China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2003/May

The Church of the East in China

The Chinese venerate many mysterious personages. They call some of these immortals. The most famous immortal is Patriarch Lu, also known as Lu Dongbin, whose real name was Lu Yan. According to historians, Lu lived in the second half of the 8th century in a house located about 15-minutes’ walk from the Da Qin monastery, the residence of the monks of the Luminous Religion. It is generally believed that he helped to translate the Scriptures, prayers and other texts of the Nestorian monks into Chinese. He apparently took a liking for the theology of his Christian friends and composed a hymn entitled Mysterious Refrains which is now included in the Complete Works of Lu Yan.

The case of Patriarch Lu makes us wonder about the beginnings of Christianity in China, and how deep Christian thought may have penetrated Chinese culture during the first millennium.

Arrival of Christianity in China

For many years, scholars were of the opinion that Christianity arrived in China with the Franciscan John of Montecorvino who reached Beijing in 1294. Even today, some think that Christianity came into China with the gunboat diplomacy of the 19th century. An amazing archaeological find, however, has set the record straight and moved the historical clock back to the year 635.

When Bishop Alopen, until recently thought to be a Nestorian monk and a member of a heretical Christian sect, came to Chang’an (Xian) the capital of Shaanxi Province in the northwest China, in 635 with a group of monks from the Christian East, the emperor, Tang Taizong, welcomed him at the palace and Alopen even preached the Christian doctrine in the emperor’s library.

The emperors of the Tang Dynasty in general respected this new religion and allowed its propagation. In 638 the monks erected the first church in Xi’an. Soon churches and monasteries were opening in the surrounding cities and towns. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the Christian Church expanded both in quantity and quality in China. In 781, the Christians erected a large, magnificent stone stele in honour of their Bishop Wang in Shezheng. In the 9th century, however, things began to go wrong.

The Monks bury the Tablet

In 845, long after Alopen had died and during a period of religious persecution, the Christians buried the large stele in Zhouzhi, about 48 kilometers away from Chang’an (Xi’an). The slab might have remained buried and forgotten, had it not been for the fact that in 1625, long after the Luminous Religion had fallen into oblivion, some men digging the foundation for a new building unexpectedly came upon this magnificent limestone stele. Some of the Chinese characters were readable, but there were other characters that could not be understood as they were written in a mysterious language completely unknown to anyone in the area. The language, it was later learned, was Syriac.

Zhang Gengyu, who had met Matteo Ricci in Beijing 18 years earlier, was of the opinion that only the Jesuit missionaries could solve the mystery of the stone’s inscription. Zhang sent a copy to his friend, Dr. Li Zhizao, in Beijing, a friend of the Jesuits and a Christian convert. He showed the document to three Jesuit missionaries, and in 1644, in Hangzhou, two Jesuits, Giulio Aleni and Manoel Dias, published the inscription with explanations. The stele became known as the Nestorian Tablet. It revealed the earliest presence of Christianity in China.

The Nestorian Tablet

The Tablet and its history have fascinated scholars ever since its discovery in the 17th century. It has also led many foreign archeologists to carry out new excavations in northwest China.

The Tablet, now housed in the National Museum of the Forest of Steles in Xi’an, stands about 10 feet tall. Containing more than 2000 Chinese characters, it describes doctrines, ceremonies and the development of Christianity within the empire. It also contains quotations from the Scriptures and prayers of the Luminous Religion and describes the life of the monks of the East.

The Scriptures and prayers contain many Buddhist/Christian terms such as “mystical body,” “virtue,” “benefactor,” “solitude,” “monk,” “abbot,” “temple,” “universal salvation,” “the almighty one,” etc. At the top of the stele, there is the Lotus, a symbol which, for Buddhists, means “Radiating brightness,” “Quiet, pure and rare treasure,” and “inconceivable mystery.” On the top of the Lotus, there is the Christian symbol: the Cross.

The doctrine is carefully explained. Here is a sample:

The true Lord is without origin,
Profound, invisible, and unchangeable;
with power and capacity to perfect and transform,
He rose up the earth and established the heavens.

Divided in nature, he entered the world,
to save and to help without bounds;
the sun arose and darkness was dispelled,
All bearing witness to his true original.

When the pure, bright Illustrious Religion
Was introduced to our Tang Dynasty,
The Scriptures were translated, and churches built
and the vessel set in motion for the living and the dead;
every kind of blessing was then obtained,
and all the kingdoms enjoyed a state of peace.

