From Melvin Konner’s Unsettled – An Anthropology of the Jews:
…In 1489, carved in stone, we have, “Althought there are some minor discrepancies between Confucian doctrine and our own…both are exclusively concerned with honoring the Way of Heaven, venerating ancestors, valuing the relations of ruler and subject, obedience to parents, harmony with families, correct ordering of social hierarchies, and good fellowship among friends: Nothing more than the ‘five cardinal relations’ of manking. Although it differs from Confucian texts in its writing system, if one scrutinizes the basic principles he will find that it is the same, as it contains the Way of constant practice.” A 1663 inscreption adds that the Jewish sacred texts have the same basic meaning as the “Six Classics,” revered Confucian works. And a 1679 one states that Jewish Scriptures support the teachings of Confucius and Mencius….
The passages highlighted by Konner express the peculiarities of the Jew in Han China, and is remiscient of the way the Muslims of China attempted to reconcile their practice and beliefs with the norms of their nation. Legalistic Monotheism + Confucian China = predictable verbal gymnastics. Most of the works on Chinese Jews in English seem to have been authored by Westerners, but Jews in Old China is a work that is oriented toward primary sourced essays by Chinese scholars. It chronicles the foggy origins of the Chinese Jews (mostly, but not all, centered around Kaifeng) and their eventual decline and absorption, a fate in sharp constrast to the vibrant Hui minority.
So what happened? It seems clear that the Chinese Jewish community was always a few orders of magnitude less numerous than the Muslims. While Muslims were widely dispersed it seems that the Jews were concentrated in a few large cities, and so were subject to greater variation in fortunes as natural disasters and political turbulence on the local level tended to loom large for the fate of the whole community (ie; all eggs in one basket syndrome). But in addition to the periodic acts of God with destabilized the Jewish community the last few centuries of its existence there was the constant pressure of assimilation to the Han culture around them. Extracted out of any supportive milieu and unable to shield themselves as individuals by shear force of local numbers like Muslims the Jewish community persevered by holding true to their practices as referenced in their Torah and Talmud through individual fidelity to their traditions. There were no mass pogroms or any particular interest in converting the Jews to non-Jewish practice on the part of the Chinese government. Instead of push, pull was the issue, as many of the young men of the community aspired to the Mandarinate, which entailed rigorous and deep study of Chinese Classics. Because of the finite nature of time it became common for prominent Jewish men of the Kaifeng community to be far more conversant and comfortable in the literature of China than the law of the Talmud. These men were also often polygynous, and usually had Chinese wives. Assertions of Jewishness could sometimes seem almost comical, one learned scholar and official ate pork, but forbade the raising of pigs in the yard of his estate. Eventually he acceded to the wishes of his wives and the swine ran free.
After 1800 the intersection of natural disasters, the passing away of their last rabbi and the deterioration of their economic standing concomitant with the decline of the Chinese state into disorder resulted in the final dissolution of the Jewish community as a higher order entity. As the supportive bonds between fellow Jews were broken they scattered apart to make their way as individuals in Chinese society. Some converted to Christianity. But a more common option was to be absorbed into the Hui community, which was natural since the Han Chinese seemed to long have had difficulty distinguishing the two groups of pork-abstaining monotheists from the West (the Jews were often termed “Blue Hat Hui” because of their caps, while the conventional Hui wore white hats, though they were most often known as the “Sinew-plucking religion”). It is likely that the majority simply melted into the Han masses.
The Jews of China reacted to Chinese culture in a fashion very similar to the Muslims of China. They simply slotted their own parochial terms into the closest fits possible into the Chinese Way. Nevertheless, quantity mattered,1 without social critical mass possible through numbers and the diffusion of risk via demographic dispersal, the Jewish community was not able to maintain its coherency in the face of assimilative pressures. China, being a highly literate and historically minded culture though left us with ample evidence of a peculiar community that likely never numbered more than some tens of thousands.
Update: I feel as if I should add some context and flesh out this post a bit in response to some comments. First, please note that Jews and Muslims were not the only “Western barbarians” to bring their religions to China. In the 8th and later 12th century (two separate seedings) Christianity was brought to the Middle Kingdom. In the second half of the first millennium both Zoroastrianism and Manichaeanism (the former the source of many Judeo-Christian-Islamic theological concepts, the latter to a large extent a hybridization of Zoroastrianism and Christianity) were introduced to Tang China.
One must remember that when compared on various characteristics all the Western religions were very similar when set against Chinese beliefs (I assume here that Buddhism is Chinese, though it too started out as a Western religion, that is, from India via Central Asia). If one constructed a cladistic character based tree the various Chinese beliefs would occupy one branch and the various Western religions would occupy another. In many ways each of the attempting plantings of Western religions in pre-modern China were replications of the introduction of affinal meme-complexes. Of these introductions only Islam managed to survive into the modern era in China (the modern revival of Christianity dates only to the 19th century, and more realistically to the past few decades in terms of growth). This is in sharp contrast to India, where four of the five Western religions took root. Christianity rooted itself in Southern India (the state of Kerala is 20% Syrian Christian). Ancient Jewish communities also existed side by side with the Christians in Kerala, while another group resided up the coast (around modern Bombay). The Zoroastrians established the powerful Parsi community in Gujarat. And of course Indian Muslims have a strong presence because of the legacy of Turkish rule and subsequent conversions, but even without this important historical fact, a separate community of Muslims arose in Kerala in a fashion cognate with the Syrian Christians and Jews via the Arabian Sea trade. In other words, even if Indians had repulsed the Turkic invasions it is plausible that a small non-trivial indigenous Muslim community would exist in India (Muslim Arabs also served in the armies of Indian potentates from an early date).
