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Thursday, 28 September, 2000, 16:56 GMT 17:56 UK
China's Jewish heritage uncovered
Jewish cemetary
Many relics of China's Jewish community are in good condition
Little remains of China's once flourishing Jewish communities, yet many of their cultural artefacts are remarkably well preserved, a study by Chinese historians has revealed.

According to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, a recent survey in the northeastern city of Harbin reveals that hundreds of buildings built by the city's Jewish community in the early 20th century have survived practically unscathed.

Harbin is also home to the biggest Jewish cemetery in the Far East, boasting 700 gravestones with clearly legible Hebrew inscriptions.

There was a harmonious relationship between Jews and Chinese half a century ago

Harbin official Gao Yingxiang
Local historian Zhang Tiejiang said the survival of such extensive cultural remains gave the lie to Western assumptions that China's Jewish heritage had been destroyed after the Communists came to power in 1949.

"Westerners know little about Jewish people in China, creating a vacancy for the study of world Jewish history," Mr Zhang said.

A long association

Many Jews fleeing Nazi persecution settled in Shanghai
European Jews first arrived in China in the Middle Ages, many of them settling in the central city of Kaifeng. A Torah in Chinese from the Kaifeng synagogue can now be seen in the British Museum.

The less well-known Jewish community in Harbin grew up at the beginning of the 20th century when large numbers of Russian Jews arrived to help build railways in northeastern China.

During World War II, many Jews fleeing Nazi persecution settled in Shanghai, a city which still has a synagogue and a recently opened Jewish museum.

Reporting on the results of the survey Xinhua quoted a Harbin official as saying that the Chinese people had always done what they could to preserve the remains of Jewish culture.

"There was a harmonious relationship between Jews and Chinese half a century ago. After the Jews left China, the Chinese people voluntarily protected their heritage," Gao Yingxiang told the news agency.

Improving ties

Although most of China's Jews left during the 1950s, the Chinese government now recognises Jews as an official ethnic group, and the Harbin survey comes at a time when China is seeking to improve its ties with Israel.

Relations between the two countries were frosty for many decades after the war, but the last few years have seen a marked thaw.

The visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin to Israel earlier this year represented a further stage in this process.

During his visit, Mr Jiang - wearing a Jewish skull-cap - laid a wreath at Yad Vashem, Israel's national memorial to the 6 million Jews killed in the holocaust.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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