By Jennifer 8. Lee | December 26, 2007
From Danwei, a photo of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas — in Beijing! The banner reads “A Warm Welcome to the Jewish Delegation’s Participation in the First Annual Beijing Christmas Chinese food banquet!” Note the little Star of Davids (filled in).
On the sign, çŒ¶å¤ª (youtai), in case you are wondering, means “Jewish” in contemporary Mandarin Chinese. However in Kaifeng, former capital of the Song Dynasty that’s been on a downhill slide since, there is a population of Chinese Jews (i.e. looks like me, but like supposedly “Chosen”) that moved there about a thousand years ago via the Silk Road. There, the Chinese Jews were referred as æŒ‘ç‹æ•™ (tiaojinjiao) — “the sect/order that removes the sinew”, referring to their kosher culinary practices.
The shorthand history (some of which is in dispute among academics, some of whom believe the “Chinese Jew” is a western construct): anti-Semitic fervor of 11th-century Crusaders drove a community of Jews from their home on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, in what is now Turkey. They eventually settled in Kaifeng, then the capital of China under the Song Dynasty. There they built a synagogue in 1163, and did the Jewish thing (kosher, sabbath, circumscision, some version of Passover) for hundreds of years.
Then the story gets interesting around 1605, when the Chinese Jews met Western and Western Christians met Chinese Jews and were confused by the existance of one another, per the diaries of Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit Missionary Priest. Basically a Kaifeng Jew named Ai Tian, who went to Beijing to take a civil service examination., heard that there was a European who insisted that he was not a Muslim, and believed in the one true God.
Ai Tian assumed that this man must be Jewish. Father Ricci assumed Ai Tian, who believed in one god, must be Christian. And it led to all kinds of interesting misunderstandings. For example, Father Ricci showed Ai Tian the picture of Mary, Jesus and St. John the Baptist but Ai Tian though it was an images of Rebecca and her two sons, Jacob and Esau from the Hebrew Bible. Then he saw images of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John and though they were pictures of the â€œfour of twelveâ€ meaning the twelve sons of Jacob.
At a certain point, Father Ricci realized he was actually facing a Chinese Jew.
The status of the Chinese Jews is weird. They are almost all gone/assimilated due to the destruction of the synagogue in the mid-1800s. There are little bits and pieces of Jewishness sticking out here and there (brought to them perhaps by western Jews). One conflict: among modern rabbinical practices only matrilineal transmission of Jewishness is recognized (a Jew is a convert or someone whose mother is a Jew), while Chinese Jews recognized only patrilineal descent. And interestingly, if a woman married a Chinese Jew, she could “become Jewish.”
I actually made a trek to Kaifeng to find the lost Chinese Jews for my book. It’s in the Chosen food of the chosen people chapter. More on that in later posts, I’m late for dinner now.
Anyway, so Jews and Chinese food on Christmas. The tradition has gone global.