Nazarani in China

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China has a very long and venerable history as a nation. That history has been faithfully recorded dating back 4500 years and can be divided up into two distinct sections, which we may refer to as the ancient era (2600 to 86 B.C.), and the modern era (86 B.C. to the present). The ancient era was faithfully recorded by the first Chinese historian, Sīmǎ Qiān 司馬遷 (c. 145 or 135 BC – 86 BC) in his general history of China entitled Shǐjì 史記 or the Records of the Grand Historian 太史公書, covering the more than two thousand years beginning with the “Yellow Emperor[1]Emperor Huángdì 黃帝, up to his own time in service to Emperor Wǔ 武帝 of the Hàn Dynasty 漢朝.


The One God - Shàng Dì上帝

While there is no doubt that Buddhism 佛教, Confucianism 儒家 and Daoism 道教道家思想 have dominated China in the modern era, these three religions were introduced to China right after the life of Sīmǎ Qiān 司馬遷 (between 5-6 B.C.) and do not play any role whatsoever in his narrative. Instead he writes that in his day the Chinese people worshiped a single God by the name of Shàngdì 上帝. The first known altar and temple to Shàngdì 上帝 was erected by Emperor Huángdì 黃帝 who ruled China between 2698-2597 B.C. in the city of Táishān 台山 in what is now the southern Guangdong 广东省 province of the People’s Republic of China 中华人民共和国.

In his record he states that “Shàngdì 上帝 is another name for Tiān 天, as the spirits do not have two Lords.” Looking at the word 天, we see that it is made by writing first a line 一, and then writing "Big" 大 underneath, so as to mean: "one above big" (天), which became the hànzì for “day”, “sky” and “most high”. This is a supreme statement of monotheism, very much like saying, “the Lord is our God, the Lord is One[2].

In fact the words Shàngdì 上帝 are the way in which one refers to the “Supreme God” when translating from foreign languages into Chinese; or even “the king who lives above the most high god”, when translating Chinese to English. Some Christian translators however have decided against using the name Shàngdì 上帝and instead use the generic word Shén 神 meaning “a god” when translating English and / or Greek to Chinese.

There are various possibilities in play as to why Shàngdì 上帝 shares a wide array of the same characteristics as YHVH, the God of the Old Testament, the least possible among them being that they are in fact the same God, known by some form communication which might have occurred between the two cultures. More likely the Chinese received a similar revelation to that of the early community of Israel at around the same time.

The Border Sacrifice

The Border Sacrifice was performed twice a year by the Emperors of China for the more than three thousand years between 2230 B.C. and 1911 A.D. when the imperial rituals were ended upon the abdication of the 12th Qing Emperor Henry Aisin-Gioro Puyi Xùndì 亨利愛新覺羅溥儀 in 1912.

One of the earliest accounts of the Border Sacrifice is found in the Shu Jing 書經 "Book of Documents", compiled by Confucius, where it is recorded that Emperor Shun 帝舜 (who ruled from about 2256 BC to 2205 BC when the first recorded dynasty began) "sacrificed to Shàngdì 上帝."[3]

Even once the worship of Shàngdì 上帝 was lost to the people due to the adoption of Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, the ancient faith was still carried on by the Emperors on their behalf in the form of the Border Service. Since the early 2000's this service has been revived and renamed the jìtiān 祭天 "Annual heavenly sacrifice" in honor of the Huángtiān Shàngdì 皇天上帝 "Highest Deity the Heavenly Ruler", which like the ancient service is still held at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

The most ancient form of the Border Sacrifice which we have the wording for comes from the Míng Dynasty 明代 and is the exact text of the ceremony as it was performed by Emperor Jiājìng 嘉靖 in the year 1538 A.D. and recorded by his scribes. This is very late, almost 1000 years after Buddhism and Daoism became part of the Chinese cultural psyche. Assuming their influence it becomes shocking then, how the preface of the ceremony bears such a striking resemblance to Genesis 1:

Of old in the beginning, there was the great chaos, without form and dark. The five planets had not begun to revolve, nor the sun and the moon to shine. In the midst thereof there existed neither forms for sound. Thou, O spiritual sovereign, camest forth in thy presidency, and first didst divide the grosser parts from the purer. Thou madest heaven; thou madest Earth; Thou madest man. All things with their reproductive power got their being.

The conclusion of the ceremony is equally Judaic sounding:

Thy sovereign goodness is infinite. As a potter, Thou hast made all living things. Thy sovereign goodness is infinite. (By thee, both) the great and small are sheltered. As engraved on the heart of thy poor servant is the sense of Thy goodness, so that my feeling cannot be fully displayed. With great kindness thou hast borne us, and notwithstanding our shortcomings, thou dost grant us life and prosperity.

