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A Nestorian Grave Site


In the historical news department, the Catholic news service UCA recently wrote about the discovery of a gravesite in Henan Province that is believed to be a burial site of the Nestorians, the earliest Christians to reach China in the Tang Dynasty.

A recently discovered site may shed new light on historical research into the Nestorian Church, which is believed to be the earliest Christian movement to spread the Gospel in China.

A niche in a stone wall with a cross carved above it has now been verified by experts as a repository for the ashes and bones of Christians. The experts also confirmed that this is the earliest Nestorian burial place discovered so far in China.

The discovery at the Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site in central Henan province, was made in 2009. Its verification was announced to the public this week.

Much of what we know about the Nestorians in China comes from a stone stele that was discovered in Xi'an in the 1600's that chronicles the presence of Nestorian Christianity in China. In his book, A New History of Christianity in China, Daniel Bays writes of this stele:

In either 1623 or 1625, either in today's Xi'an or in an area about 75 km to the west of Xi'an, a nine-foot high marble stele (a commemorative slab, tablet) was dug up which told a remarkable story. In the more than 1800 characters and in the smaller number of Syriac letters carved on it, allegedly a Christian monk named Jingjing, claiming to be writing in the year 781, gives a detailed history of Nestorian Christianity from its beginnings in China in 635. He also (in Syriac) records the name of the bishops and priests of the Da Qin (vaguely countries of the West, probably meaning Persia or Syria, or even the Roman Empire) monasteries around the empire. The title at the top of the stele translates as "A Monument Commemorating the Propagation of the Da-Qin (Syrian) Luminous Religion in China." A slightly freer translation might be "The Story of the Coming of the Religion of Light from the West to China." At the very top is a Christian cross rising from a Buddhist lotus blossom. (P.4)

While it is thought that Buddhist persecution played a role in the decline and eventual disappearance of Nestorianism in China, the researcher who discovered this grave notes the significance of its location at a Buddhist site:

As Jiao pointed out, the discovery of the site puts a different perspective on historians' beliefs about those early days in China. "Historical records shows Buddhist suppression of the Nestorian Church in the Tang Dynasty," he said. "But the niche shows some religious tolerance, as the two religions could coexist harmoniously at the Grottoes."

Recommended Resources on the Nestorians:

History of the Nestorian Church (Nestorian.org)

Nestorian and Nestorianism (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia)

Book: A History of Nestorian Christianity in China

Image credit: by Ken Marshall, via Flickr

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio