|Vol. I, No. 12
Adar 5604 March 1844
The Jews in China.
We promised in our fourth number to furnish at a later period any interesting matter embraced in Mr. Finn's book on this subject. But hitherto our space has been too much occupied to permit us to redeem our promise. It is, therefore, with pleasure that we seize the first opportunity of laying before our readers Mr. F.'s account of the Discovery and Intercourse with the Israelites in that distant country, which forms the subject of his first chapter, although it is but the same which has appeared before in other works. Our readers must not forget that the persons who give us the account were missionaries, who had a purpose of their own to answer, and that we have no means at hand as yet to verify their assertions; though it is to be hoped that now, since there is a prospect of a more intimate intercourse with the Chinese, our European friends will endeavour to form relations of friendship with these distant brethren who have so long been strangers to the Israelites of the West. We call the attention of the Editor of the Voice of Jacob in particular to this interesting subject, in the hope that he may present the matter to the consideration of his influential readers in England. With these remarks we present the subjoined to the perusal of our readers.—Ed. Oc.
Discovery and Intercourse.
The Jesuit missionaries were but a short time settled in Peking, when one summer's day, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, a visitor called upon Father Matthew Ricci, induced to do so by an account then recently published in the metropolis, of the foreigners who worshipped a single Lord of heaven and earth, and yet were not Mohammedans. Entering the house with a smile, he announced himself as one of the same religion with its inmates. The missionary remarking how much his features and figure differed from those prevailing among the Chinese, led him to the chapel. It was St. John Baptist's-day, and over the altar was a painting of the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus, and the future Baptist on his knees before them. The stranger bowed to the picture as Ricci did, but explained at the same time, that he was not accustomed to do so before any such representations; only he could not refrain from paying the usual homage of the country to his great ancestors. Beside the altar were pictures of the four evangelists. He inquired if these were not of the twelve? Ricci answered in the affirmative, supposing him to mean the twelve apostles. Then, returning to the first apartment, he proposed questions in turn, and an unexpected explanation ensued. The stranger was a descendant of Israel, and during his survey of the chapel, had imagined the large picture to represent Rebekah with Jacob and Esau, and the other persons to denote four of the sons of Jacob.
It was some time before this simple explanation could be elicited on account of the misunderstanding on both sides, which impeded the use of direct interrogation. The visitor, however, nothing of the appellation, Jew: he styled himself an Israelite, by name Ngai, a native of Kae-fung-foo, the capital of the province, Ho-nan, where, having prepared himself by study for a Mandarin degree, he had now repaired to Peking for his examination; and, led by curiosity or a fellow-feeling for the supposed fraternity of his nation, he had thus ventured to call at the mission-house.
He stated, that in his native city there were ten or twelve families of Israelites, with a fair Synagogue, which they had recently restored and decorated at an expense of ten thousand crowns,* and in which they preserved a roll of the law, four five hundred years old; adding, that in Hang-chow-foo, the capital of Che-Keang, there were considerably more families, with their Synagogue.
He made several allusions to events and persons of Scripture history, but pronounced the names differently from the mode usual in Europe. When shown a Hebrew Bible he was unable to read it, though he at once recognized the characters. He said that Hebrew learning was still maintained among his people, that his brother was proficient in it; and he seemed to confess that his own neglect of it, with preference for gentile literature, had exposed him to censure from the congregation and the rabbi;* but this gave him little concern, as his ambition aimed at the honours to be gained from Chinese learning—a disciple rather of Confucius than of Moses.
Three years afterwards, having had no earlier opportunity, Ricci despatched a Chinese Christian to investigate, at Kae-fung-foo, the truth of this singular discovery. All was found to be as described, and the messenger brought back with him a copy of the titles and endings of the five books of Moses. These were compared with the printed Plantinian bible. and found to correspond exactly: the writing, however, had no vowel-points. Ricci, ignorant of Hebrew, commissioned the same native convert to return with an epistle, in Chinese, addressed to the rabbi, announcing that at Peking he was possessor of all the other books of the Old Testament, as well as those of the New Testament, which contains a record of the acts of Messiah, who is already come. In reply, the rabbi asserted that Messiah is not only not come, but that he would not appear for ten thousand years. He added, that having heard of the fame of his correspondent, he would willingly transfer to him the government of the Synagogue, if Ricci would abstain from swine's flesh, and reside with the community.
