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Catherine Roberts

RLST 124U

Dr. Roeber

18 December 2015

The Appearance of Christianity in 7th Century China

Introduction

“In the beginning was the natural constant, the true stillness of the Origin, and the

primordial void of the Most High. Then the spirit of the void emerged as the Most High Lord,

moving in mysterious ways to enlighten the holy ones.” This excerpt originates from an

inscription found on the Nestorian Stele in Xi’an, China. The monument that bears these words

was erected in 781 CE to commemorate “the transmission of the Religion of Light in

China” (Coakley and Sterk, 243). This is the earliest evidence of Christianity in China. This

monument supports the assertion that, at the time of expansion of the Church by Eastern

Christian missionaries, Christianity reached far across the entire continent of Asia. Due to the

relatively short amount of time Christianity was present in China, this era is not widely studied.

However, this monument, as well as the Christian Sutras, provide numerous clues regarding the

beliefs and customs of the Church of the East as it manifested in China. Additionally, when

combined with analyses of this time period by researchers, these sources allow for the

examination of the place Christianity held in Chinese society and politics. While the role of the

Church of the East and its policies influenced its own acceptance, the spread of Buddhism paved

the way for official, if short-lived, recognition of Christianity in China. In the end, the presence

of the Church depended centrally on imperial acceptance, a feat difficult to attain and maintain.
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In order to comprehend the effect social and political forces had on the acceptance of Christianity

in China, it is necessary to understand the political atmosphere of China around the 7th and 8th

centuries in addition to having an understanding of the spread of the Church of the East across

Asia and details of Buddhist and Christian beliefs.

History

For hundreds of years, both the Syrians and the Chinese travelled along the Silk Road.

The decline of the Later Han dynasty caused splintering along the northwestern Chinese border.

These fragmented tribes made up the majority of people who interacted with Turkish travelers.

After China’s loss of power around 180CE, Turko-Mongolian tribes formed a dynasty dominated

by Buddhism and controlled the Silk Road outside the Great Wall. T’u-chueh Turks revolted in

the fifth century and assumed control of the area. By this time the Toba Turks, also Buddhist,

controlled most of northern China within the wall’s borders. China was unified under the new

Sui dynasty in 581CE. The capital was soon, in 618, captured by Kao-tsung who became the first

emperor of the T’ang dynasty. The T’ang dynasty worked toward incorporating the marginal

Turkish regions into the Chinese empire. The year 635 CE is the date given on the Nestorian

monument for the arrival of the East Syrian Christian monks in Xi’an (Moffett, 288-293).

Given solely this information, it might seem a simple feat: the spread of Christianity in

China through the assumption of new provinces. However, history is never simple. Kao-tsung,

despite his Turkish background, held extremely nationalistic views. While the Christian monks

had not yet reached northern China, Buddhism and Taoism were widespread. In 626CE, Kao-

tsung ordered secularization of the capital as an attempt to drive out Western influences.

However, less than a year later, his second son, with the help of Buddhist priests, organized a
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successful coup, seizing control of the empire. This new emperor, T’ai-tsung, built Buddhist

temples and ordained priests. His reign was marked by religious toleration, not only of the pre-

existing faiths in China but also of Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Christianity incoming

from the West. This toleration of all faiths at the time of the arrival of Christian monks allowed

for the construction of the first church, paid for by the emperor, in 638CE. This marked the

establishment of Christianity in China and across the Asian continent (Moffett, 288-293).

Buddhism and Christianity

Buddhism was one of the most widely accepted western religions in China during the

T’ang dynasty. Its great artwork was widespread and popular across the nation. These significant

religious works included not only translations of western writings, but also original works by

Chinese artists and writers. The success of Christianity in China was due in part by Christianity’s

ability to adapt Buddhist language and symbolism to reach their Chinese followers.

It is now fitting to return to an earlier time of the Silk Road, long before the T’ang

dynasty. As stated earlier, this frequently travelled connection across Asia allowed for the

exchange of not only goods but of ideas across long distances. As Buddhism rose in India,

mixing of teachings and stories between Christianity and Buddhism inevitably occurred.

Christianity had already been established by St. Thomas shortly after Jesus’ resurrection.

Mahayana Buddhism shows evidence of parallels with specifically Manichaeism between their

scriptures. Even the writer of the Xi’an monument was recorded to have been a Christian who

collaborated with a Buddhist writer to translate Buddhist texts into Chinese. Later writings, of

the 9th century, also show great evidence of communication and co-influence of Christians and

Buddhists. This occurrence stands as additional evidence of the close relationship between the
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two religions. When beliefs are shared, it becomes easier for a faith to be accepted and spread

throughout an area dominated by another.

