By H.G. Dr. Mar Awa Royel
Bishop of California and Secretary of the Holy Synod
Reverend clergy, friends and dear enthusiasts of the Jingjiao. It is a great privilege for me to stand here before you at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and address you concerning the history of the Assyrian Church of the East and its evangelization of the great Chinese people. I believe our visit these days is record-making, and for us to travel in the footsteps of our ancient spiritual forefathers, it is breath-taking. I’m sure the history of the evangelization of China by the Church of the East is well known to all of you, probably than it is to us. However, I stand here as a descendent of the great forefathers of the Jingjiao who first came to this blessed land in the early half of the seventh century of the Christian era, bearing the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Good News to the Chinese, among them the bishop Alopen, the chor-bishop Adam, etc. In advance, I thank you for the courtesy afforded for me to address you, and I would like to thank the friends and staff of the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies for their magnanimous task of arranging our visit and sojourn in Hong Kong this week.
The first evangelizers who introduced the Christian faith to the Chinese people were the apostles of the Church of the East. The Christian faith of the Assyrian Church of the East was referred to in the Chinese records as the ‘Luminous Religion’ or ‘Jingjiao’ (景教). The imperial Chinese records recount that in the year 635 AD the illustrious and virtuous ‘Alopen’ (according to P.Y. Saeki ‘Abraham’) arrived in Ch’an-An, or according to the ‘Nestorian monument’ Kumdan (later called ‘Hsi-an’) from the country of Syria, or Ta’chin. Emperor Tai-tsung (founder of the Tang Dynasty, 618-907 AD) accorded the Christian teacher from the East every respect and sent his prime minister by the name of Fang Hiuen-ling to conduct the visitor inside. The Scriptures which Alopen had translated were deposited in the imperial library, and after having examined the faith contained therein, the emperor gave orders that the ‘Luminous Religion’ of Alopen be spread in all the realm. Thus, in July of 638 AD the emperor decreed:
“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 Alopen, 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 forgotten; 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.”
The successive emperor Kausung reiterated the toleration edict of Tai-tsung, and gave Alopen the title: “Great Conservator of Doctrine for the Protector of the Empire.” The arrival of Alopen from Persia into the empire in 635 AD was probably due to the fact that Tang had conquered Turkestan in 630 and re-opened the ancient trade rout with the West. This occurred during the patriarchate of Mar Isho’yahb II Gdalaya [‘the Arab’], who ruled as catholicos-patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East from 628 to 644 AD.
The ‘Nestorian Monument of China,’ as it is popularly called (or Jingjiaobei in Chinese, for ‘Nestorian tablet’) was composed by the Priest Adam (= Jing-Jing) and erected on the seventh day of the First Month in the year 781 AD by the presbyter and chor-bishop Yazdebozid of Kumdan (referred to as the capital city, and the name given by the Arabs) to commemorate the centenary of the evangelization of the fathers of the Church of the East who arrived in China in the mid 630’s of the Christian era. This presbyter is referred to as “Adam the presbyter and chor-bishop and papish (a hapaxlegomenon in the Syriac tongue!) of Sinistan.” It is recorded to have been erected during the patriarchate of Mar Khnanisho II (774-778/779 AD), who is credited with transferring the patriarchal seat of the Church of the East from Seleucia-Ctesiphon to Baghdad, which was founded as the seat of the Abbasid caliphate dynast (being transferred from Damascus) in 762 AD by the Caliph Abbas ibn Abul-Muttalib. The names of some 70 Assyrian missionaries are inscribed in the Syriac tongue, along with an almost 2,000 word description of their luminous teaching and theology. The stele further records the arrival of another group of 17 missionaries in the year 744 AD from Ta Ch’in (that is, ‘Syria’ or ‘Mesopotamia’).
Originating from this period, nine Chinese manuscripts and two Syriac manuscripts were found in a cave (which was sealed around the year 1036 and discovered in about 1908 and edited by the French scholar Paul Pelliot) in Dun-huang, one dating to the year 641 AD and the other 717 AD. These documents (in both Chinese and Syriac) were translated and edited by the late sinologue Prof. P.Y. Saeki in his famous The Nestorian Relics and Documents in China (Tokyo 1951), and re-examined by Max Deeg in his article “Towards a new translation of the Chinese Nestorian Documents from the Tang Dynasty” – Salzburg, 2003). These documents, essentially a collection of discourses or what some have called sutras, contain theological explanations of the Christian faith as explicated by the early band of evangelizers headed by the famed Alopen. The first, dated to 641 AD, is titled ‘The Lord of the Universe’s Discourse on Alms-Giving.’ A group of three manuscripts, dated to 635-638 AD are ‘The Jesus Messiah Discourses (Sutras),’ among others. These Chinese documents were had by two Japanese scholars in the years 1916 and 1922 respectively, and were housed in Kyoto, Japan. Later, in an imperial proclamation of 745 AD, the faith of the Nestorian Jingjiao was referred to as “the Persian religion (styled Bosijiao) of the Scriptures, starting from Ta-Ch’in with men coming to preach and practice, has long existed in the Middle Kingdom” (= China). A very important source subsequent to the erection of the Nestorian monument is the Book of Governors, of Thomas the bishop of Marga, writing around the year 840 AD. Thomas mentions a certain monk by the name of David from the monastery of Beth ‘Awe was made metropolitan of the Beth Sinaye (i.e. Chinese) in the late eighth century.