Inculturation of religion

All who read the contents of the stele are astounded at the degree of inculturation the early Christians had achieved in such a short time. The Luminous Religion was not only rich in Buddhist flavor; it had also absorbed much Buddhist thought and borrowed from Buddhist terminology. Furthermore, it contained many Taoist elements. The monks of the Church of the East who arrived in China in 635 could not have known much Chinese and they probably had only a very vague idea of Buddhism and Taoism. Moreover, those who helped them certainly had no understanding of the new religion. For that reason, the first attempts at translation must have been very difficult. The text of the Stele of Xi’an, composed in 781, 150 years after the arrival of the first monks, shows a very great mastery of the three religions involved in the dialogue.

The inscription on the stele reveals a real theological synthesis that draws from the three traditions: Christianity, Taoism, and Buddhism. The term used for the Trinity is “Sanyo,” a Taoism term that signifies “Three-One.” To explain the incarnation of one of these “Three-One,” the term used is taken from Buddhism, “fenshen.” The term most frequently used to express the relationship between the Messiah, the divine incarnate person, and God, is “tong,” meaning to communicate, to be in perfect communion with. The Messiah, therefore, is the one who is in perfect communication or in communion with God, the Holy One equal to God. Why would the Christian texts be so heavily laden with the flavour of the other two religions in China?

The influence of Buddhism

The missionaries, who first came from Persia to China, must have studied Chinese religions, culture, customs and language. To translate and explain the new religion, the monks must have used whatever materials they had on hand. It is obvious that they needed the help of local people for the translations. The doctrine they preached had to be written down by Chinese as they understood it, with their own cultural background and religious understanding stemming mostly from Buddhism. It is no wonder then, that the scriptures they recorded were full of Buddhist thought and Buddhist terminology. Furthermore, this new religion was flourished during the Tang Dynasty, which was also the golden age of Buddhism.

The demise of the Luminous Religion

According to a number of modern scholars, from 841 onwards, Christianity got caught between the Confucian bureaucracy and Taoist hierarchy who were reacting against the growing power of Buddhism. The imperial court turned against Buddhism and forced hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns to return to normal life. Zoroastrian and Christian monks and nuns suffered the same fate. The persecutions dealt Christianity a mortal blow. No one would hear about Christianity again until the arrival of John of Montecorvino in 1294.

At one time, Church historians thought that the demise of the Luminous Religion was due to mistakes it had made in the process of indigenisation. By loading itself down with Buddhist and Taoist elements, some maintained it had lost its own religious essence. Today, it seems more likely that the Luminous Religion, was unable to withstand the force of the persecution.

Others assume the lack of inculturation was the reason for the supposed failure of Christianity in China. Judging from recent archaeological findings, however, the Church in the Tang Dynasty had achieved a remarkable level of inculturation.

Syria, which gave the world the Church of the East was the first and a truly glorious Christian nation. It sent missionaries to the entire East – as far as China, yet the number of Christians in Syria today is very small.

New developments

Recent historical research has shed new light on the history of Christianity in China. Scholars have taken another look at the identity of the monks who arrived in Chang’an in 635. They had always been assumed to be Nestorians, and their Tablet has always been called, the Nestorian Tablet, but scholars are increasingly of the opinion that they may not have been Nestorians after all. What is much more likely is that they were members of the Church of the East not part of the heretical sect that disputed the two natures in Christ and maintained that Mary was the mother of the human nature of Jesus only. The Nestorian heresy was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Martin Palmer describes the Church of the East in his book, The Jesus Sutras, as more or less a confederation of churches, one in unity but also very diverse. They were Orthodox Christians and a missionary church eager to bring the Good News to Buddhists, Confucians, Shamans and Taoists.

According to Palmer, “the extent, size and diversity of the Church of the East is perhaps one of the best kept secrets of Christianity. The West has traditionally dismissed the Church of the East as Nestorian and therefore heretical. At its peak in the 8th century, it far outstripped the Church of the West in size, scale, and range of cultures within which it operated… It was a remarkably different world to the world of the West and it produced remarkably different churches and forms of Christianity.”

We hope that the misconceptions about the arrival of Christianity in China will soon come to an end and that we will better understand history as a complex phenomenon that cannot be judged ideologically according to political correctness.