Syncretism: Key to understanding Tang Dynasty

Syncretism: Betrayal of Principle or Enlightened Inclusiveness


Title portion of Syriac Christian Monument, 781 AD

When Syriac speaking Christians migrated to China along the Horse and Butterfly road they learned the Chinese language, adopted Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian terms and embedded them into the expression of a faith they believed to be universal. Was this done to deceive their Tang Dynasty hosts or was it done because of a deep recognition of the common spiritual and philosophical principles they shared.

Lau Hua Teck in the Journal Church and Society (Vol. 6, np. 2) describes syncretism:

“In such a paradigm, views were not reconciled in an arbitrary or irrational way, but for the purpose of survival. As such, religious syncretism is seen not as arbitrary or irrational, but as serving a religious purpose. Syncretism in this sense assumes a firm foundation for religious authority. It is not simply a random mixing of elements into an idiosyncratic whole, but the incorporation of various elements into a home tradition. It tends to be highly selective in the process; a selection based on the particular religious needs and interests of the syncretistic thinkers and the historical and cultural contexts against which they emerged. Thus, syncretism requires that borrowed elements be reconciled, and be accommodated into the worldview and doctrines of the home tradition.”

I do not believe that such practices of syncretism were created as an ecumenical act but as an adopted and accepted literary and cultural technique.

Syriac Christians were undoubtedly in China before 635 Ad when Alopen was warmly received by  Tang Emperor Tai-tsung. For two hundred years Syriac Christians (mostly of Nestorian variety) were an officially recognized religion and received patronage from several emperors including Gao-tsung, X’uantsung, Su-tsung, Dai-tsung and De-tsung. One would expect there to be competition between the religions that already had 500 years of experience in China such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Syriac Christianity was the newest of religions to be quickly followed by Islam, the latter which was never as successful. This Asian form of Chrisitanity is documented by as least three sources:

  1. Christians of Syriac heritage were receiving royal patronage according to Chinese historical annuals such as Tsin-t’ang-su,T’ang-hui-yao, T’zi-chi-tung-jien provide records to attest the patronage given by the Emperors.
  2. Also, Issu who was probably a Christian of Syriac heritage as an imperial general provided patronage to Christians of Syriac heritage.
  3. The  Ta-Ch’in pagoda39 near the Taoist Center—Lou Guan Tai,  reveals the status of the Nestorians at the T’ang court. Lou Guan Tai was the site declared as the Imperial Ancestral Temple by AD630, five years before Alopen arrived in China. This is the reported location of where Lao Zi wrote his book Tao Te Ching, before he left the county through the Pass for the West on an Ox. The fact that the Nestorians were granted the permission to build a ‘Church building’ on the doorstep of the Taoist’s most sacred centre, shows that the Syriac Christians had gained favor at the Imperial Court and were officially recognized in T’ang society.


So it is not surprise that Scholars in T’ang society knew that the Syriac Christians were preaching a new message in competition with Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucians. The eminent Buddhist monk Yuanchao of the Tsi-ming Temple critically wrote “…. A Buddhist monastery and a temple of Ta-ch’in (Syria)  differ in customs and in their religious practices, Ching-ching (Adam) should preach the teaching of the Messiah and the Buddhist monk must make known the message of Buddhist Sutra….. Truth and error are not the same, just like the Ching River and the Wei River are not alike….” Yuan-chao saw clearly the danger of the Nestorian message and the Ching-ching  position.

Yuan-chao was one of the important translators of Buddhist texts in T’ang China, who has written some eighteen titles on Buddhist Chronicles.  Yuan-chao saw the Christian  Chingching’s involvement in the translation of the Buddhist Sstparamita Sutra, with an Indian Buddhist monk named Prajna as a clear and present danger. It must have been highly irritating for Chinese Buddhists and Taoists to see this newcomer religion succeed in competition for imperial resources.

Syriac Christians had learned from their competitors. Ching-Ching, a Syriac Christian used a literary method perfected by Buddhists.

Buddhists developed methods of  translating foreign religious ideas to the T’ang Chinese. They borrowed many terms and ideas from Taoism when they entered China around the 1st century using a method called ke-yi. Later, translators like Kumarajiva and Tao-an, after the Tang Dynasty,  worked to reverse Buddhist ideas from Taoism. The Chinese Buddhists in the late fourth and early fifth centuries developed the upaya method where unfavourable ideas were presented in a favorable way in essays. Such works would seem Taoist to the Taoists and Buddhist to Buddhists. Some educated elites of the Tang Dynasty applied the ‘nei’ and ‘wai’ approach in their writings where one who is basically a Buddhist yet appears to be Confucian.

Syriac Christians simply employed Ko-yi,  which literary means ‘matching the meaning.’ The question is why?

I believe the Syriac Christians were not interested assimilating Buddhism. In fact they fiercely desired to remain Christian and yet politely present their ideas using terms of the competing religion and culture. This is syncretism in it’s highest form. Syriac Christianity did not assimilate Chinese culture. Rather, they did the opposite and establish a strong identity and position of influence in the Tang Dynasty.

Syriac Christians from Persia, Christians of Asian character,  were universalists and therefore condemned by the religious bigotry of Rome. For them, the Gospel of the Cross of Jesus Christ is the normal and preferred path to God but they also believed that any religious believer  who grasps the truth through natural revelation is revealed by the Universal Christ, and is related to the truth through natural revelation. They believed that God has revealed himself in all times and every place. A loving God would not deny his truth to anyone. No matter how muted or hidden his truth He is revealed to all. This is syncretism at it’s best and most compassionate.


About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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