The copy of the Nestorian stele on Mt. Koya, and A Background of the Nestorian Stele

The discovery of the Nestorian Stele

The Neopian Stele (also known as the Nestorian Stone, Nestorian Monument, or Nestorian Tablet) is a Tang Chinese stele erected in 781 that documents 150 years of history of early Christianity in China. It is a 279-cm tall limestone block with text in both Chinese and Syriac, describing the existence of Christian communities in several cities in northern China. It reveals that the initial Nestorian Christian church had met recognition by the Tang Emperor Taizong, due to efforts of the Christian missionary Alopen (Chinese: 阿罗本 pinyin: Āluóběn) in 635.[3] Buried in 845, probably during religious suppression, the stele was not rediscovered until 1625.

The heading on the stone, which is in Chinese, means Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin (大秦景教流行中國碑; pinyin: Dàqín Jǐngjiào liúxíng Zhōngguó bēi, abbreviated 大秦景教碑). An even more abbreviated version of the title, 景教碑 (Jǐngjiào bēi, “The Stele of the Luminous Religion”), in its Wade-Giles form, Ching-chiao-pei or Chingchiaopei, was used by some western writers to refer to the stele as well.

The name of the stele can also be translated as A Monument Commemorating the Propagation of the Ta-Chin Luminous Religion in the Middle Kingdom (the church referred to itself as “The Luminous Religion of Daqin”, Daqin being the Chinese language term for the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD,[5] and in later eras also used to refer to the Syriac Christian churches).

The original Nestorian Stele remains in the Forest of Steles. It is now exhibited in the museum’s Room Number 2, and is the first stele on the left after the entry. When the official list of Chinese cultural relics forbidden to be exhibited abroad was promulgated in 2003, the stele was included into this short list of particularly valuable and important items. A copy of the stele and its tortoise have been installed near Xi’an Daqin Pagoda as well.

The Nestorian Stele, on its turtle pedestal, and without the brick cladding/pavilion seen in earlier pictures, photographed by Frits Holm in 1907, shortly before it was moved to the Beilin Museum

When the Danish scholar and adventurer Frits Holm came to Xi’an in 1907 with the plans to take the monument to Europe, the local authorities intervened, and moved the stele, complete with its tortoise, from its location near Chongren Temple to Xi’an’s Beilin Museum (Forest of Steles Museum). The disappointed Holm had to be satisfied with having an exact copy of the stele made for him.

The stele is thought to have been buried in 845, during a campaign of anti-Buddhist persecution, which also affected the Nestorians.

The stele was unearthed in the late Ming Dynasty (between 1623 and 1625) beside Chongren Temple (崇仁寺). According to the account by the Jesuit Alvaro Semedo, the workers who found the stele immediately reported the find to the governor, who soon visited the monument, and had it installed on a pedestal, under a protective roof, requesting the nearby Buddhist monastery to care for it.[12] The newly discovered stele attracted attention of local intellectuals. It was Zhang Gengyou (Wade-Giles: Chang Keng-yu) who first identified the text as Christian in content. Zhang, who had been aware of Christianity through Matteo Ricci, and who himself may have been Christian, sent a copy of the stele’s Chinese text to his Christian friend, Leon Li Zhizao in Hangzhou, who in his turn published the text and told about it to the locally based Jesuits.

Alvaro Semedo was the first European to visit the stele (some time between 1625 and 1628). Nicolas Trigault’s Latin translation of the monument’s inscription soon made its way in Europe, and was apparently first published in a French translation, in 1628. Portuguese and Italian translations, and a Latin re-translation, were soon published as well. Semedo’s account of the monument’s discovery was published in 1641, in his Imperio de la China.

Early Jesuits attempted to claim that the stele was erected by a historical community of Roman Catholics in China and called Nestorianism a heresy and claimed that it was Catholics who first brought Christianity to China, but later historians and writers admitted that it was indeed Nestorian, not Catholic.

The first publication of the original Chinese and Syriac text of the inscription in Europe is attributed to Athanasius Kircher. China Illustrata edited by Kircher (1667) included a reproduction of the original inscription in Chinese characters,[16] Romanization of the text, and a Latin translation. This was perhaps the first sizeable Chinese text made available in its original form to the European public. A sophisticated Romanization system, reflecting Chinese tones, used to transcribe the text, was the one developed earlier by Matteo Ricci’s collaborator Lazzaro Cattaneo (1560–1640).

The work of the transcription and translation was carried out by Michał Boym and two young Chinese Christians who visited Rome in the 1650s and 1660s: Boym’s traveling companion Andreas Zheng (Chinese: 郑安德勒; pinyin: Zhèng Āndélè, Wade-Giles: Cheng An-to-le) and, later, another person who signed in Latin as “Matthaeus Sina”. D.E. Mungello suggests that “Matthaeus Sina” may have been the person who traveled from China to Europe overland with Johann Grueber.

The heading on the stone, which is in Chinese, means Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin (大秦景教流行中國碑; pinyin: Dàqín Jǐngjiào liúxíng Zhōngguó bēi, abbreviated 大秦景教碑). An even more abbreviated version of the title, 景教碑 (Jǐngjiào bēi, “The Stele of the Luminous Religion”), in its Wade-Giles form, Ching-chiao-pei or Chingchiaopei, was used by some western writers to refer to the stele as well.

The name of the stele can also be translated as A Monument Commemorating the Propagation of the Ta-Chin Luminous Religion in the Middle Kingdom (the church referred to itself as “The Luminous Religion of Daqin”, Daqin being the Chinese language term for the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD,[5] and in later eras also used to refer to the Syriac Christian churches).

Syriac text in stele.
The stele was erected on January 7, 781, at the imperial capital city of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an), or at nearby Chou-Chih (盩厔; Pinyin Zhouzhi). The calligraphy was by Lü Xiuyan (呂秀巖), and the content was composed by the Nestorian monk, Jingjing, in the four- and six-character euphemistic style. A gloss in Syriac identifies Jingjing with ‘Adam, priest, chorepiscopus and papash of Sinistan’ (Adam qshisha w’kurapisqupa w’papash d’Sinistan). Although the term papash (literally, ‘pope’) is unusual, and the normal Syriac name for China is Beth Sinaye, not Sinistan, there is no reason to doubt that Adam was the metropolitan of the Nestorian ecclesiastical province of Beth Sinaye, created half a century earlier during the reign of the patriarch Sliba-zkha (714–28). A Syriac dating formula refers to the Nestorian patriarch Hnanishoʿ II (773–80), news of whose death several months earlier had evidently not yet reached the Nestorians of Chang’an. In fact, the reigning Nestorian patriarch in January 781 was Timothy I (780–823), who had been consecrated in Baghdad on 7 May 780.[7] The names of several higher clergy (one bishop, two chorepiscopi and two archdeacons) and around seventy monks or priests are listed.[8] The names of the higher clergy appear on the front of the stone, while those of the priests and monks are inscribed in rows along the narrow sides of the stone, in both Syriac and Chinese. In some cases the Chinese names are phonetically close to the Syriac originals, but in many other cases they bear little resemblance to them. Some of the Nestorian monks had distinctive Persian names (e.g. Isadsafas, Gushnasap), suggesting that they might have come from Fars or elsewhere in Persia, but most of them had commonplace Christian names or the kind of compound Syriac name (e.g. ʿAbdishoʿ, ‘servant of Jesus’) much in vogue among all Nestorian Christians. In such cases it is impossible to guess at their place of origin.

