It is my strong belief that Christianity,
especially the Orthodox Church, is much closer to the Chinese
culture than the western ones. This is why I am in Taiwan,
trying to introduce the Orthodox theology, but never to proselytize
anybody. But I must confess that as a priest I always feel
sorry and shame also, because the Church did not approach
China early, and as a Greek which means a Byzantine descendant,
I feel more shame that my bishops, my emperors, my intellectual
people, did not try to introduce Christianity to China. I
write this only with pain and not to accuse anybody, finally,
God and history judge us.
The difficulties of being alone here, did not allow me to
do any research for Orthodox Chinese relations. But one day,
being in the huge bookshop, in Taipei, -the most dangerous
place for my poor money- a book blinked in front of my eyes:
the Jesus sutras, by Martin Palmer. I bought in immediately
and I absorbed it!
Palmer describes his extraordinary discovery of a church in
China from 7th century, out of Xi'an!!! Since then, it became
to me an obsession to visit that place. Finally this year,
I went with a Chinese friend.
modern Si' an (Xi'an)
Xi'an is really the heart of Chinese civilization.
The view of the city is magnificent. A city for emperors,
poets, merchants, Chinese and foreigners. Museums and monuments
everywhere. I think if I ever live in china I will live here.
But first we went to see the Stele museum. The Forest of Stone
Steles in Xi'an is an art treasure-house with the oldest and
richest collection of steles in China. It is not only one
of the centers of ancient Chinese stone-engraving classics,
but also the focus of the works of art of celebrated calligraphers
of past dynasties. The numerous standing steles resemble a
forest, hence the name "Forest of Steles"'. With
a history of almost 900 years, it is an art gem renowned at
home and abroad.
Stele Forest Museum entrance, Xi'an
The first thing you see, entering to this
place where the mystic beauty of Chinese culture flourishes,
is the inscription of the Nestorian Christianity. It is called
from the name on the top: Daqin Jingjiao.
"Daqin" is the name the ancient
China called the Rome Empire, mainly the Byzantine Empire.
Professor Michael Kordosis in his publication "China of Tang
Dynasty, Nestorians and the "Heretical' Byzantium" argues
that also that Fulin is the name for Constantinople.
"Jingjiao" is the Chinese name
for Christianity (Nestorianism) when it was introduced to
China. Nestorianism is a sect, heretics from the Byzantine
Empire. The name nestorianism originates from Nestorios, who
was patriarch of Constantinople and he wrongly taught that
Jesus is only God, not God and man, that Jesus has one nature,
not two: divine and human. His teaching caused a problem in
the Church and finally the third ecumenical council condemned
his teaching. His followers were forced to leave the Byzantine
empire, and spread to the east, to Syria, Persia etc. We have
to point out here that the main reason of this misunderstandings
is the poor knowledge of the Greek language from Assyrians
and other eastern Christians. Using Greek language you can
express very deep ideas and very sharp distinctions, you must
be very exact and very careful, this is why Greek language
is the language of philosophy, theology and science and have
more than 5.000.000 words. But it is very difficult to translate
in other languages without mistakes. In English language more
than 1000 words of everyday use are Greek. Anyhow, Nestorians
are close to orthodox.
Nestorianism was introduced to China in
the 9th year of Zhenguan (635 AD) under the reign of Taizong
of the Tang Dynasty. This stele was erected in the 2nd year
of Jianzhong (781 AD) under the reign of Emperor Dezong. The
Story was narrated by the clergyman Jing Jing and written
by Lu Xiuyan. It records the creed and rites of Nestorianism
and its spread and activities during the 150 years in Tang
Dynasty. Also engraved on the stele are records of events
in ancient Syrian letters and quite clergymen's autographs.
It provides value materials for the study of cultural exchanges
between China and foreign countries in ancient times.
It was originally erected in the Nestorian
Temple in the Tang Dynasty. In the third year of Tianqi (1623)
of the Ming Dynasty, it was unearthed and placed in Jin Sheng
Temple in the western suburb of Xi'an, arresting the attention
of the world. In the 33rd year of Guang Xu (1907) of the Qing
Dynasty, it was moved to the Forest of Steles.
As you can see, on the top of the stele is clearly seen a
cross, indicating that we have a monument of Christian origins.
The text inscribed on the stele in Chinese as well as its
English translation is available online.
At the museum I was also able to find this exact trace of
the stele's surface. This is done quite easily with the use
of paper and ink, whereby the edges and features of the surface
are traced on the surface of the paper. On the internet there
are various English translations of the text, and Palmer gives
his own translation, of a poetic nature, in his book, even
though in some points it is not entirely accurate. For example,
the text is written in ancient Chinese and this is why modern
day Chinese readers find difficulty in understanding its exact
meaning. In this text it becomes clear that Christianity tried
to expand in china trying to use the philosophical terminology
familiar to the Chinese. For example, a very beautiful missionary
method was used in order to approach the people through their
own culture, language and cultural expressions, expression
of their own civilizations. This unfortunately does not happen
The fact that this stele existed in the 7th century under
the sufferance/approval of the Chinese emperor indicates that
Christianity had spread quite widely and had been respected
enough around the Chinese Capital. This means that at least
one hundred years, roughly, of contact and expansion of Christianity
had to have passed. Christianity was introduced through the
silk road by missionaries and merchants coming from the west.
Once again I have to emphasize how important and crucial
it was that these missionaries tried to express their faith
through Chinese cultural concepts and terminology. Of course,
a rather amusing event is the usual tour guide descriptions
of the site as a Baptist or Roman Catholic in origin. In Xi'an
I was not able to find any other Christian monuments. After
all, I do not have the necessary time or the archaeological
skills and resources for such a task. Nevertheless I was very
excited from having read Palmer's book to seek to find the
location of the church in which that stele was located. Palmer
states that the stele was near LuGuan Temple. Following his
directions (in his book) we rented a taxi which drove us about
two hours out of town to LuGuan Temple which the driver knew
because that was the location which according to tradition
Laozi (Lao Tse) wrote his famous Daodejing (Tao Teh Ching).
On the way there the taxi driver knew exactly where the Christian
pagoda was. In fact they even had small cloth type maps. The
drivers informed us that we could not reach the exact destination
by car and that we had to rent horses. I was so excited that
I would be prepared to rent even a helicopter, if I had the
resources of course, which, needless to say, I didn't. Afterwards
I realized that one can also reach that place on foot. However
on horseback is a much wiser decision since the ground is
At some point I could see, quite overwhelmed with emotion,
the pagoda in the distance. Approaching it, we found ourselves
in a small area which has seen quite a few foreign and native
visitors every day ever since Palmer discovered it. The Pagoda
dominates the surrounding area. Next to it there is a small
building which functions as a small museum. To the right side
there are two small Buddhist cells. Apparently they belong
to the spiritual descendants of the elderly Buddhist nun who
had revealed to Palmer that the Pagoda had originally been
Christian, then Taoist and finally Buddhist.
I stood there, speechless, overwhelmed with emotion, staring
at the monument. At the center of the area between the Pagoda
and the museum is an identical copy of the original stele
which of course is located in the museum in Xi'an (the original).
Christian pagoda and
copy of Nestorian tablet
Constructing a ladder
to enter the pagoda
The Stele stands on a turtle as is customary in other similar
Chinese steles. I was very lucky to have met the director
of the Da Qin museum who took great care of us, offering us
tea and showing us great hospitality. He told us the story
regarding the pagoda and that there are two more locations
in China where there are Nestorian sites. God willing I will
try to visit them in a future trip. When he heard that I am
Greek he said that he was under the impression that there
are some Greek inscriptions inside the pagoda, but he had
not been certain. He also informed me that he knew there had
been some stone surfaces somewhere in China with letters whose
origin the locals could not ascertain. However, a Russian
scholar had passed by that area and, according to the director
of the LuGuan Temple, had recognized that the inscriptions
were ancient Greek. Unfortunately however, with the cultural
revolution, all ancient ruins, Christian or Chinese, were
destroyed. However, I want to believe that if I have the time
and resources for a future trip, I will be able to return
to China and see if there can be found other interesting pieces
of information about ancient Christianity there.
The director told us that the pagoda used to tilt slightly
like the famous Tower of Pisa, and that the Chinese government
rectified it and maintained it. Very hesitantly I requested
to be allowed perhaps to enter the pagoda. I had seen that
the door was locked. He said that normally this is not allowed
because it is very dangerous but also because if the door
opens there is nothing to be seen inside. However, after my
consistent, if polite, petitions, he gave hair permission
for us to construct a makeshift ladder and to try to enter
from the upper window, emphasizing to us that he bears no
responsibility for any possible accidents that might occur.
First, however, he politely suggested that we take a look
at the museum exhibits.
He told us that an olive leaf and a fish are possibly the
ones that are depicted on some of the findings there, which,
if true they are depictions of Christian symbols. Of course
all this needs scientific verification by experts, and I pray
that such verification takes place soon.
