Shi Zhongyu's father always rose before dawn on the day of Chinese spring festival, donned a blue beanie and black coat he swore were untouched by pork and then performed rituals not normally seen in this inland city.

First, he baked flat, tasteless cakes made of wheat and prepared a large bowl of sweet mutton soup, placing both on a table as an offering to his ancestors.

Then, while other families hung red banners on their door jambs, Shi's father--who was a rich landlord from a Mandarin family of scholars and officials--painted chicken blood or bright red dye on the top ledge of his front gate.

Neighbors may have overlooked his curious style of welcoming spring, but the young Shi knew that his father was just using the Chinese festival as a pretext for an altogether different purpose of reaffirming his identity as a Jew.

What the elder Shi was observing was a Jewish holiday that he said marked his ancestors' "crossing over" from slavery to the promised land, known to Jews outside of China simply as Passover.

The flat bread, sweet soup and chicken blood were all symbolic reminders of this passage, the young boy was told.

"Father said it was the time to remember our ancestors who experienced hardships in the past," said Shi, now 60, in a recent interview. "He said he was adhering to Jewish tradition. It was just convenient that the holiday always came about the same time as spring festival."

Shi's faint memory of the holiday being observed this week in Jewish homes around the world is all that is left of his family's Judaism, which survived for centuries in so improbable a place as this ancient city in central China nearly 500 miles southwest of Peking.

Between 300 and 400 Chinese now living in Kaifeng are said to be descendants of Jews, the last trace of a once-thriving community that worshiped Torah scrolls in a synagogue until the mid-1800s, observed the Sabbath and dietary laws, spoke Hebrew and circumcised infant sons.

Their history is a story of extraordinary endurance. A tiny Jewish enclave never numbering more than 1,000 managed to maintain its distinct religion and customs for centuries in an alien land cut off from other Jews outside China.

Unlike European Jews who temporarily settled in China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to escape persecution, Shi's ancestors were far earlier arrivals who blended physicially and mentally into the society while upholding their religious identity.

For Jews who ponder their people's history of persecution and even now are observing their painful liberation from bondage, the Kaifeng story has an unusual twist: treated with tolerance, these Chinese Jews eventually disappeared by assimilating into the society at large.

None of Kaifeng's Jewish descendants practices the religion today, has any knowledge of Hebrew or openly associates with Israel or world Jewry. Through intermarriage and acculturation, their families became indistinguishable from the general Chinese community at least 100 years ago.

Some of them, however, recall the shadow of Judaism that was still flickering during their youth and continue today to acknowledge their ethnic roots.

"Whenever my mother brought out the portraits of my great grandfather and my grandparents," recalled Shi, now a local government official, "she'd say, 'Your ancestors come from abroad. Look at them. They look different' " from Chinese.

"Then, she'd say, 'Now look at yourself. Look at your nose. It's rather big. It's a typical [Jewish] nose. Just like your ancestors.' "

Shi's father told him that his forebears had come to China from southern India several centuries before, perhaps as part of the sizable migration of Jews and Moslems believed to have trekked in caravans across western China from the Persian Gulf and Subcontinent.

Although historical evidence suggests a Jewish presence in China as early as 200 B.C., the Kaifeng settlement is thought to have begun no earlier than the 10th century A.D.

By 1163, the Jewish community had grown large and prosperous enough to build its first synagogue at Earth-Market Street in the center of Kaifeng. This area became the focal point of communal and religious life for the city's Jews until the last descendants like Shi Zhongyu moved away a few years ago.

The synagogue was destroyed by flooding or fire three times and rebuilt three times before desperately poor former congregants who had lost all knowledge of Hebrew and ritual dismantled the structure in the 1860s, selling off its timber and stone to pay for food.

In more affluent times, however, the synagogue and community could have matched contemporary European standards for religious integrity, according to Western historians.

When the famous Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci met a Kaifeng Jew in 1605, he was told that a community of 1,000 followers of Israel worshiped in a synagogue containing Torah scrolls written 600 years earlier. They refrained from eating pork, practiced circumcision and observed most of the Jewish holidays.

Another Jesuit who visited Kaifeng in the early 1700s found the synagogue facing West toward Jerusalem and reported that the Jews "make no fire, nor do they cook" on the Sabbath, marry among themselves and let their facial hair grow.

Today, a hospital built by the Communist government occupies the old synagogue site, and the only evidence of the building once called the Temple of Purity and Good is two stone tablets that stood in the old courtyard and now sit in the dusty warehouse of the Kaifeng museum.

