Christianity: a traditional Chinese religion

I originally posted this to the Confessing Reader weblog on May 13, 2005, after reading a biographical narrative of the remarkable journey of Rabban Sauma, a priest of the Church of the East and diplomat from the court of a Mongol khan, from China to western Europe in the 13th century. With the recent publication of Dr Philip Jenkins’ book, The Lost History of Christianity, an account of the “thousand-year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and how it died”, it seems fitting to revisit some of this history here. I have added one small note based on information taken from Jenkins’ book, as well as an explanation of an Aramaic word occurring in a Nestorian hymn.

Some time back Laura, a close and very good friend told me that her son (my wife and I are two of his godparents) had come home from school expressing an interest in traditional Chinese religion after a volunteer had explained during class the celebration of the Chinese New Year. (He may simply have been fascinated by those animal year astrological charts that show up on paper placemats in many Chinese restaurants!) Laura expressed some concern at this, given that he seemed to be considering traditional Chinese religion (in some vague, nonspecific form) more interesting that the Christian faith into which he had been baptized and in which he was being formed.

My response to Laura was simply, “Tell him that Christianity is a traditional Chinese religion.”

Admittedly, in our sometimes myopic Western view of things, that seems quite a surprising thing to say. As it turns out, there is evidence of Nestorian Christian missionaries in China as early as the 7th century.

A little early Christian dogmatic history seems in order at this point.

Nestorianism, a heresy that holds that there are two separate persons (God and human) in the incarnate Jesus – note persons, not natures, as orthodox Chalcedonian Christianity holds, derives its name from Nestorius, an early 5th century patriarch of Constantinople who objected to the use of the title Theotokos (God-bearer) as applied to Mary, preferring Christotokos (Christ-bearer). Fearing monophysite tendencies (themselves denounced as heretical by the later Council of Chalcedon), Nestorius tended to use the word “conjunction” to describe the relationship between the God and human natures of Jesus, rather than “union”, but it is not clear – and opinion is widely divided over this – whether Nestorius actually held a heretical view of two “persons” in the incarnate Jesus. So-called Nestorianism was anathematized by the Council of Ephesus in 431, and Nestorius, quite a powerful and popular preacher in the imperial city, was sent packing to a monastery at Antioch after the emperor Theodosius acquiesced to the Council’s decision.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church states that

In the polemic surrounding the theological controversies of the later 5th and 6th cents., the term ‘Nestorian’ was applied by their opponents to all upholders of a strict Antiochene Christology; as a result the Church of the East has come to be popularly called ‘the Nestorian Church’ even though its teaching has never been Nestorianism as defined above.

The Church of the East, also known as the Assyrian Church of the East, or the “Nestorian Church” (I use Nestorian in parts of this essay, given its frequent and continued use to denote the Church of the East, not least by some Assyrian Christians themselves), developed from the Church in Mesopotamia, which lay outside the Roman Empire. Their bishops are not known to have taken part in the early ecumenical Councils, though the Council of Seleucia (410) formally accepted the Creed and Canons of the first Council of Nicaea, which affirmed the full deity of Jesus. The Council of Ephesus and the title Theotokos for Mary are rejected, while the Chalcedonian Definition (of two natures joined together in hypostatic union in the one person Jesus) is viewed ambivalently, apparently because of a different understanding of the meaning of hypostasis. Their christology is “strictly Antiochene”; that is, stressing Jesus’ humanity, but not denying his deity, though with a looser understanding of the union of his humanity with his deity than Alexandrian christology would hold.

Their theology is summarized in a hymn of praise, the Teshbokhta, composed by the most influential Assyrian Christian theologian, Mar Babai the Great (d. 628):

One is Christ the Son of God,
Worshiped by all in two natures;
In His Godhead begotten of the Father,
Without beginning before all time;
In His humanity born of Mary,
In the fullness of time, in a body united;
Neither His Godhead is of the nature of the mother,
Nor His humanity of the nature of the Father;
The natures are preserved in their Qnumas*,
In one person of one Sonship.
And as the Godhead is three substances in one nature,
Likewise the Sonship of the Son is in two natures, one person.
So the Holy Church has taught.

*An “unofficial website of the Nestorian Church” explains: “Qnuma, is an Aramaic word. The nearest equivalent is the Greek ‘hypostasis’, in Latin ‘substantia’ and in English ‘substance’.”

