Taught by the Persian monk and former Patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius in the fourth century, the doctrine of Nestorianism had long experienced persecution after it was considered a heresy in 431 AD. Nestorianism taught that Christ had two separate natures: one that was distinctly human (Man) and the other one distinctly divine (Logos). Nestorius considered the Virgin Mary the Christotokos or “bearer of Christ”, but not the Theotokos or “God-bearer” which was the position the Patriarchs in Constantinople supported.
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It was first opposed by Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD which resulted in the condemnation of Nestorianism as heretical. As additional punishment, the council removed Nestorius from his position as Patriarch and exiled him in Upper Egypt where he died in 451 AD. However, Nestorius’ exile and the anathematization of his theological position did not deter his followers from spreading his ideas throughout Mesopotamia, Persia, and India. Because of the Nestorian missionaries, Christianity eventually made its way to China in the early 7th century.
Alopen and the Nestorian Stele
A massive stele (carved stone monument) was discovered by some workers in China’s former capital of Xi’an in 1625 AD. The limestone stele weighed two tons, stood ten feet high, and measured one meter wide with Chinese text inscribed on the front, as well as a tortoise-shaped carving at the bottom that functioned as its pedestal. The presence of another script inscribed with the Chinese text made the stele an object of mystery. Foreign scholars who later examined it realized the script was Syriac. How did it get there and what was its relationship to Christianity?
The stele was a remnant of China’s very brief relationship with Christianity which started nearly 1,000 years after the inscribed stone’s discovery. It was carved and erected in 781 AD during Christianity’s peak in China with inscriptions that celebrated the arrival of the new religion in the empire. The names of the Assyrian missionaries who served during that time were also inscribed on the stele. One inscription that stood out was the name of Alopen (named Olopun in some texts), a 7th century Persian Nestorian monk and missionary who first entered China in 635 AD. The Syriac-speaking monk was probably an envoy from Khotan near China’s western frontier or perhaps he came directly from Persia (specifically Bukhara in Sogdia) after the Tang army defeated the Western Turks and allowed Middle Eastern merchants to pass east into China.
When news of the arrival of a prominent Persian envoy/missionary reached him, the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong sent his own minister of the state to come and escort Alopen to his court in Xi’an. He was a tolerant emperor who allowed Alopen to preach to his people. Christianity was soon accepted by many people in the empire (Taizong also allowed other religions, such as Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, to flourish during his reign). The emperor became so pleased with Alopen that he ordered a Nestorian monastery to be built in the Persian and the Central Asian quarter (I-ning) of Xi’an with 21 monks in residence. Christianity was further elevated during the reign of Emperor Gaozong, and Alopen was promoted as a Spiritual Lord of the court by an Imperial Decree. Many Christian monasteries were built all over China during the reign of early Tang Dynasty emperors.
However, the Tang Dynasty’s glorious era would slowly and violently come to an end after the An Lushan rebellion between 755 and 763 AD. Christianity continued to flourish in China for more than 150 years after Alopen’s arrival. It suffered a reversal of fortunes during the reign of Emperor Wuzong. He started the persecution of the followers of “foreign” religions (Buddhism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, and Zoroastrianism) and only allowed the practice of native religions, such as Confucianism and Taoism, to flourish under his rule. The emperor’s intolerance sent Nestorian Christianity from its more than 200-year golden age in China to a complete decline by 845 AD.
Picture By Baomi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40343931
“Alopen.”: A: By Person: Stories: Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity. Accessed September 07, 2016. http://www.bdcconline.net/en/stories/a/alopen.php.
By Imperial Decree, Alopen Was Promoted to Be Great Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire, I.e. Metropolitan of Chang-an. No Doubt the Nestorian Monument Greatly Exaggerated the Importance of Nestorianism in T’ang China. “Nestorian Christianity in the Tang Dynasty.” Accessed September 07, 2016. http://www.orthodox.cn/localchurch/jingjiao/nest1.htm.
Kurian, George Thomas., and James D. Smith, eds. The Encyclopedia of Christian Literature. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010.
“Nestorian Tablet: Eulogizing the Propagation of the Illustrious Religion in China, with a Preface, Composed by a Priest of the Syriac Church, 781 A.D.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Accessed September 07, 2016. http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/eastasia/781nestorian.asp.
“The Nestorians in China & The Far East.” The Nestorians in China & The Far East. Accessed September 07, 2016. http://www.nestorian.org/the_nestorians_in_china_-_the_far_east.html.
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