On top of the tablet, there is a cross. Below this headpiece there is a long Chinese inscription, consisting of around 1,900 Chinese characters, which is glossed occasionally in Syriac (several sentences, amounting to about 50 Syriac words). Calling God “Veritable Majesty”, the text refers to Genesis, the cross, and the baptism. It also pays tribute to missionaries and benefactors of the church, who are known to have arrived in China by 640. The text contains the name of an early missionary, Alopen. The tablet describes the “Illustrious Religion”, emphasizing the Trinity and the Incarnation, but there is nothing about Christ’s crucifixion or resurrection. Other Chinese elements referred to include a wooden bell, beard, tonsure, and renunciation. The Syriac proper names for God, Christ and Satan (Allaha, Mshiha and Satana) were rendered phonetically into Chinese. Chinese transliterations were also made of one or two words of Sanskrit origin such as Sphatica and Dasa. There is also a Persian word denoting Sunday.


A copy of the Nestorian Stele exists in Japan, installed on Mount Kōya, said to be a replica of the Nestorian Stele in China. However, Dr. Frits Holm in his writing “A Japanese author on the Chinese Nestorian Monument” criticizes the characterization of this copy as a replica, saying that the copied stele was too inexact and lacked the identical or accurate dimensions required for it to be considered a genuine replica. He however conceded that the inscriptions may have been produced from rubbings of the original.

Copy of Nestorian Stone
Mt Koya, Japan

The circumstances of erection of the Nestorian Stele replica and the extent of Nestorianism in Japan has been questioned:

Copy of Nestorian Stone, Mt. Koya, Japan. Photograph. The characterisation in the caption of Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon, as an advocate of “Christianized Buddhism” is debatable. Similar material about the Mt. Koya stone may be found on the Internet, often at sites which claim the Japanese Hatas were Central Asian Nestorian immigrants. In some cases, there seems to be some sort of connexion with certain nationalistic Japanese “new religions” which teach that the Japanese are lost Israelites, that Christ lived in Japan, and the like. —  Source: The Nestorian inscription at Xian Fu, from the St. Pachomius Library

“Copy of Chang’an Stone monument at the entrance to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. Kobo Daishi, Japan’s most brilliant intellect, was sent to Chang’an in the early part of the 9th century by the emperor of Japan to make an effort  to reconcile Buddhism and Shintoism. Instead he came back with a Christianized Buddhism. He called his new body of doctrine, Shingon, or True Word. Baptism was part of the Shingon rites. Through contact with Christian missionaries, many Buddhists were attracted to Christianity. To counteract this, Buddhism was forced to invent a redeemer and to prophesy the second coming of Buddha under this Japanese title, “Meitreya (Miroku) the loving one who is returning.” Meitreya is the ‘Christ’ of the new age movement today” –

However… according to “Travelers’ Tales China: True Stories” edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger, Sean O’Reilly, the second replica of the stele at Mt. Koya was placed there on September 21, 1911 by the Honorable Mrs Gordon of Ireland.

“It was on Mt Koya that Kobo Daishi (Kang Hai), the pilgrim who came to Xian in 802, founded the monastery of Konga-buji upon his return to Japan in 816 and also where he preached the tenets of a new sect of Buddhism, Shingonbu. This became the largest Buddhist sect in Japan. The peak still attracts thousands of Japanese pilgrims each year. This is also the location of the Okuno-in Cemetery — where the dead by the thousands, emperors included, are buried with the expectation of the coming of Miroku, a Buddist Messiah. Within this Buddhist Messianic cemetery with its varied Xian connotations stands the reproduced Nestorian Stele — like a fetish…”

Below is Rev. Arimasa Kubo’s “Keikyo (Syrian Christianity) and Japan” an account of Nestorianism’s development in Japan:

Keikyo” is a Syrian Christianity and is also called “Nestorian Christianity.” The Japanese name “Keikyo “(in Chinese “Jingjiao”) was used to call this teaching when it came to China and meant the “luminous teaching.”
In 431 AD a religious conference, the “Council of Ephesus,” was held. Within the Church , Mary the mother of Christ was already called “Mother of God (Theotokos),” the custom of praying to Mary and worshiping her had begun. Against this practice, Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, declared it not proper, because it has a danger to fall into a goddess worship. He said:
“It is adequate to call Mary Mother of Christ (Christokos). But, she is not the Mother of God. God has no mother.”
He preferred calling Mary “Christokos.” But, Western Church (the future Roman Catholic Church) did not understand his reasoning and branded Nestorius and his followers “heretics” and sent them into exile. Just because they were called “heretics” does not make them heretics. Roman Catholics once called Protestants “heretics”. Rather, it is no exaggeration to say that their understanding was truer than Roman Catholics of those days.
In understanding of Christology, too, Nestorius admitted both the God and human nature of Christ. Having assessed the understanding of Nestorius regarding the relationship between the two persona, many of today’s theologians assess him as non-heretic.
Also, it appears that schism between Nestorians and the Western Church was not due purely to doctrinal differences. Rather, there were also political and racial reasons behind it. “Sekai Hyakka Jiten (World Encyclopedia) by Heibonsha company states as follows:
“Today, the Nestorian creed is considered not to be particularly heretical when eliminating ambiguity of terms used to describe the relationship between the God nature and human nature of Christ. Their fall can be attributed to politics. Furthermore, the Nestorian is a religious order that further developed his teachings and was not the sect Netorius had set up himself.”