The missionary impulse of these Nestorian Christians of the East resulted in a fairly rapid expansion of the Church across Asia. By the late 5th century the Church had extended eastward from Mesopotamia, with bishoprics at Marv and Nishapur in Persia and at Harat in what is now Afghanistan. By the end of Sassanian rule in Persia (651), the Christians of the East constituted an important religious minority in the country. The Church had at least nineteen metropolitan (archiepiscopal) sees, stretching from Tripoli and Jerusalem in the west to Beijing in the East (including a metropolitan sees in the Levant, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Tibet and China), with the Catholicos-Patriarch presiding from his patriarchal see at Seleucia-Ctesiphon (later removed to Baghdad) over the entire Church, and the Church flourished during the late Sassanian period (after intermittent persecution in the 4th and 5th centuries, including the martyrdoms of a number of high-born converts from Zoroastrianism) and after the Arab conquest (completed in 651) continued to flourish, with the establishment of monasteries, the writing of theological treatises, and the translation of much Greek philosophical and scientific literature into Arabic, which then made its way westward to Iberia and then in the 12th century into Western Europe to create a sort of Aristotelian renaissance in the West. The learning of the classical Hellenistic world, often said to have been preserved by the Arabs, was actually preserved before them and bequeathed to them by these Syriac Christians. (See De Lacy O’Leary’s How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs on this point in particular.)

And still they evangelized, by means of missionary monks and clergy as well as such laity as traders, who shared their Nestorian Christian faith along the eastern trade routes (not unlike the eastward expansion of Islam across southern Asia, an expansion driven by proselytizing Arab traders). From the 6th to the 9th centuries Nestorian missionaries evangelized and converted many of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia to the Christian faith, and early in the T’ang dynasty they reached China.

Assyrian Christians exist down to this day, having survived a mid-16th century division that resulted in the creation of a Uniate patriarchal line in communion with Rome, known as the Chaldean Church. The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East has continued a separate ecclesial life in continuity with its earliest traditions, and a number of Western churches (predominately Anglicans and Presbyterians) sent missions to the Church of the East in the 19th century, typically to set up Syriac printing presses and the like. These Assyrian Christians have suffered greatly (along with the Chaldean Christians) as a result of the political developments of the 20th and early 21st century. The members of the Church of the East are scattered in many parts of the world, including the United States and the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Iran). In these latter days, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Church have worked for closer relations as divided brethren, and in 1994 the Roman Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East issued a Common Christological Declaration, which recognizes an essential agreement on christology and further states that “the particular Catholic churches and the particular Assyrian churches can recognize each other as sister Churches”, while, because unanimity does not exist among them over “the content of the faith, the sacraments and the constitution of the Church”, there cannot be eucharistic fellowship yet.

The Assyrian Church of the East still uses an ancient Syriac eucharistic liturgy known as the Holy Qurbana of Addai and Mari (the traditional founders of the Church at Edessa, held to be among the Seventy of Luke 10), and Mar Nestorius (”Lord” Nestorius) is a saint of the Church of the East, revered as an “unbloody martyr, persecuted for the truth of the orthodox confession”.

(Another interesting note is that the Assyrian and Chaldean Christians preserve and use the Syriac language, directly descended – and little changed? – from the Aramaic spoken throughout the East in the first century. I remember reading a Christian jounalist’s expression of surprise when he heard a man on a Baghdad bus sharply say to a little girl [presumably his daughter] who was inattentively lazing on the seat when she should have been getting off the bus, “Talitha cumi“!)

The first-discovered evidence of an early Christianity in Central Asia and China came with the discovery in 1625 at Sian-Fu (now Xian), the ancient Chinese capital located in what is now northwest China, of a 7½ feet high stele, which came to be known as the Nestorian Stone, or the Xian (or Sian-Fu or Sigan-Fu) Stone. This stele, depicted in the photograph at the beginning of this article, was set up in 781 and bears an inscription written by a priest of the Assyrian Church, mainly in Chinese but also with some Syriac, containing an “allusive statement of Christian doctrine”, a description of the arrival in 635 from Ta-ch’in of a missionary named Olopun (or in Chinese characters, A-lo-pen, believed by some to be a version of the name “Abraham”), and the imperial privileges which he was granted, followed by an account of the Church down to the late 8th century reign of Tih-tsung, a hymnic ode, and information on several Nestorian leaders of the time (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church). The translated text of the stele’s inscription is posted online.

Regarding the arrival of Olopun (Alopen), the inscription reads,

In the time of the accomplished Emperor Tai-tsung, the illustrious and magnificent founder of the dynasty, among the enlightened and holy men who arrived was the most-virtuous Olopun, from the country of Syria. Observing the azure clouds, he bore the true sacred books; beholding the direction of the winds, he braved difficulties and dangers. In the year of our Lord 635 he arrived at Chang-an; the Emperor sent his Prime Minister, Duke Fang Hiuen-ling; who, carrying the official staff to the west border, conducted his guest into the interior; the sacred books were translated in the imperial library, the sovereign investigated the subject in his private apartments; when becoming deeply impressed with the rectitude and truth of the religion, he gave special orders for its dissemination.

