China, Syriac Christianity in

It remains uncertain when Christians first reached the main, historically Chinese-speaking (Han), part of China. The tradition of making St. Thomas the apostle of China, which appears in such E.-Syr. sources as Ibn al-Ṭayyib’s Fiqh al-naṣrāniyya (VI.1.41, ed. Hoenerbach-Spies II.138.7–8), ʿAbdishoʿ bar Brikha’s Nomocanon (IX.1, ed. Mai 317a 14–15), and the Chaldean breviary, can be found in its nascent form in the Chronicle of Zuqnin and may have originated in the late Sasanian period (see Tubach 1995–6). Although it is likely that individual Christians travelling along the Silk Road reached China before the 7th cent., there is little evidence to support the historicity of the tradition reported by ʿAbdishoʿ (Nomocanon VIII.15, ed. Mai 304a 20–21) which credits the Ch. of E. Catholicoi Aḥai (410–414) and Shila (503–523) with the erection of a metropolitan see for China. ʿAbdishoʿ himself gives the credit to Ṣliba Zka (714–28), while Ishoʿyahb (probably Ishoʿyahb III [649–59]) is given the honor by Ibn al-Ṭayyib (Fiqh al-naṣrāniyya VI.1.16, ed. Hoenerbach-Spies II.121.4–5). The existence of metropolitans for China in the time of Timotheos I (780–823) is attested to by his letter mentioning the death of a ‘metropolitan of Beth Ṣinaye’ (Letter 13, ed. Braun 109.22–23) and by the report by Toma of Marga, told on the authority of Timotheos, of Dawid, a monk of Beth ʿAbe, being elected metropolitan for ‘Beth Ṣinaye’ (‘Book of Governors’, IV.20, ed. Budge 238.14–15).

The history of Christianity in China as recorded in the so-called Xi’an Stele (erected in 781) and other Chinese documents begins with the arrival of the missionary Aluoben in Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) in 635 and his reception by Emperor Taizong (626–49). The Stele goes on to tell us of the progress of Christianity in China under the protection of the successive emperors. Like the Thomas Christians in India, the Syriac Christians in China were subject to bishops sent to them from their mother Church in the West. If the term dade used in the Stele is equivalent to ‘bishop’ (or ‘metropolitan’), these bishops will include, besides Aluoben, Jilie (Gabriel) in the first half of the 8th cent., Jihe (Giwargis or Gigoy?), who arrived in 744, and Yaolun (Yoḥannan), who was dade and apesqopā at the time of the erection of the Stele.

Chinese records from the early Tang period refer to Christianity as the religion of Persia (Bosi) and, after 745, as that of the Roman (or Byzantine) Empire (Da Qin), while the Christians themselves called their religion Jingjiao, or the ‘luminous religion’. The Persian term tarsā was also sometimes used of Christians in China and appears in the form dasuo in the Xi’an Stele. Although there is evidence for the existence of a number of Christian communities outside Chang’an, the passage of the Stele telling us that monasteries were built in every ‘prefecture’ of the land (of which there were approximately 360) during the reign of Gaozong (650–83) is clearly exaggerated. It is likely that Christians, like the Manicheans and Zoroastrians who also entered China along the Silk Road in the middle of the first millennium, remained a small minority and, consisting mainly of peoples of Iranian origin (Persians and Sogdians), were generally regarded as a ‘foreign’ element within the Chinese population.

The decline of Jingjiao in the 9th cent. is no doubt to be attributed to increasing political instability and difficulty of travel along the Silk Road. Emperor Wuzong’s edict of 845 proscribing ‘foreign’ religions, though aimed primarily at Buddhists, evidently had a devastating effect on Christianity, as well as on Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, in China. Little is heard of the Christians in China after 845, although the mention in an Arabic source of ‘Christians’, along with Muslims, Jews, and Zoroastrians, among the groups massacred in Guanzhou (Canton) during the rebellion of Huang Chao in 878/9 has been interpreted as indicating their survival for a period in southern China, while the wording of the colophon of the ms. containing the Sanwei mengdu zan and Zun jing (nos. 3 and 4 below) has been understood to indicate that it was copied after the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 907, suggesting the survival of Christian communities using Chinese after that date.

