Amazing Discovery in China Changes Christian History in Asia
Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2001 at 07:28 AM UT
SIAN, China — A recent discovery - according to the local is “old news” near the city of Sian, in Central China has dramatically changed the historical record of China and Asia.
Asia with China and Japan in particular are thought of as predominately Buddhist areas. The record of the Church is very limited throughout Asia with the exception of The Philippines and Korea.
As amazing as it may seem the oldest Christian site in Asia has been discovered dating back to 638 AD. The site which is near the ancient Chinese capital of Sian has shattered previous understanding of the role of Christianity in China, Japan and Asia.
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.
According to The Cross and The Lotus by Lee Shiu Keung in 635, Bishop Alopen from The Church of the East began his mission in Chang Ang, present day Sian. Christianity had first come to China in the year 64 when the Apostle Thomas came to Sian, China from India where he had come in the year 52. Other believers are believed to have brought the gospel on to Japan by the year 70 AD.
The Church had lost contact with the rest of the world through the cutting off of the Silk Road by the people of Turkestan and the restoration of the links brought great joy and strength to the Church in China, Japan and the rest of Asia as contact was once more restored with the rest of the Church.
In 630, however the Silk Road was restored and travel between the East and the West resumed. The Tang Dynasty was a very special period in Chinese history where there was a broad policy of tolerance and interest in fostering foreign religions., In 638 Alopen completed the first Christian book in Chinese The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah.
In this book it was carefully argued that Christianity was part of China's ancient tradition. In appreciation for the good of the Eastern Christians an Imperial Degree was proclaimed that provided for the first building of a Church. Later on The Church of the East was favored by another Imperial degree and Alopen was promoted to be Great Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire, Metropolitan of Chang An.
The Church encountered ups and downs but following a period of persecution falling the fall of the Tang Dynasty grew again in the 13th and 14th Centuries and were again so respected by the Emperor that according to the ancient Chinese document the Yuan Shi, Chapter 89, the Governor appointed a special officer to take charge of the affairs of the Church of the East with the second high-test rank in China.
This office was solely to manage the affairs of the many bishops, priests, monks and to see that ll the sacraments were carefully observed. According to the Yuan Shi there were 72 Church of the East monasteries during the period 1289 to 1320 not to mention the multitude of churches and believers.
What happened? With the complete restoration of the Silk Road in the 13th Century Pope Nicholas IV sent John of Montecorvino to the Chinese court. The Priests of The Churhc of the East in the Imperial Court and the Franciscan`s did no get along . One agaoin under the Mongols there was a period of great religious toleration. This was again a period of great growth for the Churchi n China but this again came to an end in 1369 when communications with the world were cut off with the decline of the Mongol Empire.
This hitherto almost unknown period in the Church in China and Asia testify to the great growth of the Church.
What does this mean today? According to staff of the Keikyo Institute, which works to establish the proper Christian History in Asia the recent discovery has two main points.
First, it completely alters the previously thought ideas about Asia in particular China and neighboring Japan. Previously it was thought that Christianity was a small part of the picture but with the recent discovery of a Church in the center of the Imperial Compound it can be clearly said that Christianity as it clearly stated in the Nestorian Monument was a central part of China at that time and there were Churches throughout China and Asia.
Second, is that it clearly puts Eastern Christianity as a `Chinese` and `Asian` religion. Particularly with an asia that is very conscious of the Colonial eras in which the conquering was doing in the name of Western Christianity this indigenous form of Christianity which although properly Christian was very democratic is recombined and admired.
Two recent trips by staff from the Keikyo Institute to the site and other sites nearby were very surprising. When informed of the fact that they were trying to find out information about the Churhc of the East officials, the media were surprisingly positive.
Rev. Harald Bredesen, longtime Christian minister to World Leaders was asked spontaneously to speak in a Church a short distance from the ancient Church and the service went on to an instantly ordered full house for over an hour.
Of particular concern, though is history. There have been many discoveries of remains of the wonderful times of the Church in China and Asia along the ancient Silk Road but in every instance the sites and artifacts have disappeared.
The Keikyo Institute along with others are trying to raise funds to be able to donate to the site and accompanying Museum so it can be refurbished to accept pilgrims and visitors. According to Rev. Harald Bredesen who recently visited the site `It is critical that we be able to present a gift so the site can be repaired so that the Christian tradition of the site will remain. If we fail at this critical moment to support this tremendous discovery it may as in the past be forever lost and the grand tradition of the Church as well`.
Why, some ask is it so important to find history? The answer is quite simple. In Asia history counts. To present individuals and whole areas with a gospel that has no connection with them is extremely difficult but to present the gospel to them as the faith of their fathers calling them not to accept a new religion but to `go back` is completely; different.
Further, while many countries in the regions actively discourage `western religions` The Church of the East is clearly an `ancient` and `Asian` religion and it enjoys great support and respect.
Belong China is what according to staff at The Keikyo Institute may be even more amazing. The name of the Church discovered in Sian China is the same as the oldest Temple in Kyoto, Japan which has a site within its former premises from the Church of the East.
It appears quite clear that the oldest Temple in the `buddhist` city of Kyoto used to be a Church.