Bishop Alopen (as Assyrian Christians denote him) is believed to have been an early Nestorian missionary to the peoples of Central Asia, entering this area after the reestablishment of the Silk Road trade route that ran between China and the Middle East. The Xian stele relates that he became a “Guardian of the Empire” and “Lord of the Great Law”. Alopen later became the metropolitan of the Church in the region.

Alopen arrived in Xian, the ancient imperial capital of China, in 635. For a little perspective, recall that Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Kent in 597, and Columba of Iona, missionary among the Picts and Gael in what is now western and central Scotland, died in 597. Willibrord began his mission to Frisia (the northern Netherlands) in 690. Anskar, the apostle of the Danes and the Swedes, began his mission in Denmark c. 826.

In 2001, the Rev’d Mr Ken Joseph, Jr, an Assyrian Christian pastor living in Japan, and founder and director of the Keikyo Institute, wrote on the discovery of a 7th century Nestorian Christian site near Xian. The church which stood at the site is gone, but a tower that archaeologists have dated to the 7th century still stands at the site. In his article, Joseph writes

The Nestorian Monument, a stone tablet in the city of Sian which was discovered in the 1600s was the only testimony to Christianity in China. What was always a puzzle was that it clearly stated that `monasteries abound in a hundred cities`. This monument which is often called the `Rosetta Stone` of Christianity in Asia was the only proof of this past.

The discovery of the Christian site has dramatically changed all this. The Church is in the center of the Imperial area of the Tang Dynasty and its location is what is particularly bringing amazement to experts on the Silk Road. With the Church in the center of the imperial area it confirms for the first time the stories that have long been passed down and appear frequently in Chinese narratives which tell of a major Church in China in the Tang Dynasty from 618-877.

With the passing of the T’ang dynasty the Nestorian Church underwent a period of persecution and weakening, but under the Yüan (Mongol) dynasty the Church experienced revitalization, spread through many parts of China, and thrived. At least six bishoprics of the Church are known to have existed in China, with five of these (Xian, Kashgar & Nuakith, Khan Balik & Falik [Beijing], Khatai, and Tangut) having metropolitical (archiepiscopal) status. (The fact that five of these six known bishoprics were metropolitanates suggests that there were far more than six dioceses of the Church in China.) By the late 11th or early 12th centuries, the Syriac Christians were evangelizing the Mongols, eventually converting some of the Mongol nobility, particularly women of prominence. It is known that the Mongol capital at Khara Khorum had at least one Nestorian church. After the Mongol conquest of China, with the removal of the imperial capital to Tai-tu (Beijing) by Khubilai Khan, a Nestorian metropolitanate was established there, and the Great Khan established the chief consistory of the Syriac Church in China, the Ch’ung-fu-tze.

In the late 13th century, during the reign of Khubilai Khan, a Nestorian monk named ben Sauma (Rabban Sauma) embarked with his pupil Markos from the imperial city of Tai-tu on a pilgrimage to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem. In this endeavor they had the support of both the Nestorian community and Khubilai Khan. Travelling the Silk Road route through central Asia, receiving the hospitality of vital Nestorian Christian communities along the way, the two reached Persia, spending several years there at the court of Arghun Khan, son of Hülegü Khan, the founder of the Ilkhanate of Persia and brother to the Great Khan Khubilai. Hülegü Khan, who was neither Christian nor Muslim, had waged war against the Islamic Caliphate in Baghdad for some years and his son Arghun continued his father’s policy of aggression against the Egyptian Mamluks, then the power occupying the Holy Land. Anxious to secure European help in his plans to drive the Mamluks from the Levant, Arghun Khan sent Rabban Sauma as his emissary to the Pope of Rome. In his book, Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West, Morris Rossabi writes,

On June 23, 1287, the citizens of Naples were startled by the arrival of a ship carrying an Asian cleric who had traveled all the way from Tai-tu, the fabulous capital of the Mongol ruler Khubilai Khan, now the city of Peking. He was not the first voyager from the Mongol world to enter Europe, but all his predecessors had come from the Middle East; he was the first ever to arrive from as far away as China. Indeed, he is known as “the first identified Chinese to reach Europe.”

Rabban Sauma left an account of his life and travels that has survived in truncated form, “offering an explanation of his journeys’ objectives and descriptions of his encounters and observations along the way” (Rossabi). The Persian original of the account has been lost, but the Syriac redaction, by a fellow Nestorian Christian cleric, has left enough details of Rabban Sauma’s life and journey to offer a fascinating glimpse of the 13th century in China and central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, as well as the man himself. The text of Rabban Sauma’s account of his travels is posted online.

