Русский | "Orthodoxy in China (1900-1997)" by Priest Dionisy Pozdnyaev


Priest Dionisy Pozdnyaev

English Translation by Nina Tkachuk Dimas


The Holy Heavenly Patrons of China

Before his Ascension to Heaven, the Savior, when sending the apostles to the world, said to them: "Go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). In fulfilling the Lord's commandment to preach the truth to all people, Apostle Thomas reached "even to the ends of the universe", to the lands of China, where he brought many to Christ, fulfilling the Biblical prophecy "Lo, these shall come from afar...from the land of Syene" (Isa.49:12).

Witnessing Christ crucified and risen constituted the entire life of Apostle Thomas, and, as all apostles and all saints, he fulfilled God's commandment: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).

Memory of Apostle Thomas' evangelizing work within China is preserved in church tradition, and several sources evidence this [1]. In the service to the Apostle Thomas, contained in the Chaldean Menaion of the Malabar Church, mention is made several times that the Apostle carried the evangelical word throughout Ethiopia, India, Persia and China [2]. The book of Council decisions, which relates to the first centuries of Christianity, in chapter 19 mentions episcopal sees in China. The story of Apostle Thomas' life and inner struggle [podvig] based on the writings of Origen and Eusebius, brings indirect evidence about the Gospel being proclaimed in China [3]. This tradition is also preserved to this day among the Christians of India. Apostle Thomas is the first of the Heavenly patrons of China, who prays before the Lord's Throne for the preservation and enlightenment of the Celestial land entrusted to his care.

Extant historical sources attest that Christianity was professed in the I-II centuries and later by many peoples living in Western China. With the beginning of persecutions on Christians in the Chinese Empire and with the establishment of Islam in Western China, it seemed that Christianity had completely disappeared from the country. However, even today it is still possible to discover ancient traces of Christianity in China relating to different periods of the country's history [4].

In 1685 the Lord revealed His new patron saints of China. Russian trailblazers in Siberia and the Far East in 1665 built the border fortress of Albazin (one of the wonder-working icons of the Most Holy Theotokos is named for this fortress [5]). This icon denotes the protection of the Queen of Heaven over the Orthodox in the Far East and Eastern Siberia). On learning that Russians had settled along the Amur's left bank, the Manchurians -- inhabitants of the Amur (Hēilóngjiāng , 黑龙江) region -- reported the news of this initial Russian Albazin post to the Chinese Emperor. The latter did everything he could to force the Russians from the banks of the Amur, but the Albazin fortress stood in his way.

The Albazinian Cossacks collected a tribute from the local population -- payment forwarded through Nerchinsk to Moscow. "In the year [of the world] 7198, the 23rd day of October. In the Yakut administrative log cabin, before the general and the commander, before Matfey Osipovich Krokovoy, the Albazinian Cossacks Ganka Florov and Mitka Tushov with seventy three comrades said: they went here and there along the Amur, some went to other rivers, collecting booty and sables [for the sable industry]. And the twelve men Vaska camp group, became separated from them..." These Cossacks met two astonishing men "on white horses, in armor, and with spears." [6] Those who appeared as warriors were saints from Pskov -- the right-believing princes-miracle workers, Vsevolod-Gavriil and Dovmont-Timofei. "And the warriors said to them: ' And when you will be in Albazin, you will say to the married cathedral priest, the Chinese will come to the city, and the Albazinians will surrender the city.'" The saints gave the Cossacks candles, which they directed them to light at a moleben in Albazin. They promised to protect the Albazinians after their capture and defend the city during the second siege by the Chinese armies.

On command of Emperor Kāngxī (康熙), Albazin was taken by Chinese troops in 1685. "And the Chinese came to Albazin and Albazin-City surrendered and with them went to China..."[7]. Going along with the captive warriors was priest Maxim Leontiev -- that very same "married Cathedral priest" with whom begins the history of the Russian Spiritual Mission in China, officially founded by Emperor Peter I in 1712.

