By Michael Pollak. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1980. 440 pages. $12.95 paper.
Jewish people in China? The notion will strike most American Jews as strange. But now in Mandarins, Jews, and Missionaries, Michael Pollak has given us a scholarly yet accessible overview of the history of China’s indigenous Jewish population (which is to be distinguished from the European Jewish population of China’s treaty ports such as Shanghai).
The history of the Chinese Jews makes fascinating reading. The oldest extant records of Jews in China are a letter written around 718 A.D. in Judeo-Persian (Persian written with Hebrew letters) on paper that was made in China, and a selihah (Hebrew penitential prayer) from the eighth or ninth century composed of Hebrew scriptures (pictures of both on pp. 262-63). After sifting through a great mass of literature on the subject, Pollak concludes that the Jews of Kaifeng probably began to arrive between 960 and 1126 A.D., building the first synagogue in 1163 (chap. 13). The settlement in Kaifeng was probably the largest, and certainly the most visible, Jewish settlement in China, numbering up to a few thousand. This community maintained contact with the Jewish world outside China until the sixteenth century, when the Ming dynasty forbade such contact. There continued to be a synagogue (rebuilt at least three times) until the 1860s, by which time services were not being held, and destitute members of the kehillah (community) sold off the building materials to ameliorate their poverty, which had been brought on by a flood.
Part One, The World and the Chinese Jews,” concerns the interest that the West took in the Jewish population of China. This part of the book discusses two issues in depth. The first of these is the “Chinese Rites Controversy” at the turn of the 18th century, an issue of interest to those involved in Jewish evangelism. This controversy was a debate over the nature of missionary methodology which involved different mission societies, mainly Catholic orders. The Jesuits wanted to allow their converts to maintain as many of their customs and Confucian ceremonies as possible so that they would feel free to become Christians, and thus more would convert. On the other hand, the Dominicans and Franciscans claimed that in allowing such cultural trappings, the Jesuits were not producing real converts. Here the Kaifeng Jews entered the picture. The church wanted to know how much Confucian ritual and custom they—the Jews—allowed, and what Chinese terms they used to refer to God, in order to serve as possible guidelines for their own principles. This dispute over whether and to what extent indigenous culture could be used in the service of the gospel without importing an unbiblical theology is an issue familiar to many in the Messianic movement. Though accepting in general the rightness of continuing our Jewish culture, we still sometimes disagree on the propriety of utilizing certain rabbinic customs, prayers, or terminology.
The second issue Pollak discusses in Part One is that of the history of missions to the Jews, and how the Jews in Kaifeng fit into that history. In the area of missionary methodology, Pollak tells us his impressions of the ethics of the situation: one missionary sought to rebuild the Kaifeng synagogue as nothing more than a stratagem for bringing Jews to Christ (p. 170); others wrote letters to the Kaifeng Jews giving the impression that they themselves were Jewish (p. 142). Whether or not his assessment is accurate, Pollak reminds us of the importance of ethics in missions. (It should also be noted that Pollak raises questions on the ethics of non-Christian Jewish representatives, one of whom may have plagiarized or concocted a report of his visit to the Kaifeng Jews [pp. 188-91]).
Part Two, “The World of the Chinese Jews,” focuses on the lives of the Kaifeng Jews themselves, primarily on the religious aspect, including a history of the Kaifeng synagogue. Pollak also discusses the relations of the Jews to their neighbors, which were fundamentally good except during times of anti-foreign sentiment.
Mandarins, Jews, and Missionaries is undoubtedly one of the best in-depth introductions to the topic of Chinese Jewry and contains an extensive annotated bibliography. In addition, it contains pictures of Chinese Jews, a drawing of the synagogue in Kaifeng as it appeared in 1722, and examples of some of the Hebrew texts from China. There is also a glossary of Chinese terms in the book, such T’iao-chin-chiao, “religion that extracts the sinews” (the term for Judaism, in reference to the practice of removing the sinew from meat during butchering, a custom derived from Genesis 32:25-33).
For those interested in reaching Jews with the gospel, this book contains a warning about insincerity and end-justifies-the-means evangelism, both of which result in a loss of reputation for those proclaiming the Good News. It is also thought-provoking on the topic of the use of indigenous culture in missionary work.
Of additional interest to Jewish believers is the question of Jewish identity which permeates the entire book. There is no definitive answer to the question of when (or if) these Chinese people ceased to be Jewish. If someone’s only tie to the Jewish people is that they know that their ancestors were Jewish, does that make them Jewish, too? Finally, the book gives us insight into how a modern Jewish scholar views Christianity and its meaning and relevance: it is clear that Pollak does not believe that one can be Jewish and also follow New Testament teaching or consider Jesus as the Messiah.