A LITTLE-known chapter in the history of China's Old Silk Road tells of a group of medieval Jewish traders who settled in the Song dynasty's imperial capital of Kaifeng. They prayed in Hebrew, observed Jewish dietary laws, circumcised their newborn boys and built a synagogue facing west - towards Jerusalem. The presence of Jews in China is recorded as early as 960 AD, when an imperial charter granted Jews from the Gulf region the right to bring carpets to trade for silk. Some of the Jews who chose to settle in China brought their families with them, but most inter-married with locals. Within a few generations they came to look more Chinese than Jewish, but retained their religious heritage. The community, which at its peak numbered in the thousands, survived until late last century. Today, more than 1,000 years after their first arrival, and 100 years since the sad, final stages of the community's disintegration, descendants of Kaifeng's Jews are trying to rekindle a renaissance. ''We consider our ancestral home to be Israel,'' says Professor Zhao Xiangru, a staff-member at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a descendant of the Kaifeng Jews. ''We are Israelites. We had a temple and, like the one in Jerusalem, it has been destroyed.'' As president of the Society for the Study of the History and Culture of the Kaifeng Jews, Professor Zhao is spearheading a drive to preserve the few remaining relics of the community, to revive a sense of identity in its descendants, and to re-establish contact with Jews around the world. His ambitious plans call for the restoration of Kaifeng's ancient Jewish cemetery, and the construction of a memorial hall to Chinese Jews based on the design of Kaifeng's original synagogue. With changes abounding in China, Professor Zhao is also working with local authorities to establish a separate Overseas Jews' Economic Development Zone within Kaifeng's larger, existing zone. This, he says, ''is to pave the way for foreign Jews to engage in commercial activities and to establish factories in Kaifeng''. Professor Zhao's efforts have the approval of Kaifeng's municipal government. The mayor, Mr Sun Guanghua, is listed as an adviser to the society and has promised his support, on condition that there is no promotion of religious activity and that funding comes from foreign sources. CHINESE officialdom, however, does not look kindly on all aspects of the renaissance. Attempts by other descendants of Chinese Jews to gain recognition as an official minority nationality have been rejected. Such status would confer, among other benefits, subsidies from the central government, representation in the National People's Congress, and exemption from China's strict one-child birth control policy. There are now between 3,000 and 5,000 Chinese who trace their lineage back to Jewish ancestors, not only from Kaifeng (a mid-size city in Henan province), but also from Yunnan, Fuijian, Lanzhou and Guangdong. A handful have been allowed to designate themselves as ethnic Jews on their identity papers. Many have also registered themselves as members of China's officially recognised Muslim minority, because Jews and Muslims have a few customs in common, foremostamong them a prohibition against eating pork. When China and Israel established diplomatic relations last year, hopes were renewed that official minority status for Chinese Jews might be possible. But the State Nationalities Affairs Commission shows no willingness to reconsider the question. ''There is no proof to support the notion of a Jewish national minority,'' a spokesman for the commission says. ''Although some people consider themselves Jewish, our investigation found no special characteristics. These people are . . . the same as Han Chinese.'' Similarly, Israeli authorities are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to recognise China's Jews. Under Israel's Law of Return, any Jew living anywhere in the world has the right of abode in Israel. ''It would be interesting to know how these people found out about the right of return,'' says an Israeli consular official. The embassy has heard compelling stories from prospective emigrants. None purport to be practising Jews or even to know much about Judaism. They claim instead that they are of Jewish heritage, and that the documents proving it were lost during the Cultural Revolution. ''It's a difficult decision for us to make, but if we give a passport to anyone who tells us they don't eat pork, we will be inundated,'' says the official.