The Luminous Religion of the Tang Dynasty (Part 1)(唐朝的景教)

Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.) – a glorious period in Imperial China, when the Middle Kingdom was at the zenith of its sophisticated culture, administration, arts and literature. In fact, some may well consider the Tang Dynasty to be the golden era of Imperial China, as during this period, China had achieved the most advancement in culture, much more than what any other imperial dynasty of China had ever achieved. It was also during this period that Jingjiao (景教) or Nestorian Christianity first stepped foot in the Middle Kingdom.

Performance based on Tang Dynasty culture

Before we proceed, let us first find out a little about Nestorian Christianity a.k.a. the Assyrian Church of the East. Nestorian Christianity (hereafter known as Nestorianism) is the primitive denomination of Christianity found in the past mighty empires of the East, such as Persia, India and China. It was established by Nestorius (386 – 451 A.D.), the Archbishop of Constantinople who was expelled from the Council of Ephesus in 431. It later became known as the Assyrian Church of the East and became distinct from the Byzantine Church of the West. Nestorianism was, in fact, the most influential form of Christianity in much of Eastern Asia up to the 14th and 15th century. Its influence ranged from Syria and Persia to India, Tibet, Mongolia, China and even as far as Korea and Japan.

Nestorius (386 - 451 A.D.)

No one knows for sure exactly when Christianity first entered the Middle Kingdom. Members of the Assyrian Church of the East have long believed that Apostle Thomas, and Apostle Bartholomew, two of the twelve apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, were the first to bring the gospel into China in 64 A.D. during the Eastern Han Dynasty. In fact, they also believe that Apostle Thomas also reached as far as Japan by 70 A.D. and brought the gospel there. What’s for sure is that the two apostles were responsible for bringing the gospel into India, but there is a lack of evidence to prove whether they have really set foot in China or Japan before. It is thus widely accepted that CHRISTIANITY FIRST OFFICIALLY ENTERED CHINA DURING THE TANG DYNASTY.

Trading activities in Chang'an (Xi'an)

Alopen Abraham (阿罗本), a Persian Nestorian bishop, first arrived at the Tang capital of Chang’an (长安), or present day Xi’an (西安) in year 635. Upon his arrival at Chang’an, he was welcomed warmly by the Tang Premier Duke Fang Xuanling (房玄龄). Bishop Alopen then proceeded to present before Emperor Taizong (太宗) of the Tang Dynasty the biblical scriptures that he brought along with him. At that time, the Tang government practiced a policy of tolerance towards all religions and even welcomed prominent figures of all religions into his imperial court. Hence, Christianity, for the very first time, made an official entry into the imperial courts of the Middle Kingdom.

Emperor Taizong (太宗)

Alopen was then given the honour to step into the Tang Imperial Library, which was said to contain more than 200,000 volumes of work and scriptures. These works covered areas such as literature, art, religion, culture and others. On top of that, some of these works were even in foreign languages that the emperor himself could not understand! Almost immediately after this, Emperor Taizong ordered Alopen to translate Christian sutras and scriptures in the Imperial Library into Chinese. Alopen was granted with assistants to help him in the translation work of such Christian literature, which were originally written either in Syriac or Persian.

Thus, Alopen completed the first ever piece of Chinese Christian literature, that is The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah (序听迷诗所经). This sutra evidently indicated that there was nothing within the teachings of Jesus Christ that was against Chinese culture. In fact, Christianity was in harmony with many aspects of Chinese culture, for Christianity promoted many values upheld by the Chinese, such as loyalty to the state, filial piety and good moral upbringing. In the book, Alopen also emphasized that Christianity is a universal religion and that Christ was the Saviour of all men and women alike, including the Chinese.

Life during the Tang Dynasty

Evidently, Emperor Taizong, after having read this piece of Chinese Christian literature, was immensely pleased and without hesitation, he issued an imperial edict in year 638, permitting the construction of the first Nestorian Christian church and monastery in Chang’an itself. This church was built with grant from the imperial treasury. After the church was fully constructed, Emperor Taizong sent his portrait to be hung on the wall of the church. The portrait was then hung to signify Emperor Taizong’s special patronage for the church.

By then, Alopen had also translated parts of the Holy Bible into Chinese with the help of the assistants assigned to him. Thus, Emperor Taizong also graciously issued an imperial decree which granted the permission for the propagation of Christianity throughout Tang China. “Let it be preached freely in our empire.” Hence, Christianity not only won favour amongst the Chinese in the imperial court and Chang’an, but it also won great popularity and widespread acceptance throughout other Tang cities such as Dadu (大都), Hangzhou (杭州) and Quanzhou (泉州). The emperor, however, chose not to adopt Christianity into his personal life.

Hence, due to widespread acceptance of Christianity during the early Tang Dynasty of China and Christianity’s ability to be well-assimilated alongside Tang Chinese culture, Nestorian Christianity was named Jingjiao (景教)or the Luminous Religion.

The next part of this article will reveal further as to how Christianity blossomed and flourished rapidly throughout Tang China.
**Contents of this article:
1. Part 1 - the beginnings of Nestorian Christianity's introduction into Tang China
2. Part 2 - Nestorian Christianity's progresses and successes in Tang China
3. Part 3 - Chinese Christian literature in Tang China
4. Part 4 - Downfall of Nestorian Christianity in Tang China

A church with Chinese architecture in China

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