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'I thought we were Muslims because we never ate pork.'--Qu Yinan : Chinese Jew Comes to U.S. to Trace Roots

December 08, 1985|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

Qu Yinan, a Peking journalist, knew nothing of her Jewish ancestry until 1981.

She always thought her family was Muslim, if anything, because they never ate pork.

But one day four years ago her mother, a sociologist, went to an international conference and by chance heard about the little-known Jewish community of China, which is now virtually extinct.

The speaker said that a list of the Jewish families that once flourished at Kaifeng, a town on the Yellow River, included the name Jin, and added that a certain Prof. Jin was a descendant of that clan.

Prof. Jin turned out to be Qu Yinan's great-uncle, who had died some years previously.

"Everybody was surprised," said Qu, now 26 and a student at the University of Judaism's campus overlooking the Sepulveda Pass.

The surprise was understandable, since Chinese Jews, never more than a few thousand in number, had become almost totally assimilated by the mid-19th Century, after a history going back at least as far as the Sung dynasty--between the years 960 and 1126.

Biblical Injunctions

Qu's own grandfather, who was born in Kaifeng, remembered some Jewish ritual and passed on to his children the Biblical injunctions against eating pork and shellfish, Qu said. He also wore the blue skullcap that was traditional among Chinese Jews, as opposed to the white skullcaps of the more numerous Muslim minority.

But the next generation, swept up in the turbulent events of China's recent history, retained none of their exotic past.

"I thought we were Muslims because we never ate pork," Qu said. Indeed, once her interest was aroused, she found that there was little or no information to be had in China about the subject.

So when her mother published an article, "I Am a Chinese Jew," in a scholarly journal, it drew attention at home and abroad.

"It was the first public declaration by anyone of that community of their Jewishness," said Rabbi Josh Stampfer of Portland, Ore., who met the family in Peking during a 1983 visit and found them eager to learn about the subject.

"You can't take courses about Judaism in China," Qu said. "I wanted to find out more about Judaism. I also want to write back to China about it."

That curiosity led to an invitation from Stampfer to come to the United States, and approval a year later by the Chinese authorities for her unprecedented venture abroad to study Jewish topics.

Qu said securing permission to study abroad was "not very hard." About 14,000 students from China are studying in the United States, but she is the only one she knows who is specializing in Jewish topics.

Learned English

Arriving in Portland last year, Qu stayed with the rabbi's family and learned a fluent but still-accented English before moving to Los Angeles to begin work on a master's degree in Jewish studies.

The transition has not been an easy one. Bicycles are not as useful in the Santa Monica Mountains as they are in the flat streets of the Chinese capital, and no money means no car.

"In Peking I never drive," she said. "I always had a driver to go to assignments for the paper. But living in L.A., no car is like no feet."

The university, which is affiliated with Judaism's Conservative wing, gives her free tuition, and 17 hours a week of campus work covers room and board expenses, but there is no money to spare.

"I knew it would be hard before I came here, but I never knew how hard," said Qu, who comes from a family of well-connected academics. "In China, I never think about money, but here it drives me crazy."

Helped by teachers and fellow students, Qu has started to learn American ways, such as charging a fee for speaking engagements.

"Many synagogues invite me because they want to know about me," she said. "I want to know about them, too. I've been to Reform and Conservative synagogues, and I want to see the Orthodox, too. I really didn't know anything about Judaism before. Now I want to know (a little about) everything at first, then pick one (field) like history or literature."

Motivated more by scholarly interest than religious feelings, Qu said she hopes to write articles or perhaps a book about Judaism and the world Jewish community for publication in China.

"I am very interested in Judaism because I want to know about these things. I study not only for the religion, but for research," she said.

Return Uncertain

She said she does not know when she will return to her homeland.

Although there may have been other Jewish communities in ancient China, Kaifeng is the only one about which there is any real information.

Its origin is somewhat mysterious, but the few scholars who have studied the matter concluded that the original families most likely came from Persia, either by land or by sea via India.

Stone inscriptions testify to more than a thousand years of communal life at Kaifeng, sustained for much of that time by contact with the established Persian communities further along the old Silk Road, the overland link between China and the West.

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