Pearl Buck, the daughter of American Presbyterian missionaries, grew up in early 20th century China and wrote many books about the country. This one focuses on the little-known Jewish community of Kaifeng, descended from – as far as anyone can tell – a small community of Persian Jews who settled in the area in around the 11th century AD. The chronology of the book is rather confused, as the afterword, written by an expert on the subject, explains. From what it says about Kaifeng, it ought to be set in the very early 19th century, but it refers to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century and Chinese empresses from the very late 19th century, as well as making some vague remarks about persecution of Jews “over the mountains” which sound as if they refer to events in the late 19th century Russian Empire. However, the focus is on domestic rather than political events, so just accept that it’s set some time in the 19th century and try not to think about it too much!
Peony, the “eponymous heroine”, is a Han Chinese bondmaid in the home of a leading Kaifeng Jewish family; but the book isn’t really about her, more about the family. Peony loves David, the only child of the family, with whom she’s grown up, but, because she’s a servant, knows that she can’t hope to marry him. David’s marriage is going to be the turning point for the family. The Kaifeng Jews have, over the years, intermarried with their Han Chinese neighbours, and Jewish religious practices and cultural identity in the area are dying out. David’s mother wants him to marry the daughter of the town’s last rabbi, and become the leader of the Jewish community. His father thinks that a marriage with the daughter of one of his Han Chinese business partners may be a better bet. Peony, feeling that the rabbi’s daughter is suspicious of her attachment to David and may want her to leave, pushes him towards the business partner’s daughter.
Without wanting to give away too much about how it all happens, David eventually marries the Han Chinese girl, and accepts that the remaining Kaifeng Jews will become fully integrated into the Han Chinese community. According to Wikipedia, there are still about 500 people in Kaifeng, mainly of mixed heritage, who identify as Jewish. Pearl Buck, who, as the daughter of missionaries, was denounced by the Chinese authorities as being a “cultural imperialist”, something which she was very distressed by, writes very movingly about both Peony and about David and his family. Peony’s meddling in David’s life is rather annoying, but no-one ever said that main characters have to be likeable!
Peony’s own story, incidentally, takes a rather far-fetched turn, but never mind! The book isn’t particularly about her. What the book does do is ask a lot of questions, relevant in many societies both today and in the past, about the relationships between religious or ethnic or cultural minorities and the wider communities in which they live. David is aware that, in many parts of Europe, Jews have historically been discriminated against and even persecuted, whereas, in China, that hasn’t been the case at all. He knows that his mother would prefer for the remaining Kaifeng Jews to remain distinct from the rest of the population, and that something will be lost if they do not, but he also asks himself what is to be achieved by particular groups of people keeping themselves apart.
That can be asked in all sorts of different circumstances. In the case of 19th century Kaifeng, there’s a very small minority group within the general populace. In other cases, there are groups with similar numbers, as in parts of Belfast, or where the minority group is politically dominant, as happened in colonial South America, or where there’s quite a large minority group. A few months ago, Sky News presented a report from the Glodwick area of Oldham, where the white and Asian communities live in different areas and representatives from both communities said that they preferred it that way, despite concerns that that sort of voluntary segregation is fostering ethnic tensions. It’s a complex issue, addressed in this book within the context of a community about which little (although apparently there was a musical which completely flopped) has been written.
There are a lot of books about tensions and discrimination, but very few which look at things from this sort of angle. It’s something different, and well worth a read.