These amazing discoveries according to Dr. Bredesen I believe are not by accident and are so that the people of the last major unreached part of the world - Asia can come to Christ - not a Christ with whom they have no connection but a Christ who whey once loved.
The prayer of hundreds of years are inherited in these people there now. Within the area of the newly discovered Church are another 10 Churches and the fervor of the people that packed into the church within just a few minutes to listen to the messages were great testimony to the fact that the faith that was thought to be `western` in fact was `eastern` when Europe was still barbarian.
It points to the simple fact that when Jesus commanded the disciples to go to the `ends of the earth` they went and the gospel was proclaimed and the Church grew to India in 51, China in 64 AD, Japan estimated about 70 AD and throughout the world.
The proclamation of the Gospel to those who have `never heart` as opposed to those who are descended from those who once knew brings the dual blessings of pride in ones past as well as the inherited prayers of generations gone previously.
Reporting from Sian, China, Ken Joseph Jr.
Ken Joseph Jr. is author of a recently published book called "Japan: The Nation of the Cross" which explains the Christian history of Japan and Asia. In 1951 Joseph's parents were some of the thousands who answered Gen. Douglas MacArthur's call for missionaries to go to Japan to help it recover from World War II.
Traveling with them on the same ship to Japan was a Japanese newspaper editor. When he learned the Josephs' ancestors were from Assyria he told them that people from that land had come to Japan more than 1,400 years ago, bringing medicine, freedom and democracy. These were Nestorian Christians who had settled in Japan by the 5th century.
Joseph was once highly skeptical of his father's story, but after years of research he has found it to be true. Just months ago Joseph published "Jijika no Kuni, Nihon" (Japan: The Nation of the Cross), which is selling well in Japanese secular bookstores. He hopes to publish it soon in English.
The Keikyo Institute is working to raise an immediate $100,000 to provide for the development and protection of the only Christian site in China and development of an ongoing find to preserve this and other Christian sites to be outposts of the faith in the most unreached part of the world in China, Japan and other parts of asia.
In addition, special tours are available which will keep a steady stream of Christians visiting the sites making sure they are preserved and the precious history of the Church of the East continues.
People will often take the Syrian, for the Greek Nestorians, but the former is one thing, the latter is another, you must discriminate between them. The so-called "Syrian Nestorians" believe in the salvation only by faith, and being, none other than the members of the Holy Catholic Church of the East which was established in the early part of the first century and which adopted the Peshitta, the original Scriptures in Aramaic, at the beginning of the following century, they had nothing to do with the Conference of Nicaea in 325 A.D. which recognized the Trinity nor with the Conference of Ephesus in 431 which stated the doctrine of the Monophysitism and in consequence of which Nestorius, Patriach of Constantinople, was deposed from his post on account of heresy, i. e., his ignoring the Trinity and insisting on the Nestorians have been Trinitarians since before the above Conference of Ephesus, yet they were called "Nestorians" by their foes soon after the dismissal of Nestorius, as they were Dyophysites like the Greek Nestorians, the followers of Nestorius. This is the very reason why people not unfrequently would and will confuse the Syrian, with the Greek Nestorians. In the following article "Nestorian" and "Nestorianism" are used as substitutes for "Syrian Nestorian" and "Syrian Nestorianism" only for convenience’ sake.
The Hatas were a Nestorian tribe who lived originally under Perian domination in Khotan (now in Eastern Turkestan) but migrated to Japan via China and Korea in search of religious freedom. The landed at Sakoshi (near the present city of Himeji in Kyogo prefecture) some 1500 years ago and there erected the first Christian churches long before St. Francis Xavier arrived here in 1549. Later they move to Uzumasa (now Kyoto City) where they erected many other churches. Although they were persecuted by Buddhists in both China and Korea they were granted to full freedom in all but name from the time of their arrival in this country down to the days of the Empress Suiko.
Under Shotoku, Prince Regent under the Empress Suiko in the seventh century, the Hatas were happy indeed since the wise Prince Regent, though himself a Buddhist, granted them full liberty under the provisions of his famous Seventeen-Article Constitution. Well might be noted English scholar, Professor Lewis Bush, then a high official of the Occupation Forces, declare in 1947 that "Shotoku Taishi was essentially a democrat: …..Indeed, had it not been for the complete indifference of the Japanese to this great man, the world would know more about him today."
In the days of this great Prince Regent the Nestorian church grounds at Uzumasa had their own "Well of Israel" attached to a David’s Shrine, and on the well-spring stood a Sacred Tripod symbolizing the Trinity (cf. Rev. XXI,22,XXII 1,2) from which a limpid stream flowed. Visitors to Uzumasa can still see a tripod, build in the style of a triangular torii, which marks the exact spot where the original tripod of the Nestorians once stood. These various Nestorian sites have been identified only recently by the writer of this article with the aid of archaelogy, philology, and the science of folklore. The writer admits, however, that this would have been impossible without the suggestions and hypothesis advanced by the English author, Mrs. E. A. Gordon in her several published works. A study of some historical sources has convinced me that it was a Nestorian, Raca, who directed the first orphan asylum ever established in Japan.