Well, Nestrius and others who were banished by Roman Catholics were called “Nestorians” or the “followers of Nestorius.” That is to say that Roman Catholics used the word Nestorians in a slanderous way.
They never called themselves “Nestorians.” That was because it was not a new religious sect and Nestorius was not the founder of such sect. They called themselves “Eastern Christians.” They were also called “Nazrani” because their faith were from “Nazareth.” In China they were called Keikyoto (in Chinese “Jingjiao”).
They stated that the founder of their Christianity was Jesus Christ and they also honored Apostle Thomas as having graced the East in evangelism. Nestorius was only one of the leaders in the church that believed in this tradition. So, their Christianity did not start in 431 AD but rather it rooted to the Apostolic church.
That is why I would like to call them “Eastern Christians” and “Keikyotos” rather than “Nestorians.”
Keikyotos were very active in Middle and Near East and made significant contributions to medicine, astronomy, and industries. It is said that Mohamed, the founder of Islam, listened to Selgius Bahira, a Keikyoto, in his youth and believed in the “Living God.”
They began their great mission work throughout the Silk Road early on. Looking at the 6-14th century map, one can tell there were Keikyo churches in many cities along the Silk Road from Near Middle East to East Asia. Bar Habraeus, another Keikyoto, records much of their evangelism.
Keikyotos came to China early. They entered China before 600 AD, but they formerly [s-i-c formally??] visited the emperor (Emperor Taiso of Tang Dynasty) and explained the teaching of Keikyo.
The Emperor Taiso favored the teaching and gave permission to spread the Gospel. Also, he encouraged the people to believe this faith. In this manner, Keikyo became very popular in China.
But, after about 200 years, Keikyo was persecuted and received a great damage. However, Keikyo became popular in Mongol. Mongol, in those days, was the largest empire that controlled from Near Middle East to China.
Mongolian kings issued the proclamations of freedom of religion, but they favored Keikyo most among various religions. Many Keikyoto aides and concubines surrounded the kings. The kings built churches for Keikyotos, and he worshipped in them.
Keikyotos also established the mailing system in Mongol, printed currency by wood print, compiled chronicles, built schools, built medical facilities, published papers, and built roads across the country that brought a very advanced civilization to Mongol.
Marco Polo, who came to China from Europe and lived there for 25 years, marveled at the high level of civilization he saw there.
Also, Keikyotos built facilities where they gave food and clothing to those who were in need. This, in fact, is the general practice that Keikyoto performed throughout the Silk Road. They not only built churches for missionary work but they built welfare, medical, and educational institutions along.
In fact, Shotoku Taishi (Prince Shotoku) built “Shika-in (four institutions)” first in Japan. It consisted of four institutions: “Seyaku-in (free pharmacy),” “Ryobyo-in (free hospital or clinic),” “Hiden-in (nursing home for those without relatives),” “Kyoden-in (halls for religion, academics, and music).”
That is to say that these are welfare and medical facilities and research institutions. The Japanese Buddhists claim that these actions reflect mercy of Shotoku Taishi (Prince Shotoku) who was a devout Buddhist.
However, the concept of welfare and charity was almost non-existent in Buddhism of those days; Buddhism was the religion for the country and the rulers in those days.
Further inspection of Buddhism in Korea and China revealed no such practice of welfare or charity work.
On other hand, this kind of welfare and charity work was widely practiced by Keikyotos throughout the Silk Road. They built facilities those were close analogies of “Seyaku-in,” Ryobyo-in,” “Hiden-in,” and “Kyoden-in.”
According to Professor Sakae Ikeda of Kyoto University, indeed there was a Keikyoto aide to Shotoku Taishi . During the time of Shotoku Taishi, there were some Keikyotos unofficially present in Japan.
Professor Ikeda says the name of this Keikyoto was “Maru Toma.” In Aramaic “Maru” means lord and “Toma” means Thomas. So, “Lord Thomas” and this was how the Eastern Christians refer to their leaders and saints. The name was same as Apostle Thomas but it was a common name among Keikyotos.
That is to say Keikyotos influenced the welfare and charity work of Shotoku Taishi.
Also in fact, a Keikyoto, “Rimitsui” came to Japan in 736 and visited the Emperor (Shoku Nihongi). Empress Komyo was deeply influenced by Rimitsui and also built “Seyaku-in,” Ryobyo-in,” and “Hiden-in.”
The Empress worked there as nurse. The Hokke-ji Temple in Nara still has a bathing room where the Empress Komyo is said to have cared patients by herself like Mother Terresa and Nitingale did.
The Empress Komyo, too, was advertised as a devout Buddhist in the Buddhist world, but a close inspection reveals that Keikyotos strongly influenced her. There is a researcher who claims that she was a Keikyoto.
Keikyo also touched Kukai and Shinran, who are well known names in the Japanese Buddhist world. When we read their writings, one cannot help but think that “this is close to teachings of Christianity.””


Travelers’ Tales C hina (pp. 233-234) also has an account of Nestorianism and the stele’s discovery in China that reads as follows:

“Exactly where the Nestorian Stele was buried or where it stood in the eighth or ninth centuries, no one can say, but it was not within the walls of Xian. P. Y. Saeki, a Japanese scholar has made the most detailed enquiry. He argues in the Nestorian Documents and Relics in China (1995) that the stele first stood and was subsequently buried on the ground southwest of Xian of the Lou Guan Tai —  specifically on a middle slope in a place called Wu-chun , where in 756 A.D. where the Tang emperor Su-tsung  built a Nestorian monastery.

I don’t doubt that Lou Guan tai — by tradition the birthplace of Taoism was also the location of the Nestorian monastery and the original site of the buried Stele. The Topographical Book of Chou-chih, written in 1563 certainly confirms the existence of a Nestorian monastery in the middle of the hillside which forms a  tableland of the Tower valley”. Moreover in the same place also stood a pagoda, an eight-cornered one, seventy or eighty feet high, originally built by the orders of Emperor T’ai-tsung who welcomed the first missionary to China. This is the first leaning pagoda that I saw myself when I visited Lou Guan Tai. It predates the Nestorian Stele, to which it is intimately linked, by a full century. In 1933, four scholars spent a night in the Taoist temple at Lou Guan Tai. From there–according to Saeki, they happened to see a tower rising high into the sky at the foot of the hill. …A villager told them the ruins around the pagoda had an old name –Da Qin Si. It was the Nestorian monastery — a temple complex of the Luminous Faith of Rome.

Not much was left — even in 1933; but an iron bell cast in 1444 which once hung from the western eaves of  the monastery had an inscription that confirmed that the temple was built by order of the Tang Emperor.  The scholars also found a stone tablet describing a Throne of Buddha. In the eighteenth century, they point out, the monastery served as a Buddhist temple. In fact, the monastery survived as long as it did only by undergoing its various incarnations serving as a vessel of successive religions after the Nestorians disappeared until there were no religions left. In this way, the pagoda might be said to represent the progress of all religions in China.

The chief remains of was perhaps the first Christian monastery in China is the leaning pagoda at Lou Guan Tai. This is the only structure left in 1933. The scholars who visited it in 1933 were struck by its resemblance to the Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian. Farmers in the region believe that the Da Qin Pagoda was built of stone left over from the building of the most famous of all Tang dynasty towers. Those scholars were also able to climb to the top of the pagoda despite the poor condition of the pagoda’s interior.  On the second and third floor, they saw clay images of Kuan-Yin,  the goddess of Mercy, in a style dating from the Tang or Sung dynasty. On the seventh story, they made rubbings of the characters carved over the archways on the south and the west. These were later found to be Tibetan writings, including a six-character Lamaist charm.

All the faiths that once resided at Xian are entangled in the history of the Nestorian Stele, first erected in this ruined tower of Tang, buried in 845 A.D. when the Christian missionaries were expelled from their monasteries… “

East of the Euphrates: Early Christianity in Asia by T.V. Philip

“… contrary to what has been said by western historians, there is evidence to show that Christianity found its way into South East and East Asian countries even before the coming of western missionaries, through the efforts of Nestorian merchants and missionaries from Persia or India or China or from all the three places. After speaking of many technical and critical problems involved in the study of Asian history, John England writes:

Taking account of these and similar issues, and drawing upon the range of evidence now available to us, it is possible to outline the presence of Christian communities from Syria in the west to Japan in the north-east and as far as Java in the south-east by the first half of the eighth century. (John England., op.cit., p. 133.

John England mentions some of the places in Asia where inscriptions, crosses, frescoes, paintings and manuscripts and other such evidence of Christian history are found.

By the sixth century, we have crosses and inscriptions from Sri Lanka and Turkestan (where some early manuscripts were also found); and by the eighth century, Sian-fu-stele, documents from Gobi sites, inscriptions from central Japan and Russian Turkestan (which has frescoes and church remains also), along with large bodies of the writing of the golden age of Syriac literature from west Asia. With local writings, these have been found across the region, especially in South India and West China. In the next three centuries would be added the large collections of crosses and tombstones from Kirghizstan (ninth to fourteenth centuries), others from central and north China; relics in Burma and Malaya; crosses, inscriptions and documents in Tibet and South China; along with contemporary manuscript evidence for Christian activity in Syria, Iran, Turkestan, Indo-China, Sumatra, and China (north and south). (Ibid.)

