I met Matteo Nicolini –Zani briefy in 2004 when researching a collection of Crosses at the University of Hong Kong Museum. The identification of the Yuan Dynasty collection of “Crosses” created my first doubts about the attribution given to the collection. I wrote about this collection in a later edition of a church e-zine titled, “The So-Called Nestorian Crosses.”. About the same time as this publication Matteo Nicolini gave an important lecture (2006) that suggested self serving motives in giving the Xian-fu stone a Nestorian identification. He wrote and said,
“For almost three centuries, from 1623-’25 (the era of discovery of the Christian monument) to 1907 (the year of discovery of the first Chinese “Nestorian” manuscript), the only doorway to Tang Christianity was the Xi’an Christian stele (Da Qin jingjiao liuxing Zhongguo bei 大秦景教流行中國碑). For these three centuries any effort to approach the stele, read it, or understand it meant to approach the record of the oldest Chinese Christian experience, to read it, to explain it, and in a certain sense to appropriate it. This is why we can speak of a history of the “appropriation” of the Christian stele, and through it, we can speak of a history of the “appropiation” of Tang Christianity. “ (Tang Chinese Christianity through Jesuit Eyes, 2006, Studium Biblicum, Hong Kong)
Nicolini-Zani admits to the appropriation of the Xian-fu Stele. By declaring it to be Nestorian the Jesuits of the 17th century could claim theology superiority and control over the interpretation. Nestorians were still considered “heretics” by Rome and the identity given to the stone as Nestorian gave the Jesuits reason to interpret the stone and employ it for their own evangelical agenda without guilt or ethical qualms.
“The discovery of the stone was a major historical event for the Jesuit missionaries in China, who for several decades had been engaged in the process of trying to ease open the closed door of Chinese culture.” (Nicolini-Zani)
I keep coming back to the idea of the stone as a mirror. People saw their own reflection in it and declared it to be what they wanted it to be. Commenting on the stone became an exercise in self deception. The stone had no one to speak for it or to defend it against misuse and misinterpretation. The believers of the “Luminous Religion” were long since gone and had disappeared from history.
There is a great deal of truth in the metaphor: that the stone is a mirror, “in the sense that every time it is interpreted, it is also interpreting the interpreter” (see Wickeri, Philip L. (2004). “The Stone Is a Mirror: Interpreting the Xi’an Christian Monument and Its Implications for Theology and the Study of Christianity in Asia”, in Quest 3 (2004) 2, p. 45).
Historians and theologians must step through the “looking glass” and see past their reflection.
Alvaro de Semedo writes in 1641, “We had the good luck to find a document which proves clearly and in an irrefutable way that the Christian religion existed and flourished in China many centuries ago”
Semedo at first does not identify the stone as “Nestorian.” In fact he seems to happily see it as evidence of orthodox Christianity as he knew it.
It was a Chinese convert who made the direct connection to Roman Catholic belief. “I had never heard about this religion before. Is this not the ‘Heavenly Doctrine’ [tianxue] preached by master Li Xitai 利西泰[Matteo Ricci]?” I read [the inscription], and [I found that] it was exactly that [doctrine] “ (see Li Zhizao 李之藻(1878). Du jingjiaobei shu hou 讀景教碑書後.)
Twenty years after the 17th century rediscovery of the Xian-fu stone the Jesuits began to see differences between their theology and the theology of the stone. In 1644 the Jesuits crvd a mini-version of the stone and differences can be seen by comparing the inscriptions.
After 40 years there was outright redaction of the stone’s message. Athanasius “Kircher’s edition is partly a sinologicaldoctrinal polemic aimed at figuring the stone as a protoJesuit historical relic by strategically rewriting in translation everything that does not conform to the Jesuit identity that is positively projected onto it” (see Billings, Timothy (2004). “Jesuit Fish in Chinese Nets: Athanasius Kircher and the Translation of the Nestorian Tablet”, in Representations 87 (2004), pp. 142.)