The Xi’an Monument and Other Texts

While structures such as the aforementioned first church are no longer standing, the

monument at Xi’an still remains. This monument was discovered in an early 17th century

excavation. First translated into Latin in 1629CE, the inscription on the monument was written

primarily in Chinese with some Syriac passages (Gillman and Klemkeit, 271). Prior to this

discovery, the first recognition of Christianity in China was unknown. While it remains possible

that Christians came to China earlier than than 635CE, the date indicated on the monument, all

evidence of official recognition of Christianity before this time are too recent and unreliable

(Gillman and Klemkeit, 265-267).

Though the history of the inscription is necessary for to create context, the writing itself

and the language used in the inscribed passages provide the most information regarding forces

involved in the spread of Christianity in the 7th century. There is great emphasis on God,

creation, and the significance of the Messiah with heavy symbolism. Hardly any details of Jesus’

life and death are described with no mention of the crucifixion. The inscription is quite a bit

more “obscure in its expression and allusions” than western tests tend to be (Gillman and

Klemkeit, 272). Here, evidence of Buddhist influence is seen. The inscription contains both prose

and poetry, a common format amongst Buddhists. In essentially translating basic Christian texts

into Chinese, word choice and the way ideas were able to be expressed caused significant effects.

The details regarding translation will be discussed later.
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In addition to the monument, the Jesus-Messiah Sutra was written by Alopen, closely

resembling Buddhist sutra. It also refers to the Wind when discussing the Holy Spirit, using

symbolism that would appeal to Buddhists in China. The sutra even states, “The Messiah was

orbited by the Buddhas and arhats” (Coakley and Sterk, 247). This reference to Buddhas is either

an attempt at expressing Christian beliefs in using terms common in the Chinese language or an

effort to appeal to an audience with a favorable view of Buddhism. Either way, it ultimately

functioned to attract converts who were familiar with Buddhist-specific terminology. Similar to

the monument inscription, much of the metaphysical descriptions in the sutras were inspired by

Buddhist philosophy while the framework of this document, such as the details of historical facts

and events, were clearly Christian (Scott, 92-93).

Alopen wrote many additional documents. Discourse on Monotheism uses the Buddhist

term for emptiness to describe God, exemplifying that nothing earthly can imitate Him. In

Discourse on the Oneness of the Ruler of the Universe, he combines beliefs from Buddhism and

Christianity to define the human person. Buddhists believe in five skandas that make up a single

person. Alopen adds the Christian soul to this list, demonstrating to Buddhists that Christianity

does not require a rejection of their beliefs but an addition, or improvement, to them. Throughout

his writing, Alopen blends Christian and Buddhist themes, beliefs, and terminology. For The

Lord of the Universe’s Discourse on Alms-giving, he uses a term usually reserved for the Buddha

to refer to the Lord of the Universe and for alms he chose dana, which refers to dana-paramita,

the first of the Buddhist paramitas. The writing is a variation of the Sermon on the Mount (Scott,

92-97).
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Eric Becklin, in his Master of Arts thesis, wrote of the examples in these writings in terms

of naturalization. Using diagrams, he displays how unfitting terms like assimilation and

syncretism are in describing this phenomenon. He defines naturalization as when “an organism

that has been introduced into a new environment and makes necessary adjustments to survive

and thrive” (Becklin, 25). Through the success of Buddhism and the Christians’ ability to

naturalize, Christianity was able to establish itself in 7th century China.

The Church of the East

It is important to note the Christian missionary movement that spread to China was not a

completely alien force, like the Europeans in the Americas. The mixing of cultures and religions

across Asia eventually led to the appearance of Christianity in China. Due to this mixing and

spreading of customs and ideas, researchers note that it would be unusual if Christianity had not

appeared in China during the T’ang dynasty. An important question to pose is that of the

significance of the Church of the East as the form of Christianity which spread to China.

The councils organized in the Roman Empire established the beliefs and customs of the

orthodox church. Each of these councils involved dissenters, people whose beliefs were

invalidated by the councils. Some of these groups had such large followings that their beliefs and

customs were maintained long after their rejection by the councils. The Church of the East is a

major example of early division of beliefs in the history of Christianity. Christians who identified

the two natures of God in Jesus, particularly Nestorius and his followers, were declared heretical

by the councils but found support east of the Empire (Irvin and Sunquist, 156-158).

