The Luminous Religion of the Tang Dynasty (Part 3) (唐朝的景教)

In the last part of this article, I have revealed to you how Nestorian Christianity flourished throughout Tang China during the reign of most of the Tang emperors, who were graciously favourable to the Nestorian Christians. In this part of the article, I will now discuss about Chinese Christian literature during the Tang Dynasty.


Tang Dynasty-based dance

As I have mentioned in Part 1 of this article, Bishop Alopen, upon reaching Chang’an and presenting biblical scriptures before Emperor Taizong, was granted the tremendous task of translating Persian and Syrian biblical scriptures into Chinese. The first piece of Chinese Christian literature that Alopen produced was The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah (序听迷诗所经), which evidently highlighted the threefold loyalty, which is loyalty to God, loyalty to the Emperor and loyalty to one’s parents. It also highlighted the fact that Christianity was very much in line with various aspects and values within Chinese culture.

Christmas star signifying the birth of the Lord Jesus

The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah also gives a magnificent account of the life and teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, very much similar to the present day Bible. For the very first time, an account of the life and teachings of the Lord was made available to the Chinese in their own language. The account of the birth of the Lord Jesus in Bethlehem was narrated as such:

“God in Heaven above shed his light on heaven and earth. In the place where Jesus the Messiah was born, the dwellers in the world saw bright light on the earth, a star of good omen dwelling in the sky.”

In the sutra, the star was compared to the size of a cartwheel, which clearly proves that Bishop Alopen was familiar with Buddhist scriptures. In Buddhist scriptures, the size of the lotus is frequently compared to that of a cartwheel.


Jesus' trial before Governor Pontius Pilate

A narrative of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate was also provided as such:

“The Prince said, 'I cannot kill this man.' The evil-doers said, 'If the man ought not to die, what will happen to our sons and daughters? ' The Prince Pilate asked for water and washed his hands in front of the evil-doers saying, 'I truly cannot kill the man.'”

During the Tang era of China, numerous portions of the Bible have also been translated into Chinese, though their language structure and expressions used may be quite different from the present Mandarin Chinese Bible. Even the names of these biblical books used during the Tang era are different from their names in the present Mandarin Chinese Bible. Among the biblical books translated during the Tang era, along with their Chinese names during the said era, are:

1) The Pentateuch (The Five Books of Moses) (牟世法王经)
2) Genesis (one of the Pentateuch) (浑元经) (present: 创世记)
3) Psalms (多惠圣王经) (present: 诗篇)
4) The Gospels (阿思翟利容经)
5) Acts of the Apostles (传代经) (present: 使徒行传)
6) The Pauline Epistles (The Letters of Apostle Paul) (宝路法王经)

Even as early as 720 A.D., these portions of the Bible were read in Chinese churches throughout Tang China.

Chinese Bible

In the eighth century, the art of hymnology (writing hymns / Christian songs of praise) also expanded in Tang China. The oldest Chinese hymn, which is The Hymn of the Holy Trinity, was written around the year 800 A.D. in Chang’an. Buddhist terminology and imagery were utilized within the hymn, but they were well-adapted to suit the Christian meaning of the hymn. This gave the Christian hymn a Chinese essence. Such is an excerpt from the hymn:

“If the highest heavens with deep reverence adore,
If the great earth earnestly ponders on general peace and harmony,
If man’s first true nature receives confidence and rest,
It is due to the merciful Father of the universe.”


At first glance, what would you think this is? An inscription of Buddhist scriptures? A relic from an ancient Taoist temple in the depths of China? A memorial commemorating a revered emperor of China? Anything else? As for those who can read the Chinese characters on it, you may then know that it has something to do with a religion in China. But still, what exactly is it?

Erected in the year 781 in the Tang imperial capital of Chang’an, this piece of relic is actually the Memorial of the Propagation of the Daqin (Syrian) Luminous Religion in China (大秦景教流行中国碑), also known as the Nestorian Stele. The purpose of this memorial relic is to commemorate and celebrate the vast accomplishments of Nestorian Christianity in Tang China, having spread its wings to all four corners of the Middle Kingdom during this era.

This relic has a total of 1756 Chinese characters and a few Syriac words along with it. Its contents were composed by Father Adam (景淨) while its calligraphy was by Lu Xiuyan (吕秀岩). Father Adam was a Nestorian Christian missionary under the direction of his patriarch in Baghdad (Seleucia-Ctesiphon). He was sent to China at the end of the 8th century.



On top of the stele, one can see faintly a cross alongside the symbols of the dragon, the white clouds and the lotus. The symbol of the dragon is synonymous to the Chinese, as the Chinese traditionally view the dragon as a symbol of creativity and human vitality. The symbol of the white cloud is commonly used in Taoism while the symbol of the lotus is frequently used in Buddhism. Nevertheless, the existence of the cross signifies that the monument actually portrays a Christian message, and this is proven by its text. This goes to show how much Christianity has become assimilated within Tang Chinese culture and that Christianity has been widely accepted throughout Tang China.

Basically, the text in the monument describes the initial mission of Bishop Alopen in Tang China, whereby Nestorian Christianity was recognized by Emperor Taizong in 635 A.D. It also pays tribute to several prominent Christian figures in Tang China and highlights the existence of flourishing Christian communities in many major cities of Tang China. The text also provides honourable names for the Tang emperors who offered patronage for churches in Tang China, namely Emperors Taizong, Gaozong, Xuanzong, Suzong, Daizong and Dezong. For example, Emperor Gaozong was described in the text as “one who brings health and happiness to the people, thus all creation suffers nothing” (人有康乐,物无灾苦).


Ladies in the Tang Dynasty

Besides all these Tang Christian literary works, Father Adam has also played a major role in translating many Syriac Christian books into Chinese. Despite being a foreigner, he was very well-versed with Chinese culture and Buddhist philosophy. He frequently utilized many Buddhist and Taoist terms in translating and writing Chinese Christian books and he was able to adapt such terms very well so as to suit his Christian message. In fact, many of Father Adam’s works begin in a manner similar to that of a Buddhist sutra, but they hold Christian contents within them. This enabled Christianity to win the hearts of many more within Tang China.

In the final part of this article, I will endeavour to cover the fall of Nestorian Christianity in Tang China due to imperial onslaught and persecution against Christians during the end of the Tang Dynasty.

*Main reference / Extract in italics: The Keikyo Institute (2001), Nestorian Christianity in the Tang Dynasty, http://www.keikyo.com/xian/nestorians_chapter2.htm

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