trader David Sassoon came to Bombay in 1833 and his descendants expanded the family's commercial network to China. The Sassoons and other families helped from connections with Baghdad, Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai -- important achievements that remain underappreciated in British imperial history.

The founders of the great Jewish families that thrived under British protection, we are assured, were observant and devout, but the rising generation less so. In writing about Silas Hardoon, a colorful figure in early-twentieth-century Chinese history, Joan Roland describes a multiculturalist ahead of his time. Hardoon, who had worked for the Sassoons in Hong Kong and Shanghai, later established his own company. Though the financed the construction of a synagogue in Shanghai, he later married a Eurasian woman, became a reowned collector of Chinese art, and endowed a Buddhist university. At his funeral in 1931, Roland tells us, Hardoon was buried with both Jewish and Buddhist rites, perhaps befitting a person who had become famous as the "richest man East of Suez."

The next significant group of Jews to appear in China were of European, not Middle Eastern, origin. In the early twentieth century, Russian Jews fleeing increasingly virulent anti-Semitism, made their way through Siberia to Manchuria. But this was hardly an opportune time to arrive in the Middle Kingdom. As Professor Boris Bressler (himself a Russian Jew born in Manchuria) notes, though the Russian Jewish community in China lasted only until about 1958, it saw in its sixty years two world wars, two major local wars, the collapse of the Chinese dynasty, a warlord era, another major international war, and then the decisive civil war which established Communist rule.

Refugees from the Nazis established yet another outpost of European Jewry in China. This Community was based in Shanghai, which was governed by Japan from 1937 to 1945. The Japanese practiced a kind of wary toleration, and many of the exiles managed to survive and prosper in a small way. Indeed, the city was a far better sanctuary than many other places, and the Jewish population reached about twenty-five thousand in its heyday.

The United States now contains the world's most influential Jewish community, and it is thus Americans who are at the forefront of renewed efforts to reestablish ties between China and the Jews. Israel has foreign policy and commercial interests which it pursues through trade and diplomacy, but in the newly reopened China, a more permanent presence has been established by younger American Jews now resident there. This past summer, first lady Hillary Clinton and secretary of state Madeleine Albright visited the Ohel Rachel Synagogue (originally built in 1920 but abandoned in 1952), whose renovation was financed by the municipal authorities, almost certainly in response to ongoing criticism of the Chinese government's suppression of religious freedom. The building is still a "historic site," though its reconsecration is anticipated.

Professor Emeritus Benjamin Schwartz of Harvard, one of America's greatest sinologists, noted at the 1992 conference that "some of the most meaningful encounters between the Jews and China have occurred only in recent years as the number of scholars of Jewish origin who are interested in both traditional and modern China has grown significantly." And, as Schwartz also astutely pointed out, the mere existence of such scholars has prompted a growing interest in Judaism in the Chinese academic world, which, in turn, is bound to influence the West's perception of China.

The Jews of China

Historical and Comparative Perspectives

M. E. Sharpe, 352 pp., $ 29.95

Charles Horner is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and adjunct professor of politics at Washington and Lee University.