Chapter 2 | Provided by The Keikyo Institute

Nestorian Christianity in the Tang Dynasty

Chapter One

The T'ang Dynasty (AD 618-877) was a golden age of Chinese culture. No wonder that the Chinese people call themselves T'ang people and the overseas Chinese settlements in New York and San Francisco are known as T'ang quarters. T'ang China was known to all her neighbours as the Up-per Kingdom. In Ch'ien Chi's famous poem, Farewell to a Japanese Monk Bound Hom,eward, we read;

In the Upper Kingdom you were foreordained to sojourn
Now tracing your way as in a dream
And the eye still watches beyond the horizon
The Holy Light of your single lantern.

Chang-an, the upper capital, was the centre of imperial splendour. Caravans brought with them traders and jugglers, monks and pilgrims from Persia, Armenia and even from Antioch and Byzantium. Their strange appearances and outlandish clothes never failed to amuse the Chinese onlookers. Meanwhile Chinese had also been deported to Central Asia or sent there as soldier-peasants to garrison the fortifications across the steppes . Several Chinese leaders during the T'ang Dynasty were of ' foreign origin. The poet Li Po's ancestral family had been exiled to the Western region in the 7th century. Li Po himself was born in AD 701, either on the way from Suyab to China or in Suyab , the modern Tokmak, in what is now the Soviet Republic of Turkestan.

T'ang China had great confidence in her own cultural heritage. It was a period when China was most receptive to foreign influence and was ready to borrow from outside art forms and motifs and even to assimilate the faiths of her subject nations and friendly neighbors. Against such a setting, Nestorian Christianity first came to China.

Alopen, the Persian Bishop, began the Nestorian mission in Chang-an in AD 635, the same year when St. Aidan came to preach the Gospel in Northumbria

But why 635? In the beginning of the T'ang Dynasty, the overland route between Persia and China had been barred by the people of Turkestan. The Eastern Turks challenged the authority of the T'ang Emperor while the Western Turks held sway over the valley of the River Chu with Tokmak as their centre. However, in 630 the Eastern Turks were overwhelmed by T'ang forces and the Western Turks without a fight surrendered to T'ang power and influence. The route to Persia was therefore reopened. As we learn from the T'ang Shu, "When the embassy from Bukhara came to the capital to offer tribute, T'ai Tsung greeted the ambassador saying, 'The Western Turks have surrendered. NOW merchants are safe to travel.' All the tribes welcomed the news with great joy."

The semi-barbarian tribes in Central Asia agreed to honour the T'ang Emperor by the title of "Tien-ko-han" (King of the Khans) recognizing him as the leader of the International Peace League. Prof. Shen Shih-min, author of a history of the Sui and T'ang Dynasties, has reminded us that in the original Turkish tongue the term Tien-ko-han probably meant the Son of Heaven.

Thus, Alopen was able to make his historic journey to China. However, before 635 many merchants of Persian origin must have lived in Changan, and undoubtedly there were some Nestorians among them. Also, there must have been in the T'ang Capital a number of Nestorians of Central Asian origin from Sogdiana or from Bukhara. The very fact that the Emperor sent the minister of state Fang Hsuan-ling, to take an escort to the western outposts to meet Alopen suggests that elaborate preparations had been made for his conring. Again, as we learn from the Nestorian Monument, the Emperor granted Alopen permission to translate the Nestorian sutras in the Imperial Library. This was in line with the T'ang Dynasty's broad policy of toleration and interest in fostering foreign religions. In 638 Alopen with the help of Chinese associates completed the first Christian book in Chinese The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah. It was not a translation but rather a free adaptation to meet the needs of the mission in Chang-an. Japanese scholars indicate that the original was likely to be in the Persian or Sogdian language rather than Syriac.

The term, "Uo-li-si-liam," for instance, seems to be a transliteration of Jerusalem in the Persian tongue.