In order to understand the spread of Christianity in Asia, it must be stressed once again

that this spread should be thought of as more like a gradient. While maintaining important
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traditions like baptism, Christianity in China was clearly heavily influenced by East Asian

culture and language. The Chalcedonian Christians distinguished themselves through defining

the difference between person and nature. However, this distinction cannot be made in the

Chinese language. Therefore, when translated one way into English, the inscription on the

monument is able to align with Chalcedonian beliefs. It is entirely possible that the logistical

differences that tore the two churches apart was irrelevant to Chinese Christians, or neither view

was specifically even brought to China. The first people to translate the inscription were Jesuits.

Because of the ambiguity of the Chinese terminology used, these first translators were easily able

to make the inscription align with orthodox theology (Billings, 23). This further complicates

attempts to deduce the beliefs being propagated by monks in China.

Secondly, it seems culturally and technically, the spread of the Church of the East across

Asia necessitated that this be the church that first reached China. The strongholds of the Church,

such as the modern day Middle East and Turkey, had a strong connection with China compared

to the rest of the Christian world. Christians of the Church of the East are the ones who

established themselves in China because of both their ability to spread influence throughout Asia

through trade on the Silk Road and the large numbers of Eastern Christian merchants. Tacked on

to this point was the role of emperors. The first T’ang emperor was half Turkish and condemned

western influences. However, it is possible that his son’s Turkish background played a small role

in founding the Chinese Church. If it did not, it is at least evidence of the large appearance of

Eastern Europeans in China at this time. With the stronghold held by Chalcedonian Christians to

the west, the Church of the East looked to spread their influence into the east. This was furthered
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by the rise of Islam in the Middle East, which severed connections between Western Europe and

Asia and pushed the Syriac Church eastward.

Strongholds and Decline

The spread all the way to China was made possible through the emphasis placed on

monastics and their missions. Monasticism was also important to other Christian sects and is

certainly worth mentioning when discussing the spread of the Church of the East across Asia. It

was because of this fact that the Church of the East became widespread so early in the history of

Christianity. Despite being spread across such a long distance, the Church never truly held a firm

grasp on the east which ultimately led to its decline at the end of the 14th century.

This being said, the extent to which Christianity established itself in China must be

discussed. Many of the monks in the Chinese monasteries were Turkish. While there is evidence

of native converts, the Church remained run primarily by priests and monks from the west. Due

to the large proportion of outsiders and fewer numbers of Chinese natives, any action towards

expelling foreign influence would act directly on Christianity.

With many religions, the support of the emperor was crucial to its spread and survival in

a nation. However, if a religion gains a strong following, it becomes difficult to extinguish. In the

case of Christianity, acceptance was not seen until the official acceptance of western religions by

the emperor at the beginning of the 7th century. Monasteries and churches were allowed to be

built in urban, highly populated areas. The church survived for approximately 200 years, until

slowly, western religions were once again condemned by the emperor. Although Buddhism

would seem to have cleared the way for the rise of Christianity in China, Christianity failed to

gain the momentum it needed to survive times of great persecution. When an edict was issued in
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845CE demanding secularization of the nation, Christianity was still viewed as a religion of

foreigners and therefore died out quickly.

Conclusion

The Church of the East spread across Asia in the 7th century due to its strong monastic

traditions and mercantile connections along the Silk Road. The political climate of the T’ang

dynasty during this time opened its doors to the building of new churches and monasteries. Most

significantly, by developing connections with Buddhists and using Buddhist terms and images

amongst Christian themes to preach the gospels, monks were able to spread Christianity across

Asia and achieve recognition by the emperor in China. Though the followers they recruited

would be extinguished by Chinese secularization and all but disappear across Asia with the

decline of the Church of the East, the vast expanse of land covered by this tradition during the

Early Middle Ages cannot be ignored and undoubtedly left a lasting impact on the spiritual lives

of the nations and people of the world.
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Works Cited

Becklin, Eric Robert. "Cultural Naturalization And The Church Of The East In China: Using

Interreligious Iconography And Inscriptions To Investigate Identity In Yuan China".

Master of Arts. University of British Colombia, 2016. Print.

Billings, Timothy. "Jesuit Fish In Chinese Nets: Athanasius Kircher And The Translation Of The

Nestorian Tablet". Representations 87.1 (2004): 1-42. Web.

Coakley, John Wayland, and Andrea Sterk. Readings In World Christian History. Maryknoll,

N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004. Print.

Gillman, Ian, and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit. Christians In Asia Before 1500. Ann Arbor:

University of Michigan Press, 1999. Print.

Irvin, Dale T, and Scott W Sunquist. History Of The World Christian Movement. Maryknoll,

N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001. Print.

Moffett, Samuel H. A History Of Christianity In Asia. [San Francisco, Calif.]:

HarperSanFrancisco, 1992. Print.

Scott, David. "Christian Responses To Buddhism In Pre-Medieval Times". Numen 32.1 (1985):

88. Web.