China Review International Volume 14, Number 2, Fall 2007 Reviewed by / John W. Witek

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China Review International
Volume 14, Number 2, Fall 2007
Reviewed by
John W. Witek
Roman Malek, editor. Jingjiao: The Church of the East in China and Central Asia. Collectanea Serica. In connection with Peter Hofrichter. Sankt Augustin: Institut Monumenta Serica, 2006. 701 pp. Paperback $65.00, ISBN 3–8050–0534–2.
In 1623 near Xi’an, a farmer unearthed a stele bearing a lengthy Chinese text on its face with Syriac inscriptions on its sides that recounted the development of the Syro-Oriental Church. Its leader, Aluoben, came to Chang’an, the capital of the Tang dynasty under the Taizong Emperor (627–649) in 635. Within three years, the emperor issued an edict allowing the diffusion of Christianity. Buddhist and Daoist opposition in the late seventh and early eighth centuries curtailed such Christian endeavors, but the Jingjiao beiwen (Stele of the Luminous Religion, called the “Nestorian monument” in the past) erected in 781 described the history of Christianity in that period.1 Entwined with the persecution of Buddhism by the state in 845, Christianity was uprooted from the capital and virtually disappeared from China until it was introduced for a second time before the opening of the Yuan or Mongol dynasty (1279–1368). From the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, the stele was considered a hoax in some scholarly circles. But archaeological discoveries as well as Chinese and non-Chinese written sources of the last century explain the presence of the Syro-Oriental Church in China under the Mongols. With two exceptions, the thirty essays in this volume stem from the conference titled “Research on Nestorianism in China” held in Salzburg, Austria, in May 2003. Historians, archaeologists, theologians, and sinologists were able to present their findings in an interdisciplinary setting that resulted in a collection of research materials, not final studies in this field.
The preface by Peter Hofrichter and the editorial introduction by Roman Malek explain why “Nestorian” in the title of the conference was an overarching term that is commonly known, but that more appropriately Jingjiao (Luminous Religion) in the Tang period and yelikewen (in the Yuan period) “should no longer be translated as “Nestorianism” (p. 12). The Church of the East fled from the Roman Empire but continued the theological tradition of Syria and Antioch as they settled in Persia. Over many centuries, misunderstandings resulted in the use of “Nestorianism” as a heresy opposed to the teaching of the Church in Rome. Not until 1994 was a doctrinal agreement on Christology between the Church of the East and the Holy See concluded that led to the latter accepting the liturgy of the Church of the East in 2001. No longer is the term “Nestorian” an appropriate designation; instead Jingjiao, as in the title of the book, is preferable.
The two essays in part 1 focus on past and present studies on Tang dynasty Jingjiao. Matteo Nicolini-Zani indicates that past research developed in three [End Page 513] phases. Japanese scholars such as Haneda Toru and Saeki Yoshiro made the documents known, edited them, and began to interpret them. A watershed was reached with Saeki’s The Nestorian Documents and Relics in China (Tokyo, 1951) so that from the 1960s to the 1980s studies were done mostly by Chinese scholars in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but with no appreciable addition of new elements to the Japanese findings. But more recently scholars such as Chen Huaiyu, Lin Wushu, and Wu Qiyu have reformulated the issues on a more scientific basis and thereby have developed “a turning-point in the history of the research on the Christian Syro-Oriental documents in Chinese” (p. 26). The companion essay in part 1 by T. H. Barrett, “Buddhism, Daoism and the Eighth-Century Chinese Term for Christianity. A Response to Recent Work by Antonino Forte and Others,” originally appeared a few years ago.2 A discussion of the impact of Daoism and Buddhism shows that in his 745 edict, the Xuanzong emperor changed Bosi jiao (the Persian teaching) to Da Qin jiao (Teaching of Great Qin).