In this first Christian book in Chinese, Alopen took pains to show that Christianity contained nothing subversive to China's ancient traditions . He pointed out that loyalty to the state and filial piety to one 's parents were not contrary to Christian teaching. The portrait of the Emperor T'ai Tsung (627-649), as we learn from the Nestorian Monument of 781, was in fact painted on the wall of the Nestorian monastic church, reminiscent of the portrait of the Emperor Justinian (483-565) in the Byzantine church in Ravenna.

But this early Chinese Christian classic was not only an apology. It was an introduction to the Christian faith. The life of our Lord from the Nativity to the Passion was presented for the first time to Chinese readers.

The Emperor was pleased with Alopen 's achievement. An imperial decree proclaimed the virtue of the Nestorian religion and ordered a Nestorian monastery to be built in the I-ning quarter by local officials . Now the I-ning quarter was in the extreme west of the city where the Persian and Central-Asian traders were concentrated. The site of the monastery was clearly indicated in the Chang-an Chi (AD 1076). "North of the east of the street is the foreign monastery of Persia. In the 12th Ching-Kuan year (AD 639), T'ai Tsung built it for Alopen, a foreign monk of Ta Chin." The monastery, therefore, seems to have been located in the north-east angle of the cross formed by the two main streets in the I-ning quarter. The monastery began with 21 monks.

During the reign of Kao Tsung (649-693), Nestorian Christianity was further favoured by the court. By Imperial decree, Alopen was promoted to be great Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire, i.e. Metropolitan of Chang-an. No doubt the Nestorian Monument greatly exaggerated the importance of Nestorianism in T'ang China. "The religion_ spread throughout the ten provinces . . . monasteries abound in hundred cities." . : ' Nevertheless, we have reason believe that there were several Nestorian monasteries outside Chang-an. In Loyang a Nestorian monastery was erected in the Shau-hsien quarter, and there must have been Nestorian monasteries also in Tuan-huang, Ling-wu and perhaps in Szechuan.

Nestorian Christianity witnessed a serious setback in the reign of the usurping Empress Wu, a woman of great energy and ability. In 690 she proclaimed herself the founder of a new dynasty -Chou - and wished to be remembered by posterity as an outstanding Empress. Accordingly her half brother, Wu San-Ssu, proposed to erect a gigantic column in her honor, to be located outside the Tuan gate of the Imperial city. A famous Indian sculptor and craftsman was commissioned to execute the intricate design. It was to be an octagonal column with a height of 105 feet built in a base with carved unicorns. On the pinnacle of the column was to be a dragon embracing a large orb representing the rising sun. The enormous task of financing and erecting the imposing column was entrusted to the Nestorian layman Abraham. It was a tribute to the skill of the Indian craftsman and to the administrative talent of Abraham that the immense project took only eight months to complete.

Only two years previously, the Buddhists of Loyang had opened an attack upon the Nestorians. Now Abraham's act of homage must have assured the Empress of the loyalty of the Nestorian congregation and thus averted the Buddhist attempt to uproot the young church from Chinese soil. For knowledge of this little known episode we owe much to the research of Prof. Lo Hsiang-lin, Professor of Chinese in Hong Kong University. Abraham came from a noble Persian family. Emperor Kao Tsung, noting his remarkable achievement and great fame, summoned him to his court and sent him on a mission to the countries east of Persia. The inscription on his tombstone stated that he brought the holy religion to the barbarian tribes who had since lived in peace and concord. Not least was the virtue of his leadership in summoning the kings of various countries to erect the heavenly column in the reign of Empress Wu. He died on the first day of the fourth month in the first year of Chun Yun (710) at his private residence in Loyang, aged 95.

If Abraham, the nobleman, helped the Nestorians to stand firm and weather the storm of Buddhist antagonism in Loyang. Abraham, the abbot, with Bishop Gabriel, succeeded in "supporting together the mystic cord and tying the broken knot" after the mocking and slandering of the Nestorians by the Taoists in Chang-an (712-713). In 713 the Emperor Hsuan Tsung (712-757) ordered the Prince of Ning Kuo and four other princes to go to the Nestorian monastery to build and set up the altars again. In 744 he decreed that Abbot Abraham , together with Bishop George (Chi-ho), the monk Pu-lun and five other monks , should go to celebrate Holy Eucharist in the Hsing-chihg Palace, the residence of the Emperor 's elder brother and four other brothers .