According to him the above evidence has been assembled by scholars and travelers over many centuries and subjected to careful study especially since the work of Assemani in the eighteenth century. Much of the new evidence now available are in the work of Syriac and Arabic scholars, specialists in medieval church history or of historians studying the early trade routes linking west Asia and east Asia by land or sea. (Ibid., pp. 133-134)…

There are a number of writers including Mingana who acknowledge that Christianity was widespread in Asia before AD 1500. According to John England, “There is now some agreement that amongst the episcopal and metropolitan sees recorded for the churches of the East from the fourth to the sixteenth centuries, those for India and China include in their jurisdiction a number of South East Asian episcopates. Some manuscript evidence in early chronicles and correspondence confirms this for such places as Ceylon, Malaya, Indo-China and Indonesia.” (Ibid., p. 145.) One of the earliest accounts of the Christian communities in South east Asia comes from Cosmas Indicopleustes in the sixth century. He speaks of Christian communities in Socotora, India, Ceylon, Pegu (Burma), Cochin-China (southern Vietnam), Siam and Tonquin (northern Vietnam). (Ibid., p. 145.)

With regard to Ceylon, the testimony of Cosmas is very clear that there were Christians on the island in the sixth century. About Ceylon (Taprobane) he writes:

This is a large oceanic island lying in the Indian sea. By the Indians it is called Sieledibe, but by the Greeks Taprobane, and there in found the hyacinth stone. It lies on the other side of the pepper country. It is a great mart for the people in those parts. The island has also a Church of Persian Christians who have settled there, and a Presbyter who is appointed from Persia, and a Deacon and a complete ecclesiastical ritual. But the natives and the kings are heathens. In this island they have many temples. The island, as it is, in central position, is much frequented by ships from all parts of India and from Persia and Ethiopia, and it likewise sends out many of its own. (Cosmas. op.cit., p. 365.)

In another passage, Cosmas says, “Even in Taprobane, an island in Further India, where the Indian sea is, there is a church of Christians, with clergy and a body of believers, but I know not whether there be any Christians in the parts beyond it.” (Ibid., p. 118)

From the above observations of Cosmas it is often assumed that in Ceylon in the sixth century there were only Persian Christians who settled there and there were no indigenous Christians. We need to remember that Cosmas was a Persian and a Nestorian and it is understandable if his main interest was in the Persian Christian communities in places which he mentioned in his book. Moreover, he did not personally visit all the places he mentions and did not claim to have made a complete survey of Christianity in those places. Is this not what he meant when he wrote, “I do not know whether there be any Christians in the parts beyond it.” We do not know when Christianity came to Ceylon, probably earlier than the sixth century as there were Christian communities in South India from the first century onwards. It is also probable that there were indigenous Christians in Ceylon (other than the Persian Christians who settled there) from the beginnings of Christianity in Ceylon. Just as it happened in South India the East Syrian influence might have been felt in Ceylon through Persian merchants and missionaries, and/or perhaps through the St. Thomas Christians in South India at least from the fifth century onwards. A series of stone inscriptions and coins record the ‘presence of foreign Christian high officers at the service of Sinhala kings’ from AD 473 to 508 , and the conversion of one of these kings.” (Ibid., p. 118) Nestorian crosses have been found in several places such as Anuradhapura, the capital of the north-central kingdom between the second and the tenth centuries, in Kotte (east Colombo) and Gintumpitya (St. Thomas town, Colombo). The crosses found at Anuradhapura are very similar in style to those in Persia (7th century), China at Sian-fu-stele (8th century) and to those in Tibet and Armenia. (John England. op.cit., p. 146.)

Pegu in Burma was a trading centre on Arab trade routes until the fifteenth century and according to Cosmas there were Christians there in the sixth century. Marco Polo in AD 1278 found Nestorian Christians in the Chinese province of Yun-an which borders on Burma. According to Marco Polo, Burma was temporarily conquered by Kublai Khan in AD 1277 and 1283. It is difficult to know whether any Christian missionaries came to Burma from China at this time and any Christian influence was felt

Marco Polo tells the story of Ludovico di Varthema, a Bolognese, who traveled in South East Asia in AD 1503 or 1504 and tells of meeting in Bengal (India) Nestorian merchants from Siam. The latter conducted him to Pegu in Burma where they saw some hundreds of Christians in the king’s service. (Henry Yule (tr.) and edited by H. Cordier, Cathy and the Way Thither, vol. x referred to by S. H. Moffett, op.cit, p. 146.) Accepting the truth of the story, John England adds, “We know from other sources that there were west Asians in Tenasserim from as early as the fourth century, in Champa and Tonking in the eleventh century and in Siam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the evidence points to Christians being among them.” (John England., op.cit., l46.) S.H. Moffett thinks that the claim made by Varthema is questionable. “He may well have mistaken chanting Buddhists for Nestorians,” he writes. “But if, as he says, he was travelling in the company of Nestorian merchants, surely they should have known the difference between Nestorians and Buddhists.” (S.H. Moffett, op.cit., p. 461.)

Early presence of Christians in Tibet is well attested. Towards the end of the eighth century the Nestorian patriarch Mar Timothy I (AD 779-823) in his letter to the monks of Mar Maron concerning the addition of the formula Crucifixus es pro nobis [Crucified for us] to the trisagion wrote, “And also in the countries of Babylon, of Persia, and Assyria, and in all the Countries of the sun rise, that is to say, — among the Indians, the Chinese, the Tibetans, the Turks, and in all the provinces under the jurisdiction of this patriarchal see, there is no addition of Crucifixus es pronobis.” (Mingana, op.cit., p. 466.) In another of his letters, Timothy mentioned that he was about to consecrate a metropolitan for Tibet. (Lawrence Browne, op.cit.. p.95.)

According to Aziz S. Atiya, one relic of Nestorianism in Tibet is the survival of its ritual in a debased form in the Lamaism of Tibet. The striking resemblances with Lamaist Monasticism, the use of holy water, incense and vestments of a similar character to Nestorian practices, must be traced to the days of the Nestorian missionary in the high middle ages. (Aziz S. Atiya, A history of Eastern Christianity, London, Methuen & Co. 1968, p. 263.)”


This next section deals with the translation of the Nestorian Stele.

East Asian History Sourcebook:
Nestorian Tablet: Eulogizing the Propagation of the Illustrious Religion in China, with a Preface, composed by a priest of the Syriac Church, 781 A.D.

[Horne Introduction]:

This remarkable record of the fact that Christianity flourished in medieval China is a huge stone about ten feet high. Carven dragons and a cross adorn its summit, and its main shaft is completely covered with some two thousand Chinese characters. It stands now in the Peilin or “Forest of Tablets” in Sian-fu, this Peilin being a great hall specially devoted to the preservation of old historic tablets. Up to a few years ago the ancient stone stood with other unvalued monuments in the grounds of a Buddhist monastery, exposed to all the assault of the elements. Only European urgence has led to its being preserved in the Peilin.

The Nestorian sect of Christians still exists in Western Asia and was in a thriving condition in Syria in the sixth century. It sent missionaries widely over Asia. Marco Polo recorded having found Christian churches in China; and Roman Catholic missionaries of later centuries found there a few Nestorians still practising a debased formof their half-forgotten faith. This much concerning the Nestorian Christianity in China we have long known. Then, with the modern opening of the empire, the old Nestorian stone was found. It tells its own history, and tells it plainly, how the Nestorian monks came, how Chinese officials were appointed to listen to their explanations, and gravely approved of the new religion as having “excellent principles.” Various emperors accepted, or at least included, Christianity among their religions; and the faith prospered, and had many thousands of followers, and in the year A.D. 781 erected this stone in commemoration of its triumphs.

Now, alas, only the stone remains. The record of the sect’s decay has needed no stone to make it manifest. Nestorian Christianity, shut off from its mother land by the rise of the Mohammedan powers in between, proved unable to resist the inroads of ignorance and superstition and changing political affairs. It degenerated and disappeared.