So what was the difference between India and China? I think Kerala is the key, because Muslims, Jews and Christians all took root there and persisted without the protection of states which promoted their religion (that is, they were ruled usually by Hindu maharajas, though sometimes the Muslims also had their own rulers later on). All of these communities maintained links with the worldwide information networks of their religions. The Syrian Christians had long standing relationships with the Christian communities in Baghdad and Antioch. The Cochin Jews were in contact with West Asian Jewish communities, and were periodically energized by influxes of foreign groups (Jews fleeing persecution from as far away Portugal and the Rhineland!). The Muslims of Kerala had close relations with Arab ulema from Arabia proper, which is reflected in their adherence to the Shafi school of sharia (most Indian Sunnis are Hanafi, which is more closely associated with the Turkic world). Arab reformers even emigrated to Kerala periodically, and the Muslims of Kerala have a long history of Arabic scholarship. Further north in Gujarat it seems that the Parsi communities have been reinforced by emigration of Zoroastrians from Iran as late as the 19th century after their initial 8th century exodus.
I think my point is pretty clear: distance was a crucial factor in the absorption of the Western religionists in China and their persistence in India. Because of the open information networks via long distance trade as well as the possibility of pilgrimage to holy sites the connections were maintained with the international religious communities in India. In China because of the distance this was simply not as likely. The existence of the Silk Road and Muslim peoples adjacent to the Chinese state in the Tarim Basin served as a conduit to worldwide Islam for the Hui of China proper. In contrast, the Christians and Zoroastrians of Xian, the Manichaeans of South China and the Jews of Kaifeng were far more isolated, and it seems plausible that their religion started to become a distant mythology as no one in living memory had journeyed to Jerusalem or the ancient religious sites of Iran. While West Asian clerics could foreseeably settle in India, with which their homelands had a regular direct trade with, China was a distant land of myth.
In regards to Jews, the fact that the Lemba of Zimbabwe carry the Cohen Modal Haplotype as do the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico is to me evidence that Jews did venture quite far from the orbit of the civilized world. If it were not for genetics it seems almost certain that scholars would dismiss the Jewish ancestry of both the Lemba and the Crypto-Jews of the Amerian Southwest as nothing more than legends and myths. If the Jews of Kaifeng had disappeared as an organized community in 1600 instead of 1800 before the arrival of European priests interested in their culture it might be that they too would be a myth, and those Chinese who claimed Jewish ancestry would be dismissed as attempting to appropriate an exotic identity. I am willing to bet that many more surprising “Jewish” groups will be discovered in the next few years (that is, groups will exhibit the Cohen Modal Haplotype, which indicates ancestry derived from the Jewish priestly lineage). So in answer to Michael’s question about why more Jews did not flee persecution, I suspect many did. But cut off from the critical mass of practicing Jews shackled under dhimmitude and Christian domination these refugees were inevitably absorbed by their milieu. And why did Jews persist in the hostile lands of Islam and Christianity while they withered under the benign neglect of the Imperial Chinese? Part of it is I think distance from Jerusalem and the places where the events in the Bible occurred. Egypt, Babylonia, Israel, etc. all were conceivable and reachable, at least to the elite, even if one resides in Spain, Germany or Yemen. In contrast, to a Chinese Jew these were simply locations described in their religious texts with which they had no semblence of concrete relation or conception of. But the death by tolerance factor was at work also I suspect. The idea that persecution strengthens a community is often too glib an answer, but, I suspect that the Talmudic Judaism of the Pharisees is tenable (and flourishes) most when there is a tension between it and the surrounding society so that individuals must by necessity partake of the communal identity for their own well being. In both Christianity and Islam Jews had a special role as a reviled and respected precursor people and the savants of these faiths codified very specific ways to interact with and treat the Jewish people. If a Jew converted to either of the “daughter” religions he or she was implicitly cutting themself off from their own people and making a unidirectional transition (ie; reversion back to Judaism was proscribed by the dominant religions, at least in form if not always in practice). In contrast, it seems that if a young Jewish man in Kaifeng wanted to assimilate to the Han culture, but later took to Judaism more seriously and reverted back to halakhic practice, the Chinese would not view this with the same opprobrium. In short, in Kaifeng there was a whole spectrum of individual choices and and group dynamics could not robustly manipulate them. In the world of Islam and Christianity the choices, at least for a great period of time, available to Jews were constrained by the peculiar and historically contingent relationships of these religions to the Jewish people. In some ways I think one can make an analogy with American Judaism, where personal choice is dominant over communal loyalties, and like the Chinese case I think that that results in the erosion of the coherence of a Jewish “people.”2
1 – Unlike the Jews of India the Jews of Kaifeng did not seem to have received any infusions of later waves of Jewish immigration and lostregular contact with the rest of the Jewry (it seems almost certain that they were derived from the Persian and Bukharan Jewish communities).
2 – In the Classical world there were Hellenistic Jews, but they do not seem to have left any ideological descendents, and many scholars suppose that they were often the first converts to Christianity because it served to privilege and maintain some element of Jewishness but also offered the opportunity to assimilate into the gentile world.