With the permission of Emperor Kangxi, the Lamaist pagan temple in the northeastern part of Běijīng (Peking, 北京) was rebuilt for the Russian captives, who became Chinese citizens of military estate, into an Orthodox chapel dedicated to the hierarch and wonder-worker Nikolai into which they placed the prelate's image brought from Albazin. From that time, the hierarch Nikolai is especially revered within the limits of the Celestial [Kingdom].

The Mission's history is instructive: having managed to preserve the Orthodox faith among descendants of the Albazin Cossacks who had became mixed with Chinese and Albazin ethnics, the Mission members accomplished much in the field of diplomacy, science. They laid the foundation for our native land's oriental studies; due to their labors Russia and China have never fought. The Mission's history is inextricably linked with the names of saints -- the heavenly protectors of China.

Within the assembly of holy archpastors, hierarch Innokenty of Irkutsk, is the protector of China. He was the first bishop appointed to nurture the Orthodox in this country. In the Kondakion we call him "the preacher of the faith to the Mongol people". In 1721 he became the bishop of Pereyaslavl and was appointed chief of the Russian Spiritual Mission in Beijing. On arriving in the border city of Kyakhta, he did not cross the border into China -- because of the efforts of [Roman] Catholic missionaries, who at the time had influence over the Chinese Emperor, he was denied the right of entrance into the Celestial [Kingdom]. The Russian envoy writes to Petersburg that "the Chinese suspect that he -- a bishop -- is a super-great person, and said to the courier who was sent to them, that the Chinese Emperor will never authorize accepting such a super-great person, because among them the great Lord is called a pope or a khutuhta." [8] Subsequently, being the first hierarch in Irkutsk, he opened a missionary school at the Irkutsk Ascension Monastery where special attention was given to the study of the Mongolian and Chinese languages.

An Orthodox Brotherhood, a cruciform bishop's house church in Beijing and a missionary church in Tiānjīn (Tientsin, 天津) were founded in honor of hierarch Innocent. The Russian Spiritual Mission especially revered him as its heavenly Protector. One of the holy objects in the Mission was the hierarch's miter. The first bishop of China, Metropolitan Innokenty (Figurovsky) was also named in his memory.

The twentieth century, which was marked by unprecedented impoverishment of faith and by the increase of lawlessness and cruelty, nevertheless revealed numerous martyrs and steadfast confessors of Orthodoxy in the entire world, including China. The history of Orthodoxy in China in the twentieth century is deeply tragic and, at the same time, it is a witness to a special holiness. In 1900 the martyrs of the "Yìhétuán" (义和团) uprising accepted death for Christ, while in the 1960s China was enriched by new martyrs and confessors of the faith, who suffered during the "cultural revolution". The forced removal of a half a million emigration into China provided abundant fruits of holiness: the wonder-workers of the new era -- hierarch Iona of Hànkǒu (Hankow, 汉口) and archbishop Ioann of Shànghǎi (上海) , pious archpastors, inmates of Harbin's monasteries, garnered the beneficial gifts of sagacity, and many secret devout persons, whose names are known to God alone... Finding their last refuge and resting place in China were the relatives of Russia's last sovereign, Nikolai II, who were slain in Alapaevsk in 1918. Resting in Beijing, before being transferred to Jerusalem, were the holy relics of the venerable martyrs Elizaveta Feodorovna and the nun Varvara.

Truly, in grief and in illness, it is necessary for us and our contemporaries to profess the faith. Love of the Savior -- that very basic striving of the soul is what connects us with the saints of times past, and makes us their successors. According to God's certain promise, the gates of hell cannot overcome the Church, and, we believe this promise applies to China, where the Orthodox Church received an autonomous status in 1957.

The early years of the history of the Russian Spiritual Mission in China are, perhaps, the most fully elucidated. And the years of our century remain most complex, contradictory and insufficiently studied. This book, making no claim to historical completeness, is an attempt to trace the course of the history of Orthodoxy in China in the XX century.