Meanwhile, our makeshift ladder was ready. Thus, with a
degree of risk but with a greater amount of excitement we
climbed upward. Overwhelmed, we entered through the window.
We faced an empty space. There is a small wooden ladder in
the interior that leads to the other floors. From the level
in which we entered till the top there are seven floors. Climbing
up that wooden ladder, on the next level, we came face to
face with the relief pictured in the photo herein.
Christian pagoda door
Climbing our way into
the Christian Church tower
Palmer states that this is possibly a relief of the Nativity
of Christ. This is because if we compare it with Byzantine
icons, the positioning of the feet is almost identical to
the positioning of the feet of the Panagia. The position of
the feet on the relief is, furthermore, not a known, to the
Chinese, Buddhist or other meditational position. Rather it
seems that we have the presentation o a woman with a child
next to her. The rocks on the background is a characteristic
of Byzantine painting as you can see in some of the pictures
that follow. Definitely, the artwork bears no resemblance
to any form of Chinese artwork, to the best of my non-specialist
Wall sculpture detail
Wall sculpture - Christian?
Overwhelmed, I prayed a small prayer in front of that relief.
Then we climbed to the next level where we saw the next relief.
Palmer suspects that the presentation is that of the prophet
Jonah outside the city of Nineveh as per the famous biblical
story. As it shows, again we have no usual Chinese or Buddhist
positioning of the feet. In the background we can detect the
city with a clear Byzantine artistic expression It has to
be made clear, of course, that these are quite safe but by
no means one hundred percent certain assumptions. Nevertheless
these assumptions are based on the unusual for the Chinese
or Buddhist styles positions and postures of the figured depicted
on the relief.
(Here is has to be noted that there are many Byzantine icons
with the same gesture, a saint or evangelist sitting, having
a city as background, as you see )
St John ofthe Ladder
Jesus Christ and the Apostles
Through the arches of the windows there is a very captivating
view of the valley outside. Under one such arch which did
not lead to an outside view I saw a square board that resembled
a bulletin board which covered something under its glass surface.
With great difficulty I was able to see an inscription with
Assyrian letters. I know they were of Assyrian origin because
they were the same style of writing characters with those
which are at the lower part of the stele at Xi'an. On the next
level there was another such box. The letters on the inscription
did not seem to be of the same origin, Assyrian, as the ones
on the previous level. I was very curious about this and went
back down the ladder, requesting that someone open these boxes
for me. One of the staff unhinged it for me and then I saw
the inscription whose photograph I am including below. I cannot
say with certainty what kind of writing this is. It appears
to have a certain Greek character to the letters, but I cannot
be sure. I can only invite whoever has the relevant experience
Unknown inscription in
the Christian pagoda
Christian Church tower - outdoor view
Church tower ceiling
Location of the unknown inscription
Eventually we reached the uppermost level and we stopped
there to pray for all those who brought the message of Christ
to China so many centuries ago and have now passed away. I
am certain that their souls will be rejoicing today with the
discovery of the location of this monument and with the fact
that some people have prayed again in that same place so many
Unfortunately the time was getting late and we had to get
back downstairs. We went down the dangerous makeshift ladder
which subsequently they took disassembled. I so wish I could
have stayed longer. Nevertheless, I am not an archaeologist,
neither did I have unlimited time available to me. Mine was
mostly a trip of pilgrimage to this one of the places which
Christianity reached perhaps for the first time. However,
it has to be noted that the location is very suitable to the
location of a church or monastery. It is no coincidence of
course that the monument lies near the same area in which
Laozi is supposed to have written his famous work.
Lu Guan Temple - Laozi
Today in that area stands Lu Guan Temple in memory of Laozi. Very near the DaQin pagoda the locals display what they
purport to be Laozi's tomb.
I cannot believe this, of course, because historically the
sage's final resting place is not mentioned anywhere and also
because, as a Taoist friend had told me there are another
three or four spots in China displaying Laozi's tomb.
The pictures below are from the famous luguan temple dedicated
to Laozi, still famous and with a unique beauty.
Returning to Xi'an I tried to retain the taste of the beautiful
one-time Chinese capital and cradle of the Chinese civilization.
This feeling is alive today for everyone who will be lucky
to walk by the temples and walls of that glorious city. There,
I tried to imagine how Christianity succeeded in becoming
important there, a fact that is attested to by the written
approval by the emperor for the construction of the stele.
I pray to God that He enables me to visit again these wonderful
sites as well as the other locations that host Christian monuments
Map of Xi'an area
More full size photos are available at our photo
section dedicated to ancient Christianity in China.