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.
First Part of the Text Inscribed on the Nestorian Stele
Certainly, eternal in its truth and serenity, earlier than all origin and without beginning, infinite in its spirituality and its impossibility, later than all endings, transcendent being; he who, concentrating his mysterious power, made creation who inspired the saints with his supreme majesty; who can this be but the transcendent person of our Triune Unity, the true Lord, without beginning A-lo-ho (the Chinese name for Jahowa).
He marked out the cross to fix the four cardinal points; he stirred the primal Breath so as to produce the two principles. Darkness and emptiness were transformed, and heaven and earth opened; sun and moon moved, and days and nights existed. He opened and perfected ten thousand beings; he made and raised the first man. He endowed him especially with excellent harmony; he gave him rule over the immense number of creatures. The nature [of man] in his primitive state was without pain and not puffed up; his heart, with serene candor, was without desire at the beginning.
But he allowed So-tan (Satan) to practice deceit and deck out with ornaments the pure essence. He interposed the equality of greatness in the midst of [what was] good; he inserted mysterious identity in the midst of what was evil. Thus 365 sects, shoulder to shoulder and confusing their tracks, wove in disharmony the net of the law. Some pointed to created objects and invoked them as their lords; others created a vacuum with being and thus abolished bot; others addressed prayers to ask for happiness; others displayed virtue so as to mislead. Their thoughts were restless; their passions suffered. Worn out by exhaustion, they obtained nothing; burned and tormented, they were consumed one by one; in the heaping up of darkness they had lost the way, and for a long time they were moving away from the excellent return.
Then the distinct person of our Triune Unit, the venerable Radiant Mi-she-ho (Messiah), entering and veiling his true Majesty, came to the world, similar to men. An angel made the good news known, and a virgin brought forth the Holy One in Daqin (Rome); a brilliant star announced the happy event, and Persia, having seen its brilliance, came to bring gifts. [The Messiah] accomplished the old law, which had been formulated by the twenty-four holy ones to govern families and empires according to the great plan; he established the new doctrine of the Holy Spirit of the Triune Trinity, which is not expressed in words, so as to give formation in the practice of virtue according to the correct faith. He instituted the rule of the eight states (the 8 beatitudes), purifying the stains and perfecting the truth; he opened the door of the three constants (refer to love, peace, and hope), giving access to life and destroying death. He hung up his radiant sun to break the empire of darkness, and then the impostures of the devil were all overthrown; with the oar he propelled the ship of mercy so as to give access to the luminous palace, and beings with souls wee then really saved. And when all the possible work was achieved, at full moon he ascended to the truth.
He left behind the twenty-seven holy books (New Testament), in which he expounded the Great Reform, so as to remove the barrier which closed the spiritual [life]. The law [of his disciples] is to baptize by water and by the Spirit, who washing away vain ornaments purifies in simplicity and candor; as a seal they hold the cross that joins the four luminous dimensions and unites without distinction.By the wood that they strike, then make the sounds of charity and right doing to ring out; by their beard grow because their action is open; they have the crown of their head because they do not have interior passion. They do not have slaves because they do not distinguish among others noble or common classes; they do not amass wealth, giving their own example of complete abnegation. Their fasting is perfected by retreat and meditation; their defenses grow strong through tranquility and vigilance. Seven times a day, they have ritual hymns, greatly helping the living and the dead; every seven days, they celebrate a service, purifying the heart and renewing its candor. This true and eternal doctrine is transcendent and also difficult to describe; since its meritorious practice is dazzling, we are compelled to call it the Luminous Religion.....
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
Halsal, Paul (1998), Ching-Tsing, Nestorian Tablet, Eastern Asia History Project, Fordham University, retrieved 6/14/2012 from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/eastasia/781nestorian.asp.
Keevak, Michael (2008), The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and Its Reception in the West, 1625-1916, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Lawton, J.R. (2008), Description and Significance of the Nestorian Stele, “A Monument Commemorating the Propagation of the Da Qin Luminous Religion in the Middle Kingdom” (大秦景教流行中国碑), retrieved 3/10/2012 from http://www.aina.org/articles/dasotns.pdf.
Saeki, P.Y. (1928) The Nestorian Monument in China, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, New York: Macmillan.
Wikipedia (2012), Nestorian Stele, retrieved 6/14/2012 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nestorian_Stele .