Of Bishop Gabriel (Chih-lieh) we obtain con-siderable information from Chinese sources. It is significant to note that Gabriel came to China by sea. Toward the end of the 7th century, Canton had become the chief seaport for foreign trade. In 8th century Canton, the merchants from abroad were allowed a large measure of self-government and the free exercise of their religion.

Bishop Gabriel arrived in. Canton in 713 or earlier. He worked among Persian merchants and craftsmen and acquired a knowledge of Chinese. The Nestorian Church. in Canton was, no doubt, blessed by the presence and guidance of the Bishop . Furthermore, while in Canton. Gabriel made the acquaintance of the Inspector of merchant shipping, Chou Ching-li. With the encouragement and help of Chou, he began to "carve quaint things and make wonderful objects." Like Ricci after him, Gabriel cherished the hope that through the gifts of valuable curios, the Emperor might be induced to look more kindly upon the Nestorian mission. It aroused, however, the opposition of Liu Tse, the censor of the Province. He submitted a memorial to the Emperor. "Ching-Ii is seeking to beguile your sage understanding, to shake and subvert your lofty mind. Will your Majesty trust and allow it? This would be to spread decadence in the whole Empire!" Officially, the Emperor gave Liu Tse his approval. The Nestorian Monument, however sug-gests that Gabriel had won the favour of the Emperor. The truth is that, even though Hsuan Tsung may not have been greatly impressed by the wonderful objects, the ministry of Bishop Gabriel and of Abbot Abraham seemed to have created a new atmosphere in Chang-an.

According to the Tse Fu Yuan Kuei, the second mission of Bishop Gabriel took place in October 732 when the King of Persia sent the chief P'an-na-mi with Bishop Cabriel on an embassy to Chang-an. The Emperor was pleased and gave Gabriel a purple kashaya and fifty pieces of silk.

Gabriel's success must have encouraged the Nestorians in Persia to send more missions. In 744 Bishop George (Chi-ho) took the journey to the Far East. That he was permitted to celebrate the Eucharist in the Palace of the Emperor's elder brother was a strong indication of the steady progress of the Nestorian Church in China. In addition, the Emperor 's brothers had already had their encounter with the Nestorian Church in 713 and this might prove to be fruitful in due course.

In October 745 an Imperial decree stated that since the cradle of Nestorianism was in Ta Ch'in, the Persian monasteries in the two capitals and in departments and districts of the Empire should be changed to Ta Ch'in monasteries.

The rebellion of An Lu-shan in 755 was the turning point in T'ang Dynasty history. It was a traditional policy of the T'ang Emperors to employ foreign legions in the defence of the frontiers. An Lu-shan, born of an lranian-Turkic family, had won high favour from the Imperial Court and had a large army under his command. In the Autumn of 755 he led the rebellion against Hsuan Tsung. Early in 756 he captured Loyang and soon his forces entered Chang-an. Shortly before the fall of the capital, Hsuan Tsung fled south to Chengtu and on the way he abdicated in favour of his third son who had his headquarters in Ling-wu.

Su Tsung (756-763) as Tien-ko-han summoned soldiers from the garrisons of various countries, Turkestan, Kashgar, Kucha and Khotan, to put down the revolt. Some of those foreign soldiers were Nestorians, others were Manichaeans. The military genius General Kuo Tzu-i, with the help of these legions, succeeded in crushing the rebels. The General's influence in the Court may well be the reason why the Nestorians enjoyed a measure of favour under Su Tsung and his successors. Due to the civil war, undoubtedly some Nestorian monasteries were damaged while others were left ruined and unoccupied. Su Tsung ordered the restoration of five monasteries in Ling-wu and other districts, as a gesture of Imperial favour.