Nestorianism in the days of the Empress Suiko exerted not a little influence on the culture of Japan. It is true that Shotoku may be regarded quite justly as the founder of social work in Japan. It was he who established the Shitennoji Buddhist Temple in Osaka which comprised four separate charitable institutions including the Kyoden-in or a sanctuary of religion, learning and music, The Ryobyo-in or charitable hospital, the Seyaku-in or a charitable dispensary, and the Hiden-in or an asylum for the helpless. To him goes the credit for having been the first to carry on social work on a large scale in Japan, but I believe that it cannot be denied that this work was modeled on the charitable work of the Nestorian church at Uzumasa. This name, incidentally, is, I believe, a variant of the Aramic," Ishoo M’shikha," meaning Jesus Christ.
Although the Nestorian Christians in Japan went over completely to Conventional Taoism at one time after Prince Shotoku’s death, the Emperor Shomu and his consort, the Empress Komyo, gave the audience to a Nestorian missionary who came to Japan in 736 and was identified by Mrs. Gordon with the Rev. Milis, Bactrian physician. The emperor had a leper asylum built in the suburbs of Nara which was then the capital, and the empress worked there as a volunteer nurse. People must have been amazed to see how this young belle in the purple went so far as to suck the lepers’ wounds as pious Christians were wont to do in the Middle ages in Europe. The historicity of this story is, I believe, confirmed by the various data which have made it possible to identify the site of the lazaretto and it would appear that the Emperor and his beautiful consort took their inspiration for this work from the Nestorianism preached by the Bactrian missionary.
While it is quite true that Chinese literature and Indian Buddhism conspired to make a cultural nation of the Japanese people before the Meiji Restoration. Indeed, Nestorianism from the Near East contributed much towards Japanese civilization even long before the introduction of Roman Catholicism some 400 years ago.
In conclusion I must render grateful acknowledgement to those prominent personages who were so kind as to encourage my studies. Among these are the Rev. Egli, Director of the St. Thomas Institute in Kyoto, the Rev. Kosho Otani, Abbot of the Nishi-Hongaoji Temple, His Holiness Mar Shimun of the Patriarchate of the East in Chicago, Illinois, and Prof. Yukitoki Takikawa, ex-Dean of the Law Faculty of Kyoto University, Japan’s famous champion of Liberalism. I owe grateful acknowledgement also to those who so graciously visited the sites I discovered. Among these I wish especially to mention the Rev. G. Beckman, American missionary of the Church in Kyoto, the Rev. H. H. Eggen of the Norwegian Lutheran Church, Godalsveien 2, Stavanger, Norway, and Mr J. W. Schoonen, principal of Kobe Education Center, Troop Information and EducationSection, Kobe Base.
The T'ang Dynasty (AD 618-877) was a golden age of Chinese culture. No wonder that the Chinese people call themselves T'ang people and the overseas Chinese settlements in New York and San Francisco are known as T'ang quarters. T'ang China was known to all her neighbours as the Up-per Kingdom. In Ch'ien Chi's famous poem, Farewell to a Japanese Monk Bound Hom,eward, we read;
Chang-an, the upper capital, was the centre of imperial splendour. Caravans brought with them traders and jugglers, monks and pilgrims from Persia, Armenia and even from Antioch and Byzantium. Their strange appearances and outlandish clothes never failed to amuse the Chinese onlookers. Meanwhile Chinese had also been deported to Central Asia or sent there as soldier-peasants to garrison the fortifications across the steppes . Several Chinese leaders during the T'ang Dynasty were of ' foreign origin. The poet Li Po's ancestral family had been exiled to the Western region in the 7th century. Li Po himself was born in AD 701, either on the way from Suyab to China or in Suyab , the modern Tokmak, in what is now the Soviet Republic of Turkestan.
T'ang China had great confidence in her own cultural heritage. It was a period when China was most receptive to foreign influence and was ready to borrow from outside art forms and motifs and even to assimilate the faiths of her subject nations and friendly neighbors. Against such a setting, Nestorian Christianity first came to China.
Alopen, the Persian Bishop, began the Nestorian mission in Chang-an in AD 635, the same year when St. Aidan came to preach the Gospel in Northumbria
But why 635? In the beginning of the T'ang Dynasty, the overland route between Persia and China had been barred by the people of Turkestan. The Eastern Turks challenged the authority of the T'ang Emperor while the Western Turks held sway over the valley of the River Chu with Tokmak as their centre. However, in 630 the Eastern Turks were overwhelmed by T'ang forces and the Western Turks without a fight surrendered to T'ang power and influence. The route to Persia was therefore reopened. As we learn from the T'ang Shu, "When the embassy from Bukhara came to the capital to offer tribute, T'ai Tsung greeted the ambassador saying, 'The Western Turks have surrendered. NOW merchants are safe to travel.' All the tribes welcomed the news with great joy."
The semi-barbarian tribes in Central Asia agreed to honour the T'ang Emperor by the title of "Tien-ko-han" (King of the Khans) recognizing him as the leader of the International Peace League. Prof. Shen Shih-min, author of a history of the Sui and T'ang Dynasties, has reminded us that in the original Turkish tongue the term Tien-ko-han probably meant the Son of Heaven.
