The Nestorian Stele in Xian:
First official record of Christianity to China
by Bruce W. Lo 2012
  When did Western Christianity enter into China? Although there are early indirect references of the Emperor of Han Dynasty (漢明帝) dreamed of western Christians in about AD 65, historians struggled for years looking for authentic records of the exact period of time when Western Christianity was actually propagated to the land of the Middle Kingdom (中国). It was not until 1625, in the late Ming Dynasty that the answer was found, when the Nestorian Stele (景教碑 Jingjiao bei) was unearthed near Chongren Temple (崇仁寺) near Xian.

  The Nestorian Stele, known in the West as Nestorian Stone, Monument, or Tablet, is arguably one of the most important artifacts in the history of Christianity and East-West relationship. The stele is now housed in the Xian Beilin (碑林 Forest of Steles) Museum, as the first exhibit on the left, after entry into museum Room No. 2. The photo below shows the entrance to the museum. Replicas of the stele may be found in Berlin Museum, Georgetown University Washington DC, The Vatican, and Mount Koya in Japan.

  The photo on the top right, taken by Frits Holm, shows the stele in the location where it was found around 1625, sitting on top of a tortoise-shape pedestal. An enlargement of the head stone is shown on the right with the Chinese inscription 大秦景教流行中國碑, pronounced “Daqin Jingjiao liuxing Zhongguo bei” (Memorial of the Propagation In China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin). Daqin is the name Chinese used to refer to the Roman Empire during the first two centuries. Jingjiao or Luminous Religion (or Religion of Light) was the Syriac Christian sect that moved eastward due to prosecution by Papal Roman. 

The stele, made of limestone, stood 9 feet hight by over 3 feet wide, and is slightly less than one foot thick. The front of the stele is divided into three sections, the header (described above), Chinese inscription in the middle, and Syriac text mostly along the bottom. This is illustrated in the picture on the right.

The Chinese inscription may be further divided into two parts. First, a doctrinal introduction that summarizes the essence of Christian beliefs where a supreme triune creator responded to the disobedience of humanity by being born to a virgin in Daqin. It then summarizes the life and mission of this Son, or Messiah (弥施訶), but curiously with no reference to Christ’s crucifixion or resurrection. Next it describes the way of life and liturgical practice of His followers, the Nestorian Christians in China. For an English translation of this part of the text, see the section at the end of the References section below.

The second part tells of the history of the first 146 years of the church in China. It began in 635 when missionary priest Alopen (阿罗本), whose names is probably a Chinese transcription for Abraham, came to Tang Dynasty capital Chang’an (today’s Xian). He translated the Scriptures into Chinese and was welcome by the Tang Emperor Taizong (太宗), who endorsed the church’s practice in serving the poor and the sick. Monasteries were built in Chang’an and other cities. So Jingjiao (景教) flourished.

The inscription then documents that, the stele was erected in AD 781. The text was composed by a Christian monk named Jingjing (景淨), or Adam in Syriac, and the calligrapher was Lu Xiuyan (呂秀巖). They together with 70 other names were recorded near the end of stele.

It was not clear where the stele was originally erected. But most scholars believed it was near the town of Zhouzhi (盩厔) close to Chang’an. In additional to the Christians, Taizong extended the hands of welcome to other foreign religions including Buddhism and Islam. The Buddhist community grew so large that it began to challenge the authority. Tang Wuzong (武宗) reacted by issuing the Imperial Edit of 845 mandating that all foreign religion clergies (Buddhist, Christian and Islam) return to lay life. The number of Nestorian believers greatly decreased over a period of time. The stele was buried sometime around 845 to avoid prosecution. It was not rediscovered until 1625, behind the Buddhist Chongren (崇仁寺) Temple. The unearthing event was reported by Jesuit priest Avaro Semedo to the West, attracting a great deal of attention. In 1907 Danish scholar Frits Holm came to Xian with the plan to take the monument to Europe. But local authorities intervened and moved the stele to Xian Beilin Museum.

Forest of Steles (Beilin) Museum , Xian, where the Nestorian Stele is housed

Nestorian Stele in the location where it was discovered shown on top of a tortoise pedestal

The head stone with the inscription "Memorial of the Propagation In China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin"

The Chinese text tells the first few years of Nestorianism in Tang Dynasty.

Syriac text describes the occasion of the dedication of the stele