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Christ on the Silk Road

Glen L. Thompson

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The Evidences of Nestorian Christianity in Ancient China

In 2001, the author, ecumenist, and BBC broadcaster Martin Palmer announced the discovery of a seventh- or eighth-century Christian pagoda in central China. Palmer's claims were reported in Christianity Today and U.S. News and World Report.

I was teaching in Hong Kong that year and had been planning a ten-day trip into China when I first heard the news. As a church historian, I was intrigued. I was able to get a rough idea of the location and added an extra day to my itinerary in the hope of visiting the site. It lies about thirty miles southwest of the ancient Tang Dynasty capital that today is called Xi'an, in the famous area of Lou Guan Tai, now a national park.

The Da Qin Pagoda

Lou Guan Tai sits at the base of a pass leading westward through the Qingling Mountains. Something about its location ... its feng shui ... made the site revered as a spiritual place, and in the sixth century B.C., the scholar Laozi (or Lao-Tzu) is said to have settled there to pursue the Tao after leaving the royal court in disgust at its worldliness. Here he wrote Tao Te Ching, "The Book of the Way and Its Power," founding the philosophy known today as Taoism.

Lou Guan Tai later grew into an important Taoist center, and it was just a mile or two to the west, either just inside or outside the Taoist complex, that twelve centuries later the Da Qin monastery was built by Christian monks. Only one tower of the monastery remains, a seven-story pagoda that Palmer says was near to falling.

Since Palmer's announcement, repairs have been made, and the tower now seems in rather good shape for a 1,300-year-old structure. It is octagonal and looks exactly like other ancient Chinese pagodas. In a Chinese book of 1563, the pagoda is clearly named and described, and at that time had even more extensive ruins visible.

Palmer cites four strands of evidence that point to this as a Christian structure: (1) Its name, Da Qin, links it with an earlier Christian mission (more on this below); (2) the pagoda was cut into the hillside so as to face east, whereas all Chinese temples face north and south; (3) several lines of Syriac graffiti were found in or near the structure; and (4) several pieces of Christian statuary were found on the second and third floors of the pagoda. By the time of my visit, the statuary had been moved for safekeeping until a new museum could be built, so the description I give here is based solely on that of Palmer and the photographs reproduced in his book.

The statue that dominated the second floor of the pagoda was a 10-foot-high and 5-foot-wide mountain scene. In the mountain was a cave, and in the cave a remnant of a nativity scene. The only parts surviving are a bent right leg and an extended left leg. Such a posture, Palmer says, is unknown in Chinese art, but is common in Eastern Orthodox renditions of Mary in nativity scenes.

The third-floor statue, 6 feet high and 4 feet wide, is also in poor condition. The background here, however, can clearly be identified as a city wall (with Chinese-style bell and drum towers). Also visible is a tree with the remnants of a human figure seated beneath it. Palmer has identified the scene as Jonah beneath the gourd tree outside Nineveh.

Although these identifications should be accepted with much caution, when its features are taken as a whole, there seems good reason to identify the pagoda as an ancient Christian structure. It had, after all, been identified as such ... back in 1933. As Palmer admits in The Jesus Sutras (2001), "the pagoda was believed by Saeki and other China scholars who had visited the site in 1933 to be associated with the early Christian Church." Indeed, Peter Yoshiro Saeki, a Japanese religious scholar, had asked some local Chinese scholars to visit the site, and they confirmed that it was the remnant of a Nestorian building complex; they saw the same statuary Palmer discovered 65 years later.

Read the entire article on the Touchstone Magazine website (new window will open).

Posted: 23-Apr-07



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