Thus, Alopen was able to make his historic journey to China. However, before 635 many merchants of Persian origin must have lived in Changan, and undoubtedly there were some Nestorians among them. Also, there must have been in the T'ang Capital a number of Nestorians of Central Asian origin from Sogdiana or from Bukhara. The very fact that the Emperor sent the minister of state Fang Hsuan-ling, to take an escort to the western outposts to meet Alopen suggests that elaborate preparations had been made for his conring. Again, as we learn from the Nestorian Monument, the Emperor granted Alopen permission to translate the Nestorian sutras in the Imperial Library. This was in line with the T'ang Dynasty's broad policy of toleration and interest in fostering foreign religions. In 638 Alopen with the help of Chinese associates completed the first Christian book in Chinese The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah. It was not a translation but rather a free adaptation to meet the needs of the mission in Chang-an. Japanese scholars indicate that the original was likely to be in the Persian or Sogdian language rather than Syriac.
The term, "Uo-li-si-liam," for instance, seems to be a transliteration of Jerusalem in the Persian tongue.
In this first Christian book in Chinese, Alopen took pains to show that Christianity contained nothing subversive to China's ancient traditions . He pointed out that loyalty to the state and filial piety to one 's parents were not contrary to Christian teaching. The portrait of the Emperor T'ai Tsung (627-649), as we learn from the Nestorian Monument of 781, was in fact painted on the wall of the Nestorian monastic church, reminiscent of the portrait of the Emperor Justinian (483-565) in the Byzantine church in Ravenna.
But this early Chinese Christian classic was not only an apology. It was an introduction to the Christian faith. The life of our Lord from the Nativity to the Passion was presented for the first time to Chinese readers.
The Emperor was pleased with Alopen 's achievement. An imperial decree proclaimed the virtue of the Nestorian religion and ordered a Nestorian monastery to be built in the I-ning quarter by local officials . Now the I-ning quarter was in the extreme west of the city where the Persian and Central-Asian traders were concentrated. The site of the monastery was clearly indicated in the Chang-an Chi (AD 1076). "North of the east of the street is the foreign monastery of Persia. In the 12th Ching-Kuan year (AD 639), T'ai Tsung built it for Alopen, a foreign monk of Ta Ch’in." The monastery, therefore, seems to have been located in the north-east angle of the cross formed by the two main streets in the I-ning quarter. The monastery began with 21 monks.
During the reign of Kao Tsung (649-693), Nestorian Christianity was further favoured by the court. By Imperial decree, Alopen was promoted to be great Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire, i.e. Metropolitan of Chang-an. No doubt the Nestorian Monument greatly exaggerated the importance of Nestorianism in T'ang China. "The religion_ spread throughout the ten provinces . . . monasteries abound in hundred cities." . : ' Nevertheless, we have reason believe that there were several Nestorian monasteries outside Chang-an. In Loyang a Nestorian monastery was erected in the Shau-hsien quarter, and there must have been Nestorian monasteries also in Tuan-huang, Ling-wu and perhaps in Szechuan.
Nestorian Christianity witnessed a serious setback in the reign of the usurping Empress Wu, a woman of great energy and ability. In 690 she proclaimed herself the founder of a new dynasty -Chou - and wished to be remembered by posterity as an outstanding Empress. Accordingly her half brother, Wu San-Ssu, proposed to erect a gigantic column in her honor, to be located outside the Tuan gate of the Imperial city. A famous Indian sculptor and craftsman was commissioned to execute the intricate design. It was to be an octagonal column with a height of 105 feet built in a base with carved unicorns. On the pinnacle of the column was to be a dragon embracing a large orb representing the rising sun. The enormous task of financing and erecting the imposing column was entrusted to the Nestorian layman Abraham. It was a tribute to the skill of the Indian craftsman and to the administrative talent of Abraham that the immense project took only eight months to complete.
Only two years previously, the Buddhists of Loyang had opened an attack upon the Nestorians. Now Abraham's act of homage must have assured the Empress of the loyalty of the Nestorian congregation and thus averted the Buddhist attempt to uproot the young church from Chinese soil. For knowledge of this little known episode we owe much to the research of Prof. Lo Hsiang-lin, Professor of Chinese in Hong Kong University. Abraham came from a noble Persian family. Emperor Kao Tsung, noting his remarkable achievement and great fame, summoned him to his court and sent him on a mission to the countries east of Persia. The inscription on his tombstone stated that he brought the holy religion to the barbarian tribes who had since lived in peace and concord. Not least was the virtue of his leadership in summoning the kings of various countries to erect the heavenly column in the reign of Empress Wu. He died on the first day of the fourth month in the first year of Chun Yun (710) at his private residence in Loyang, aged 95.
If Abraham, the nobleman, helped the Nestorians to stand firm and weather the storm of Buddhist antagonism in Loyang. Abraham, the abbot, with Bishop Gabriel, succeeded in "supporting together the mystic cord and tying the broken knot" after the mocking and slandering of the Nestorians by the Taoists in Chang-an (712-713). In 713 the Emperor Hsuan Tsung (712-757) ordered the Prince of Ning Kuo and four other princes to go to the Nestorian monastery to build and set up the altars again. In 744 he decreed that Abbot Abraham , together with Bishop George (Chi-ho), the monk Pu-lun and five other monks , should go to celebrate Holy Eucharist in the Hsing-chihg Palace, the residence of the Emperor 's elder brother and four other brothers .
