The Luminous Religion of the Tang Dynasty (Part 2) (唐朝的景教)

In Part 1 of this article, I have already covered on how Christianity was first introduced into China during the Tang Dynasty, under the rule of Emperor Taizong. In Part 2 of this article, I will now reveal how Christianity blossomed rapidly and thrived magnificently under the subsequent Tang emperors who continued to support and provide imperial patronage for Christian churches throughout the land of Imperial China.

Emperor Gaozong (高宗) (Reigned 649 - 683 A.D.)

After Emperor Taizong’s death in 649 A.D., Emperor Gaozong (高宗) ascended the throne and continued the Tang policy of showing great favour to the Nestorian Christians throughout Tang China. The imperial court granted great favour to Nestorian missionaries and Christianity rapidly spread to all other provinces in Tang China. At this time, numerous Nestorian churches and monasteries were erected in cities other than Chang’an, such as Chengdu (成都), Luoyang (洛阳), Dunhuang (敦煌), Hangzhou (杭州), Quanzhou (泉州) and Shazhou (沙州). Churches in China continued receiving imperial patronage and protection, thus allowing it to blossom tremendously. In fact, it was said that “the religion (Nestorianism) spread throughout the ten provinces, monasteries abound in a hundred cities” (法流十道,寺满百城). Bishop Alopen himself was promoted by Emperor Gaozong to be the Great Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire and Metropolitan of Chang’an.

Musical performance based on the Tang Dynasty

During the reign of the ruthless Empress Wu, Christianity suffered a temporary but serious setback, as the empress attempted to eliminate Christianity from China. I will cover more on this aspect in Part 4 of this article. Even after her death, Nestorianism was unable to fully recover due to political turmoil and it was only during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (玄宗) in 712 A.D. that Nestorian Christianity was able to recover and flourish once again. Emperor Xuanzong continued offering imperial patronage to the churches in China. He also graciously restored all the Nestorian churches and monasteries which were demolished or severely damaged during the rule of Empress Wu, thus enabling Christianity to make rapid recovery in Tang China.

Emperor Xuanzong (玄宗)(Reigned 712 - 756 A.D.)

The arrival of the Persian Nestorian bishop, Bishop Gabriel (及烈) at Canton, or present day Guangzhou (广州), in about 713 A.D. also proved to be a great boost to Christianity in Tang China. He lived for some time in Canton, acquiring vast knowledge of the Chinese culture and language, while guiding the Nestorian Church in Canton. Bishop Gabriel was also in good terms with the Canton Inspector of Merchant Shipping, Zhou Qingli (周庆立) and with the latter’s help, the bishop was able to carve quaint things to be given as gifts to Emperor Xuanzong. The bishop hoped that giving such magnificent ornaments to the emperor would induce him to be more favourable towards the Nestorian mission in China.

Nevertheless, the censor of the province, Liu Ze (柳泽) was not happy with this and he sent a message to Emperor Xuanzong, stating in the letter that “Qingli is seeking to beguile your sage understanding, to shake and subvert your lofty mind. Will Your Majesty trust and allow it? This would be to spread decadence in the whole Empire!” Officially, Emperor Xuanzong gave imperial approval to Liu Ze. However, in reality, Bishop Gabriel had won the imperial favour and he was thus able to spread Christianity more openly and successfully in Canton, Chang’an and other major cities.

Nestorian Christian relic from Imperial China 

Before 745 A.D., Nestorian Christianity was known as the Persian religion in Tang China. However, after 745 A.D., its name was changed from being the Persian religion to being the Syrian religion (大秦景教). An imperial edict was issued in 754 A.D., stating that “the Persian scriptural religion began in Syria (Daqin,大秦). By preaching and practice it came and long ago spread to China. It is necessary to get back to the original name. Its Persian monasteries shall therefore be changed to Syrian monasteries, throughout the Empire.” The main reason for this change was because the Nestorian Christians in China did not want to be associated with any political entity, be it the Persian, Chinese or Byzantine empires. Hence, by referring to Nestorianism as the Syrian or Daqin Religion, Nestorians are not tied to any political body. After all, the Lord Jesus Christ was born and lived in Syria, thus it is only appropriate to refer to Nestorianism with respect to its place of origin.

In the year 755 A.D., the renowned An Shi Rebellion (安史之乱) occurred. This was a rebellion against Emperor Xuanzong, which was led by An Lushan (安禄山), a man of Persian-Turkish origin in China. An Lushan gained high recognition in the Tang Imperial Army and was extremely influential in the imperial court. I will not go into the windy details of this rebellion, but basically this rebellion resulted in Emperor Xuanzong fleeing to Chengdu (成都) and Emperor Suzong (肃宗) (756 – 762 A.D.) ascending the Tang throne.

Emperor Xuanzong fleeing from Chang'an to Chengdu during the rebellion

Now, why am I boring you with facts about this rebellion that seems unrelated to our topic here? That’s because this rebellion was actually the catalyst to Christianity’s even wider growth in Tang China.

General Guo Ziyi 郭子仪)(697 - 781 A.D.)

Upon ascending the throne, Emperor Suzong assigned a few generals and military geniuses to curb the rebellion. The most prominent of these was General Guo Ziyi (郭子仪), who is, until now, revered as one of the greatest generals in Chinese history. General Guo was himself a Nestorian Christian. Yisi (伊斯), also known as Yazdbazed, was second-in-command to General Guo and he, too, was a Nestorian Christian. In fact, many men under these two were Nestorian Christians. General Guo and his men were so successful in quelling the rebellion that Emperor Suzong was extremely pleased with him.

Due to the rebellion, many Nestorian monasteries and churches were destroyed and unoccupied after the rebellion ended. Both General Guo and Yisi had much influence in the imperial court and since Emperor Suzong was so pleased with them, the latter ordered the rebuilding and restoration of many destroyed monasteries and churches in Lingwu (灵武) and other districts in Tang China. This was done as a gesture of goodwill, appreciation and imperial favour for General Guo and his men.

Yisu had great concern for the welfare of the people and China and he frequently gave his riches away for the sake of helping the needy. He thus won the favour of many Chinese and this had obviously further boosted the expansion of Christianity throughout China. Many Nestorian Christians in Tang China also possessed excellent medical skills and offered these skills to the people. This has undoubtedly propelled Christianity to expand its wings to every corner of Tang China.

Emperor Daizong (代宗)(Reigned 762 - 779 A.D.) 

Subsequent emperors of the Tang Dynasty continued their patronage for Nestorian churches and showered imperial favour for Christians in China. For example, Emperor Daizong (代宗) frequently gave imperial feasts and gifts of incense to honour Nestorian Christian congregations throughout China. Christianity thus flourished throughout Tang China under every Tang emperor, up to the reign of Emperor Wuzong. This I will cover further in Part 4 of this article.

If any of you may be wondering why General Guo Ziyi looks very familiar to you, it is actually because Chinese folklores have glorified him as the God of Prosperity and Happiness. Yes, it is the very same God of Prosperity and Happiness that we see so often in these modern times. Nevertheless, many sources that I have come across actually note the fact that he himself was a Nestorian Christian and that it was partially due to his influence in the imperial court that Christianity had the chance to spread magnificently throughout Tang China after the An Shi Rebellion.

In the next part of this article, I will focus more on the aspect of Chinese Christian literature and its growth in Tang China.

All that remains of a Nestorian Christian church building in the form of a pagoda in Xi'an - once part of a magnificent Christian church / monastery during the Tang Dynasty

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