But it is not the beginning, nor the end of the Border Sacrifice that mark it as having Hebraic traits as much as what is done in between. The Emperor, the only rightful ‘priest’ of the service, sacrifices three animals, in the same way that Noah did once the Ark was landed upon Mount Ararat. Jewish tradition says that he sacrificed a bull calf, a bullock, a lamb and a dove.

God has no mouth, and so the taste of the sacrifice is not valued, but instead the smell. The Lǐjì records that "the taste was not valued; what was held in honor was the scent of the air", which we can compare them to "You shall offer them up, a pleasing aroma to the Lord".[4]

Compare with the Jewish 'wave' offering with the "flesh prepared with cinnamon", "when the cup was thrice presented" - The Wine Libation in the temple was lifted up, then to the east and last to the west before being poured on the base of the altar. Bells and music also played an important part in Jewish ritual, but there was no music while the priests ate, that they may eat the offering in reverence.

The Shén 神 altars fully conform to Jewish standard, being hewn or built up of natural materials, with holes so that the blood of the sacrificed animals could enter into the womb of the ground. Thus all is "rendered a good return to the Earth".

They also counted their seasons in exactly the same way, by stars and Moon phases rather than by the the Sun.

Prostrations as in the Jewish Temple

“In the last month of Spring” - Thus, the Jewish month of Aviv (Nisan) in which the Passover occurred. That the sacrifice is carried out at this time is simply astonishing. It marks the same time that the Jews of Egypt were sacrificing and placing blood on their doorposts getting ready for the great Exodus from Egypt. Could it be that the Chinese are in fact celebrating what remains of a passover tradition? “He wore the cap with the pendants of jade-pearls, to the number of twelve...From the flag hung twelve pendants” - Perhaps reminiscent of the twelve ancestors/tribes?

“...kept in its clean stall for three months. That intended for Kî simply required to be perfect in its parts.” - The sacrifice must be without spot or blemish similar to Jewish tradition. “An ordinary knife might be employed (to kill the victim), but that fitted with bells is preferred,--giving honour to the idea thereby indicated; there is the harmony of sound, and then the cutting work is done.” - Possibly a carryover from the tradition of the high priest wearing bells that he may be heard going about his heavenly work from within the holy of holies.

Tuōmǎsī 托馬斯

In the year 64 A.D., a very special visitor arrived to China from India, his name was Tuōmǎsī 托馬斯, and he, traveling along the same route from India that Buddhism had taken not even one century before, came bearing revelations from afar, which would change the way China and the Chinese forever think of themselves.

According to the Acts of Thomas, Tuōmǎsī 托馬斯 had been sold as a slave, and had won his freedom by building palaces for the poor. Now he was traveling across Asia, eventually ending up in Korea, where there is a mountain and shrine named after him overlooking the Sea of Japan.

It is not known

Jǐng jiào 景教

Of all of the people in this world, the Chinese are the most aware of the history, people and past that have preceded them and informed their culture.

The vague memory of the visit of tuōmǎsī, together with their past history and faith in a single and supreme God was already part of the Chinese culture and psyche likely helped in the assimilation of native Chinese into the jǐng jiào 景教 (“Revealed Faith”) in the 5th Century A.D. when Nazarani and Syriac missionaries again re-evangelised China via the Silk Road.

The Church of the East had declared its political independence from the see of Antioch in 410 A.D. at the Council of Seleucia-Çtiphon (modern day Isfahan in Iran), and it’s spiritual independence from all western interference ten years later, in 420 A.D., making the local Metropolitan completely sovereign within his realm.

According to the surviving records (mostly Chinese) the Church of the East missionaries began to spread outwards from Iran from about 428 A.D., exercising considerable influence among the many tribes of central Asia and India, and finally making permanent missions in China sometime before 465 A.D.

The Chinese referred to their Nazarani faith as Jinjiao (景教) meaning the “Revealed Faith”, or sometimes as Dàqín jiào (大秦教), which means, “Persian religion”.

There is good evidence, including several centuries of royal patronage and many titles at court, which indicate that the Jǐng jiào was very much a part of the mainstream among all groupings of Chinese in the Tang Dynasty, including the dominant Hàn.

Dàqín Shíbēi (大秦石碑)

Emperor Dézōng (唐德宗) erected the Dàqín Shíbēi (大秦石碑), or Nazarani Stele in the capital city of Cháng'ān (長安) (modern day “Xi’an”), in order to commemorate the great work of Mâr Āluóběn (阿罗本) who arrived in China from Seleucia-Çtiphon in the year 635 A.D. There seems to be some confusion in the sources as to the meaning or origin of this name. However, there is no doubt that In Aramaic “Alueben” means ‘of Stone’, and thus his namesake was Saint Peter, the rock upon which Yeshue said that He would build His Church.

