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Nestorianism in China

Nestorianism in China


The Nestorian or Assyrian Church is a kind of oriental national church ("church of the east") that was opposed against the Roman church after the concile of Ephesus in 431. The Assyrian Church is said to be founded by the apostles Thomas and Addai and was very widespread not only in Syria, Mesopotamia (modern Irak) but also in Persia where the katholikos of Ktesiphon-Seleukeia acted as bishop of the Eastern Church. The bishop again renounced the concile of Chalkedon in 451 and followed the teachings of Nestorios who believed in the unity of the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ, a dogma that was later manifested as the two hypostatic natures of the Christ (two natures, two persons). The bishop of the Eastern Church acted as head of all eastern Christians and promoted the voyages of missionaries to India and Central Asia.

From the 7th to the 11th centuries Nestorianism was the Christian sect with believers in the most widespread territory. There is a bilingue stele in Chinese and Syrian (Ugaritian) in the prefecture of Xi'an (Chang'an), erected in 781 and rediscovered in 1625 that reports the existence of Nestoria parishes in China since the begin of the 7th century. Nestorian monks lived in a "Persian" Yiningfang Monastery in Chang'an (the old name of Xi'an)  and the first missionary was a Persian called "Aluoben" (Alopen). After the expellation of foreign missionaries in the 840es, the Yuan Dynasty period of religious tolerance against foreigners enabled a second wave of Nestorian missionaries (hence called erkehün,) to work in China. Since the 15th century Nestorianism lost its influence in China and vanished around 1550. Today the number of Nestorian Christians in the whole world is about 150,000, and the church is dived into different branches. In the last years many documents about Nestorianism in China were discovered in the Central Asian parts of China, like the translation of Nestorian liturgies,  "Monotheism". By the way, the Syrian script used by the Nestorians was the base for the creation of the Mongolian and Manchu alphabets.

Nestorian Church (The Church of the East )in China had a long but not continuous history between the 7th and 14th centuries. The Nestorian Church was the first church to spread Christianity to China. Chinese sources describe a mission under the Persian cleric Alopen as arriving at Chang'an in 635 and establishing a church that flourished under the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). Nestorian artifacts such as the Daqin Pagoda, the Jesus Sutras, and the Nestorian Stele testify to the place of church in Chinese society at the time. The Church of the East in China faded with the fall of the Tang Dynasty, and did not return until the Mongol invasion, which culminated in the establishment of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. The influence of the Church of the East under the Yuan reflected its importance in the Mongol Empire generally. The church disappeared from China for good in the 14th century; it is likely they were ultimately expelled under the Ming Dynasty, who overthrew the Yuan in 1368.

From the time of the Tang Emperor Xuan Zong, Nestorians tended to strengthen the outside package of Nestorianism to be Chinese and Buddhism as well. This was done because Buddhism was strongly supported by Wu Ze Tian when she became the Empress. Buddhism had already been packed very well with indigenous Chinese traditional art in central China, which to some extent, made Nestorians frustrated in their mission in China. There were even cases where Nestorian cathedrals were destroyed. In order to have a firm stand in central China, Nestorianism had to pack itself to be Chinese and to be Buddhism ... so that it could have more space for greater development. A typical example is: The Tang Emperor Xuan Zong, had a compassion for Nestorians.

Several emperors after the 7th century implemented favorable policies on Nestorianism. Nestorian churches were built nearly in all provinces and there were many Nestorians in China. But the development of Nestorianism in China affected other religions. Buddhism and Taoism frequently attacked Nestorianism. In 845.

In 845, during a time of great political and economic unrest, Emperor Wuzong decreed that Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism be banned, and their very considerable assets forfeited to the state.

Under the leadership of the Mongol-established Yuan Dynasty, Nestorian Christianity once again gained a foothold in China. When it was overthrown by the native Chinese Ming Dynasty, foreign influences once again became suspect, and Christians were expelled from China. One of the last known monuments referring to Christianity in China seems to be one dating to c. 1365 and found at Sanpen Mountain outside Chechang village near Zhoukoudian in the Fangshan District of Beijing. The monument relates the story of a Buddhist monk who visited the site of an old Christian monument and had a vision of a luminous cross. A nearby inscription reveals the presence of a Christian monk near the site as late as 1438.

Discovery of the Nestorian Stele
The stele is in Museum of the Forest of Stone Tablets. The stele is thought to have been buried in 845, during a campaign of anti-Buddhist persecution, which also affected the Nestorians.

The stele was unearthed in the late Ming Dynasty (between 1623 and 1625) beside Chongren Temple. According to the account by the Jesuit Alvaro Semedo, the workers who found the stele immediately reported the find to the governor, who soon visited the monument, and had it installed on a pedestal, under a protective roof, requesting the nearby Buddhist monastery to care for it. The newly discovered stele attracted attention of local intellectuals. It was Zhang Gengyou (Chang Keng-yu) who first identified the text as Christian in content. Zhang, who had been aware of Christianity through Matteo Ricci, and who himself may have been Christian, sent a copy of the stele's Chinese text to his Christian friend, Leon Li Zhizao in Hangzhou, who in his turn told about it to the locally based Jesuits.

Alvaro Semedo was the first European to visit the stele (some time between 1625 and 1628). Nicolas Trigault's Latin translation of the monument's inscription soon made its way in Europe, and was apparently first published in a French translation, in 1628. Portuguese and Italian translations, and a Latin re-translation, were soon published as well. Semedo's account of the monument's discovery was published in 1641, in his Imperio de la China.

The first publication of the original Chinese and Syriac text of the inscription in Europe is attributed to Athanasius Kircher. China Illustrata edited by Kircher (1667) included a reproduction of the original inscription in Chinese characters, Romanization of the text, and a Latin translation. This was perhaps the first sizeable Chinese text made available in its original form to the European public. A sophisticated Romanization system, reflecting Chinese tones, used to transcribe the text, was the one developed earlier by Matteo Ricci's collaborator Lazzaro Cattaneo (1560–1640). The work of the transcription and translation was carried out by Michał Boym and two young Chinese Christians who visited Rome in the 1650s and 1660s: Boym's traveling companion Andreas Zheng and, later, another person who signed in Latin as "Matthaeus Sina". D.E. Mungello suggests that "Matthaeus Sina" may have been the person who traveled from China to Europe overland with Johann Grueber.


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