The Luminous Religion of the Tang Dynasty (Part 4) (唐朝的景教)

Before this, all of you have known how Christianity had flourished magnificently throughout the entire Tang China, far beyond what many of you may actually expect. No doubt, many people don’t actually know that China once had a flourishing Christian past during the era of the Tang Dynasty. Even Tang emperors offered patronage and showed great compassion as well as interest for Christianity, although none of them actually adopted it into their personal lives.

Tang Dynasty culture

During the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (武则天), also known as Heavenly Empress Consort Wu (武天后), Christianity suffered a temporary but rather serious setback due to sudden persecution of Christians under her. The empress is sometimes referred to as a ‘witch queen’ by certain sources due to the fact that she used ruthless and manipulative methods to ascend to the throne. She served as the concubine of both Emperors Taizong and Gaozong who preceded her as rulers of Tang China. She was said to have murdered a son and a daughter of hers in her greedy attempt to take full control over the Tang Chinese government. She even deposed and exiled another two of her sons for having too much liberty from her personal control. She was, however, much revered by subsequent Tang rulers and the rulers of subsequent dynasties for her great capability at choosing quality men to hold top governmental posts under her.

Empress Wu Zetian (武则天)(Reigned 690 - 705)

Empress Wu herself was a devout Buddhist and although Buddhism was just starting to make significant inroads into China during the Tang Dynasty, she declared Buddhism as the official and state religion of China, in 691. She solidly supported works pertaining to Buddhism and actively promoted Buddhism under her rule. She opposed Christianity very strongly and endeavoured to eliminate it by stirring mobs against Nestorian Christians, especially Christian missionaries who were of Persian or Syrian origin, because these missionaries were much more easily identifiable as foreigners. She also destroyed numerous churches and Nestorian monasteries throughout China mercilessly.

Reenactment of Empress Wu's Buddha-worship ceremony

Nevertheless, the subsequent Tang emperor, Emperor Xuanzong (玄宗), which I have mentioned in Part 2, was more compassionate towards Nestorian Christians. There was an instance when he gave instructions to his brother to restore a church which was badly ruined during Empress Wu’s reign. Emperor Xuanzong even ordered that an altar be built within the church and over time, the church was fully restored and functional again. Hence, Christianity made a rapid and effective recovery in Tang China, thanks to the mercy and compassion that Emperor Xuanzong had towards the Christians.

Christians had great favour from many subsequent Tang emperors and wielded much influence within the imperial court. This is proven by the fact that a great Christian church, built in the fashion of a pagoda, was erected very near the Lou Guan Tai (楼观台). The Lou Guan Tai is the sacred Taoist site and centre where the founder of Taoism, Lao Zi (老子) was said to have written the sacred Taoist scripture, Dao De Jing (道德经). Hence, having the imperial permission to construct a large church very near to this sacred Taoist site shows that Christians had great imperial favour.

All that remains of a great Chinese Christian church and monastery in Chang'an after the great persecution in 845 (read below)

As I have mentioned in Part 3, Father Adam (景淨) was a Nestorian Christian missionary who was sent to China from Seleucia-Ctesiphon (Baghdad). He preached the gospel with great energy, enthusiasm and fervour in Tang China. This consequently aroused opposition against himself from numerous Buddhist monks. Many Buddhist monks realized that what Father Adam taught was different from their spiritual persuasions and thus, they often criticized what Father Adam was preaching. A prominent Buddhist monk once stated,

“A Buddhist monastery and a temple of Daqin (大秦, Nestorianism) differ in customs and in their religious practices, Jingjing (Father Adam) should preach the teaching of the Messiah and the Buddhist monk must make known the message of the Buddhist Sutra…Truth and error are not the same, just like the Qing River and the Wei River are not alike.”


(Lau, H.T. (n.d.), “The Cross and the Lotus” in Church and Society Vol. 6, No. 2)

Tang Dynasty horse artifact

The year 845 onwards saw extremely severe persecution towards Nestorian Christianity throughout Tang China. Emperor Wuzong (武宗, reigned 840 – 846) was a strong pro-Taoist ruler who vigorously promoted Taoist worship throughout Tang China. He saw Buddhism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism as foreign religions posing threats to the culture and stability of China and thus attempted to eliminate these religions from China. He was also heavily influenced by the numerous Taoist officials in his imperial court who were jealous of the rapid expansion of these religions in China and sought ceaselessly to get rid of them.

Emperor Wuzong first launched a major persecution against Buddhism. Buddhist monasteries possessed exemption from taxation and those who were involved in such monastic institutions were exempted from civil and military service. This caused a great loss of manpower and revenue to the Tang government. On top of that, Buddhism was growing rather rapidly in China at that time, posing much threat in the eyes of Confucian and Taoist scholars. A combination of all these factors led Emperor Wuzong to initiate a persecution against Buddhism, whereby he closed and destroyed many Buddhist monasteries, seized their property and ordered all the monks and nuns to return to secular life and pay taxes. Only Buddhist monasteries of great majesty were spared and preserved.

Spring outing of the Tang court

However, Emperor Wuzong also realized the significant presence of Christianity and Zoroastrianism in Tang China. He definitely did not spare the churches and fire temples of these religions respectively, as an imperial decree was also issued shortly after the persecution of Buddhism, stating:

“As for the Daqin (Nestorian) and Muhu (Zoroastrian) temples, these heretical religions must not alone be left when the Buddhists have been suppressed; they must all be compelled to return to lay life and resume their original callings and pay taxes, or if they are foreign they shall be sent back to their native places.”

(Wikipedia (2008), Nestorianism in China, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nestorianism_in_china)

He subsequently closed and demolished many churches and Nestorian monasteries, confiscated church property and forcing Christian monks and nuns to return to secular life and pay taxes as well. Christian books and items were burned and prominent Christian leaders had no choice but to either organize clandestine church services or flee from China. Nevertheless, Christianity never recovered from this gigantic wave of persecution for the rest of the Tang Dynasty, unlike the persecution of Christianity under Empress Wu.

Tang Dynasty gilt-silver jar

However, small Christian communities still survived in certain parts of Tang China, but they were rather disorganized and eventually faded off due to lack of contact with their fellow believers from other parts of China. Also, a small portion of China, that is the southeastern coast of China covering Canton (Guangzhou, 广州) and Amoy (Xiamen, 厦门) had significant Christian communities that were rather unaffected by the severe persecution against Christians in the rest of China.

Nevertheless, the blow that this wave of persecution had against Christians in China was extremely severe. In 986, a Christian monk from Najran who was sent to China reported:

“Christianity is extinct in China; the native Christians have perished in one way or another; the church has been destroyed and there is only one Christian left in the land.”

(Wikipedia (2008), Nestorianism in China, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nestorianism_in_china)

Christianity suffered near eradication throughout Tang China for the rest of the Tang Dynasty, and it was not until the era of the Yuan Dynasty when Christianity was once again reintroduced into the glorious Middle Kingdom……

2 comments:

  1. Could you explain more deeply the foundational beliefs of Luminous Christianity?

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  2. Hi,

    I'm not an expert in theology myself, and it may be best if you seek further clarification regarding this from one. But what I understand from my reading (which I have then used to write these articles) is that the Luminous Religion, or Jingjiao (景教) in Chinese, was the term used to refer to Nestorian Christianity as practised during the Tang Dynasty. Nestorianism was the only form of Christianity that was known in the empire of the Tang Dynasty at that time. As such, the foundational beliefs of the Luminous Religion or Jingjiao would be the principles of Nestorianism itself, in my opinion. Information about the teachings and principles of Nestorianism can be found in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nestorianism

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