Here is the beginning of the English translation of the stele’s inscription (originally in Chinese):
“Behold the unchangeably true and invisible, who existed through all eternity without origin; the far-seeing perfect intelligence, whose mysterious existence is everlasting; operating on primordial substance he created the universe, being more excellent than all holy intelligences, inasmuch as he is the source of all that is honorable. This is our eternal true lord God, triune and mysterious in substance. He appointed the cross as the means for determining the four cardinal points, he moved the original spirit, and produced the two principles of nature; the somber void was changed, and heaven and earth were opened out; the sun and moon revolved, and day and night commenced; having perfected all inferior objects, he then made the first man; upon him he bestowed an excellent disposition, giving him in charge the government of all created beings; man, acting out the original principles of his nature, was pure and unostentatious; his unsullied and expansite mind was free from the least inordinate desire; until Satan introduced the seeds of falsehood, to deteriorate his purity of principle; the opening thus commenced in his virtue gradually enlarged, and by this crevice in his nature was obscured and rendered vicious; hence three hundred and sixty-five sects followed each other in continuous track, inventing every species of doctrinal complexity; while some pointed to material objects as the source of their faith, others reduced all to vacancy, even to the annihilation of the two primeval principles, some sought to call down blessings by prayers and supplications, while others by an assumption of excellence held themselves up as superior to their fellows; their intellects and thoughts continually wavering, their minds and affections incessantly on the move, they never obtained their vast desires, but being exhausted and distressed they revolved in their own heated atmosphere; till by an accumulation of obscurity they lost their path, and after long groping in darkness they were unable to return. Thereupon, our Trinity being divided in nature, the illustrious and honorable Messiah, veiling his true dignity, appeared in the world as a man; angelic powers promulgated the glad tidings, a virgin gave birth to the Holy One in Syria; a bright star announced the felicitous event, and Persians observing the splendor came to present tribute; the ancient dispensation, as declared by the twenty-four holy men [the writers of the Old Testament], was then fulfilled, and he laid down great principles for the government of families and kingdoms; he established the new religion of the silent operation of the pure spirit of the Triune; he rendered virtue subservient to direct faith; he fixed the extent of the eight boundaries, thus completing the truth and freeing it from dross; he opened the gate of the three constant principles, introducing life and destroying death; he suspended the bright sun to invade the chambers of darkness, and the falsehoods of the devil were thereupon defeated; he set in motion the vessel of mercy by which to ascend to the bright mansions, whereupon rational beings were then released, having thus completed the manifestation of his power, in clear day he ascended to his true station.

Twenty-seven sacred books [the number in the New Testament] have been left, which disseminate intelligence by unfolding the original transforming principles. By the rule for admission, it is the custom to apply the water of baptism, to wash away all superficial show and to cleanse and purify the neophytes. As a seal, they hold the cross, whose influence is reflected in every direction, uniting all without distinction. As they strike the wood, the fame of their benevolence is diffused abroad; worshiping toward the east, they hasten on the way to life and glory; they preserve the beard to symbolize their outward actions, they shave the crown to indicate the absence of inward affections; they do not keep slaves, but put noble and mean all on an equality; they do not amass wealth, but cast all their property into the common stock; they fast, in order to perfect themselves by self-inspection; they submit to restraints, in order to strengthen themselves by silent watchfulness; seven times a day they have worship and praise for the benefit of the living and the dead; once in seven days they sacrifice, to cleanse the heart and return to purity.

It is difficult to find a name to express the excellence of the true and unchangeable doctrine; but as its meritorious operations are manifestly displayed, by accommodation it is named the Illustrious Religion. Now without holy men, principles cannot become expanded; without principles, holy men cannot become magnified; but with holy men and right principles, united as the two parts of a signet, the world becomes civilized and enlightened.

In the time of the accomplished Emperor Tai-tsung, the illustrious and magnificent founder of the dynasty, among the enlightened and holy men who arrived was the most-virtuous Olopun, from the country of Syria. Observing the azure clouds, he bore the true sacred books; beholding the direction of the winds, he braved difficulties and dangers. In the year of our Lord 635 he arrived at Chang-an; the Emperor sent his Prime Minister, Duke Fang Hiuen-ling; who, carrying the official staff to the west border, conducted his guest into the interior; the sacred books were translated in the imperial library, the sovereign investigated the subject in his private apartments; when becoming deeply impressed with the rectitude and truth of the religion, he gave special orders for its dissemination.

In the seventh month of the year A.D. 638 the following imperial proclamation was issued:

“Right principles have no invariable name, holy men have no invariable station; instruction is established in accordance with the locality, with the object of benefiting the people at large. The greatly virtuous Olopun, of the kingdom of Syria, has brought his sacred books and images from that distant part, and has presented them at our chief capital. Having examined the principles of this religion, we find them to be purely excellent and natural; investigating its originating source, we find it has taken its rise from the establishment of important truths; its ritual is free from perplexing expressions, its principles will survive when the framework is forgot; it is beneficial to all creatures; it is advantageous to mankind. Let it be published throughout the Empire, and let the proper authority build a Syrian church in the capital in the I-ning May, which shall be governed by twenty-one priests. When the virtue of the Chau Dynasty declined, the rider on the azure ox ascended to the west; the principles of the great Tang becoming resplendent, the Illustrious breezes have come to fan the East.”

Orders were then issued to the authorities to have a true portrait of the Emperor taken; when it was transferred to the wall of the church, the dazzling splendor of the celestial visage irradiated the Illustrious portals. The sacred traces emitted a felicitous influence, and shed a perpetual splendor over the holy precincts. According to the Illustrated Memoir of the Western Regions, and the historical books of the Han and Wei dynasties, the kingdom of Syria reaches south to the Coral Sea; on the north it joins the Gem Mountains; on the west it extends toward the borders of the immortals and the flowery forests; on the east it lies open to the violent winds and tideless waters. The country produces fire-proof cloth, life-restoring incense, bright moon-pearls, and night-luster gems. Brigands and robbers are unknown, but the people enjoy happiness and peace. None but Illustrious laws prevail; none but the virtuous are raised to sovereign power. The land is broad and ample, and its literary productions are perspicuous and clear.

The Emperor Kau-tsung respectfully succeeded his ancestor, and was still more beneficent toward the institution of truth. In every province he caused Illustrious churches to be erected, and ratified the honor conferred upon Olopun, making him the great conservator of doctrine for the preservation of the State. While this doctrine pervaded every channel, the State became enriched and tranquillity abounded. Every city was full of churches, and the royal family enjoyed luster and happiness. In the year A.D. 699 the Buddhists, gaining power, raised their voices in the eastern metropolis; in the year A.D. 713, some low fellows excited ridicule and spread slanders in the western capital. At that time there was the chief priest Lohan, the greatly virtuous Kie-leih, and others of noble estate from the golden regions, lofty-minded priests, having abandoned all worldly interests; who unitedly maintained the grand principles and preserved them entire to the end. The high-principled Emperor Hiuen-tsung caused the Prince of Ning and others, five princes in all, personally to visit the felicitous edifice; he established the place of worship; he restored the consecrated timbers which had been temporarily thrown down; and re-erected the sacred stones which for a time had been desecrated.

