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Reviewed by:
  • East Syriac Christianity in Mongol-Yuan China by Li Tang
  • Matteo Nicolini-Zani (bio)
Li Tang. East Syriac Christianity in Mongol-Yuan China. Orientalia Biblica et Christiana, vol. 18. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2011. xvii, 169 pp. Hardcover €58.00, isbn 978-3-447-06580-1.

It is a great pleasure to have in our hands a volume entirely devoted to East Syriac Christianity in Mongol-Yuan China. This subject has been quite neglected so far. Historical research on Christianity in China commonly focuses on Catholic, and mainly Jesuit, missions in the late Ming–early Qing period or the Protestant missionary endeavors in modern China. From the perspective of theological or religious studies, research on the history of East Syriac Christianity is still a small discipline in the academic world. As the author appropriately remarks in the preface to the book, “the historical and theological attention given to this subject weighs far less than the impact, which Syrian Christianity has had in history and the rich cultural-religious relics and heritage it has left behind” (p. xv). [End Page 525]

In the last twenty years, however, research on East Syriac Christianity in Central and Eastern Asia has grown in academic circles both in the West and in the East (China and Japan). Quite a few publications (monographs, collections of essays, and articles) in this relatively new field of research have come out in various languages. Even more significant is the fact that these publications have resulted in a new approach, one based, to a great degree, on the sources and with a broader philological foundation. Scholars involved in this research are trying to work more concordantly through long-term collaborations. They have come to be increasingly aware of the particularly important role of fruitful interdisciplinary exchange among scholars from all over the world, which can bring together the results of different disciplines, such as religious and church history, philology, archaeology, theology, and others.

With her scholarly expertise, editorial endeavors, and organizational enterprises, Li Tang, the author of the volume under review, is one of the scholars who, in the last few years, have contributed a great deal to develop this new approach in research on East Syriac Christianity in Asia. In this respect, we would like to mention at least her contribution to the organization of the second international Research on the Church of the East in China and Central Asia conference, which took place in Salzburg (Austria) in 2006. The conference proceedings were later published in a volume coedited by her and Dietmar W. Winkler.1

On the basis of her expertise in different fields—notably, her knowledge of several different ancient languages, Chinese, Syriac, Turkic, Mongolian—Li Tang with this book offers us a comprehensive reconstruction of the history of East Syriac Christianity in Mongol-Yuan China (twelfth–fourteenth centuries) within its political, social, economic, cultural, and religious environment. It deals with the relevant historical background, the ethnic Christian groups involved, philological and theological studies of the East Syriac Christian inscriptions, the migrations of Christian populations, Mongol religious policies, as well as missionary activities in the Mongolian plains and in China. In its comprehensive approach to the subject, this book can be ranged with groundbreaking works, like those by Paul Pelliot and Jean Dauvillier.2

When I first opened the book, what I appreciated very much was the effort to use the term “East Syriac” or “East Syrian” Christianity instead of the inappropriate, even though for a long time commonly used, term “Nestorian” Christianity. Although the author explicitly says that “the term ‘Nestorian’ is only used with restraint and is written in quotation marks … when the use of the term is deemed unavoidable” (preface, p. xvii), when I read the book more carefully, I nevertheless found that the term is still used several times, even when it could be avoided. In more than one case, it is not put in quotation marks.

Generally speaking, I consider that the best points of the book are two. Its first merit, as said already, is that it gathers together many previously scattered materials [End Page 526] and specific studies in different disciplines; in this way it succeeds in reconstructing a...