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 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.