In A.D. 742 orders were given to the great general Kau Lih-sz’, to send the five sacred portraits and have them placed in the church, and a gift of a hundred pieces of silk accompanied these pictures of intelligence. Although the dragon’s beard was then remote, their bows and swords were still within reach; while the solar horns sent forth their rays, and celestial visages seemed close at hand. In A.D. 744 the priest Kih-ho, in the kingdom of Syria, looking toward the star [of China], was attracted by its transforming influence, and observing the sun [i.e., the Emperor], came to pay court to the most honorable. The Emperor commanded the priest Lo-han, the priest Pu-lun, and others, seven in all, together with the greatly virtuous Kih-ho, to perform a service of merit in the Hing-king palace. Thereupon the Emperor composed mottoes for the sides of the church, and the tablets were graced with the royal inscriptions; the accumulated gems emitted their effulgence, while their sparkling brightness vied with the ruby clouds; the transcripts of intelligence suspended in the void shot forth their rays as reflected by the sun; the bountiful gifts exceeded the height of the southern hills; the bedewing favors were deep as the eastern sea. Nothing is beyond the range of the right principle, and what is permissible may be identified; nothing is beyond the power of the holy man, and that which is practicable may be related.

The accomplished and enlightened Emperor Suh-tsung rebuilt the Illustrious churches in Ling-wu and four other places; great benefits were conferred, and felicity began to increase; great munificence was displayed, and the imperial State became established. The accomplished and military Emperor Tai-tsung magnified the sacred succession, and honored the latent principle of nature; always, on the incarnation-day, he bestowed celestial incense, and ordered the performance of a service of merit; he distributed of the imperial viands, in order to shed a glory on the Illustrious Congregation. Heaven is munificent in the dissemination of blessings, whereby the benefits of life are extended; the holy man embodies the original principle of virtue, whence he is able to counteract noxious influences.

Our sacred and sage-like, accomplished and military Emperor Kien-chung appointed the eight branches of government, according to which he advanced or degraded the intelligent and dull; he opened up the nine categories, by means of which he renovated the Illustrious decrees; his transforming influence pervaded the most abstruse principles, while openness of heart distinguished his devotions. Thus, by correct and enlarged purity of principle, and undeviating consistency in sympathy with others; by extended commiseration rescuing multitudes from misery, while disseminating blessings on all around, the cultivation of our doctrine gained a grand basis, and by gradual advances its influence was diffused. If the winds and rains are seasonable, the world will be at rest; men will be guided by principle, inferior objects will be pure; the living will be at ease, and the dead will rejoice; the thoughts will produce their appropriate response, the affections will be free, and the eyes will be sincere; such is the laudable condition which we of the Illustrious Religion are laboring to attain.

Our great benefactor, the Imperially conferred purple-gown priest, I-sz’, titular Great Statesman of the Banqueting-house, Associated Secondary Military Cornmissioner for the Northern Region, and Examination-palace Overseer, was naturally mild and graciously disposed; his mind susceptible of sound doctrine, he was diligent in the performance; from the distant city of Rajagriha, he came to visit China; his principles more lofty than those of the three dynasties, his practise was perfect in every department; at first he applied himself to duties pertaining to the palace, eventually his name was inscribed on the military roll. When the Duke Koh Tsz’-i, Secondary Minister of State and Prince of Fan-yang, at first conducted the military in the northern region, the Emperor Suh-tsung made him (I-sz’) his attendant on his travels; although he was a private chamberlain, he assumed no distinction on the march; he was as claws and teeth to the duke, and in rousing the military he was as ears and eyes; he distributed the wealth conferred upon him, not accumulating treasure for his private use; he made offerings of the jewelry which had been given by imperial favor, he spread out a golden carpet for devotion; now he repaired the old churches, anon he increased the number of religious establishments; he honored and decorated the various edifices, till they resembled the plumage of the pheasant in its flight; moreover, practising the discipline of the Illustrious Religion, he distributed his riches in deeds of benevolence; every year he assembled those in the sacred office from four churches, and respectfully engaged them for fifty days in purification and preparation; the naked came and were clothed; the sick were attended to and restored; the dead were buried in repose; even among the most pure and self-denying of the Buddhists, such excellence was never heard of; the white-clad members of the Illustrious Congregation, now considering these men, have desired to engrave a broad tablet, in order to set forth a eulogy of their magnanimous deeds.


The true Lord is without origin,
Profound, invisible, and unchangeable;
With power and capacity to perfect and transform,
He raised up the earth and established the heavens.

Divided in nature, he entered the world,
To save and to help without bounds;
The sun arose, and darkness was dispelled,
All bearing witness to his true original.

The glorious and resplendent, accomplished Emperor,
Whose principles embraced those of preceding monarchs,
Taking advantage of the occasion, suppressed turbulence;
Heaven was spread out and the earth was enlarged.

When the pure, bright Illustrious Religion
Was introduced to our Tang Dynasty,
The Scriptures were translated, and churches built,
And the vessel set in motion for the living and the dead;
Every kind of blessing was then obtained,
And all the kingdoms enjoyed a state of peace.

When Kau-tsung succeeded to his ancestral estate,
He rebuilt the edifices of purity;
Palaces of concord, large and light,
Covered the length and breadth of the land.

The true doctrine was clearly announced,
Overseers of the church were appointed in due form;
The people enjoyed happiness and peace,
While all creatures were exempt from calamity and distress.

When Hiuen-tsung commenced his sacred career,
He applied himself to the cultivation of truth and rectitude;
His imperial tablets shot forth their effulgence,
And the celestial writings mutually refiected their splendors.

The imperial domain was rich and luxuriant,
While the whole land rendered exalted homage;
Every business was flourishing throughout,
And the people all enjoyed prosperity.

Then came Suh-tsung, who commenced anew,
And celestial dignity marked the Imperial movements.
Sacred as the moon’s unsullied expanse,
While felicity was wafted like nocturnal gales.

Happiness reverted to the Imperial household,
The autumnal influences were long removed;
Ebullitions were allayed, and risings suppressed,
And thus our dynasty was firmly built up.

Tai-tsung the filial and just
Combined in virtue with heaven and earth;
By his liberal bequests the living were satisfied,
And property formed the channel of imparting succor.

By fragrant mementoes he rewarded the meritorious,
With benevolence he dispensed his donations;
The solar concave appeared in dignity,
And the lunar retreat was decorated to extreme.

When Kien-chung succeeded to the throne,
He began the cultivation of intelligent virtue;
His military vigilance extended to the four seas,
And his accomplished purity influenced all lands.

His light penetrated the secrecies of men,
And to him the diversities of objects were seen as in a mirror;
He shed a vivifying infiuence through the whole realm of nature,
And all outer nations took him for example.

The true doctrine, how expansive!
Its responses are minute;
How difficult to name it!
To elucidate the three in one.

The sovereign has the power to act!
While the ministers record;
We raise this noble monument!
To the praise of great felicity.

This was erected in the 2d year of Kien-chung, of the Tang Dynasty [A.D. 781], on the 7th day of the 1st month, being Sunday.

Written by Lu Siu-yen, Secretary to Council, formerly Military Superintendent for Tai-chau; while the Bishop Ning-shu had the charge of the congregations of the Illustrious in the East.

[The Following are written in Syriac, running down the right and left sides of the Chinese inscription above].

“Adam, Deacon, Vicar-episcopal and Pope of China. In the time of the Father of Fathers, the Lord John Joshua, the Universal Patriarch.”

[The Following is in Syriac at the foot of the stone].

“In the year of the Greeks one thousand and ninety-two, the Lord Jazedbuzid, Priest and Vicar-episcopal of Cumdan the royal city, son of the enlightened Mailas, Priest of Balkh a city of Turkestan, set up this tablet, whereon is inscribed the Dispensation of our Redeemer, and the preaching of the apostolic missionaries to the King of China.”

