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The Evidences of Nestorian Christianity in Ancient China
by Glen L. Thompson
In 2001, the author, ecumenist, and BBC broadcaster Martin Palmer announced the discovery of a seventh- or eighth-century Christian pagoda in central China. Palmer’s claims were reported in Christianity Today and U.S. News and World Report.
I was teaching in Hong Kong that year and had been planning a ten-day trip into China when I first heard the news. As a church historian, I was intrigued. I was able to get a rough idea of the location and added an extra day to my itinerary in the hope of visiting the site. It lies about thirty miles southwest of the ancient Tang Dynasty capital that today is called Xi’an, in the famous area of Lou Guan Tai, now a national park.
The Da Qin Pagoda
Lou Guan Tai sits at the base of a pass leading westward through the Qingling Mountains. Something about its location—its feng shui—made the site revered as a spiritual place, and in the sixth century B.C., the scholar Laozi (or Lao-Tzu) is said to have settled there to pursue the Tao after leaving the royal court in disgust at its worldliness. Here he wrote Tao Te Ching, “The Book of the Way and Its Power,” founding the philosophy known today as Taoism.
Lou Guan Tai later grew into an important Taoist center, and it was just a mile or two to the west, either just inside or outside the Taoist complex, that twelve centuries later the Da Qin monastery was built by Christian monks. Only one tower of the monastery remains, a seven-story pagoda that Palmer says was near to falling.
Since Palmer’s announcement, repairs have been made, and the tower now seems in rather good shape for a 1,300-year-old structure. It is octagonal and looks exactly like other ancient Chinese pagodas. In a Chinese book of 1563, the pagoda is clearly named and described, and at that time had even more extensive ruins visible.
Palmer cites four strands of evidence that point to this as a Christian structure: (1) Its name, Da Qin, links it with an earlier Christian mission (more on this below); (2) the pagoda was cut into the hillside so as to face east, whereas all Chinese temples face north and south; (3) several lines of Syriac graffiti were found in or near the structure; and (4) several pieces of Christian statuary were found on the second and third floors of the pagoda. By the time of my visit, the statuary had been moved for safekeeping until a new museum could be built, so the description I give here is based solely on that of Palmer and the photographs reproduced in his book.
The statue that dominated the second floor of the pagoda was a 10-foot-high and 5-foot-wide mountain scene. In the mountain was a cave, and in the cave a remnant of a nativity scene. The only parts surviving are a bent right leg and an extended left leg. Such a posture, Palmer says, is unknown in Chinese art, but is common in Eastern Orthodox renditions of Mary in nativity scenes.
The third-floor statue, 6 feet high and 4 feet wide, is also in poor condition. The background here, however, can clearly be identified as a city wall (with Chinese-style bell and drum towers). Also visible is a tree with the remnants of a human figure seated beneath it. Palmer has identified the scene as Jonah beneath the gourd tree outside Nineveh.
Although these identifications should be accepted with much caution, when its features are taken as a whole, there seems good reason to identify the pagoda as an ancient Christian structure. It had, after all, been identified as such—back in 1933. As Palmer admits in The Jesus Sutras (2001), “the pagoda was believed by Saeki and other China scholars who had visited the site in 1933 to be associated with the early Christian Church.” Indeed, Peter Yoshiro Saeki, a Japanese religious scholar, had asked some local Chinese scholars to visit the site, and they confirmed that it was the remnant of a Nestorian building complex; they saw the same statuary Palmer discovered 65 years later.
Dr. Saeki, author of The Nestorian Documents and Relics in China (1937), had long been on the trail of Christianity in China. Back in 1916, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge published his The Nestorian Monument, a book about a well-known Chinese Nestorian stele.
When I visited the pagoda in 2001, I was also able to see this even more important early Christian monument, the Nestorian Stele. These two monuments, along with a third discovery, the Chinese equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, confirm that there was a significant Christian presence in seventh- and eighth-century China. An examination of these artifacts also highlights some of the problems missionaries encounter when presenting the gospel to a new and alien culture.
The Nestorian Stele
In 1623 an ancient stele was discovered near Xi’an, just thirty miles from the Christian pagoda. By 1625, the stele’s inscriptions had been published by the Jesuit Father Trigault. In the early twentieth century the stele stood near a Buddhist temple, a mile outside the western gate of Xi’an. In 1907 it was moved to its present location among the Xi’an historical museum’s famous collection of ancient steles.
