When Ai was in Peking hoping for assignment in the imperial civil service after successfully completing the magistrate’s exam, he learned of a book titled Things I Have Heard Tell about a small band of Europeans headed by Ricci who was opening a church. The author explained that these foreigners believed in one god.
Educated Chinese thought the foreigners must be Moslems, but Ai thought they might be Jews. He arrived at the church thinking it was a synagogue and introduced himself to Ricci, who he thought was a Rabbi. Ricci, who had been searching for early Christian communities in China, greeted Ai with open arms.
Because the celebration of the festival of St. John the Baptist was underway, a painting of Mary and the infant Jaysus had been placed near the alter, together with another of a youthful St. John. Ricci knelt before them. Ai thought they were Rebecca and her sons Jacob and Esau so he also knelt (although that was not his usual custom). Later, seeing a mural of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, he wondered aloud if they might not be four of the 12 sons of Jacob and asked where the other eight were.
Finally, it was all sorted out leaving Ricci disappointed not to find a Chinese Christian, but astounded to find a Chinese Jew.
Ricci had discovered a diaspora with an amazing history dating from 8th century migrations of Jewish merchants and traders over the Silk Road from Persia and India. He learned that the surviving Jewish community in Kaifeng included many families who observed religious practices centering in the synagogue and observed most of the traditional festivals, abstained from eating pork, circumcised their sons and followed the laws of Moses in ways that were similar to the practices of Jews in Europe. He did, however, think that their isolation would lead them to be shortly assimilated into the surrounding population.
When Ricci sent messengers to Kaifeng, they carried a letter to the chief Rabbi telling him that the Christian house of worship in Peking had all the books of the Hebrew Bible and also a set of later scriptures called the New Testament – which, they explained, would be of special interest to the Jews because in it they would finally be able to read the story of the Messiah who had come 16 centuries earlier to redeem their own people and all the other peoples of the world as well.
The bemused rabbi responded that he did not understand how a person of Ricci’s vast erudition could believe the Messiah had already arrived when it was common knowledge that he had not and would not for another 10,000 years. However, the Rabbi also wrote that he himself was now old and sick, and if Ricci would move to Kaifeng he might accept the position of Chief Rabbi.
The Rabbi was less concerned with Ricci’s aberrant belief in the Messiah (which he took to be a personal idiosyncrasy) than with his not obeying the dietary laws, and said that the job was his if he would give up eating Pork.
Interestingly, while Ricci knew a great deal about Jews, the Jews of Kaifeng had never heard of Christians. Ai Ti’en seems to have concluded that a Christian was a member of a Jewish sect—a sect that had certain strange doctrines and practices but was still a part of the House of Israel.
While Ricci thought the Kaifeng Jewish community was on the verge of extinction, this was not so. Seven or eight generations of Jews were still to live out their lives in Kaifeng before their community ceased to function as a viable religious entity. And even after that, there was nostalgic evocation of traditions and ethnic origins of their fathers leading to at least a nominal allegiance to their ancient faith.