[After this, in Chinese characters, follows: ]

“The Priest Lingpau.”

[Then follows in Syriac:]

“Adam the Deacon, son of Jazedbuzid, Vicar-episcopal.

The Lord Sergius, Priest and Vicar-episcopal.

Sabar Jesus, Priest.

Gabriel, Priest, Archdeacon, and Ecclesiarch of Cumdan and Sarag.”

[The following subscription is appended in Chinese :]

“Assistant Examiner: the High Statesman of the Sacred rites, the Imperially conferred purple-gown Chief Presbyter and Priest Yi-li.”

[On the left-hand edge are the Syriac names of sixty-seven priests, and sixty-one are given in Chinese.]


From: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. XII, Medieval China, pp. 381-392.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


From: Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. XII, Medieval China, pp. 381-392.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.
This text is part of the Internet East Asian History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook.


More on early Christian influences:

A Nestorian tombstone from Guangzhou

Numerous Christian gravestones have also been found in China in the Xinjiang region, Quanzhou and elsewhere from a somewhat later period. There are also two much later stelae (from 960 and 1365) presenting a curious mix of Christian and Buddhist aspects, which are preserved at the site of the former Monastery of the cross in the Fangshan District, near Beijing.

Other references:

Buddhism, Taoism and eighth century Chinese term for Christianity: A response to recent work by A. Forte and others by T.H. Barrett

T. H. Barrett writes that the often ignored edict of 731 was significant, despite not being mentioned by the stele of 781, and “none the less quite important to its interpretation, since it concerns a change of nomenclature for the religion which entailed the rewriting of earlier documents”.

“As Forte is at pains to demonstrate, before 745 Christianity was always known as ‘Bose jiao’, the ‘Persian teaching’, but thereafter it became ‘Da Qin jiao’, the ‘Teaching of Great Qin’, adopting a geographical term already centuries old used to label our own classical world of Greece and Rome as it appeared to Chinese eyes.5 His own explanation for this change is assuredly not inaccurate: he simply states: ‘The decision of 745 may have been adopted just because by that time official Persian backing of the religion had already ceased. That was quite normal given the collapse of the country and the loss of any hope that the Sassanian dynasty would be restored’.6 Similar reasons—or at least reasons connected to international diplomacy, and the need to seek Christian co-operation in the face of the loss of Persia to the Arabs—have indeed been offered by other scholars over the years, but no one has yet examined the full range of implications of the move.7

“It is, of course, true that the notion that states might be doomed by a decadent culture which might then go on to infect other states is a very ancient one in China, as the dramatic story in the Han Fei Zi of the ghostly, corrupting sounds of Shang dynasty music attests.8 But during the Tang this belief had become a polemical issue in the criticism of foreign religions because at the start of the dynasty the deleterious effect of Buddhism on the stability of Chinese government had been argued by the court official Fu Yi from the unstable history of the conspicuously devout regimes of the preceding centuries.9 We know that at least some of the polemical literature generated by the debates prompted by Fu at the start of the dynasty continued in mass circulation in the eighth century.10 We also know that Xuanzong (r. 712–56), the emperor who was persuaded to issue the decree changing the name of Christianity, had earlier established a tough reputation for curbing the power of Buddhism.11 It would seem therefore quite likely that at least part of the motivation for Nestorian Christianity distancing itself from any association with the fallen power of Persia related to contemporary inter-religious polemical concerns. 

But the same concerns may also be detected in the choice of alternative name, since by 745 the religion that Xuanzong was quite overtly promoting to new levels of integration with government was Taoism, the supposed founder of which, Laozi, was deemed to have been an ancestor to the Tang imperial line.12

And what has hitherto been insufficiently appreciated is that the country of Da Qin had in due course also been involved in these debates. Experts on Sino–Western relations are not unanimous in seeing early Chinese accounts of the Graeco–Roman world as tinged with utopian dreams of the existence a possible better society, but, as Henri Maspero discovered many years ago, Da Qin is mentioned in Taoist literature before the Tang precisely to provide an example of a specifically Taoist utopia.15 Unsurprisingly, therefore, it turns out that by the Tang it was widely held that Da Qin had benefited from having been on Laozi’s itinerary as well as India. It may be that this belief went back some way, since mention of it occurs today in the text of the Liexian zhuan, a work which, while not as old as its traditional attribution to a figure of the Former Han dynasty, still seems to have been in existence—though perhaps not in the same form as we now have it—before the end of the Later Han.16

It is in any case clear that the particular portion of text in its current state that mentions Da Qin existed in Tang times, since it is cited in a controversy over Laozi and the Buddha which took place at court in 696.17 That this visit to Da Qin had already come to be recognized in Tang times as part of the imperial ancestor’s official itinerary may further be established from a work entitled the Taishang hunyuan zhenlu, which has been identified as reflecting a lost official biography from over a decade earlier than that.18
The connection thus cunningly established between Christianity and the hagiography of the divine ancestor of the Taoist emperor is further illustrated by the choice of site for the best-known Nestorian monastery outside the capital, a site first positively identified by Xiang Da in 1933 and now enthusiastically promoted by Martin Palmer.19 For it was built in very close proximity to the famous Taoist monastery known as the ‘Louguan’, the legendary starting point of Laozi’s farewell journey from China and site of the earliest observances celebrating the link between the Tang dynasty and the immortal sage.20 In the light of the evidence cited concerning Laozi and Da Qin, it would seem that this juxtaposition could hardly have been coincidental, especially if, as has been suggested by Gillman and Klimkeit, the monastery was not on a regular international trade route.21
Admittedly it is not until after the Tang, in 1086, that we find a biography of Laozi which asserts that he was responsible during his travels for converting, along with adherents of 95 other faiths, believers in the ‘Messiah religion’, using a Nestorian term, though the presumption is that this assertion dates back to the Tang period, since in the China of 1086 there is no sign of a Nestorian presence.2

But this inclusion of Christianity amongst the faiths rendered subject to Taoism by Laozi does put it in the same category not simply as Buddhism but as Manichaeism too, and in the case of that religion scholars have been forced to weigh up quite carefully whether this was the result of Taoist propaganda or of a Manichaean desire to appear to conform to an officially approved Chinese religion; Samuel Lieu, after examining the arguments, feels that the latter explanation is the more likely.24 Is it possible that Christianity was, by adopting the name ‘religion of Da Qin’, following the same route?
The other possibility is, of course, that the name ‘Da Qin’ was used because it referred to somewhere real, with which the Nestorians wished to claim a useful connection. The obvious candidate is Byzantium, and that is the identification made much later in the hagiography of Laozi when proof is required that he went to Da Qin: envoys in caps and boots had arrived thence in Tang times, paid their respects to an image of Laozi, donated money to repair a monastery, and returned with a copy of Xuanzong’s commentary on the Daodejing.25 So if there is any truth in this, then the date implied must be after the emperor composed his commentary, in 732.26 At the start of this tale a Tang encyclopedia, the Tong dian, compiled by Du You (735–812) in 801, is quoted to affirm the identity of Da Qin and Fulin, the Tang term for Byzantium.27 Some have already suspected that, despite their theoretical status as heretics,
the Nestorians in China were in contact with the Byzantines, who may well have appreciated the value of Nestorian local knowledge to their own aim of seeking a Chinese alliance against the Arabs.28 Exactly when Da Qin and Byzantium (which was known to the Chinese from the early seventh century) came to be identified is unfortunately not a matter upon which precise information would appear to survive, though it would obviously have been to the advantage also of the Byzantines at the Tang court to claim to come from the continuation of an ancient Taoist utopia.
There is indeed some information about Byzantine embassies that tends to suggest that they actually tried to foster this image. For there were certain fabulous products of the West, which were originally associated primarily with a cycle of stories about the great Emperor Wu of the Former Han, that had achieved a certain prominence by the end of the third century.29 Thereafter the entire cycle in which they featured became absorbed into a Taoist religious  context, so that by Tang times these marvels from the West took on specifically Taoist overtones.30 Prominent amongst them, and clearly labelled as a product of Da Qin in the inscription of 781 studied by Pelliot, is a type of incense said to be capable of restoring life to the dead.31 The Byzantines, for their part, were including in their ambassadorial gifts as early as 667 the remarkable cure-all known as far back as the time of Pliny under the name of theriac.32 Indeed, Yang Xianyi has shown from a citation in a medical work preserved in Korea that rumours of the existence of this miracle substance had already reached China by the early seventh century.33 Early Tang rulers—if not all Tang rulers—were always looking for exotic substances which might cause them to live for ever, and bothering travellers to procure them.34 But theriac in particular seems to have made a considerable impression, for it passed into the traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia, and is therefore duly listed in the standard Bencao gangmu of Li Shizhen (1518–93).35 

