Earlier this year, scientists announced that the Black Death had originated in the Tian Shan mountain ranges that pass through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Xinjiang (China), and Uzbekistan. Evidence for this revelation came after studying DNA from human remains in two 14th-century cemeteries in Kyrgyzstan. These are well-known archaeological sites , and on one of the tombstones is an inscription in Old Uyghur indicating Nestorian Christian beliefs.

Today, this tradition of Christianity largely exists in the Middle East and is known as the Assyrian Church of the East. Most of the Christians brutally killed by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in recent years belonged to this church that shares the Nestorian Christology. Despite the narrow geographic region they inhabit today, the church once sent missionaries out across Asia, eventually entering China in the seventh century.

In A.D. 451, the Council of Chalcedon affirmed the full deity of Christ, the full humanity of Christ, Christ being one person, and that the deity and humanity of Christ were distinct and not blurred together. This theology was adopted by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox churches within the Roman Empire, and later by post-Reformation Protestants. However, five Oriental churches, most of which were outside of the boundary of the Roman Empire, refused to accept the Chalcedon definition of faith: the Armenian Church, the Coptic Church, the Assyrian (Syriac) Church, the Ethiopian Church, and the Indian Church of Malabar. Their split from the church within the Roman Empire caused the first great schism in Christianity.

In the fifth century, the Assyrian Church of the East was founded in Persia through a merger of the Roman Empire’s Antiochian Church and the Assyrian Church. The followers of this sect regarded Nestorius as a saint, in spite of the fact that the archbishop of Constantinople had been accused of heresy and anathematized at the Second Council of Ephesus in 431.

Nestorian Church enters China

The Nestorian Church had a high level of zeal for foreign mission. Throughout the sixth century, they sent missionaries across Central Asia, the Mongolian desert, China, and what is now India, establishing a large number of churches in these areas. The church spread throughout Western and Central Asia and along the Silk Road to China in the seventh century, providing the earliest encounter between Christianity and ancient Chinese civilization. It later flourished in China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907).

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In 2019, the Chinese historical TV drama series The Longest Day in Chang’an became popular in China, and its 20th episode takes place in a “jing (Nestorian) temple.” It attempts to recreate the splendor of the ancient Nestorian church’s architecture prompted Chinese viewers to wonder what religion the temple belonged to.

In Chinese, the ancient Nestorian Church is called jing jiao (景教), or “the Religion of Bright Light.” After the fall of the Tang dynasty, the arrival of Nestorian Christianity in China was forgotten and only discovered later in history because of a monumental stele (slab).

Known as 大秦景教流行中国碑 (“Stele of Flourishment of Roman Nestorian Church in China”), or “Xi’an Stele” or “Xi’an Monument” in English, it is one of China’s national treasures and considered by scholars to be an critically important record of the exchange between ancient China and other cultures. It is regarded as one of the four most representative ancient monuments in the world, along with the Rosetta Stone, the Mesha (Moabite) Stone, and the Aztec Solar Calendar Stone.

“As early as the fifth and sixth centuries, groups of Syrian monks crossed Central Asia and brought the name of Jesus to your forebears,” wrote Pope John Paul II in a letter to Catholics in China in 1999. “Even today, a famous stele in the capital Chang’an (Xi’an) powerfully evokes that moment in history, from 635 onwards, which saw the official entrance into China of ‘the Religion of light’.”

The stone tells the story

In A.D. 781, missionary Yazdhozid (伊斯) erected the Xi’an Stele in the courtyard of a Nestorian church. Engraved by a Persian missionary named Adam (景净) and written by Lü Xiuyan (吕秀岩), a military officer in Taizhou, the inscription has a total of 1780 Chinese characters and hundreds of Syriac characters. Some of this text articulates the theology of Nestorianism:

Therefore, our Messiah (弥施诃), sent by the Triune God, the Bright and Glorious One, hid his glory and came to this world, humbling himself as a man. God sent an angel to announce the good news of a virgin giving birth to the Son in the Roman Empire. He established a new religion of the Triune God, guided by the Holy Spirit, so man can be justified by faith.

The stele text also recounts the arrival of Nestorianism. According to it, in the ninth year of Emperor Taizong’s (太宗) reign (A.D. 635), a Nestorian “man of great virtue” (大德, the title for a bishop) named Alopen arrived in China. The emperor received Alopen in the royal court in Chang’an and invited him to the palace library to translate the scriptures of his religion.

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Taizong personally inquired about this new religion, and felt its teachings were righteous, true, and suitable to pass on to the general populace. Three years later, he issued a royal edict to establish a Nestorian Temple (Yining Fang) in the city. Twenty-one Nestorian monks were ordained to manage the church. A colorful and vivid portrait of Taizong was hung on the wall of the temple.

Historians believe that Alopen was likely a Turkic-speaking Persian. Emperor Taizong probably also spoke the Turkic language—his grandmother, mother, and wife were all from a Turkic-speaking nomad ethnic group called Xianbei, and the two probably conversed directly.

The stele was lost after the emperor banned foreign religions in China in the ninth century and was buried during one of the many wars in later Chinese history. In 1623, during the reign of Xizong of the Ming Dynasty, laborers unearthed it in the outskirts of Xi’an. After they informed the governor, he visited the site himself and had it installed on a pedestal.