Of Bishop Gabriel (Chih-lieh) we obtain con-siderable information from Chinese sources. It is significant to note that Gabriel came to China by sea. Toward the end of the 7th century, Canton had become the chief seaport for foreign trade. In 8th century Canton, the merchants from abroad were allowed a large measure of self-government and the free exercise of their religion.
Bishop Gabriel arrived in. Canton in 713 or earlier. He worked among Persian merchants and craftsmen and acquired a knowledge of Chinese. The Nestorian Church. in Canton was, no doubt, blessed by the presence and guidance of the Bishop . Furthermore, while in Canton. Gabriel made the acquaintance of the Inspector of merchant shipping, Chou Ching-li. With the encouragement and help of Chou, he began to "carve quaint things and make wonderful objects." Like Ricci after him, Gabriel cherished the hope that through the gifts of valuable curios, the Emperor might be induced to look more kindly upon the Nestorian mission. It aroused, however, the opposition of Liu Tse, the censor of the Province. He submitted a memorial to the Emperor. "Ching-Ii is seeking to beguile your sage understanding, to shake and subvert your lofty mind. Will your Majesty trust and allow it? This would be to spread decadence in the whole Empire!" Officially, the Emperor gave Liu Tse his approval. The Nestorian Monument, however sug-gests that Gabriel had won the favour of the Emperor. The truth is that, even though Hsuan Tsung may not have been greatly impressed by the wonderful objects, the ministry of Bishop Gabriel and of Abbot Abraham seemed to have created a new atmosphere in Chang-an.
According to the Tse Fu Yuan Kuei, the second mission of Bishop Gabriel took place in October 732 when the King of Persia sent the chief P'an-na-mi with Bishop Cabriel on an embassy to Chang-an. The Emperor was pleased and gave Gabriel a purple kashaya and fifty pieces of silk.
Gabriel's success must have encouraged the Nestorians in Persia to send more missions. In 744 Bishop George (Chi-ho) took the journey to the Far East. That he was permitted to celebrate the Eucharist in the Palace of the Emperor's elder brother was a strong indication of the steady progress of the Nestorian Church in China. In addition, the Emperor 's brothers had already had their encounter with the Nestorian Church in 713 and this might prove to be fruitful in due course.
In October 745 an Imperial decree stated that since the cradle of Nestorianism was in Ta Ch'in, the Persian monasteries in the two capitals and in departments and districts of the Empire should be changed to Ta Ch'in monasteries.
The rebellion of An Lu-shan in 755 was the turning point in T'ang Dynasty history. It was a traditional policy of the T'ang Emperors to employ foreign legions in the defence of the frontiers. An Lu-shan, born of an lranian-Turkic family, had won high favour from the Imperial Court and had a large army under his command. In the Autumn of 755 he led the rebellion against Hsuan Tsung. Early in 756 he captured Loyang and soon his forces entered Chang-an. Shortly before the fall of the capital, Hsuan Tsung fled south to Chengtu and on the way he abdicated in favour of his third son who had his headquarters in Ling-wu.
Su Tsung (756-763) as Tien-ko-han summoned soldiers from the garrisons of various countries, Turkestan, Kashgar, Kucha and Khotan, to put down the revolt. Some of those foreign soldiers were Nestorians, others were Manichaeans. The military genius General Kuo Tzu-i, with the help of these legions, succeeded in crushing the rebels. The General's influence in the Court may well be the reason why the Nestorians enjoyed a measure of favour under Su Tsung and his successors. Due to the civil war, undoubtedly some Nestorian monasteries were damaged while others were left ruined and unoccupied. Su Tsung ordered the restoration of five monasteries in Ling-wu and other districts, as a gesture of Imperial favour.
One of the most outstanding commanders in the campaign was Issu (Yazdbazed), who came to China from Balkh, where his father Milis had been a priest, He was second-in-command to Ge.neral Kuo and was richly rewarded after the rebe,llion had definitely been put down . - With his ascendency, the Nestorians experienced a marked revival. Every year Issu assembled the monks of four monasteries for divine service and meditation. The conference lasted the whole of 50 days. Moreover, the Nestorian Monument recorded that he had a deep concern for the welfare of the people.
Early Nestorian missionaries were well known for their medical knowledge and surgical skill We can thus appreciate the devotion and social concern of Issu. Su Tsung's successors continued to shower Imperial favours upon the Nestorians. Tai Tsung (763-780), for example, repaid merits with gifts of incense and gave a royal feast to honour the Nestorian congregations . In the reign of Te Tsung the Monument (781), to which we owe so much for our knowledge of Nestorianism in the T ' ang Dynasty, was erected in Issu's honour.