While his journey did not result in a common offensive against the Mamluks nor an alliance between the Pope and the Persian Ilkhan (he arrived two and a half months after the death of Honorius IV, before a new Bishop of Rome had been elected), Rabban Sauma’s arrival from Constantinople (where he met with and conversed with the emperor Andronicus II) and his sojourn in Europe, during which he visited Rome, Paris, and Bordeaux, meeting with cardinals, princes and kings, offers a remarkable glimpse of medieval European Christians in contact with a Christian from the East (remember, European Christians still nursed legends of an Eastern Christian kingdom established by Prester John). The ambassador of both the Ilkhan and the Assyrian Patriarch-Catholicos did in fact receive pledges of support for his mission from the kings of France and of England.

One meeting, which I find quite remarkable in its singularity, is worth noting here: Rabban Sauma arrived in Bordeaux in mid October, 1287, having come from Paris. While in Bordeaux he met with the English king Edward I, once again pressing upon him, as he had pressed upon the cardinals in Rome and Philip IV in Paris, the need for a joint crusade against the Mamluks. Edward invited Rabban Sauma to celebrate Mass at court, and Sauma celebrated the Holy Eucharist according to the Assyrian rite (almost certainly the Holy Qurbana of Addai and Mari), and the English king, along with several other court officials, received communion from the hands of this Chinese Christian priest and ambassador of the Mongol Ilkhan of Persia.

Rabban Sauma returned to Persia, where his pupil Markos, also a Chinese Nestorian, had been made Patriarch-Catholicos as Mar Yaballaha. Rabban Sauma tired in his senescence of the constant migrations of the Ilkhan’s court (nomadic Mongol habits being hard to break, I suppose) and the Ilkhan Geikhatu, brother of Arghun Khan, granted Rabban Sauma’s request to have a church built in Maragha, near the Catholicos’ residence, to house the numerous holy relics that Sauma had acquired during his travels. Rabban Sauma died in mid October, 1294, and was interred adjacent to the tombs of several of the great Assyrian Patriarch-Catholicoi. But then there arose a pharaoh who knew not Joseph. After the death of Arghun Khan, who favored Christians and Jews at his court and who had his eight-year-old son baptized in 1289 by Mar Yaballaha, Muslim opposition to the prominence of Christians and Jews arose. Ghazan Khan, another son of Arghun and successor to Geikhatu Khan, converted to Islam and made the Ilkhanate of Persia a Muslim country.

After the death of Khubilai Khan, and with the rise to prominence of Buddhism at the imperial Chinese court, the prominence and influence of the Syriac Church in China waned, though they still prospered through the Mongol period of imperial rule. The friar Oderic reported on his visit c. 1324 that he found three Nestorian churches in the city of Yang-chou, but the churches soon afterwards fell into decay. By the early 17th century and the arrival of the Jesuit mission under Fr Matteo Ricci, Nestorians were all but extinct in China.

Perhaps the best postscript to this brief history of early Chinese Christianity is to note the remarkable growth of Christian faith in present-day China, noting especially the dogged survival of the Catholic Church in China with a growing rejection by many of the faithful and the clergy of state control of the Church, and the exuberant growth of the house church movement in China. It is asserted by some demographers that a majority of Chinese will be Christians by the second half of this century.

Bishop Alopen and Rabban Sauma would be pleased.

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord;
even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labors,
and their works follow them.

I highly recommend Jenkin’s book, The Lost History of Christianity, for a much more complete history of this remarkable Church that went from a Church that claimed perhaps a quarter to a third of the world’s Christians a little over a millenium ago to a mere shadow of itself in succeeding centuries, its remaining people and clergy oppressed or dispersed. Keep the remnant of the Church of the East, many of them beleaguered in Iraq and elsewhere, in your prayers.


11 thoughts on “Christianity: a traditional Chinese religion

  1. Years ago I picked up in a second-hand bookshop a little paper book, *The Luminous Religion: Nestorian Christianity in China* by Mrs. C. E. Couling (London, 1925: The Carey Press), a work reprinted from an article (or two) published originally in *The Chinese Recorder* in “April and May 1924.” It is far from being an academic work, but it is at least semi-scholarly. No doubt it had been in large part superceded, but the author devotes one part of the work (Part VI, pp. 34-41) to arguing that after the suppression of Christianity in China in the 9th-10th centuries, popular Christianity may have left distinct traces in the “Pure Land” sect of Chinese Buddhism.

    The little book ends with a detailed appendix giving a translation and analysis of the “Nestorian Tablet” of Xian by one “Professor Saeki” of Tokyo.

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