We know that he was greeted with respect by Emperor Tàizōng (太宗) of the Táng Dynasty (唐), who sent his prime minister Fang Yuanling to welcome him, and then invited him to the Emperor's personal library to translate the Aramaic scriptures into Chinese; after which Āluóběn became a regular guest inside the Imperial palace of Tàizōng.

In 638 A.D. Mâr Āluóběn completed he Sutra of Jesus the Messiah, which was touted as the first Christian book ever to be written in the Chinese language; at which time Emperor Tàizōng ordered a church built for Mâr Āluóběn, which became known as the Persian Church or the “Dàqín temple”, from whence he and twenty one of his priests were allowed to oversee the preaching of the Jǐng jiào freely within the empire.

The cathedral was built in the center of the Imperial area of the Tang Dynasty which is of particular importance to experts on the Silk Road who understand that it’s very location within the Imperial compound confers a certain patronage. (See: Joseph) Many scholars have downplayed the all-out nature of the Chinese diocese by claiming that the twenty-one who accompanied Mâr Āluóběn were merely monks. However the stele itself lists each man as Qashisha (AShYShQ), which is literally the word which the Peshitta uses for Christian “priests”; leaving no doubt, that although they may have been celibate, they were not in fact mere monks but fully fledged members of the priesthood.

In the year 781 A.D., Mâr Āluóběn was officially recognized as the “Catholicose” of China, a kind of “national priest”. Suddenly Chinese national churches began being built all over China, for the Dàqín, but also for the many Chinese converts who flooded to the movement.

In the year 685 A.D., the Emperor[5] Wǔo Zétiān (武則天), the only woman to ever rule China in her own right, began a love affair with Feng Xiaobao (馮小寶), a former snake oil salesman who the Empress had tonsured as a Buddhist monk with the name Huaiyi (懷義), in order to give him easier access to the palace. In 690 A.D. when Wǔo became Empress, she made Huaiyi the Duke of Liang.

The duke was famous for his hatred, especially his hatred of other religions including the Taoists and jǐng jiào. People struggled hard to avoid him when he travelled to-and-fro because he was prone to cutting off the tonsure (top knot) of those he came across, as well as administering terrible and sometimes terrible beatings. Becoming ever more mindful of his intolerance in every level, and eventually because of his disruptions when he burnt down the Heavenly Hall (天堂) and the Imperial Meeting Hall, the Empress had him killed. Sometime after Empress Wǔo died on December 16th 705, her son, Emperor Xuan Zhong re-established Jǐng jiào and placed the portraits of Gao Zu, Tai Zhong, Gao Zhong, Zhong Zhong, and Juan Zhong in the DaiQin Temple. Emperor De Zhong erected the Da Qing Monument to commemorate the Nestorian faith and on the monument the achievements of Olopen was recorded.

Alopen's Epistle

Eva Wong recently translated the Epistle of Alopen to English, and it has been published in number of different places.

People think that there are two important things in this world,
the first is God, the other is money.
If you don’t have money you won’t have food or clothing.
You will be as anxious for your family as a child who is attacked by robbers. Anxious for your security.
But I say to you, seek just one thing.

Yuán Dynasty

The Yuán Shǐ (元史) or History of the Yuan Dynasty is an official work commissioned by the official Bureau of History of the Ming Dynasty in 1370. The work was undertaken by Song Lian (1310–1381) and is among the first Chinese historical works written purely in the historical tradition. In the 89th Chapter of this work, it is recorded that during the Chinese emperors so respected the Dàqín that the Governor of the capital appointed another catholicose for China, who held a rank second only to his own. According to the Yuan Shi there were 72 Church of the East monasteries during the period 1289 to 1320 not to mention the multitude of churches and believers. It was during this same time that Mâr Sâwa, a Chinese national became the Patriarch of Babylon.


Catholic Incursions

With the complete restoration of the Silk Road in the 13th Century Pope Nicholas IV sent John of Montecorvino to the Chinese court. The Priests of The Church of the East in the Imperial Court and the Franciscan`s did no get along .


Conclusion

Nobody knows the exact number of Chinese Christians to-day, but it is certain that only a very small number of Chinese Nazarani still exist. Most Chinese Christians now belong to other sects, which bear little resemblance to the Revealed Faith of their forefathers.

References

  1. Some people say this should be translated "Exalted Emperor" instead of "Yellow Emperor"
  2. Deuteronomy 6:4
  3. James Legge, The Chinese Classics (Vol. III), pp. 33–34, The Shoo King: Canon of Shun, Taipei, Southern Materials Centre Inc., 1983
  4. Leviticus 2:12
  5. Empress is not an acceptable term here, for although she was a woman the various Chinese words for Empress (i.e. 皇后, 女皇, 帝后) do not have the same meaning or import as the English term.