The Nestorian Monument in Xian, China
This famous Assyrian black marble monument was discovered in the city of Hsi-an-fu or Hsingan-fu, in the province of Shensi, north China — Lat. 34° 12´ N., and Long. 108° 5´ E. — which was the capital of northern China. It became known as Hsi-an-fu during the Ming dynasty in the second half of the 14th century. Prior to that it was known as Ch’ang-an, a name which is now applied exclusively to the district in which the city stands. The golden age of Ch’ang-an was during the T’ang dynasty which came to power A.D. 618. During the reign of this dynasty (A.D. 618 - 906), China was at its most brilliant period and the city of Ch’ang-an occupied the position in Asia that Madrid did in Europe in the 14th & 15th centuries. It was most likely during the great persecution of A.D. 845 the Assyrian monument was buried by the Christians who wished to preserve the stone from the general destruction ordered by Emperor Wu-Tsung.
Alexander Wylie wrote that the monument had been found by some Chinese when digging the foundations for a house, at a village about a mile from the western gate of the city. Others say that it was discovered at a village 30 miles distant from Hsi-an-fu.
In the eastern part of the city of Hsi-an-fu there is a place called the ‘Pei-lin’ or ‘forest of tablets,’ where the Chinese keep all the precious stone monuments of the city and also some of those belonging to other cities. The Nestorian Monument after being left standing on open ground, near to where it was found, for nearly three centuries, was removed in A.D. 1907 to this ‘Pei-lin,’ when it was noted that an attempt to steal the Monument took place. Before its removal, Dr. Fritz Holm, a world traveller, wrote that he made a facsimile of it and took it to New York, where, after a time, casts were made and presented to museums in different parts of the world, the original copy being then donated by Dr. Holm to the Lateran Museum in Rome.
There are different theories about the date of the Sino-Syriac Monument or as it is known the Nestorian Monument’s discovery. Emanuel Diaz, in his book published in 1644 A.D., fixed the date of its discovery as A.D. 1623. Mr. Ch ’ien, a Chinese authority on “The Inscription on Stone and Metal,” tried to fix the date between A.D. 1573 and 1620. But the most acceptable date among many others involved in this matter has been A.D. 1625.
The Syriac inscriptions on the Monument, about 50 words and 75 names, tells how one A-lo-pu arrived in Ch’ang-an A.D. 635 bringing the sacred scriptures, and proceeds to eulogise the various emperors and dynasties, and tells how the former issued edicts and ordered their portraits to be taken and transferred to the walls of the churches, where ‘the dazzling splendour of the celestial visage irradiated the illustrious portals. The inscriptions consists of all of (67) names, including (1) bishop, (28) presbyters and (38) others, most of whom Assemani designates as monks, and then of the following inscription in Aramaic (Syriac):
According to the Nestorian Monument, there were prior to A.D. 781 Nestorian Christians in at least (8) towns in China, (5) of which were situated in the west. Some scholars think that there may even have been a church in every province based on what Rubruck wrote five centuries later to the effect that in his time there were Nestorian Christians in at least (15) towns in China. Even though the inscriptions say that A-lo-pu arrived in Ch’ang-an in A.D. 635 bringing the sacred scriptures, there is strong belief that the Nestorians were in China in an earlier date, since, the eggs of the silkworm were brought from China to Constantinople in A.D.551 by Nestorian monks. Many of these monks died while on that long trip which took at times one year to complete. Assemani writes that during the patriarchate of Timatheus, A.D. 778-820, a monk named Subaljesu from the monastery of Beth Abhe was sent as a missionary to the Dailamites. He was murdered while returning to Assyria to visit the Patriarch.
Christianity, because of the Nestorians, was well known in China during at least two out of the three centuries of the T’ang dynasty and he claims that, if not nominally, China was at least practically under Christian influence during that time. It is by means of this stone that we are enable to ascertain the reason why we encounter some European elements in the Ch’ ang-an civilization--a civilization so exquisitely high as to place even that of Rome in the shade. Through it we can at once grasp the idea of the position held by Assyrian Christianity amongst Buddhists, Confucianists, Taoists, Zoroastrians, and Mohammedans in the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries A.D., P. Y. Saeki stated.
The discovery of the Monument caused such excitement and contributed so much to the success of the Jesuit missionaries of that period, that in A.D. 1637, according to Abbe Huc, there were 40,000 Christians in seven provinces. The emperor could no longer argue against Christianity on the ground that it was a new religion, seeing it was now proved that it had been there a thousand years earlier.
Something important to add here regarding the Chinese inscriptions which appear on the Monument. It has been confirmed that most of the Chinese portion of the inscriptions is a modern fabrication (meaning it was added later), meant to 'save the face' of the Chinese Mandarins, in which the Jesuit missionaries had taken part in the alterations. Since according to Dr. Wall in his book "Ancient Jewish Orthography", the Jesuits, and particularly a Jesuit missionary named Alvarez Semedo, began work in the province of Shensi some years prior to A.D. 1625 (time of its discovery).
The figure-head decoration of the Tablet consists of an immense pearl between two creatures called “Kumbhira,” which is thoroughly Buddhistic. It is a Hindo idea which the Nestorian Missionaries adopted and was quite common at the time may easily be seen from a monument at Seoul in Korea. In the center of the figure-head right under the Pearl is the apex of a triangle, which forms a canopy over nine clearly carved large Chinese characters arranged vertically in three lines which form the “Titular Heading” of the stone. Their literal meaning is “The Monument Commemorating the Propagation of the Ta-ch’in Luminous Religion in the Middle Kingdom.” Observing narrowly this roof-shaped, triangular form, we cannot but be struck by the unique and most suggestive symbolic signs, viz. the Cross, the Cloud, the Lotus-flower and two branches of a tree, many takes it as a lily, a familiar Christian symbol. The Cross resembles that on St. Thomas’ tomb at Meliapor in south India, which bursts into fleurs de lys at each point.
A replica of the monument was made by Dr. Frits Holm and is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city, a silent testimony to the forgotten works of the Assyrian missionaries in the Far East. A second replica stands at the top of Mt. Koya — the Holy Land of Japan was erected on September 21st., 1911. Mt. Koya is where the famous Kobo Daishi, “the Great Teacher of the Law,” opened the monastery of Kongo-buji in the year 816 A.D. Half a million pilgrims of all ages and classes climb the Holy Mountain to visit the tomb of Kobo Daishi, so that the stone is sure to speak aloud and strongly in God’s due time.
One final note, I need to mention about a very interesting comment by Saeki, where he wrote: “But we hope and trust that as a nation the Chinese will pay more attention to it (the monument), after Mr. Fritz von Holm’s attempt to buy the stone for the British Museum in 1907, and since the first President of the Chinese Republic, Dr. Sun-yat-sen, in his official letter to the people of China on the 5th of January, 1912, referred to the Nestorian Inscription in order to prove that China was once not behind the rest of the world in opening up her territories to foreign intercourse.” He added: “If we have to call the Ch’ang-an civilization “a kind of Christian civilization, then we must necessarily admit that those countries that received the Ch’ang-an civilization in the Middle Ages were morally as good as any European countries which profess the Roman Catholic or the Greek Orthodox Faith in Christendom, because this Chinese Christendom was a daughter of the Assyrian Church which claimed descent from the Apostle Thomas and his immediate disciples.”
John Stewart, “Nestorian Missionary Enterprise” (A Church on Fire)