Who were the first Chinese Christians?

Did you know that we have written records of thriving Christian communities in China from a time before there were even Christians in Norway? A nine foot high stele in Shanxi Province attests that there were Christians in China as early as 635.

The Nestorian Stele

The Stele was written by a priest called Jingjing, who also went by the name of Adam, and it records the first 150 years of Christianity in China. The stele is called the “Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin”. Daqin means the Roman empire, or rather the small part of it that China had contact with. Normally, though, it’s just called The Nestorian Stele It’s written in two languages, Chinese and Syriac, the language of Nestorian Christianity.

The document shows that Christianity was not just a religion of missionaries, it seems to have adopted ideas and words from the Chinese. For instance it refers to Biblical passages as sutras and follows the Daoist example of seeing their religion as nameless and mysterious. Throughout the stele it is referred to as “the Dao”. It’s even decorated with a mix of lotus flowers and dragons, along with the usual cross.

The Stele (which you can read for yourself, by the way) recounts how Christianity entered China in 635 with a Christian missionary called Alopen. It seems to have spread out widely, and received high favour from some of the emperors. But then, it disappeared. Unfortunately, as is often the case, we know less about why a religion stopped than we do about how it started.

It was probably buried by Christains after 845, when the Emperor Wozong started persecuting Buddhism. Christian monks were forced out of this country at this time, but we can’t be sure that persecution finished them off. It probably didn’t help that the Chinese Church had been split off by the growth of Islam and that the Christians of China ended up adopting more and more Buddhist ideas as time went on.

The theory that Christianity merged into Buddhism is perhaps backed up by the fact that the Nestorian Stele turned up in a Buddhist temple in the 1620s. In fact, it’s still there, and according to some sources there are Christian elements to the beliefs at that temple even now. In around that area there’s a ruin called the “Daqin Pagoda” which was apparently in use until 1556. Some have claimed this was a site of Christian worship.

The evidence of continuing Christian worship after the 9th century seems pretty faint, though. The Daqin pagoda is meant to have Syriatic graffiti and a scene that looks like it’s biblical, but this is perhaps the result of the church language persisting in a community that had mostly moved on.

We still know very little about the fate of Christianity in China because for a long time Chinese scholars were at best uninterested, and at worst saw it as a hoax. The Chinese were right to be sceptical. The Christian missionaries at the time weren’t above bending the truth a little. For instance, when the Jesuits found out about the stele they claimed it was a Catholic monument. It seems the one thing worse than there being no pre-modern Christians in China was for the wrong denomination to have got there first.

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6 thoughts on “Who were the first Chinese Christians?

  1. The emersion and addition of Christian elements into Chinese, and possbly Tibetan, folk religion is well noted. I recently read an article by David Ownby where he commented on observing folk traditions in Southern China that incorporated Christian symbolism and chanting in corrupted Latin. I would caution about attaching too much importance to Christianity’s influence in Tang Dynasty China however. There were a wide variety of religions practised at the time, especially in the capital region; with a contemporary map of the capital Chang’an showing that after Buddhist and Daoist temples Zorastrian temples were the most numerous religious buildings. I tend to advise caution in dealing with anything to do with Christianity in China, as China’s modern Christians tend to be very vocal and often try to inflate their current and historical status out of porportion of their actual significance, usually for political purposes I’ve found.

    1. Hi Antosh, hope you’re doing well.

      I remember our past discussions on Chinese Christianity, and from what I’ve seen in my own reading, it’s hard to really understand the importance of the legacy of Chinese Christianity because of the vested interests involved in such a discussion.

      For instance, the inclusion of Christian rites in Tibetan ritual doesn’t necessarily mean an ancient origin. After all, the original Christians we know of in China used Aramaic as their religious language. It’s more likely to be the result of later Catholic missionary work.

      Still, it’s an interesting topic

      1. Yeah, the issue of Christianity in China is one of those, like the Xinjiang mummies, that brings euro-centrism, sino-centrism and modern political problems together in an unholy blend of un-fun.
        I think you seem to have got a little confused about the examples I was referring to. I concur that there’s little evidence to suggest when Christian influences may have entered Tibet; the example that sprung to my mind was from I believe the writings of an early 20th century Italian anthropologist in Tibet who comments on how some rituals practiced in southern Tibet remind him of communion. I wouldn’t honestly like to say when, or if regarding Christian influence in Tibet; the research on it is almost non-existent, and I feel that doing it in the current environment would be virtually impossible.
        The example of the corrupted Latin chanting I took from Owenby was from southern China, where Jesuit missionaries were very active during the later Qing period. Owenby himself points out in the article that this is the most likely source.
        Anyway, by the by, I interested by your reference to Christianity receiving high favours from some emperors. As far as I was aware from my reading, the emperors of this period favoured either Daoism or Buddhism. If you could point me in the direction of something on this topic i’d be grateful.

      2. Hi, as I recall, the source for it receiving favour from Chinese emperors is the stele itself, which I believe refers to generosity shown to the church by the emperors and their court. In no way should this be taken to mean that anyone thinks there was a Christian emperor in China.

        I’d always be cautious of anyone saying that a ritual is similar to communion. Communion is the central mystical/sacrificial/communal rite of Christianity. It would be natural for Christians to see similarities to it in other people’s rituals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many rituals have been identified as “communion-like”.

        And yes, research into what the truth is of Tibetan religion is sadly very difficult

  2. You’re quite right about the Tibet reference; one throw away comment without much in-depth analysis should not be the basis for a broad statement, as people do tend to be led by their assumptions.
    I actually went and had a look online at a translation of the stele’s inscription, and I have to say that I’d take it with a fairly large dash of salt. Aside from the fact that it makes at least one glaring historical error, a lot of what it states seems to jar horribly with what I know of the early Tang period. Then again, from a certain point of view the stele’s contents do make sense. Firstly, because adhering to the cult of personality around the person of the emperor was endemic in ancient China, so even if the emperor wasn’t involved, it was still common practise to thank him for his benevolence and wisdom. Secondly, because the steles statement is a way of avoiding telling the truth of what most likely happened, which is that “the government heard about this new religion, so they decided to give it money and a place to worship, so that way they would owe the imperial government and the secretariat could keep a close eye on their leadership and numbers”. If there’s one think the imperial government had learned since the end of the Han dynasty, it was that organised religion of any kind was not to be trusted.
    This post was originally a lot longer, but I cut it out. Seems like I’ve worked myself into a state for some reason….

  3. I guess I feel the need to explain myself as I may have come across as a bit rash. I won’t say I dislike Chinese Christians, I know several of them and as individuals they’re all lovely people, but I have become tired of their bullshit. I take history stuff pretty seriously, now while I’m perfectly fine with people having different opinions on history and debating it, that’s what keeps historical studies going after all, I find groups that deliberately lie regarding history to further their agendas really pushes my berserk button. Of course, exaggerating your number of followers, lying about history and aggressive proselytising are not uniquely Christian annoyances, so I suppose you can say that my main gripe is not with Chinese Christians per se, but with commentators in Europe and America. There seems to be this fascination with Chinese Christians that is blow all out of proportion with their actual importance (as to why, well, that could fill another entire post with rambling). While Christianity in China is an interesting footnote in China’s religious environment, I kind of wish there would be more focus on other religions in China beyond the appropriation of some of their elements by new age religions and the focus on a limited range of philosophical texts.

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