In general, the T'ang Dynasty was an age of religious toleration and intellectual curiosity. However, when Wu Tsung ascended the throne, the Taoists came to control the Court. They were in-tensely jealous of the rapid growth of Buddhist , monasteries. In the reign of Hsuan Tsung there were already 5,358 monasteries. In 749 it was estimated that there were 120,000 men and women who had taken the vow. The number continued to grow after the rebellion. But economic and political matters also contributed to Wu Tsung's policy of persecution in 845. Monastic establishments withdrew men in great numbers from military and civil services and cut down the receipts of the imperial treasury through their immunity from taxation. In 845 Wu Tsung suppressed 4,600 monasteries and more than 40,000 private monastic establishments. Only historic Buddhist monasteries of great beauty in the large cities were to be preserved. He also ordered some 260,000 monks and nuns to return to secular lives. Monasteries of Central and Western Asian origins were also involved. A petition to the Court stated, , "As for the Ta Ch'in (Nestorian) and Muhu (Zoroastrian) temples, these heretical religions must not alone be left when the Buddhists have been suppressed; they must all be compelled to re.turn to lay life and resume their original callings and pay taxes, or if they are foreign they shall be sent back to their native Places." From this petition it is clear that there 1'vere Chinese Nestorian members as well as those of Persian or Central Asian origin. It followed that an Imperial decree "compelled the Ta Ch'in (Nestorianism) and Muhu, (Zoroastrianism) to the number of more than 3,000 persons to return to lay life and to cease to confound the customs of China."
Meanwhile many Nestorians must have journeyed to Canton and made ready for their long voyage home. In Canton they would learn that the Imperial decree had been revoked by Wu Tsung's successor and it was likely that some of them would remain in the southern city. The ninth century Arabic writer, Abu Zaid, edited a collection of travellers' journals.
His readers were told that in the rebellion of Bansu (Huang Ch,ao), who captured Khanfu (Canton) in 877, many inhabitants were put to death. ,,Persons well-informed about these affairs relate that, without counting the Chinese who were massacred, there perished six score thousand Mohammedans, Jews, Christians and Parsis who were living in the city and doing business there." This was no doubt an incorrect figure. Yet the fact remains that the foreign population in Canton was large in the ninth century and among them there was a substanial number of Nestorian Christians .
Patriarch Theodosius (AD 852-868) in a list of Metropolitans of the Nestorian Church failed to mention that there was a metropolitan in China. This may be due to the fact that the church had not recovered after the violent persecution in 845.
With the fall of the T'ang Dynasty, there was a rapid decline of Nestorianism in China. In 986 a monk from Najran who had been sent by the Nestorian Patriarch to China in 982 was reported to have said, "Christianity is extinct in China; the native Christians have perished in one way or an-other ; the church which they had has been destroyed and there is only one Christian left in the land." No one would take this seriously as an accurate report for the whole Chinese Nestorian church. But we may feel sure that the fall of the T'ang Dynasty also meant the eclipse of the Nestorian mission in China proper.
Nestorian Worship, Scripture and Mission
Worship eastward seems to be the first rule in Nestorian teaching. 'The Monument relates "Worshipping toward the east, they hasten on the way to life and glory." In the lvlongol period, in the history of Chin-kiang, we also read, "The worship towards the east is regarded as the principal thing in the re.1igion." William of Rubruck like-worse pointed out "Then on the octave of Holy Innocents (January 4th) we were taken to the court and some Nestorian priests came. I did not know they were Christians and they asked me in what direction we worshipped. I said, 'Towards the East.'"
The veneration of the cross, as the instrument of redemption, became a Nestorian devotion. According to the Monument, "He set out the cross to define the four quarters," North, South, East and West. William of Rubruck told us that women of the Imperial Mongol household adored the cross with great devotion as they were instructed in that respect by the Nestorian priests. The cross indeed occupied so prominent a place in Nestorian faith and life that in the Mongol period the Nestorian monasteries were known as the monasteries of the cross. However, the Nestorians venerated the cross but not the crucifix as William of Rubruck reminded the readers of his Journal.
In the Nestorian monasteries, seven hours of ritual praise were kept and prayers were offered for the living and the dead. Sunday worship was especially stressed as "washing the heart and restoring purity."
The sacrament of baptism occupied a most important place in the Nestorian church. As the Monument stated, "The water and the Spirit of baptism wash away vain glory and cleanse one fine and white." This was equally true in the Mongol period. As we learn from William of Rubruck, "On Easter Eve the Nestorians baptized in the most correct manner more than 60 people and there was great common joy among all Christians." (Chap. xxx). This was a fine tribute from a Franciscan witness .
Of the Eucharist, we learn little from early Chinese Nestorian writing. But William of Rubruck 's Journal did throw some light on Nestorian liturgy. He wrote that in the church near Karakorum, the Nestorians celebrated Eucharist with a large silver chalice and paten. Again he recorded, "I said Mass on Maundy Thursday with their silver chalice and paten, which vessels were very large."
According to The Book of the Honoured Ones, the Trinitarian formula was stressed in divine service. "We reverently worship the mysterious Person, God the Father; the responding Person, God the Son; and the witnessing Person, the Spirit of Holiness We worship the Holy Trinity-three Persons in one."