Still flanking the site, the twisting corridors of the Jewish settlement remain under the name of South and North Scripture Lanes that were once filled by Kaifeng Jews who grew wealthy through business, wise through study and powerful through government positions.

Shi grew up on North Scripture Lane, where he absorbed some of his ancestral past by listening to his father's stories about Jewish rituals. Once he remembers his father praying in a Catholic Church with several friends wearing blue skullcaps and white, triangular scarves.

He never saw the seven-branched candlestick of the Jewish faith known as the menorah, but his father's sisters showed him brass Stars of David that they wrapped in red silk and kept locked in the medicine chest.

Shi's mother was a non-Jewish concubine who gained great favor with his father by bearing him a son and by assuming some of the responsibility for making the boy aware of his family background.

She told him that as a boy raised in the Jewish tradition, he should undergo the rite of circumcision--she called it "an operation with a sharp stone"--to help him "mingle with the Lord." He escaped the surgery, Shi explained, because "I was a very spoiled child."

Shi's mother also informed him of Jewish dietary laws, especially the proscription on pork. His own family, she said, had ignored the rule ever since his grandfather--a high-ranking official--dined with the emperor in Peking's Forbidden City and ate some of the forbidden meat.

Small concessions made by Kaifeng Jews like Shi's grandfather help explain how the community escaped discrimination over the centuries, and, more significantly, why it finally dissolved.

Originally a conspicuous minority in a xenophobic land, the Jewish settlers worked hard at masking their Jewish background, according to scholarly studies. They mastered the language, adopted such Chinese practices as female foot-binding, emphasized the compatibility of Judaism and Confucianism and followed traditional Chinese paths to success.

Visitors to the Kaifeng synagogue in the early 18th century discovered that near the Hebrew scriptures and the "chair of Moses" were plaques honoring the emperor and incense bowls commemorating the ancient leaders of Israel, Kaifeng forefathers and Confucius.

The best and brightest of Kaifeng Jewry joined the scholar-official class and moved to other parts of China where they blended into the Confucian literati and lost contact with their coreligionists.

Even within Kaifeng, Jews were known as Blue Moslems, mistakenly regarded as a sect of the city's large Islamic-Chinese who wore white skullcaps instead of blue and abstained from pork.

By the time Christian missionaries returned to Kaifeng in the 1860s after a 125-year ban on foreigners' travel in China's interior, they found the synagogue razed, Jewish customs all but forgotten, knowledge of Hebrew dead and the community character diluted through intermarriage.

As reports of the community's demise reached Europe and America, Western Jews made sporadic but unsuccessful efforts to revive the lost tribe of Kaifeng in the 1920s and 1930s.

Despite the obvious disintegration of the Jewish community, Japanese occupiers apparently motivated by their Nazi allies raided homes of suspected Jews between 1938 and 1945 to search for potential troublemakers.

"They came to all the houses in our neighborhood to ask who was Jewish," Ai Fenming, a one-time resident of Scripture Lane, told a reporter in 1980. "We were very afraid. They had knives and guns. We did not say that, yes, we were Jews."

The Nazi Holocaust in Europe was publicized in China, but it did nothing to revive interest among Kaifeng's Jewish descendants or inspire a sense of loyalty toward Jews suffering abroad.

Shi Zhongyu said he felt an obligation as the son of a Jew to read about Hitler's persecutions, yet he did not feel personally threatened by the Nazi extermination policy or identify with its victims.

Shi said he first heard about a Jewish homeland in Palestine from his father and has little sympathy for the modern state of Israel as an adult.

"I don't feel positively for a country with such a policy of expansionism," he said, echoing the official Chinese stand. "That may not sound polite. But Israel is not a very polite place."

He has acquired a sketchy knowledge of Jewish history and historical figures over the years, knowing for instance that Moses delivered the Jews from bondage.

He was asked if he knew that Karl Marx was a Jew. "Yes, and Kissinger too," he replied.

Last spring, an American couple visiting Kaifeng invited Shi to join them in an impromptu Passover dinner at their hotel. Among the special foods were matzo--Shi called it "overbaked square crackers with no sugar, no salt and no taste"--that reminded him of the flat wheat cakes his father made more than 50 years ago.

The dinner stirred his memories, Shi conceded, but did not strengthen his identity as a Jew.

"To tell the truth," he said, "I don't have any deep feelings about being a Jew. Sometimes, I ask myself, 'Am I a Jew?' The answer is yes."

"But as a Chinese, I feel like I am the descendant of the Yellow Emperor," he added.