Afterwards arrived three Israelites together from the same city, apparently willing to receive a Christianity; one of these was son of the brother already mentioned, of the first visitor. "They were received with kindness, and instructed in many things of which their rabbis were ignorant:" and when taught the history of Christ, they all paid to his image the same adoration as their entertainers did. Some books being given them in the Chinese language, such as, "A Compendium of Christian Faith," and others of the same nature, they read them, and carried them home at their return.
They described their congregation as on the brink of extinction, partly from the decay of their national language, and partly because their chief had lately died at a very advanced age, leaving for his hereditary successor a son, very young, and very little versed in the peculiarities of their religion.
These personages readily fell in with several opinions of the missionaries. Trigaut felts us that they expressed a desire for pictures as helps to devotion, to be in their Synagogue and private oratories, particularly for pictures of Jesus. They complained of the interdiction from slaughtering animals for themselves, which, if they had not transgressed recently upon the road, they must have perished with hunger. They were likewise ready to renounce the rite of circumcision on the eighth days, which their wives and the surrounding heathen denounced as a barbarous and cruel practice. And they hold out the expectation, that inasmuch as Christianity offers relief in such matters, it would be easily adopted among their people. Yet the author gives no account of any consequent conversions. He passes on abruptly from this subject of Jewish filth to relate the progress of Christian truth in China.
It appeared, on further inquiry, that the Chinese comprise under the one designation, Hwuy-hwuy, the three religions of Israelites, Mohammedans, and the Cross-worshippers, descendants of early Syrian Christians, subsisting in certain provinces, but occasionally distinguishing them thus:—
l. The Mohammedans, as the Hwuy abstaining from pork.
2. The Israelites, as the Hwuy who cut out the nerves and sinews from their meat; and,
3. The Cross-worshippers, who refuse to eat of animals which have an undivided hoof; which latter restriction, it was said, the Israelites there did not observe.
Julius Aleni, after the death of Ricci, being a Hebrew scholar visited Kae-fung-foo about the year 1613, but found circumstances so much changed from some cause or other, that although he entered the Synagogue and admired its cleanliness, they would not withdraw the curtains which concealed the sacred books.
In Nanking Semmedo was informed by a Mohammedan, that in that city he knew of four families of Jews who had embraced the religion of the Koran, they being the last of their race there, and their instructors having failed as their numbers diminished. Indeed, the visitors from Kae-fung-foo had before assured Ricci, in Peking, that the same cause would soon reduce them to the alternative of becoming heathens or Mohammedans.
However, Semmedo, writing in 1642, consoled himself with the hope that whereas a Christian church had been recently erected in that city, the congregation of the Synagogue would rather receive Christianity, which, besides the consideration of being the truth, is most nearly allied to their own religion.
The Mohammedans of Nanking he described as a motley collection from various nations and eras of settlement; one of whom had surprised him by conversing about David, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, pronouncing these names very distinctly. He compared their condition to that of the Jews while in Spain, they being mostly merchants or physicians, only held in higher consideration than the Spanish Jews had been: inasmuch as in China the public honours are open to all aspirants.
Such was the amount of intelligence received in Europe concerning that remote off-shoot of Israel up to the middle of the seventeenth century. Christendom was not unconcerned at the discovery; China itself was but a newly-opened mine for European research; the indistinct glimpses afforded by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century were indeed extending into broader fields of vision, by means of the obedient zeal of Romanist missionaries. But when Xavier, expiring within sight of China, before admission was conceded to Christianity, prayed for its conversion with his latest accents, and when Valignano so frequently turned his looks from Macao towards the prohibited land, exclaiming, "O rock, rock, when wilt thou open?" they were not aware that within that strong solidity was to be found a relic of the peculiar nation who are every where witnesses of the "goodness and the severity of God."
The devout rejoiced at this fresh demonstration of truth respecting the scattered yet guarded race; the philosophical marvelled at the fact of a Mosaic people so ancient as to be ignorant of the denomination Jew, emigrants out of empires now long since extinct, into a very different phasis of civilization, but preserved with their old language and religion even to these days; and, moreover, that with so slight efforts made, these should be known to exist at four various points, containing a line of seven hundred miles, viz., from Peking to Hang-chow-foo.