- Persian Christians at the Chinese Court: The Xi'an Stele and the Early Medieval Church of the East by R. Todd Godwin
The large stone pillar popularly known as the Nestorian Monument has been the object of constant fascination in the West ever since it was first [End Page 358] discovered in 1625. Dating from the eighth century, the monument contains a lengthy inscription in Chinese and Syriac concerning the spread of jingjiao (景教) or "luminous teaching" from Da Qin (大秦), a term that had been used to designate the Roman Empire and, by extension, "the West." The inscription is divided into three main parts, including a doctrinal introduction, a historical section, and a celebratory poem. Its main purpose was to memorialize jingjiao, which had first come to China in the early seventh century and, as the inscription states, had been approved by numerous emperors. The stele was set up at a monastery outside the Tang imperial city of Chang'an (now Xi'an) in 781, but it probably did not remain in place very long, since in 845 all foreign religious sects (Buddhism included) were attacked, and priests and monks from those religions were ordered to return to secular life. Presumably it was then buried in order to save it from destruction.
But eight hundred years later, in 1625, the stone was dug up and local officials were notified. It was immediately prized because of its age and its beautiful calligraphy, but jingjiao would have been unknown to most viewers, and the Syriac parts were completely indecipherable. But at the top of the front face of the stone, beneath exquisitely carved intertwined dragons holding a large pearl between them, there was incised a large cross. This piqued the curiosity of a few Chinese Christians in the vicinity, and a rubbing was sent to one of the highest ranking converts of the day, who was similarly impressed. He wondered (but was not yet sure) whether the "luminous teaching" might be the same as his own.
In 1628, Álvaro Semedo, at the time the Jesuit procurator of China and Japan, came to see the stele and immediately pronounced it as perfectly conforming to Roman Catholic Christianity, and the stone's discovery, as well as a translation of its inscription, was announced to the wider world in Semedo's History of the Great and Renowned Monarchy of China, originally published in Italian in 1643. From then on it took Europe by storm, since it seemed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christianity had come to China at an early date, and that, in Semedo's words, the modern-day Jesuits were not introducing it to China but just re-introducing it. And in a country as tradition-bound as China, it was believed, this made all the difference: one objection that the early modern missionaries often faced, and which they could now answer, was why Christianity had never been heard of in China before, especially if it was the one true religion, as the missionaries constantly claimed. Why would it have taken so long to come to the Middle Kingdom and the center of the civilized world?
Early seventeenth-century European missionaries, in other words, had very clear reasons for seizing upon the stone as a way of supporting their own project, despite the fact that jingjiao and early modern Roman Catholic Christianity were hardly the same. The difficult and allusive inscription was [End Page 359] often read according to similar prejudices. It is against this background that R. Todd Godwin's new book, Persian Christians at the Chinese Court, must fight against, and in this sense it is an important volume, since it participates in the ongoing project to strip away centuries of modern interpretative accretions that have little to do with the stone and the community (now known as "the Church of the East") that it actually represented in the Tang period.