Besides in the Xi’an Stele (properly, the ‘Monument on the propagation of the Religion of the Light of Da Qin in China’, Da Qin Jingjiao liuxing Zhongguo bei), what remains of the literary activities of the Christians in Chinese during the Tang period is to be found in a number of documents discovered in the early 20th cent. in Dunhuang. The so-called Dunhuang Christian documents comprise: 1. Xuting Mishisuo jing (‘Book of Jesus-Messiah’ or ‘Book of listening to the Messiah’; Takakusu ms.); 2. Yishen lun (‘Discourse on the One God’, consisting of three disparate treatises; Tomioka ms.); 3. Da Qin Jingjiao Sanwei mengdu zan (‘Hymn in adoration of the Holy Trinity’); 4. Zun jing (‘Book of honor’ or [list of] ‘Venerable books’); 5. Zhi xuan anle jing (‘Book on attaining profound peace and joy’); 6a. Beginning of Da Qin Jingjiao Xuan yuan zhiben jing (‘Book of proclamation of the highest origin of origins’); 6b. End of Da Qin Jingjiao Xuan yuan zhiben jing (Kojima ms. B); 7. Da Qin Jingjiao Dasheng tongzhen guifa zan (‘Hymn of praise for the Transfiguration of Our Lord’; Kojima ms. A). Of these, no. 3 is a paraphrase of the Great Doxology (i.e., the equivalent of the Latin Gloria [in excelsis Deo]); the remaining texts, though clearly Christian in content, appear to be original compositions and have no known counterparts in Syriac. No. 6b is now known to be a modern forgery, and the same is most likely to be the case with no. 7. Nos. 1 and 2 have been associated by scholars with the missionary activity of Aluoben. It has been suggested that the manuscripts we have today of these two texts too are modern forgeries, though based on genuine Tang-Dynasty documents (see Lin 2006). The remaining texts have been judged to date from a later period; nos.  3, 5, and 6 may have been composed by Jingjing, who was responsible also for the text of the Xi’an Stele. An important new addition was made to this corpus in 2006 with the discovery in Luoyang, the ‘eastern capital’ of the Tang Dynasty, of a stone pillar, which was erected by a family evidently of Sogdian origin in 814/5 and which, though missing its lower part, is inscribed with a more complete text of no. 6 than is found in the Dunhuang manuscript (see Ge 2009 and Tang 2009).

After the turn of the millennium, the presence of Syriac Christians in China becomes perceptible again during the 12th cent. with the movement into northern China of those Turkic tribes that counted E.-Syr. converts among their members, and reached a new peak during the period of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), whose Mongol rulers were in close marital and political alliances with Turco-Mongol tribal federations with strong Christian elements, such as the Kerait and the Öngüt. The open religious policy of Genghis Khan and his heirs, the expansion of their empire to the far western parts of Eurasia, and the resulting facilitation of east-west travel both by land and by sea led to the arrival also of non-Syriac Christians in China, including Latin missionaries and traders, as well as Armenians, Alans, and Georgians. The term Yelikewen (Turkic/Mongolian Erke’ün), whose etymology remains unclear, was used to refer to Christians of all these denominations in the Chinese records from this period.

We learn from the ‘History of Mar Yahbalaha’ that there was a Ch. of E. metropolitan in Khan Baliq (Dadu, modern Beijing), which Khubilai Khan officially made his capital in 1272, by the middle of the 13th cent., and it was from Khan Baliq that Rabban Ṣawma and the Öngüt monk Marqos, the future cath. Yahbalaha III, set out for the West in around 1275. As during the Tang period, the Christian population of Yuan China evidently consisted largely of ‘foreign’, non-Han, elements, usually of Turkic origin. Official and semi-official Chinese sources, accounts left by members of Latin mendicant orders and by Marco Polo, and archaeological evidence, including a large number of crosses and funerary inscriptions, sometimes written in Syriac and more often in Turkic in Syriac script (see Inscriptions, ‘Central and East Asia’), testify to the presence of Syriac Christians, besides in cities along the Silk Road, especially in Inner Mongolia and in the southern port city of Quanzhou (Zaitun), as well as in the area around Beijing and in commercial centers around the lower reaches of the Changjiang (Yangtze River), such as Yangzhou, Zhenjiang, and Hangzhou.

The history of Syriac Christianity in China more or less came to a close with the fall of the Yuan Dynasty to the native Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), although the possible survival of some descendants of these Christians into a later period is suggested by a fragmentary ms. of Qdām w-Bāthar which was discovered within the imperial palace complexes in Beijing in 1909 and may date from the 15th or 16th cent.

See Fig. 34 and 127.

Sources

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  • Fiey, Pour un Oriens christianus novus, 70–71, 103–104, 105 (s.v. ‘Chine’, ‘Khan Baliq’, ‘Khumdan et Sarag’).
  • Lin Wushu, ‘Additional Notes on the Authenticity of Tomioka’s and Takakusu’s Manuscripts’, in Malek 2006, 133–42.
  • R. Malek (ed.), Jingjiao. The Church of the East in China and Central Asia (Sankt Augustin, 2006). (= Proceedings of the First International Conference ‘Research on the Church of the East in China and Central Asia’; incl. a comprehensive bibliography of the relevant literature)
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How to Cite This Entry

Hidemi Takahashi, “China, Syriac Christianity in,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/China-Syriac-Christianity-in.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Hidemi Takahashi, “China, Syriac Christianity in,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/China-Syriac-Christianity-in.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Takahashi, Hidemi. “China, Syriac Christianity in.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/China-Syriac-Christianity-in.

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