So it would seem quite possible that the Byzantines, seasoned international diplomats that they were, were practising a culturally sensitive diplomacy in Asia of a sort now long extinct amongst European powers.36 If they felt any stake in the use of the name Da Qin, then it is possible that its use by Nestorians formed part of a deal for information in exchange for protection that could easily have been brokered in advance of the Christians’ securing the edict of 745 by the Byzantine mission to China of 742, which certainly included an important cleric, according to the Chinese record.37 Even so, the evidence for the international diplomatic background playing a strong role in the adoption of the new name (as opposed to the jettisoning of the old one, where the fall of Persia must have been a factor) is not as clear as the evidence for a background in the polemical disputes of the day in China. The inscription of 781 betrays an acute awareness of rivalry with Buddhism, whereas Taoism, the imperial faith, is not criticized.38
Calling Christianity the ‘Religion of Da Qin’ shows that the Nestorians of the Tang undeniably possessed a sensitive awareness of their political environment within China, and probably internationally as well, and moved with considerable acumen to secure the best possible position for themselves within it.”

From the footnotes:

passage may be found in the current text, Liexian zhuan 1.4b (Daozang edition, Schipper no. 294).
17 This reference is preserved in Xie Shouhao, Hunyuan sheng ji 8.10a (Daozang edition, Schipper no. 770), which work of 1191 is dealt with by Kohn, God of the Dao, pp. 31–2. That Xie is here drawing ultimately on a genuine Tang source is confimed by the note in the well-known Buddhist history, Fozu tongji 39, p. 370b (Taisho: Canon, text no. 2035, in vol. XLIX).
18 For the Taishang hunyuan zhenlu and its relationship to official hagiography, see Kohn, God of the Dao, p. 23, summarizing the work of Kusuyama Haruki. The reference to Da Qin is in Taishang hunyuan zhenlu 19b (Daozang edition, Schipper no. 954).
19 Xiang Da’s report is included in his Tangdai Changan yu Xiyu wenming (Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 1979 reprint of 1957), pp. 110–17; Palmer, The Jesus Sutras, Ch. i, is devoted to ‘The lost monastery’. A. C. Moule, Nestorians in China (London: The China Society, 1940), pp. 12–13, was not convinced that this was a Nestorian institution at all: he cites the Fozu tongji 39, p. 364a, for a Zoroastrian institution carrying the name Da Qin in 631, though the passage in question,
the derivation of which is unclear, may well be misleading, especially judging from the pattern of terminology revealed in Donald Leslie, ‘Persian temples in T’ang China’.
20 Barrett, ‘Shinto and Taoism in early Japan’, p. 21 and n. 27, explains the significance of the ‘Louguan’ in Tang times.
21 Gillman and Klimkeit, Christians in Asia, p. 270. Even today, however, the area is far from inaccessible: for an account of a recent visit somewhat before that of Martin Palmer, see Bill Porter, Road to Heaven: encounters with Chinese hermits (London: Rider, 1994), Ch. iv. For the Tang period in particular the assertion in Gillman and Klimkeit would seem to be more than questionable.

22 Jia Shanxiang, Youlong zhuan, 4.8a (Daozang edition, Schipper no. 774), a work which is described in Kohn, God of the Dao, pp. 30–31. The total of ‘ninety-six heresies’ is an Indian one that arrived in China with Buddhism: see John P. Keenan, How Master Mou removes our doubts (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994), p. 148.
23 I have in mind the issues raised concerning the combined mention of Christianity and Manichaeism in various Buddhist sources studied most recently by Rong Xinjiang, Zhonggu Zhongguo yu wailai wenming (Beijing: Sanlian, 2001), pp. 343–68.
24 Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the later Roman Empire and medieval China (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), pp. 213–17.
25 Xie, Hunyuan sheng ji, 4.5a.
26 Xuanzong’s involvement in the interpretation of the Daode jing is covered in Barrett, Taoism under the T’ang, pp. 55–6.
27 The current text of Du You, Tong dian 193 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1988), pp. 5264–6,
does not contain the straightforward identification made by Xie’s work, but it does append an account of the West according to Du Huan, a relative of Du You who was captured by the Arabs in Central Asia, and this account (which cannot have circulated earlier than his return to China after 762) does clearly identify Da Qin and Fulin.
28 Palmer, The Jesus Sutras, p. 215, follows Xinru Liu in pointing to a concept of the canon in Chinese Nestorianism suggesting some contact with Byzantine Orthodoxy, and in noting Byzantine embassies in 719 and 742.

34 Thus Arthur Waley, The real Tripitaka and other pieces (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952), mentions on p. 95 a magician skilled in concocting the Elixir of Long Life conveyed from India by Wang Xuance’s daring trans-Himalayan expedition of 648, and on p. 112 a Buddhist missionary from India who was packed off to search for medicinal herbs in South-East Asia in 656

34 Thus Arthur Waley, The real Tripitaka and other pieces (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952)  mentions on p. 95 a magician skilled in concocting the Elixir of Long Life conveyed from India by Wang Xuance’s daring trans-Himalayan expedition of 648, and on p. 112 a Buddhist missionary from India who was packed off to search for medicinal herbs in South-East Asia in 656.

Xian-fu Temple / Jianfu Temple (that hosts the Small Wild Goose Pagoda)

The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and Its Reception in the West, 1625-1916, by Keevak, Michael (2008),  ISBN 962-209-895-9

Henri Havret sj, La stèle chrétienne de Si Ngan-fou, Parts 1-3. Full text (was) available at Gallica:
Part 1 (1895)
Part 2 (1897)
Part 3 (1902)
Some of the volumes can also be found on

Carus, Paul; Wylie, Alexander; Holm, Frits (1909), The Nestorian Monument: An Ancient Record of Christianity in China, with Special Reference to the expedition of Frits V. Holm…, The Open court publishing company
Holm, Frits (2001), My Nestorian Adventure in China: A Popular Account of the Holm-Nestorian Expedition to Sian-Fu and Its Results, Volume 6 of Georgias reprint series, Gorgias Press LLC, ISBN 0-9713097-6-0. Originally published by: Hutchinson & Co, London, 1924.

One thought on “The copy of the Nestorian stele on Mt. Koya, and A Background of the Nestorian Stele

  1. pendragon7 says:

    Thank you for posting this astounding repository of hard-to-find details regarding early incursions of Christianity into China.

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