The Gospel Flows Through the Yuan Dynasty (Part 1)

The Yuan Dynasty (元朝, yuán cháo) (1271 – 1368) – surely all of you would have heard of it before, right? And which country would you associate it with? If your answer is China, then you’re definitely on the right track. Now, let me ask you this question: Which people established and majorly controlled this ruling regime in China? Well???

I bet some of you would be thinking at the back of your minds, “What exactly do you mean? Of course the Chinese people, silly, since it’s China!” Well…that’s where you’re wrong, if that’s what you are thinking…

Though the Yuan Dynasty ruled the entire Chinese mainland for some time, it actually gained its fame from being the first ever major ruling regime in China to be established and ultimately controlled by non-Chinese people. In fact, the Yuan Dynasty is one of the only two major ruling dynasties in Imperial China to have ever been controlled by non-Chinese people, the other being the Qing Dynasty (清朝, qīng cháo) (1644 – 1912).

A piece of painting from the Yuan Dynasty

If anyone of you actually thought from the very beginning that the Yuan Dynasty is established and controlled by the Mongols, then I would like to offer my congratulations to you. Yes, the Yuan Dynasty, despite bearing a Chinese-sounding name, was actually established and controlled by the Mongol people who, prior to and during the time of the Yuan Dynasty, dwelled mainly in regions of Central Asia and Mongolia. Compared with present-day geographical locations, these regions cover Mongolia, Kazakhstan and three provinces in modern-day China, namely Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (内蒙古自治区, nèi mĕnggŭ zìzhìqū), Gansu Province (甘肃省, gānsù shĕng) and Xinjiang Autonomous Region (新疆自治区, xīnjiāng zìzhìqū).

Anyway, before I delve further into the topic of this article, let me just go through briefly with you regarding the Yuan Dynasty of China. The Mongol Empire is considered to be one of the largest empires in world history, if not the largest itself. Founded by the renowned Genghis Khan (also known as Temüjin) in 1206, the Mongol Empire stretched from the Danube River in Eastern Europe all the way to the Sea of Japan during its zenith. After the death of Genghis Khan, he divided the entire Mongol Empire into four sections to be distributed amongst his sons and grandsons. In due course of time, the vast empire was separated into four Khanates (Mongol governments ruled by a Khan or Emperor), namely:

· Chagatai Khanate (Central Asia)
· Golden Horde (Southern Russia and Eastern Europe)
· Ilkhanate (Middle East and Persia)
· Yuan Dynasty (East Asia)

Map of the Mongol Empire (coloured green) at its peak - "Empire of the Great Khan" labelled in the map represents the domain of the Yuan Dynasty

So, there you have it! The Yuan Dynasty is one of the four Khanates of the larger Mongol Empire. It was established in 1271 by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan (元世祖忽必烈汗, yuán shìzŭ hūbìliè hàn), and this dynasty lasted until 1368 when it fell to the Ming Dynasty (明朝, míng cháo).

The Yuan Dynasty spanned over most of Mainland China, Mongolia, southeastern Russia and northern Korea. The city designated as the Yuan capital was Khanbaliq, which was also known as Dadu (大都, dàdū) at that time, but its name was later changed to what we now know as Beijing (北京, bĕijīng). As for the Yuan administration, it was dominated by Mongol officials and foreigners from places such as Persia and Central Asia. Ethnic Han Chinese officials were a minority in the Mongol-dominated Yuan government.

Mongol soldiers fighting on horsebacks in a war

In a past article pertaining to Christianity in the Tang Dynasty, I have mentioned that Nestorian Christianity eventually faded from China with the fall of the Tang Dynasty. Nevertheless, Nestorian Christianity continued to thrive in Central Asia and certain parts of Mongolia, as well as in the southern coast of China. It was not until the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty that Nestorian Christianity was once again introduced into the rest of China and prospered there. In fact, the Yuan Dynasty also saw the introduction and expansion of Catholic Christianity throughout the entire Yuan China.

Since the period of the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century, many of the Mongol tribes in Central Asia and Mongolia, such as the Kerait, Naiman, Merkit and Ongud tribes, professed the religion of Nestorian Christianity. Even when the Tang Dynasty collapsed, Nestorian Christianity continued to flourish amongst these Mongol tribes. In fact, little do many actually know that Queen Sorghaghtani, the mother of Kublai Khan, was actually a Nestorian Christian herself and a very influential woman in the Mongol Empire. Queen Sorghaghtani (1198 – 1252) was later enshrined in a Christian church in Ganzhou (赣州, gànzhōu) in 1335. Another influential Christian woman in the Khan royal family was Queen Doquz, the wife of Kublai’s brother Hulagu Khan, who founded the Ilkhanate in Persia.