We also hav6 a Nestorian order of service dated 720, apparently for a special holy day. After the singing of a hymn, in this case the Hymn of Eternal Salvation, the congregation venerated St. John (probably reciting the collect of St. John's Day). This was followed by the recitation of the Book of Heavenly Treasure Store (The Breviary), the Psalms and the Gospels.
The Nestorian monks kept the beard and shaved the crown. The clergy were divided into two kinds: the.black, clergy were the religious while the white clergy were the percular priests. Issu, for example though married is described as a monk and given the purple kashaya. His father, Milis, as we have noted, had also been a secular priest.
The Nestorian clergy were well-known for their social concern. There was no slavery in the Nestorian household. Moreover, the Nestorian missionaries were known among non-Christians for their medical knowledge and skill. This was one of the reasons for their success during the greater part of the T'ang Dynasty.
The eighth century also saw the beginning of Chinese hymnology. One of the oldest Chinese hymns - The Hymn to the Holy Trinity -was written at Chang-an around the year 800. It was probably the East Syriac form of the Gloria in Excelsis. Scholars are impressed with its rich imagery and its free adaptation of Buddhist terms. But it is not syncretism. As Prof. J. Foster of the University of Glasgow has reminded us, "Rather it is a borrowing of terminology, and a relation of doctrine to a familiar background of thought, as the only way of expressing Christian truth in its Far-eastern environment."
This hymn has been incorporated into the modern Chinese Hymnal, Hymns of' Universal Praise.
"Of scriptures there were left 27 books," the Monument stated. We do not know whether the whole New Testament had been translated into Chinese, but as early as 720 the Gospels were read in church. As early as 638 we have an excellent narrative of the Nativity, the Ministry and the Passion in The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah. The first half of this book is a manual on Christian living. Alopen tried to reconcile Christianity with Chinese ethics. The sutra stresses a three-fold loyalty: serving God, serving the Emperor, and serving one's parents. In the exposition of the Ten Commandments, it again stresses the importance of filial piety. It urges people to serve parents with deep respect so that they shall have no wants. In return, the filial children will inherit mansions in the Heavenly City. "All living, beings," the sutra reminded its readers, "owe their existence to their parents." The commandment for-bidding murder is changed into one forbidding the taking of life or exhorting others to take life. Here Alopen's Chinese Buddhist assistant used his own interpretation and imagination to render Alopen's ideas into his own mould of thought. The Buddhist influence was very apparent "The life of all living beings," the sutra added, "is the same as the life of man."
It is, however, the second half of the book which especially holds our attention. For the first time, Chinese readers were privileged to read an account of the Nativity. "God in Heaven above shed his light on heaven and earth. In the place where Jesus the Messiah was born, the dwellers in the world saw bright light on the earth, a star of good omen dwelling in the sky." The simile that the star was as large as a cartwheel proves to be interesting. The Chinese assistant of Alopen was familiar with Buddhist sutras and we have reason to believe that the simile was taken from the Buddhist scriptures where the size of the lotus is compared with that of the cartwheel.
In this document we read that at the Baptism "A voice was heard in space saying, 'Messiah is my son, all people who are in the world must obey his commandments.' " Yet according to St. Mark's Gospel , a similar saying is placed in the context of the Transfiguration. Does this mean that Alopen had made a mistake or that he had used an ancient Syriac text which had transplanted the voice of Heaven from the context of the Transfiguration to that of the Baptism?
The narrative of the Passion, in spite of its archaic language, is vivid and graphic. It was no mean achievement for the translator and his assistant who were searching for words and expressions. ~It followed St. Matthew's Gospel very closely, " The Prince said, 'I cannot kill this man.' The evil-doers said, 'If the man ought not to die, what will happen to our sons and daughters? ' The Prince Pilate asked for water and washed his hands in front of the evil-doers saying, 'I truly cannot kill the man.' "
The document ended abruptly in the middle of a sentence describing the aftermath of the Crucifixion. It appears that the original manuscript contained some more columns which have been lost to posterity.
In any case, we have a sequel to this sutra in The Messiah's Discourse on Charity which appeared in 642. Some of the terms adopted are quite ingenious. The Holy Spirit is the "Pure Wind;" the Resurrection is the "Holy Transformation." The first half of this latter document was devoted to a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount. The second half resumed the narrative of the life of Christ. It began with a description of the events which occurred at the time of the death and resurrection of Christ the splitting of the rocks , the opening of the tombs of the saints and their appearance for a period of 44 days (Matthew 27:52). In the section on the Ascension, the document ended thus, " Take My words and preach to all peoples. Call them to come to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I shall be with you in all your ways until the end of the earth. " Again it is reminiscent of the last verse of St. Matthew's Gospel. Indeed, St. Matthew is the Gospel par excellence for the Nestorians, and Alopen used it as the basis of his narrative both in 7he Sutra of Jesus the Messiah and in its sequel. The Book of the Honoured Ones (ninth century) gave a list of saints and scriptures . Among the saints or fa wongs (spiritual kings) one can recognize John, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Moses, David, Paul, Azariah, Michael, Milis and George. The list of scriptures includes the titles of 3 5 books which were venerated by the church in China. One can easily identify the Gospels, the Acts, Epistles of St. Paul, the Psalms, parts of the Pentateuch, a Breviary, and at least two of the original Chinese Nestorian books - Sutra Proclaiming the Origin and Root of the Holy Religion and the Sutra of Mysterious Peace and Joy.