The first two essays of the nine in part 2 show thematic connections of Jingjiao with specific Buddhist and Daoist texts. Stephen Eskildsen notes that there may have been an intensive dialogue of Christians with Daoists, but he is “inclined to think that the Buddhist influence on Nestorians came more through the medium of the heavily Buddhist-influenced Daoist religion of the time” (p. 81). In his essay, Chen Huaiyu portrays a linguistic connection between two Jingjiao and Buddhist texts in the late Tang period by comparatively analyzing each paragraph. Significantly, one of the problems that scholars in this field face is whether some of the documents from Dunhuang said to be “Nestorian” are forgeries. Lin Wushu poses this question, but admits that a final response is not yet possible. Ge Chongyong examines the lifestyle of the Jingjiao followers in terms of their political participation with the upper social classes; their communication with the middle class of doctors, craftsmen, and musicians; and also their charity work among the lower classes. He attributes the failure of their mission to deficiencies in their doctrine compared to the Buddhists as well as their economic inferiority with the Buddhists.
In part 3, twelve essays cover the presence of the Syro-Oriental Church in China during the Jin (1115–1234) and Yuan dynasties. A general overview is provided by Zhou Liangxiao in his comparison of two families who were followers in that church. One family had been in China for more than two hundred years and had adapted to Chinese culture. The other family, part of the Syrian-born immigrant population, had close contacts with the imperial court and were involved in politics even to the extent of temporarily administering religious affairs. Though the two families had a common faith, they differed in culture and lifestyle.
The next essay, by Niu Ruji, discusses Nestorian inscriptions from China during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This sets the scene for the four subsequent essays, one on Yangzhou and three on Quanzhou (Zayton). The illustrations greatly enhance the understanding of these viewpoints that discuss Greek, Latin, Syriac, Uighur, and Chinese terms. These illustrations are followed by an essay [End Page 514] on the past and present field research of gravestones of the Syro-Oriental Church located in Inner Mongolia. Again the illustrations are integral to the text. The rest of part 3 covers such topics as the art of the Syro-Oriental Church in China; a Nestorian-Turkic manuscript from Kharakhoto; a Syriac manuscript possibly written in Inner Mongolia; a biography of Sorkaktani Beki, a Nestorian woman who became prominent in the Mongol court; and the issue of identifying urban structures in Önggüt territory during the Mongol period.
In part 4, seven essays discuss the Syro-Oriental Church in areas beyond China. These include Mesopotamia during the Mongol period, Christian crosses from Central Asia, as well as issues in understanding the finds made along the Silk Route, especially in Kyrgyzstan. Additionally, the last essays present parallels from Caucasian origins to Chinese representations of the cross as well as vestiges of the Syro-Oriental Church in Iran and India. Part 5 is devoted to a two hundred page preliminary multilingual bibliography on the Church of the East in China and in Central Asia.
The wide spectrum of topics under review precludes a thorough critique of each of these essays. The significance of this volume lies in its comprehensive coverage of the Syro-Oriental Church by scholars in very diverse fields. None of them contend that their work is definitive, but they are pointing the way towards attaining a deeper penetration of a phenomenon heretofore known to few specialists.
This volume definitely has constructed a watershed on an important subject in the history of Tang China and later. One glaring omission concerns the date of publication, which is found neither on the title page nor elsewhere in the volume nor on the separate list of errata and corrigenda made available to the reviewer weeks after the arrival of the volume. Some of the English phrases or sentences need revision. But these observations are of lesser consequence in a volume that covers discussions from multilingual sources in Chinese, German, Russian, Syriac, and Uighur, among others. The reader needs to take time to ponder the essays thoroughly. The reward is gaining insights into the history of China from the Tang to the Mongol period under the guidance of leading scholars engaged in fruitful scientific inquiry.
John W. Witek
John W. Witek, SJ, is a professor of East Asian history in the Department of History, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.
1. The original stele is in the Beilin Museum, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. Replicas are located at the old entrance of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi (774–835) on Mount Koya, Japan; in the Vatican Museum, Vatican City, Italy; in the Musée Guimet in Paris, France; and in the Intercultural Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.
2. In the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 65 (2002): 555–560. [End Page 515]
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