The newly unearthed stele attracted attention of local Chinese intellectuals. One of them, a newly converted Christian, identified the text as Christian in content. He sent a copy of the stele text to Li Zhizao (李之藻)—a Christian convert through Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit missionary in China—and a deputy minister in the Ming court. Li published the text and told the Jesuit missionaries about it.

Many Western missionaries learned about the stele and scrambled to topograph it and translate the text into European languages. Fearing that the stele might be stolen by the Westerners, the locals secretly moved the stele to a nearby Buddhist monastery, Jinsheng Temple, and asked the Buddhist monks to take care of it. Meanwhile, many Westerners urged the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912) government to protect the stele.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Frits Vilhelm Holm, a Danish adventurer, attempted to buy the stele and ship it to London for preservation. When Rong Qing, the minister of education , was informed of the potential purchase, he ordered the governor of Shaanxi to stop the sale. In the end, Holm agreed to void the purchase contract, but he was allowed to produce a same-size replica of the stele and bring it back to London. In 1907, the Shaanxi governor had the stele deposited in the Xi’an Beilin (“Steles Forest”) Temple (now the Xi’an Beilin Museum), where it resides today.

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After Holm returned to London, he made a batch of copies from the replica he transported from China and distributed them to universities in various countries. Today, these replicas exist in Washington, DC; Rome; Mount Kumgang, North Korea; Kyoto and Kasugai in Japan.

History’s lessons for Christian mission

Nestorian Christianity was practiced through the reigns of 10 emperors in the Tang Dynasty. According to the stele text, Christianity was “in all 10 provinces,” Nestorian temples “filled over 100 cities,” and the believers’ families “were wealthy and blessed.” It counted among its converts Guo Ziyi (郭子仪), a famous general and the prince of Fenyang.

In A.D. 845, Emperor Wuzong (武宗) ordered the “annihilation of Buddhism,” a proclamation that also impacted other religions from foreign countries, and banned the Nestorian Church. Christianity had flourished in the Tang Dynasty for over 200 years, but overnight it vanished.

As a church historian, I can’t help but ask: How could Nestorianism, which had been in China for 210 years, disappear so quickly? Why was Buddhism able to make a comeback and later thrive in China? But perhaps we can learn a few lessons from the mission strategy of the Nestorians.

When the Nestorian Church entered China, it was clearly dependent on the traditional philosophy and religions of China—Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, especially Buddhism. Buddhism was prosperous and powerful in the Tang Dynasty, to the point where its leaders didn’t fear minority religions from the West , and the Tang emperors responded tolerantly toward Nestorianism.

The Nestorian Church called its churches “Jing Temples” (景寺) and its clergy “monks” (僧侣), using the same words for Buddhist temples and monks. In order to pursue vernacularization and because qualified translators were few, the Nestorians borrowed significant Buddhist and Taoist language and terminologies in their translation of biblical and theological terms. For example, they used “clean wind without speech” (浄风无言) to refer to the Holy Spirit, “cultivating goodness through the right faith” (陶良用于正信) for justification by faith, and “shaving the head” (剃度) for the ordaining of priests.

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Moreover, the Nestorian Church adopted the strategy of “mission through politics,” taking a high-level approach to influence high-ranking officials of the imperial court to come to faith, gaining the emperor’s attention and the patronage of princes and ministers.

However, such strategy proved to be too dependent on Chinese culture and political power. When Emperor Wuzong became a Taoist and was influenced by Taoist priests to “exterminate Buddhism,” Nestorianism was directly implicated and became the target of eradication.

Although the high-level route won temporary official acceptance for Nestorianism, the spread of the faith was limited to the scholarly class and did not reach the general public. Thus, compared to Buddhism, which was also a foreign religion, Nestorianism remained marginalized because of its small number of followers and weak influence among grassroots people. Once the support of the ruling class disappeared, the church’s resources were dealt a severe blow.

Such a mission approach would also weaken the truth of the gospel. As Guizhou University scholar Liu Zhenning said in his journal paper:

In order to take root and make their voice heard in a foreign country as soon as possible, in the process of translating the classics and expounding the faith, the (Nestorian) believers relied totally on the various resources of Chinese culture. … But this was done at the expense of tampering and diluting the doctrines and theological thoughts of the Christian gospel they preached.

Although Nestorianism was later vindicated against the accusations of heresy by many Christians, the “Sinicized” version of Nestorianism may have just been a syncretistic faith that differed from the orthodox Christian belief.

This is worthy of reflection by Christians with a mission mind today. The issue of contextualization, or the relationship between the Christian faith and Chinese culture and the relationship between church and state, must be faced and paid attention to in the later development of Christianity in China and in the mission work of the Chinese church today. It is my hope that understanding and reflecting on the history of Nestorianism in China will be beneficial to the future development of Christianity in China.

T. N. Ho is a researcher of church history living in Southern California. He has been engaged in teaching and training among Chinese churches both in China and overseas for many years. He is the author ofThe Gap in History: Footprints of Christian Mission Along the Silk Road.

Part of this article was published on thewebsite of Behold magazine. Re -published with permission of Behold and with expansion and revision.

Translation by T. N. Ho and Sean Cheng

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]