The Term Nestorian in Chinese History

Nestorian Museum in China?

The name Nestorian is a term of contempt if you ask an Eastern or Asian Christian. The name Nestorian is a term of history if you ask a western scholar who studies the history of Christianity in Asia from a Eurocentric view. The term Nestorian is a theological term to describe heretics if you ask a Catholic theologian. The name Nestorian is a pseudo-term that obscures real historical research.

The use of the term Nestorian is colored by the motives of those who use the term. None of the users of the term can claim to be reporting objective information especially when it comes to exploring the history of Christianity in China. If we drop the term Nestorian and look at the evidence in the clear light of  reason we find almost no reason to say that Nestorians were the first Christians of China.

It is a case of “the Emperor has no clothes” syndrome. If a falsehood is repeated enough if often becomes a truth. Scholars and historians for so long have been saying that the first Christians in China were Nestorians that most have taken this statement to be a fact much like we were taught as  children that Columbus discovered America.

Every piece of Christian evidence that has emerged from China over the last 400 years is described as Nestorian.

The first Europeans to describe Christian artifacts in China as Nestorian were Jesuit missionaries in China.

Roman Malek and other scholars in 2003 were some of the first who began to drop the use of the term Nestorian as related to Christian artifacts in China. (Jingjiao: The Church of the East in China and Central Asia. Edited by Roman Malek, with Peter Hofrichter. Sankt Augustin, Ger.: Steyler Verlag, 2006. Pp. 701.)

“The thirty contributions in this volume were for the most part presented in May 2003 at a conference entitled “Research on Nestorianism in China” that brought to Salzburg historians, theologians, Sinologists, and archaeologists. Reflecting the contemporary scholarship on this early strand of Christianity that grew out of Antioch, spread eastward across central Asia, and reached China during the Tang dynasty, the editors of the book avoid the term “Nestorianism” and opt instead for the expression “Church of the East.” The missionaries from that church who came to China called Christianity Jingjiao–the Luminous Religion. The Christian doctrine in the writings that have survived is expressed in a vocabulary borrowed from Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism but shows virtually nothing that can be conclusively labeled “Nestorian.”

A stone stele was unearthed during the Ming Dynasty sometime between 1623- and 1625 near Xian. News reached Jesuit missionaries in Peking and Alvaro Semed was the first to visit the site and declare it to be Nestorian. News of the discovery was first reported to the Jesuits by a Chinese associate of of Matteo Ricci named Zhang Gengyou. He made a copy of the Stele and sent it to Leon Li Zhizao in Hangzhou who informed local Jesuits.

Semdo published a translation in 1641 in his book  Imperio de la China. It was not until 1667 that a Chinese and Syriac transcription and translation was made through the work of Athanasius Kircher in his China Illustrata. The real work was done by Michael Boym and two Chinese Christians including Andreas Zhang and later Mattheus Sina who travled from China to Europe to assist on this  project. Zheng and Boym stayed in Venice and Rome in 1652-55. Zheng worked with Boym on the transcription and translation of the Nestorian Monument, and returned to Asia with Boym, whom he buried when the Jesuit died near the Vietnam-China border.

Because Jesuits and scholars of the West knew of no other Christians east of the Euphrates except for the Nestorians they assumed that the Christians of China who created the stone monument were Nestorian. Unfortunately, this view was colored with theological and doctrinal bigotry. David Mungello (Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology. 1989, University of Hawaii Press. p. 165.) wrote “when Westerners discussed the Nestorian monument they were not really talking about China at all. The stone served as a kind of screen onto which they could project their own self-image and this is what they were looking at, not China. The stone came to represent the empire and its history for many Western readers, but only because it was seen as a tiny bit of the West that was already there.” Similarly, some polemicists’ skepticism about the stele was not a reflection of Chinese’ own view, but “far more a European phenomenon which sprang from sectarian rather than scholarly grounds.”

The Chinese scholars who traveled to Europe to work on the translation would have no reason to object to the Jesuit view.

Non-Jesuit scholars, such as Alexander Wylie, James Legge, and Jean-Pierre-Guillaume Pauthier,  and the Japanese scholar Saeki further promoted the identification and use of the term Nestorian in recent centuries.

The three-volume La stèle chrétienne de Si-ngan-fou (1895 to 1902) was authored by the Jesuit scholar Henri Havret (1848–1902). Paul Pelliot (1878–1945) did an extensive amount of research on the stele, which, however, was only published posthumously, in 1996. His and Havret’s works are still regarded as the two “standard books” on the subject. They too pound the nail of Nestorian into the plank of Christian scholarship in China.


About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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