The tablet stands about eight feet high, is just over three feet wide, and about a foot thick. It weighs nearly two tons. It contains 32 vertical lines with approximately 1,800 beautiful and well-preserved Chinese characters. Setting this inscription apart from similar ancient inscriptions are the words in its bottom margin—23 short lines in ancient Syriac script. On the narrow sides of the stone are an additional 70 lines in Chinese and Syriac.
Atop the stone is a heading of nine characters. Two characters— Da Qin—mean “from the West” and could refer to anything arriving in China from the West. In other documents from the period, they refer to the Roman Empire, Palestine, or another Middle Eastern country. The heading can be translated “The Monument That Commemorates the Spread of the Western Religion of Light in China.”
The stele dates itself to Sunday, February 4, 781, and was composed by a Christian priest whose name is given in Chinese as Jingjing and in Persian as Adam. He is a “priest of a Da Qin monastery,” and “priest and rural bishop and Papash of Chinestan.” He is probably the same Adam who is mentioned in one of the Christian manuscripts we will mention later as translator of more than 30 Christian books into Chinese.
The main text begins with an extended eulogy to “the One who is true and firm, the Uncreated, the Origin of Origins . . . our Aloha [Elohim], the Triune, the mysterious Person, the unbegotten and true Lord.” This long passage also describes “the Messiah,” who in “his true majesty appeared on earth as a man. . . . A virgin gave birth to the Holy One in Da Qin. A bright star announced the blessed event.”
It also states that “27 standard works of his sutras (or scriptures) were preserved,” a clear reference to the New Testament. “His law is to bathe with water and with the Spirit and thus to cleanse from all vain delusions and to purify men until they regain the purity of their nature.” “[His ministers] carry the cross with them as a sign, and travel about wherever the sun shines and try to re-unite those that are outside the kingdom.” This religion is referred to as “The Way”—“but its meritorious workings are shown so brilliantly that we . . . call it by the name of ‘the Luminous Religion’” (adaptation of Saeki’s translation).
The text then recounts the arrival of Christian missionaries at Xi’an, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. The mission team was led by “a highly virtuous man named Alopen in the kingdom of Da Qin,” who “arrived in Xi’an in the ninth year of the period named Zhenguan” (A.D. 635). “The Emperor dispatched his Minister of State, Fang Xuanling, with an imperial guard, to the western suburb to meet the visitor and conduct him to the palace. The sutras were translated in the Imperial Library. [The Emperor] studied The Way in his own Forbidden apartments, and being deeply convinced of its correctness and truth, he gave special orders for its propagation.”
The text then quotes the imperial decree about this new religion, issued by the emperor in 638, which concludes, “This teaching is helpful to all creatures and beneficial to all men; so let it have free course throughout the Empire.”
We are then told that a monastery was built in the capital, a portrait of the emperor was hung in it, and 21 priests were ordained to serve there. When the Emperor Tai Zong died, he was succeeded by Gao Zong (650–683) who “allowed monasteries of the Luminous Religion to be founded in every prefecture . . . and the law spread throughout the ten provinces. . . . Monasteries were built in many cities while every family enjoyed great blessings.”
The text goes on to describe how, between 698 and 712, first Buddhists in the East, then Taoists in the West slandered the new religion. But Christian leaders rose up to strengthen the church; under Emperors Xuan Zong (712–756), Su Zong (756–762) and Dai Zong (763–779) the church again flourished with royal favor. This section of the text then concludes with praise for the present emperor, De Zong (780–805). The blessings of that time are then enumerated, closing with “all these are the meritorious fruits of the power and working of our Luminous Religion.”
This is followed by a eulogy for the Christian dignitary who likely paid for the stele, Yi Si. He is described as a highly decorated court official and general in the Chinese army of the three emperors, but also as a priest and rural bishop of Khumdan.
The last major part of the inscription is a lengthy poem honoring God and the emperors who championed his church. The concluding lines give the imperial date, name the ruling patriarch of the “Luminous Communities of the East,” and name the artist who inscribed the text on the stele. The Syriac sections give a list of names of over 70 bishops, priests, and monks.
