Provided by Union of Catholic Asian News,
CH9066.1142 July 24, 2001 179 EM-lines UCAN COMMENTARY

Studies Reveal Christianity's First Arrival in China

HONG KONG (UCAN) -- Updated studies and academic writings on the early history of Christianity in China have recently stirred up public attention.

Noteworthy among these scholarly works is the new translation of "The Jesus Sutras," discovered in a secret library sealed sometime in the 11th century in Dunhuang, Gansu province, northwestern China, by British scholar Martin Palmer and his team of Buddhist and Taoist experts in April 2000.

In the following commentary for UCA News, Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions Father Gianni Criveller, a researcher at Hong Kong diocese's Holy Spirit Study Centre, summarizes these studies and findings, and says that Chrsitianity could now claim a record of 1,000 years on Chinese soil.

New interest, new discoveries and new interpretation on the first arrival of Christianity in China have been recently brought to public attention. In Hong Kong the English daily "South China Morning Post" devoted two major feature articles to this: "China's Christian Past" (Nov. 3, 2000), and "Crossroads of Faith" (Feb. 27, 2001). In Italy a young scholar Matteo Nicolini Zani has produced a new translation of the Xi'an Stele. Nicolas Standaert, certainly the best scholar of the history of the Catholic Church in China, has devoted 110 pages of his "Handbook of Christianity in China, Volume One," to Christianity during Tang (618-907) and Yuan (1206-1368) dynasties.

Martin Palmer, a British scholar and director of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, offers the most remarkable study, "The Jesus Sutras," which starts out with the exciting account of the "discovery" of a more-than-1,300- year-old pagoda with a Christian past. The pagoda, known by the name Da Qin, is near Xi'an, Shaanxi province, northwestern China, exactly where the Christian adventure in China started in 635 AD.

Palmer wrote a remarkable book, a milestone in the historiography of Christianity in China. Most books on Chinese Christianity devote the initial chapter or paragraphs to Nestorianism. However, the common identification of the early Chinese Christianity as Nestorians is unsatisfactory.

Early Chinese Christianity is complex and fascinating. The central role of middle Asian countries in the propagation of the Christian faith into the vast Chinese lands and the interaction between Christianity and Buddhism has been generally overlooked. The description of the earliest Chinese Christianity as Nestorianism was at best reductive.

Chinese Christianity was not just an appendix of the eastward expansion of Nestorianism after it was defeated in the West. On various occasions I defined the missioners in China of the Tang dynasty as "Syriac missionaries." Zani, in the introduction to his translation of the Xi'an Stele, proposes the definition as a Syriac Oriental Church. Palmer has to his great credit identified the origin of Chinese Christianity as the "Church of the East." His illustration of the whole notion of the Church of the East should not be flattened by our contemporary common definition, which refers either to the ancient Eastern rites in communion with the Roman Catholic Church or, more generally, to the Orthodox Churches.

Palmer magisterially described the Church of the East in his book. The story of the Church is related to the rise of the Sasanian empire in the early third century, an empire that stretched from present-day Iraq to Pakistan.

The Sasanians of Zoroastrian faith fiercely persecuted Christians in their territory (340-450). The Christians were under constant suspicion of political betrayal of their endangered empire because of their religious ties with the ancient sees of Rome, Constantinople and Antioch. However, the Persian empire was becoming increasingly Christian until the mid-7th century, when the Arab conquerors introduced Islam. Remarkable Christian communities and schools of theology developed. According to the author, "from this date onward, the Church of the East was cut off from the Churches of the West." The Church of the West, including those of the Middle East, "dismissively labeled the Church of the East as Nestorian, and therefore heretical and not really a Church."

The Church of the East, however, continued its life and missionary expansion with its own characteristics, schools and theologians. Between the 4th and 8th centuries, it was very widespread and active among a large range of cultures in Central Asia, India, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

Against this background, the first official and documented arrival of Christianity in China took place in the year 635. A delegation from Baghdad, headed by a Persian bishop with the Chinese name Alopen, was received by Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty in Changan, then capital of China, near present-day Xi'an.

The original home of the first mission enterprise in China is the Church of Persia. The Church in Persia dates from the earliest Christian times. By the 2nd century, it was already well established. The Church made large use of a popular synopsis of the Gospel called the Diatessaron written by Tatian (110-180). It was one of the books they took to China, which influenced the writing of "The Jesus Sutras."

Another interesting topic touched upon by Palmer is the Church in Tibet. It is likely that Christianity arrived in Tibet -- larger than the region currently know by that name -- around 549. Conversions then remain a mystery today. A bishop was sent from Baghdad to the Tibetans and they remained loyal Christian communities for centuries. Tibet in the 6th to 8th centuries was shamanic. A strong Church existed in Tibet by the 8th century. Patriarch Timothy I (727-823), head of the Church of the East, wrote from Baghdad in 794 of the need to appoint another bishop for Tibetans, and in an earlier letter of 782 he mentions the Tibetans as one of the significant Christian communities of the Church. Crosses and Christian inscriptions have been found in Ladakh (now in India), which was once part of Tibet.

