Huaiyu CHEN

Fragment of a Nestorian painting. Nestorians, the first generation of Christians coming to China, arrived in the early seventh century, and remained in China for two hundred years. A stele said to have been inscribed by a Nestorian priest named Adam relates a history of the religion during the Tang dynasty. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHEN HUAIYU.

Nestorians refer to Christians who follow Nestorius, a leader of an early Eastern Christian tradition. Persecution for heresy forced the Nestorians toward Central and East Asia, including China. As the first generation of Christians coming to China, they arrived in the Tang court in the early seventh century, and remained in the country for two hundred years.

Christianity was introduced to China during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and became widely known as “Jingjiao” (Luminous Teaching) during the Tianqi period (1625–1627) of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) after the discovery of a luminous stele (a carved or inscribed stone slab or pillar used for commemorative purposes). Modern scholars identify this form of Christianity as Nestorianism, one of the churches of the East led by Nestorius (386–451 CE).

Persecution for heresy had forced the Nestorians toward Central and East Asia, including China. Although Nestorianism is mentioned in traditional Chinese sources, the most important historical sources have been the Nestorian Stele, discovered in Chang’an (modern Xi’an in Shaanxi Province) in the seventeenth century, five Nestorian manuscripts written in Chinese and recovered from Dunhuang (Gansu Province), and numerous tomb inscriptions found in Inner Mongolia and Quanzhou in the modern period. According to these sources, Nestorianism was introduced to China by Alopen in 635. At that time, acting under an imperial edict from the Emperor Taizong, the Nestorians first translated their scriptures into Chinese and established a Nestorian church in Chang’an. After that many Nestorians came to China either by land from Central Asia or by sea from Persia (Iran). The Nestorian Stele was erected in 781, a time of relative prosperity for Chinese Nestorianism. It is said to have been inscribed by a Nestorian priest named “Adam” (“Jingjing” in Chinese) with the sponsorship of a larger congregation. The stele offers a brief but thorough history of Nestorianism in Tang China. According to manuscript sources, the Nestorian leader Adam translated about thirty-five scriptures into Chinese. Several of these translations survived as the manuscripts from Dunhuang; one of them is identified as Gloria in excélsis Deo in Syriac texts. However, after 845 the Nestorians virtually disappeared in Chinese sources, having suffered political persecution under the reign of the Emperor Wuzong. They fled from central China and settled in peripheral regions, especially Samarqand and Turfan. Tomb inscriptions show that Nestorianism experienced a modest revival in several regions during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), especially in Inner Mongolia and a few coastal cities in southeast China such as Zhenjiang and Quanzhou. But after the fourteenth century Nestorianism vanished from in China again, this time for good.

Doctrine, Ethnicity, and Languages

Nestorius was banished by the Council of Ephesus in 431 for his heretical views regarding Jesus as both a man and a divine son. A doctrine with similar views was introduced to China. Other Nestorian doctrines preserved in Chinese translations concern the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God the creator; Jesus the savior; and the concept of original sin. Although the Nestorians left many sources written in Chinese, it is doubtful if any of these Nestorians were ethnic Chinese themselves. It is clear that the majority of Nestorians in China were Iranian-speaking people. During the Tang dynasty most Nestorians seem to have lived in large cities, such as Dunhuang, Chang’an, Luoyang, and perhaps Cheng’du, which naturally attracted foreign merchants.. According to the Nestorian Stele from Chang’an and a Nestorian scriptural pillar from Luoyang, all the Nestorians named in Chinese sources were clearly either Sogdians or Persians. A tomb epitaph found in Xi’an belongs to a Nestorian family from Persia, even though the family received a Chinese surname identical to the emperor’s and many of the family members served in the Tang imperial government. But no Chinese sources provide any evidence of the views that Chinese intellectuals and common people may have held regarding Nestorianism.

Psalms written in Syriac have been uncovered from Dunhuang and elsewhere. Numerous Nestorian manuscripts were found in an abandoned monastery in Bulayiq, Turfan, all of which were written in either Syriac or other central Asian languages, especially Sogdian and Turkic-Uygur. None was written in Chinese. These manuscripts date from the ninth to the thirteenth century, when the Chinese empire had no sovereignty over this area. The discovery of these Syriac manuscripts indicates that Nestorians in China kept Syriac as their church language. Yet, Nestorians of different ethnicities also used their own languages during their religious activities. All tomb inscriptions from the Yuan dynasty are written in bilingual form, either Turkic-Uygur and Chinese or Syriac and Turkic-Uygur.

Nestorianism and Other Religions in China

When Nestorianism came to China, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism dominated the religious life of the Chinese people. Nestorians borrowed a lot of loanwords (words taken from another language and at least partly naturalized) from the texts of these three religions.. Buddhism had a particularly close connection with Nestorianism. The Nestorian leader Adam tried a collaborative translation project with Buddhist monks, but the Tang emperor suspended this project. Adam’s translations borrowed a lot of terms, phrases, and usages from Buddhist texts, although he adapted their meanings considerably. Daoism was the official ideology in the Tang dynasty, and it seems that the Nestorian Stele also borrowed many Daoist terms. At one time the Tang government confused Nestorianism with Zoroastrianism. The Nestorian church was ordered by the government to change its name from “Persian Church” (bosi si) to “Byzantine Church” (daqin si) in 745 when the Tang government realized that Nestorianism was originally from the eastern Roman area. In Chinese sources Nestorianism, Manichaeism, and Zoroastrianism were often referred to as the “three foreign religions” (or “barbarian religions,” yijiao or hujiao), in contrast to the three domestic religions, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. In 845 all foreign-origin religions, including Buddhism and Nestorianism, suffered political persecution. This persecution was partly because of the increased isolationism that began to develop in the Tang government after the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) nearly a century before. In sum, Nestorianism embarked on its journey to China when the Tang empire was open to all religions but suffered when the Tang empire began to decline.

Further Reading

Enoki, K. (1964). The Nestorian Christianism in China in mediaeval time according to recent historical and archaeological researches. Rome: L’Oriente cristiano nella storia della civilta.

Gillman, I., & Klimkeit, H..-J. (Eds.). (1999). Christians in Asia before 1500. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Malek, R., & Hofrichter, P. (Eds.). (2006). The church of the East in China and central Asia. Sankt Augustin, Germany: Institut Monumenta Serica.

Pelliot, P. (1996). The Nestorian inscriptions of Si-ngan-fou (A. Forte, Ed.). Paris: Collège de France, Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises.

Saeki, P. Y. (1951). The Nestorian documents and relics in China. Tokyo: Tokyo Institute of the Academy of Oriental Cultures.

Tang, Li. (2004). A study of the history of Nestorian Christianity in China and its literature in Chinese: Together with a new English translation of the Dunhuang Nestorian documents. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang.

Source: Chen, Huaiyu. (2009). Nestorians. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1581–1585. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Nestorian Scroll. After 845 CE accounts of the Nestorians virtually disappeared in Chinese sources. Having suffered political persecution under the reign of the Emperor Wuzong, they fled from central China and settled in peripheral regions, especially Samarqand and Turfan. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHEN HUAIYU.

Script on a Nestorian Scroll. Five Nestorian manuscripts written in Chinese were recovered from the caves at Dunhuang in Gansu Province. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHEN HUAIYU.

Nestorians (J?ngjiàotú ???)|J?ngjiàotú ??? (Nestorians)

Download the PDF of this article