The story told in the inscription was so amazing that, after the inscription’s publication in the early seventeenth century, its authenticity began to be questioned. Debate and study continued periodically until, by the late nineteenth century, numerous scholars had personally examined the stone and vouched for its authenticity. However, it took a second great archaeological event to lay any final doubts to rest—the discovery of the scrolls of Dunhuang.
The Scrolls from Dunhuang
In 1908 the French archaeologist and explorer Paul Pelliot came upon a cave at Dunhuang, 800 miles northwest of Xi’an (1,350 miles due east of Samarkand), that had been sealed in 1036. Inside was a treasure trove of ancient art and manuscripts. While many of the precious scrolls were taken to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, others found their way onto the black market. Among those that surfaced in private collections during the following decades were a number of Christian texts.
One set of four texts may have been authored by Alopen himself, the leader of the mission journey in 635. The oldest of the texts is the Jesus the Messiah sutra, purchased in 1922 by Dr. Takakusu. Prof. Saeki dates the text between 635 and 638, declaring it the first Nestorian sutra ever composed in China. A second manuscript contains three other early sutras attributed to Alopen—a Discourse on Monotheism, a Parable, Part 2, and a Lord of the Universe’s Discourse on Almsgiving. These were purchased in 1916 by another Japanese collector, Mr. Tomeoka. All four of the documents were published in 1931 by the Kyoto Institute of the Oriental Culture Academy with an introduction by Prof. Haneda, and dated to c. 641.
A second series of documents also supposedly came from the caves at Dunhuang but are held to be of later date. A hymn, On the Adoration of the Trinity, a work, On Mysterious Rest and Joy, and an excerpt of a work, On the Origin of Origins, are usually dated to the late eighth century, about the same time as the stele was erected. Two other documents—a hymn, On Penetrating Reality and Taking Refuge in the Law, and a second work, On the Origin of Origins—are now considered by most scholars to be modern forgeries (the Dunhuang discoveries spawned an active market for forgers). A final tenth-century work is entitled The Book of Praise and seems to be equivalent to the diptychs and triptychs used in the early Greek and Latin churches, a set series of prayers and thanksgiving to God for various living and departed Christian saints and leaders.
While additional archaeological evidence came to light in the early twentieth century confirming that the Nestorian branch of Christianity spread in many areas along the Silk Road, it was not widely noted by scholars. Except for Dr. Saeki’s excellent and thorough 1951 book in English, the story of the Nestorian church in China fell into almost total obscurity among English-speaking scholars until Martin Palmer made his announcement of the Christian pagoda that still stands in central China, not far from the Nestorian stele.
Christians on the Move
The dramatic story of the arrival of Alopen at the imperial court captures the imagination, perhaps too easily. The church historian immediately thinks of parallel stories in which the ruler is converted and the people quickly follow—Abgar of Syria and Vladimir of Kiev, among others. Is this what happened?
A closer look gives a slightly different picture. While Alopen certainly played an important role in the spread of Christianity in China, he was not the first to do so. Christian traders had undoubtedly shared their faith in China in the first centuries of the Church, since there is much evidence of trade between China and the Roman Empire.
In 431 the Council of Ephesus excommunicated Nestorius together with his followers for holding that there were two separate persons in the incarnate Christ (one divine and the other human). Nestorius’s teachings, however, had a strong following in the East that gradually coalesced into a separate “Church of the East.” When the Western church, with its imperial backing, began physically enforcing the council’s decisions, many Nestorians moved across the border into Persia, where they soon dominated the growing church.
In 424 what was to become the Nestorian church had bishoprics as far east as Merv (in what is now Turkmenistan). Back in Persia, by the mid-sixth century the local magi and other leaders of Zoroastrianism had gained enough political influence to begin a severe persecution of Christians. About the same time, Monophysite Christians were steadily gaining influence in Persia as well. By the early seventh century, persecution became a normal part of life for all Persian Christians, and many opted to leave. Since the West still did not allow freedom of worship, and Islam was beginning to foment in the south, and the north was barred by mountains, east was the natural direction to go.
Only occasionally do historical sources give us details of this migration. One example is from a Chinese record of 578, telling how a large Nestorian family from Mar Sagis emigrated from the western lands to Lintao (Gansu Province). Another involves the upheaval caused by fighting between the eastern Turks and the Chinese around 630. In the aftermath, about 1.5 million people migrated into China, 10,000 families settling in Xi’an alone. These immigrants would have brought their religion with them—Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Nestorian and Monophysite Christianity.
