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2018-03-21 18:22:41 Views : 3341 |

What happened to China’s early Christians and why did the Nestorian doctrine die out?

The religion arrived during the Tang dynasty via Middle Eastern missionaries, but its fate was forever in the fickle hands of ancient China’s emperors

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By Wee Kek Koon, 21 Mar 2018


In Greater China, Good Friday and Easter, which fall on March 30 and April 1 respectively, are public holidays only in Hong Kong and Macau. In fact, the two special administrative regions are the only places in China where government shuts down and most residents get a day off on Christian feast days. (In Macau, All Souls’ Day and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception are also holidays.)

This has less to do with the number of Christians in the two places – they form only small minorities – than with the fact that Hong Kong and Macau were colonies of European countries. Still, non-Christians in both places do not complain. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?

Christianity in China began, however, not in two European outposts on the south coast but on the edge of the northern Loess Plateau in Changan (present-day Xian). The earliest definite record of Christians in China was inscribed in both Chinese characters and the Syriac alphabet on a stele unearthed in the early 17th century.

The inscription on the stele, erected in the year 781, gave a precis of Christian teachings and mentioned Alopen Abraham, a missionary of Nestorian Christianity, a branch of Christianity based in the Middle East that fell out with the church in Rome over points of doctrine.

Arriving in 635 at Changan, the capital of the Tang Empire, Alopen Abraham was granted an audience with Emperor Taizong, who permitted him to propagate his religion and build “temples of the cross” in China.

For the next two centuries, Nestorian Christianity, known as Jing Jiao (“Resplendent Religion”) in Chinese, spread within the empire, with churches in cities as far apart as Lingwu (in present-day Ningxia), Chengdu and Guangzhou. There are even records of Emperor Xuanzong (Emperor Taizong’s great-grandson) engaging in religious discussions with Nestorian clergymen and participating in Christian rituals.

Disaster struck during the reign of Emperor Wuzong (840-846), an avowed Taoist who felt threatened by the enormous wealth and influence of the Buddhist establishment in China – Buddhism being the biggest foreign religion in the country.

During his short reign, Emperor Wuzong launched a systematic persecution of Buddhists, demolishing temples and monasteries, and forcing monastics to renounce their vows. Unfortunately, Nestorian Christianity, along with Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism – also foreign religions active in China during the Tang dynasty – became collateral damage.

Nestorian Christianity never recovered, even after Emperor Wuzong’s measures were reversed by his uncle, who succeeded him after his death in 846.

Among the reasons for the quick demise of Nestorian Christianity in China, despite it having had a 200-year presence, was its overdependence on imperial and aristocratic patronage for its propagation and continued existence. Another reason might have been that the majority of Christian converts were found among non-Chinese Central Asians living in China during the Tang dynasty.

The convergence of these two factors suggests the Christian religion was associated with the elite and foreigners in Tang-period China; it hardly made an impression among the vast majority of the population. Without a strong foundation, the whole house collapsed when the rain fell and the floods came.

It would take four centuries before Nestorian Christianity made a small comeback in China, during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, on the backs of Central Asians who migrated to China and thrived under Mongol rule. However, it was also during this period that the first Roman Catholic missionaries set foot on Chinese soil, and they eventually supplanted the Nestorian Christians in the east.

The stele erected in 781, in Changan, that documents early Christianity in China. Picture: Alamy

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