In 1623 during the digging for a new construction in Zhouzhi, near Xi'an, provincial capital of Shaanxi, a magnificent stele in Syriac inscription was discovered. Manoel Dias the Younger and Giulio Aleni published the inscription with explanations in 1644. Aleni, in his numerous dialogue sessions with Chinese intellectuals, often mentioned the prodigious discovery of the stele of Xi'an as concrete evidence of an ancient presence of Christianity in China. Now Christianity could claim a remarkable record of 1,000 years on Chinese soil.

The text of the stele written in 781 by a Persian monk narrates the story of the arrival of Alopen and his group, and the subsequent development of Christianity in China. The content of the text presents precious historical information and many relevant theological and doctrinal aspects. We can see a remarkable and fine work of inculturation so different from the Persian culture, employing terms and concepts taken from Taoism and Buddhism.

Besides the Xi'an Stele, Palmer's book "The Jeus Sutras" offers the translation of eight other documents found in the last century. The majority of these writings were found at the beginning of the 20th century in Dunhuang, Gansu province, northwestern China. Together with the stele, these documents form the so-called "corpus nestorianum sinicum," a Christian literature in Chinese language, an expression of the Church of the East expanded in China during the Tang dynasty. They were all adapted to the Chinese context of that time.

The Christian Church was successfully expanding in the 7th and 8th centuries China, both in quantity and quality. A brief episode of persecution occurred in 698, but emperors Xuanzong (712-756), Suzong (756-762) and Daizong (762-779) supported the Church.

However, in the 9th century, Christianity, according to Palmer, was caught in the reaction to the Confucian bureaucracy and Taoist hierarchy against the growing power of Buddhism. From 841 onwards the imperial court turned against Buddhism in order to appropriate its possessions. Three thousand Christian and Zoroastrian monks were forced to return to normal life. For the small Christian Church, the persecution was mortal.

However, there is evidence, including the placing of Christian documents in Dunhuang caves, that a remnant of the Chinese Church survived during the centuries around the turn of the first millennium along the Silk Road. According to Palmer, it is here that one of the most extraordinary episodes of religious contamination may have taken place. The Indian male Buddhist Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara of the Lotus Sutra, became Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, the most widely worshipped deity in China. Statues of Mary present in China at the time of such transformation, were the only possible source of influence for the otherwise female-less Buddhist cosmology of China.

One more chapter should be written to complete the history of the Eastern Church in China: the rise of the Yuan dynasty. In 1206 the Mongolian conquistador Genghis Khan unified Mongolian tribes, which were Christian or predominantly Christian. His wife was also Christian. Emperor Kublai Khan (1260-1294), grandchild of Genghis Khan, was the son of a devout Christian princess, Sorkaktani. These circumstances brought about a last resurgence of the Church of the East in China, together with the successful arrival (1294) of the first Roman Catholic missioners in China, explicitly sent by the Holy See. But when the foreign Yuan dynasty was replaced by the Ming (1368-1644), all foreign elements were once again eliminated.

I would like to conclude with these reflections.

  1. Very often the supposed failure of Christianity in China is imputed to its lack of inculturation. Many scholars compare the failure of Christianity with the success of Buddhism. But Christianity, which achieved a remarkable level of inculturation and adaptation during the Tang dynasty, was not spared persecution. I would suggest that sometimes the disappearance of Christian communities might not have been caused by Christianity's own failure, but by the overwhelming force of persecution.
  2. Let us suppose that Christianity of the Tang dynasty was less adapted to the Buddhist and Taoist milieu, so that it clearly differentiated from the other religions. Could it more likely survive the persecution and the erosion of time? It is impossible to answer this question, although history shows how sometimes those who experience a radical religious change are more apt to resist persecution and assimilation.
  3. The fact that early Chinese Christianity disappeared suggests that religious experience was somewhat less authentic or not worthwhile. First of all we have to consider that the development of the Eastern Church in China lasted numerous centuries and produced remarkable documents. Second, the disappearance under unfortunate and adverse historical circumstances does not diminish the dignity and the validity of that specific religious and Christian experience. Throughout the 2,000 years of its existence, the Church has often experienced the dolorous passage of peoples and nations from the Christian faith to other beliefs. The diminishing or the disappearance of Christianity in any place does not undermine the value and the religious sincerity of those believers.
  4. We still have to endure the shameful experience of reading "experts" blinded by ideological prejudices who claim that Christianity entered China by force in the 19th century. One hopes that the ignorance of the true story of the entrance of Christianity in China will finally end, and that history will be understood as the complex phenomenon it is rather than ideologically judged according to political convenience.
  5. I greatly admire the work done by Palmer in many different disciplines, including theology. However, as a Catholic theologian, I am not satisfied with the description of the Western and Roman Church as simply juridical, and with the idea that the development of the hierarchical dimension of the Catholic Church as almost an unfortunate historical development.

This seems to me much more a superficial simplification when it is artificially opposed to the positive, harmonious and tolerant vision of Eastern philosophies and religions. Another doubt about Palmer's theological approach regards his opinion that any Christological interpretation is valid and acceptable, as long as it is adapted to Chinese cultural milieu, with little concern for the doctrinal content offered by the New Testament and the tradition of the Church.

But again, these last critical points do not undermine the important contribution made by Palmer to the fascinating story of Christianity in China.