In addition to Christian books, some Manichaean and astrological books like The Book of Three Moments and The Book of Four Gates were also included. In putting down the An Lu-shan rebellion, Nestorian tribesmen were fighting side by side with Manichaean Uighurs. In the process, the Nestorians apparently were influenced by the latter's beliefs. In the beginning and in the middle period of the T'ang Dynasty, the Nestorians had freely borrowed Buddhist and Taoist terms and imagery to express Christian doctrine, as we have seen in The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah and in The Hymn to the Holy Trinity. Moreover, free adaptation of Taoist terms in the Nestorian Monument is well known. Some of the sentences echoed closely the thoughts of the Tao Te Ching. For example, compare the phrases of the Monument, " The true and eternal way is wonderful and hard to name; its merits and use are manifest and splendid, forcing us to call it the brilliant teaching;" with those of the 7'ao Te Ching, "We do not know its real name (to classify it); that we may have it in writing we say, 'Tao', ' The Way. ' "
Now it is evident that the Nestorian Christians freely used Taoist terms and phrases in order to call the attention of the Chinese literati and the Imperial courtiers who favored Taoism to the Syriac religion. Yet after the turn of the ninth century, it ' is obvious that Nestorian writings were increasingly becoming syncretic in nature. The way that Buddhist and Taoist thoughts were freely borrowed had gone much beyond Alopen or Adam, the author of the inscription on the Monument. In the Sutra of Mysterious Peace and Joy, the Christian elements had largely disappeared. As the Messiah was surrounded by His disciples, like the Buddha, He enlightened them with divine mystery and at the con-elusion of the discourse, the disciples were imbued with joy and with due ceremony withdrew. The setting bears little resemblance to that by the Sea of Galilee. But what was taught is even more astounding. It was not an adaptation of the Sermon on the Mount as we have seen in the early sutra of The Messiah's Discourse on Charity. It was rather a discourse on the overcoming of desire and thereby attaining inner peace and joy. It was more akin to Buddhism or Gnosticism than to Christianity.
The question is often raised whether the ministry of the Nestorians in China was aimed at the Chinese people. Or was the main work of Alopen and his successors that of caring for the needs of Nestorians in China and across the frontiers who had been gravely neglected by the Mother Church in Persia and left without episcopal or pastoral care? To begin with, the congregations of the Nestorian monastic churches in Chang-an and Loyang must have been largely Persian or Central Asian. But it is likely that missionary work among the Chinese also stood high on the list of Alopen's purposes. The very fact that the liturgy was written in Chinese is sufficient to show that there must have been a number of Chinese in the Nestorian congregations. More-over, in the persecution of foreign religions in 845 we learn that, besides foreign monks of Persian or Central Asian origin, there were a number of Chinese monks serving the Nestorian Church. These too must "be compelled to return to lay life and resume their original callings and pay taxes."
Again, the missionary impulse was clearly stated in the Hymn of Eternal Salvation ( 720) , "The Great Holy and Merciful Father will use His wisdom and strength to save the hundreds of millions of people . . . so that they could also return to the great truth."
But when all is said, the fact remains that Nestorianism in China was largely. a foreign church, without deep roots in Chinese soil. It had not entered the hearts of the people and really made itself at home. There was no Hsuan-tsang in the Nestorian Church who could translate Christian Scripture into elegant and lucid Chinese. Even Adam, who did so much for Nestorian Christianity in China, was of Central Asian origin. The Nestorians in China relied on the support of the mother church 'i~n Central Asia of Persia 'or Baghdad. After the fall of the T'ang Dynasty, it was exceedingly difficult to have communications with the Patriarch and no new missionaries could reach China in the time of turmoil. Moreover, the Nestorian Church in China was largely dependent on Imperial patronage. The fall of the Dynasty, therefore, meant the eclipse of the mission.
Nevertheless. Nestorianism continued to exist in Central Asia and along the Chinese frontiers. As early as the latter half of the eighth century, Nestorianism began to flourish among the Turkic tribes. In 781, the Patriarch Timothy was requested by the King of the Turks to establish a Metropolitan See there. The Patriarch noted, "The King of the Turks and nearly all the inhabitants of the country left their ancient idolatry and became Christians. He has requested us in his letters to create a Metro-politan See for his country and this we have done."
It was an age of Nestorian expansion. Central Asia was completely under Nestorian influence. The Patriarch was ruling a large church with 25 Metro-politans from Mesopotamia to the border of China. The Tokmak Cemetery alone contains over 600 gravestones, mostly with Syriac inscriptions dating from the middle of the 9th to the middle of the 14th Century. While in China, in a Nestorian monastery in San-pen Hill six or seven miles north-west of Fang-shan in Hopei Province, we find inscriptions on a tablet dated 960 and on another dated 1 365. These were Syriac inscriptions which included carved crosses. In spite of the eclipse of the mission in Chang-an, Loyang and Canton, the Nestorian Church continued to flourish along the frontiers of China and sometimes even m a corner of China itself.