Christian History Home > 2001 > Digging in China
Digging in China
Christianity has a long history in China, but much of it lies buried by time, dirt, and false assumptions.
When telling the story of Christianity in China, mostwesterners begin with missionaries such as Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who arrived in1601, and China Inland Mission founder Hudson Taylor, who landed in 1854. Thisnarrative is fine as far as it goes, but it ignores the much older and more complex history of faith in China—a history buried by time, dirt, and faulty assumptions.
In about 1625 some Chinese digging the foundations of a house near Xian, China's ancient capital, chanced upon a black marble monument. The Chinese characters inscribed at the top said, "The Monument Commemorating the Propagation of the Ta-ch'in Luminous Religion in the Middle Kingdom." Syriac characters on the stone described the arrival of a missionary, Olopen (or Alopen), in 635. The text also named Chinese emperors who had supported this religion and listed the religion's leaders, including one bishop, 28 presbyters, and 38 others, likely monks.
Olopen may or may not qualify as China's first missionary.For one thing, silk worm eggs were transported from China to Constantinople as
early as 551, indicating that traffic—probably monastic traffic—predated Olopen's arrival by several decades. The bigger question, though, hinges on theology: Olopen's "luminous religion" was rooted in Nestorianism.
Let's back up a bit. In 428 a Syrian monk named Nestorius objected to the title "Theotokos," or god-bearer, in reference to Mary. His
stance, which was interpreted (possibly misinterpreted) as a rejection of the unified divine and human nature of Christ, was declared heretical by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Nestorianism survived, however, as a group of disaffected eastern bishops organized a Nestorian church in Persia. This location gave the missions-minded Nestorians first access to the Far East.
Despite theological differences between Nestorians and Catholics, the 1625 discovery of the "Nestorian Stone" aided seventeenth-century Jesuit missions because it showed that Christianity was not merely a recent import to China. Even so, Christianity was—and generally still is—perceived as a fringe phenomenon there. A business travel handbook I ran across online states, "Christianity never achieved a wide acceptance in China and appealed mostly to Westernized intellectuals."
Recent archaeological discoveries may finally alter thatperception. According to articles published in the last few weeks, British
conservationist Martin Palmer believes he has found a seventh-century statue of Mary in a pagoda not far from the original location of the Nestorian Stone.Palmer identified the site as a Christian church because it points toward the east (Chinese temples run north-south). This conclusion is hardly shocking; in fact, as Palmer approached the site, a strolling Buddhist nun told him it was"the most famous Christian site in all of China!" What is surprising is its location: the middle of a compound that housed an important Taoist study center during the Tang dynasty (619-907).
Because of Palmer's find, Sinologists now propose that Christianity exerted significant influence during at least the first two
centuries of the Tang dynasty. Again, this won't surprise everyone. Some evidence suggests that several Chinese emperors through the centuries allowed or promoted Christianity, and that even during times of persecution Christianity persisted in outlying areas. For example, in 1330, long after Olopen's journey but well before Ricci's, China may have been home to as many as 30,000 followers of jin jiao, the "Persian faith."
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