So the gospel did not first penetrate China with Alopen’s mission. The faith had spread through China at the grassroots level for some time before. What Alopen did achieve, however, was bringing the visible church and its organizational structure to China. Before his arrival, Christians may have worshiped at home, may have had only limited access to the sacraments, and probably had few if any trained clergy. Alopen, under official patronage, was able to set up a series of churches and monasteries that could provide what had been missing, with the monasteries, as in the West, serving as theological schools.
Imperial patronage did not necessarily mean imperial conversion. The Nestorian Stele commends Emperor Gao Zong for “giving the True Religion (Christianity) the proper elegance and finish, causing monasteries of the Luminous Religion to be founded in every prefecture, and honoring Alopen as great Patron and Spiritual Lord of the Empire.” But we also know from other historical sources that in a decree of 666, the same emperor honored Laozi with the title “Most High Emperor of Mystic Origin” (placing him above even Buddha and Confucius), ordering temples to be built to him, and ordering high officials to study his writings.
Chinese tradition and culture did not make it necessary to choose one religion over another. A wise person might well hedge his bets by extolling and supporting several religions simultaneously. While the royal patronage was real and was highly significant and useful, it was not exclusive.
What imperial patronage did provide was legality and backing. The statements about building churches and monasteries in every province were not mere hyperbole. The geographical spread of surviving evidence confirms that Christianity did spread significantly during this period. Yet it probably never became more than one of the many minority religions. The famous monk Kukai stayed from 804 to 806 in the Buddhist monastery of Xi Ming in the Yining Ward of Xi’an, within a few blocks of the Nestorian monastery, yet he never mentions the Christians once in his 50-volume literary output.
Patronage also came at a price. The stele tells how the emperor had Alopen’s books translated in the Imperial Library. Was there a check on the accuracy of the translation? Missionaries today would not trust Buddhists to produce an accurate translation of the New Testament, but that seems to be what happened at Xi’an.
Was the title “Great Patron and Spiritual Lord of the Empire” conferred upon Alopen just an honorary title, or did it require certain actions of its holder? Did he now have to attend court functions and take part in traditional courtly religious observances? The experience of Jesuit missionaries a millennium later would suggest that some accommodation might have been required. Patronage by the mighty is always a two-edged sword.
Syncretism & the Savior
When missionaries enter a new culture, they have to translate the Word into a new language and dress it in local clothing without compromising the gospel by fitting it to local customs and beliefs. How well did Alopen and his successors walk this tightrope?
The stele begins with a summary confession of the doctrines of God, the Trinity, creation, original sin, the Incarnation, and redemption. Dauvillier comments: “The attributes of God—his eternity, being a spirit, transcendence, infiniteness and impassibility, existing before all, and being without end—these correspond to the most rigorous Christian orthodoxy.” Pelliot and others have noted that the actual terminology used was popular among Taoists of the time, but Taoism has no creation ex nihilo nor a personal God. In other words, familiar terms were used to express new teaching. This is standard missionary practice.
The sutras clearly do, however, interact with Buddhism and Taoism in a way that some have seen as syncretistic. The Jesus-Messiah sutra says, “All Buddhas as well as Kimnaras and the Superintending-Devas and Arhans can see the Lord of Heaven, but no human being has ever seen the Lord of Heaven” (verses 4–5). Or later, “All Buddhas flow and flux . . . but the Lord of Heaven remains always in a place of comfortable joy and peace” (13–14). The Discourse on the Oneness of the Ruler of the Universe seems to inject a dualistic passage based either on the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang or on Persian dualism. It also refers to the Buddhist concepts of the “four elements” (4–5), the “five attributes” (68), the “three wicked ways,” rebirth, the Kalpa of formation, and “the law of the myriad Kalpa” (210–213).