A depiction of Queen Sorghaghtani (1198 - 1252) with her husband in the imperial court

Being influenced by his mother’s religion and spiritual background, Kublai Khan was tolerant and even generous towards Christians, though he was not a Christian himself. Under him, there were many Christian advisers and officials serving in the Yuan imperial court. In addition to that, the Nestorian Christian communities throughout Yuan China greatly prospered and expanded rapidly under the rule of Kublai Khan, thus enabling Nestorian Christianity to be revived once again in the land of China. It was said that Queen Sorghaghtani’s religious status actually became a positive impetus for Nestorian Christianity in Yuan China under Kublai Khan.

Kublai Khan (1215 - 1294) (元世祖忽必烈汗, yuán shìzŭ hūbìliè hàn)

Nestorian Christianity greatly and rapidly flourished in many parts of China under the Yuan Dynasty, especially during the reign of Kublai Khan. Large Nestorian Christian communities were firmly established in many Chinese regions and cities such as Ningxia (宁夏, níngxià), Xining (西宁, xīníng), Ganzhou, Suzhou (苏州, sūzhōu), Dunhuang (敦煌, dūnhuáng) and Quanzhou (泉州, quánzhōu). It was said that Ningxia alone had three Nestorian churches.

Perhaps some of you may have heard of Marco Polo before? Well, for those of you who have never heard of him before, he was one of the first Westerners from Europe to have travelled along the Silk Road to China. I will be covering more on him in Part 2 of this article.

Anyway, Marco Polo wrote several accounts on the Nestorian Christian communities found flourishing throughout the land of Yuan China. In one of his writings, he reported that during a visit to Fuzhou (福州, fúzhōu), a Muslim merchant had told him about the existence of a religious community in the city whose religion nobody could comprehend. Upon further probing, Marco Polo found out that this community was, in fact, a Nestorian Christian community who had diligently preserved their religion for nearly 700 years since Bishop Alopen first came and introduced Nestorian Christianity into Tang China. They even preserved and continued keeping the practice of Nestorian Christianity fresh despite the upheavals faced by the religion in all the other parts of China during and after the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 907 A.D.

Another notable concentration of Nestorian Christian populations, according to Marco Polo’s writings, was found in the city of Zhenjiang (镇江, zhènjiāng). Zhenjiang had so many Christians that Kublai Khan decided to put a Nestorian Christian of Persian descent, Mar Sargis (马薛里吉思, mă xuē lĭ jí sī), as governor of Zhenjiang in 1278. In subsequent years under the governance of Mar Sargis, he constructed many Christian churches and monasteries in Zhenjiang to cater for the large Nestorian community there.

A vase from the Yuan Dynasty period

At one particular time, Zhenjiang itself had seven Nestorian monasteries and numerous churches founded and constructed by Mar Sargis. Nestorian churches were also built in neighbouring cities such as Yangzhou (扬州, yángzhōu) and Hankou (汉口, hànkŏu). Even after Mar Sargis, Kublai Khan continued appointing Christians to hold the positions of governor and assistant governors of Zhenjiang, right up till the Khan’s death in 1294. However, after Kublai Khan’s death, Buddhist officials from the Yuan imperial court started putting pressure on the Nestorian Christians, forcing them to surrender the Nestorian monasteries one after another to the Buddhists.

Indeed, under the reign of the Yuan Dynasty in China, Nestorian Christianity was successfully revived and spread much rapidly into many key cities and settlements throughout China. Consequently, Nestorian bishoprics (religious administrative centres of bishops) were established in four cities throughout Yuan China to cater for the growing Nestorian Christian communities in the land. These bishoprics were established in Datong (大同, dàtóng), Ganzhou, Kashgar (喀什, kāshí) and the Yuan capital of Dadu.

A plate from the period of the Yuan Dynasty

Despite Nestorian Christianity’s great advancements in China during the Yuan Dynasty, it was not the sole Christian denomination to have spread throughout China, as Catholic Christianity was also introduced and popularised in China during the same period. In Part 2 of this article, I will thus be covering more on the roles of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo in initiating the spread of Catholic Christianity in the land of China.
**Contents of this article:
1. Part 1 - Revival of Nestorian Christianity in Yuan China
2. Part 2 - Roles of Marco Polo & Kublai Khan in initiating Catholic Christianity's spread in Yuan China
3. Part 3 - Introduction & achievements of Catholic Christianity in Yuan China under John of Montecorvino
4. Part 4 - Further spread & organization of Catholic Christianity in Yuan China, followed by decline

Villagers in rural China praying in a church

No comments:

Post a Comment