When telling the story of Christianity in China, most westerners begin with missionaries such as Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who arrived in 1601, and China Inland Mission founder Hudson Taylor, who landed in 1854. This narrative 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 that perception. 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).

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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."

Questions remain, however, about what these people really believed. At best they retained the basic teachings of the Nestorian missionaries, which already makes their theology suspect in the West. A remote Christian outpost in the heart of Taoist country would also have been susceptible to syncretism. In its report on Palmer's discovery, U.S. News claims that the "uniquely Chinese brand of Christianity … mixed with Taoism and Buddhism, differed from the Roman church by discarding the idea of original sin, and preaching against slavery and for gender equality and vegetarianism."

That seems like an awful lot of information to glean from a few stone fragments. Obviously more research needs to be done. Perhaps we'll learn that the world's largest mission field, host to more than 8,000 foreign missionaries between 1830 and 1949, had been plowed and ready for planting for more than a millennium.

Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.

Related Elsewhere

More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

The U.S. News report, "Did Christianity thrive in China? | Digging for evidence in an ancient church," is available online.

More information about the Nestorian stone is available from the Assyria Awareness site.

A photo of a replica of the Nestorian stone is available online as well.

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For some reason, much information on Chinese Christianity can be found at a site for promoting board games,

CH covered Nestorianism in issue 51: Heresy in the Early Church. We covered missions to China in issue 52: Hudson Taylor.

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:

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Dangerous Myth-Conceptions | A new book traces the origins of historical misunderstandings about Christianity. (Feb. 2, 2001)
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This Is Your Life | Exploring the "well-worn sawdust trail" between fundamentalists and evangelicals. (Jan. 19, 2000)
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