On the other hand, one repeatedly finds accurate statements of Christian doctrine in these same documents. The Jesus-Messiah sutra states that “the Messiah gave up his body to these wicked men to be sacrificed for the sake of all mankind” (198). The Monotheism text states that “all things are made by the one God” (5), and that “the one Godhead begot the other one [Jesus] out of one and the same substance” (42). In The Oneness of the Ruler of the Universe we read that “when heaven and earth shall pass away . . . all the dead shall rise again” (68), and that the Messiah “bore all the sins of mankind, and for them he suffered the punishment himself; no meritorious deed is necessary [for salvation]” (136–137). The Almsgiving text gives an extensive description of Christ’s death and resurrection and quotes several complete verses from Isaiah 53. And the stele says “the true Lord . . . took human form, and through him, salvation was made free to all; the Sun arising, the darkness ending.” This is far from the wonderful “Taoist Christianity” that Palmer seeks to find in the scrolls.
A Fruitful Path
The path of Christianity was not smooth even under the imperial patronage of the seventh and eighth centuries. A resurgence of pro-Buddhist ideologies in the ninth century led to growing problems for Christians. An imperial edict of Emperor Wu Zong in 845 ordered Christian monks and nuns to “return to their secular life and cease to confuse our national customs and manners.”
Christianity began to wane, but we do not know at what rate. The Arabic writer Abu Sayd states that Christians were among the 120,000 people massacred at Canton (modern Guangzhou) in 878. As we have seen, the Book of Praise sutra was composed in the tenth century, and when manuscripts were being gathered for preservation in the cave at Dunhuang in 1036, some Christian scrolls were still to be found and thought worth preserving. (Someone also painted a Christian figure on one of the cave walls.)
Farther north, near the present border of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, two Nestorian graveyards were discovered in 1885. Six hundred ten Nestorian tombs with crosses and Syriac inscriptions were discovered there, with dates ranging from 858 to 1342.
Saeki accumulates archaeological evidence from other parts of China as well. The presence of an influential Nestorian church in late thirteenth-century China is confirmed by numerous literary sources, including the journal of Bar Sauma (a Nestorian monk from northern China), the writings of the Western monk John of Montecorvino, and those of Marco Polo. It is now clear that between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, several Turkish tribes along the Silk Road and in northern China became predominantly Nestorian Christian, but it is uncertain whether this was due to the influence of Chinese missionaries or new missionary endeavors from the Middle East.
This story, however, is more than an arcane piece for mission historians. Martin Palmer, the most recent “discoverer” of Christianity in ancient China, can be credited with bringing the pagoda, and the forgotten story of early Chinese mission work, back to our attention.
The pagoda, the stele, and the sutras remind us that Christianity is not just a Western phenomenon. The Church spread eastward as well, and took root and prospered there. Alopen, from the modern Chinese viewpoint, might be viewed as one Asian coming to another. He did not come in Western dress, nor did he carry all the imperialistic baggage of more modern missionaries. To the extent this early history can be known in China today, perhaps it can help Chinese take a second look at Christianity and see that it is not just a “Western religion,” but really is universal.
Perhaps the teachings of the Nestorians clouded the gospel message, but the texts suggest that they did not totally obscure it. In fact, historians now believe that while the Church of the East continued to honor Nestorius among its founding fathers, it did not follow his Christology. This gives us even more reason to believe that many Tang Dynasty Chinese came to faith in the one true God, and that many came to know their Savior Jesus Christ.
We should never sell short the work of the Holy Spirit. It has been said that the Chinese church today is the fastest growing church in history. Perhaps the seeds sown along the Yellow River and Yangtze River so long ago are even now bearing fruit.
• Malek, Roman, ed. The Chinese Face of Jesus Christ, vol. 1 (Monumenta
Serica Monograph Series L/1). Sankt Augustin, Germany, 2002.
• Malek, Roman, ed. Jingjiao: The Church of the East in China and Central Asia (Collectanea Serica). Sankt Augustin, Germany, 2006.
• Palmer, Martin. The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity. New York, 2001.
• Pelliot, Paul. Recherches sur les Chretiens d’Asie Centrale et d’Extreme-Orient, 2.1: La Stele de Si-Ngan-Fou (Oeuvres Posthumes de Paul Pelliot, Jean Dauvillier ed.). Paris, 1983.
• Pelliot, Paul. L’Inscription Nestorienne de Si-Ngan-Fou (Oeuvres Posthumes, Antonio Forte ed.). Paris, 1996.
• Saeki, P. Y. The Nestorian Documents and Relics in China. Tokyo, 1951.
Glen L. Thompson is Associate Professor of History at Wisconsin Lutheran College. ?Christ on the Silk Road? is an updated version of his presentation at the 2003 Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.