One of the most outstanding commanders in the campaign was Issu (Yazdbazed), who came to China from Balkh, where his father Milis had been a priest, He was second-in-command to Ge.neral Kuo and was richly rewarded after the rebe,llion had definitely been put down . - With his ascendency, the Nestorians experienced a marked revival. Every year Issu assembled the monks of four monasteries for divine service and meditation. The conference lasted the whole of 50 days. Moreover, the Nestorian Monument recorded that he had a deep concern for the welfare of the people.

He bade the hungry come and fed them
He bade the cold come and clothed them
He healed the sick and raised them up
He buried the dead and laid them to rest.

Early Nestorian missionaries were well known for their medical knowledge and surgical skill We can thus appreciate the devotion and social concern of Issu. Su Tsung's successors continued to shower Imperial favours upon the Nestorians. Tai Tsung (763-780), for example, repaid merits with gifts of incense and gave a royal feast to honour the Nestorian congregations . In the reign of Te Tsung the Monument (781), to which we owe so much for our knowledge of Nestorianism in the T ' ang Dynasty, was erected in Issu's honour.

In general, the T'ang Dynasty was an age of religious toleration and intellectual curiosity. However, when Wu Tsung ascended the throne, the Taoists came to control the Court. They were in-tensely jealous of the rapid growth of Buddhist monasteries. In the reign of Hsuan Tsung there were already 5,358 monasteries. In 749 it was estimated that there were 120,000 men and women who had taken the vow. The number continued to grow after the rebellion. But economic and political matters also contributed to Wu Tsung's policy of persecution in 845. Monastic establishments withdrew men in great numbers from military and civil services and cut down the receipts of the imperial treasury through their immunity from taxation. In 845 Wu Tsung suppressed 4,600 monasteries and more than 40,000 private monastic establishments. Only historic Buddhist monasteries of great beauty in the large cities were to be preserved. He also ordered some 260,000 monks and nuns to return to secular lives. Monasteries of Central and Western Asian origins were also involved. A petition to the Court stated, "As for the Ta Ch'in (Nestorian) and Muhu (Zoroastrian) temples, these heretical religions must not alone be left when the Buddhists have been suppressed; they must all be compelled to re.turn to lay life and resume their original callings and pay taxes, or if they are foreign they shall be sent back to their native Places." From this petition it is clear that there were Chinese Nestorian members as well as those of Persian or Central Asian origin. It followed that an Imperial decree "compelled the Ta Ch'in (Nestorianism) and Muhu, (Zoroastrianism) to the number of more than 3,000 persons to return to lay life and to cease to confound the customs of China."

Meanwhile many Nestorians must have journeyed to Canton and made ready for their long voyage home. In Canton they would learn that the Imperial decree had been revoked by Wu Tsung's successor and it was likely that some of them would remain in the southern city. The ninth century Arabic writer, Abu Zaid, edited a collection of travellers' journals.

His readers were told that in the rebellion of Bansu (Huang Ch,ao), who captured Khanfu (Canton) in 877, many inhabitants were put to death. Persons well-informed about these affairs relate that, without counting the Chinese who were massacred, there perished six score thousand Mohammedans, Jews, Christians and Parsis who were living in the city and doing business there." This was no doubt an incorrect figure. Yet the fact remains that the foreign population in Canton was large in the ninth century and among them there was a substanial number of Nestorian Christians .

Patriarch Theodosius (AD 852-868) in a list of Metropolitans of the Nestorian Church failed to mention that there was a metropolitan in China. This may be due to the fact that the church had not recovered after the violent persecution in 845.

With the fall of the T'ang Dynasty, there was a rapid decline of Nestorianism in China. In 986 a monk from Najran who had been sent by the Nestorian Patriarch to China in 982 was reported to have said, "Christianity is extinct in China; the native Christians have perished in one way or an-other ; the church which they had has been destroyed and there is only one Christian left in the land." No one would take this seriously as an accurate report for the whole Chinese Nestorian church. But we may feel sure that the fall of the T'ang Dynasty also meant the eclipse of the Nestorian mission in China proper.

Chapter 2 | Provided by The Keikyo Institute