The famous tablet was buried in about the year 845 AD, when the emperor Wu-Tsung ordered an edict outlawing any foreign religion or teaching in the land. During that period of suppression, it is recorded than almost 2,000 Nestorian and Zoroastrian (‘Ta Ch’in and Mu-hu Hsien) existed at the time; the edict further enforced the destruction of all monasteries (especially Buddhist ones) and the return of the monastics to secular life.
At that moment, the Church of the East, as all of the other eastern religions in China, had entered a decadent period. The work of evangelization had been renewed (according to some Arabic sources) around the year 980 when monks began to be sent to China by the patriarch at Baghdad once again. It is further recorded that the catholicos-patriarch Makikha I bar Shlemon (1092-1109) appointed a certain George as bishop of Cathay in 1093 AD. The famous tablet was not to see the light of day until 1625 AD, when it was re-discovered by a Jesuit priest in ‘Kuan-chung’, some 30 miles from Hsian-fu.
The missions of the Church of the East into Central Asia are equally well-known. The Syriac Chronica Minora (ca. 680 AD) describes how in 644 AD numerous Turk tribes (beyond the river Oxus) came to the Christian faith through the missionary activities of Mar Elia, the metropolitan of Merw; in fact, there might have already been Christians among the Turks who were taken prisoner by the Byzantine emperor Maurice in 581 AD. We find an early attestation to a certain “bishop of the Turks (Turkestan – the area east of the Oxus River) in the Life of Mar Aba, a document dated to 549 AD. Already by 781, the Catholicos-Patriarch Timothy I (781-823) in his Letter to the Monks of Mar (St.) Maron indicates that a king of the Turks (Khagan) had converted to the Christian faith (Church of the East) from idolatry, and the king had requested that the patriarch send them a metropolitan to over the faithful there. In one of his letters To Sergius, the patriarch mentions that he has already consecrated the metropolitan in question per the request of the king, and that he ordaining one for Tibet as well (“in these days the Holy spirit had consecrated a metropolitan for the Turks, and we are preparing to ordain one for the Tibetans”). During Timothy’s time, it is related that through the agency of Mar Abdisho the metropolitan of Merw, some 200,000 Tartars along with their prince were converted to the Christian faith of the Church of the East from paganism. By the end of the first millennium, the five major powers of the Turko-Tartars had already been Christianized through the agency of Nestorian clergy: the Kerait, Naiman, Ouïgour, Öngüt and the Merkites; the Turko-Mongol tribe Uriyan-gakit was also Christianized by then.
The theology of the Nestorian stele is quite intriguing, as it proposes theological terminology that is distinct to the Chinese Christians of the Church of the East. The Three-in-One God’ (san i ching feng) is referred to as Aluohe (modern Mandarin pronunciation); the Lord Jesus Christ is referred to as Mishihe; the adversary of man, who deceived him, is referred to as Sadan (Satan), and the eastern region or Syria is referred to as Da Qin. Other aspects of the faith referred to on the stone tablet is that Mishihe returned to heaven and left 27 scriptures behind him (that is, the books of the New Testament), and that his ministers bear the Sign of the Cross and teach love and charity in the world, they have long beards and shave their foreheads (the monastic tonsure), hold both poor and rich equally, worship towards the East, pray seven times a day, and on Sunday hold a special service to purify themselves spiritually. The Nestorian stele states:
“The twenty-seven standard works of his sutras were preserved. The great means of Conversion were widely extended, and the sealed Gate of the blessed life was unlocked. His Law is to bathe with water and with the Spirit, and thus to cleanse from all vain delusions and to purify men until they regain the whiteness of their nature. His ministers carry the Cross with them as a sign. They travel about wherever the sun shines, and try to re-unite those that are beyond the pale (i.e. those that are lost). Striking the wood, they proclaim the Glad Tidings of love and charity. They turn ceremoniously to the East, and hasten in the path of life and glory. They preserve the beard to show that they have outward works to do, while they shave the crown to remind themselves that they have no private selfish desires. They keep neither male nor female slaves. Putting all men on an equality, they make no distinction between the noble and the mean. They neither accumulate property nor wealth; but giving all they possess they set a good example to others. They observe fasting in order that they may subdue ‘the knowledge’. They keep the vigil of silence and watchfulness so that they may observe ‘The Precepts.’ Seven times a day they meet for worship and praise, and earnestly they offer prayers for the living as well as for the dead. Once in seven days, they have ‘a sacrifice without the animal’. Thus cleansing their hearts, they regain their purity. This ever True and Unchanging Way is mysterious, and is almost impossible to name. But its meritorious operations are so brilliantly manifested that we make an effort and call it by the name of the ‘Luminous Religion.’” (translation of Prof. P.Y. Saeki).
In Prof. Saeki’s translation of the description of some of the most important tenants of the Jingjiao, we notice the following that are still preserved and observed by the Assyrian Church of the East: 27 books of the New Testament; conversion; baptism; the Cross; finding the spiritually lost; the semantron (wooden prayer board) or naqosha; proclamation of the Gospel; praying towards the East; keeping the beard; the monastic tonsure; not keeping slaves; fasting; vigils; prayer seven times a day; prayers for the living and the dead; and the Eucharistic sacrifice.