Nestorian Christianity in the Tang Dynasty

As of late I've been reading about the Nestorian Christian (Jingjiao 景教) community that thrived in China from the early seventh to mid-ninth century. Their church was, it seems, largely responsible for transmitting Hellenistic astrology and even some Near Eastern occult practices into China, hence my present interest. Their active influence in Chinese religious history during this period is not always recognized, especially in Buddhist Studies. There are several documents from their movement preserved in Chinese, in addition to two steles that were unearthed in Chang'an and Luoyang, thus we know a fair amount about their church.

Nestorianism as a Christian movement initially developed in the fifth century starting from Nestorios (c.381–c.451), who was bishop of Constantinople between 428–431. The primary doctrine of Nestorianism is that Christ was comprised of two separate persons, one human and one divine. This was rejected as heretical by their opponents. The Nestorian bishops were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The result was an eastward spread of the Nestorian movement. It eventually spread all across the Near East and Central Asia before reaching China in the year 635 when a mission led by Aluoben 阿羅夲 (also rendered as 阿羅本) arrived in the capital Chang’an 長安. His name in Chinese might have been a transliteration of 'Abraham'. This mission occurred towards the final years of the Sassanian dynasty (224–650), and was shortly after the first Arab invasions of Iran starting in 633.1 This leads me to wonder if these early Christians in China might have been refugees.

By the late eighth century the Nestorian Christian community was thriving in China. We know this from a famous stele that was erected in the year 781, often called the 'Nestorian Stele' 大秦景教流行中國碑. The stele inscription describes the first Christian mission to China, some basic Christian doctrines and the names of clergymen in Chinese with parallel Syriac and Persian names written in Syriac script. It interestingly also provides dates according to the Chinese, Greek and Persian calendars. The text is composed in very elegant literary Chinese and was clearly written with elites in mind judging from its grammar and use of refined vocabulary.

The inscription on the stele was composed by a certain cleric named Adam 景淨 from Daqin-si 大秦寺. In one Buddhist source, to which we will return shortly, Adam is also identified as a 'Persian monk' 波斯僧.2 'Daqin-si' referred to a Nestorian Christian church, but in this case refers to the one in Chang'an. Normally, Buddhist monasteries are indicated by the suffix -si 寺 (temple), but throughout the Tang dynasty (618–907), Nestorian churches were also designated with this suffix. There were such churches in both capitals (Chang'an and Luoyang). They were originally called 'Persian temples' 波斯寺 due to the original missionaries in 635 having come from Persia, though in 745 an imperial edict had them renamed to Daqin-si. The following edict records this.

In lunar month nine of year four [745] in reign era Tianbao the following edict was issued. The scriptural teachings of Persia came from Daqin, and long have they been transmitted in China. They were named [as Persian temples] when they were first built so as to show people [their origin]. It is necessary to revise their origin. The Persian temples in the two capitals should be renamed to 'Daqin temples'. All prefectures and counties in which [such temples] are present will also follow suit.3

The 'Daqin' 大秦 ('Great Qin') in the name of the church is interesting as this term originally referred to the Roman empire in the early centuries CE, or more specifically its eastern territories, in particular Alexandria. In the eighth century, however, it does not appear to refer to the Byzantine empire, but rather to the Levant in general. The evidence to support this assertion is actually found in the stele from 781 as it provides the following hint:

The angel [Gabriel] proclaimed good tidings. The Virgin gave birth to the Sage in Daqin. The luminous asterism indicated a portent. The Persians witnessed the brilliance and came to pay tribute.

This of course is referring to the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. In light of this and the otherwise nebulous understanding of Daqin as being “west of the Western sea ​(i.e., the Caspian Sea),” I am convinced that 'Daqin' refers to the general geographic region of the Levant. It seems that Nestorians arriving in China all identified as either from Persia or Daqin, which is instructive since these territories were under the rule of the caliphates. They did not, so far as I know, identify as coming from Arabia. The word for Arabia in Chinese in this period was Dashi 大食, its Middle Chinese pronunciation reconstructed as dâiᶜ dźjək (Schuessler IPA). This is most certainly derived from Middle Persian word tāzīk / tāzīg, 'Arab'.4 One might imagine Nestorian Christians in China identifying their ethnicity as Syrian, Persian or Sogdian, but never Arab even when they had been born under a caliphate.

Incidentally, later on 'Daqin' was changed to 'Fulin' 拂菻. In Middle Chinese this is reconstructed as pʰjuət *ljəmᴮ (Schuessler IPA). This appears to be a transliteration of an Iranian pronunciation of 'Rome', such Sogdian frwn and brwn, or Middle Persian hrōm. How do we know that this refers to Byzantium specifically? The New History of the Tang 新唐書, the revised history of the Tang dynasty compiled in 1060, states the following.


Fulin in former times was Daqin. It is located on the western sea. One [account] calls it the 'Country on the Western Sea'. It is forty-thousand li from the capital [of Chang'an]. It is west of *Shan. To the north it meets the Turkish Khanate. To the west it approaches the sea, where there is *Alexandria.5 To the southeast it meets Persia.

The name Shan here most likely refers to Damascus. Its Middle-Chinese pronunciation is reconstructed as syem (Baxter-Sagart 2011). This seems to correspond to al-Shām, the Arabic name for Syria. A Chinese writer named Du Huan 杜環 travelled to the Abbasid Caliphate and returned to China in 762. His travelogue, the Jingxing ji 經行記, states that “the country of *Shan is on the western frontier of the Arab [state]” (苫國在大食西界).

The Byzantine Empire c. 867
This change in name from Daqin to Fulin appears to reflect the ongoing loss of territory of the Byzantium empire. The Levant in the ninth century was no longer under the control of Byzantium state. Chinese scholars only possessed an approximate conception of the Near East's political and physical geography, which helps to explain why Alexandria is erroneously placed at its western side. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Fulin is a transliteration of an Iranian pronunciation of 'Rome'. Nestorians initially identified themselves as having come from Persia. Later they identified as hailing from 'Daqin', a general term for the Levant, likely as a result of the demise of the Sassanian state by the mid-seventh century. Finally, at some point in the ninth century it seems that 'Daqin' was understood to be the former territories of 'Rome' occupied by the Arabs.

Returning back to Nestorianism in China, I want to discuss its interaction with Buddhism. There is an account of the aforementioned clergyman Adam translating a Buddhist text with the Buddhist monk Prajñā 般若.

請譯佛經。乃與大秦寺波斯僧景淨,依胡本六波羅蜜經譯成七卷。時為般若不閑胡語,復未解唐言,景淨不識梵文,復未明釋教。雖稱傳譯未獲半珠。... 察其所譯理昧詞疎。且夫,釋氏伽藍,大秦僧寺,居止既別,行法全乖。景淨應傳彌尸訶教,沙門釋子弘闡佛經,欲使教法區分,人無濫涉。

They requested he [Prajñā] translate Buddhist scriptures. Together with the Persian monk Adam of Daqin-si, he translated the *[Mahāyāna-naya-]ṣaṭ-pāramitā-sūtra in seven fascicles based on a Sogdian edition. At the time Prajñā did not understand Sogdian or Chinese, while Adam understood neither Sanskrit nor Buddhism. Although they were said to have translated it, they had yet to obtain the half-pearls [i.e., ascertain the meaning]. ... Upon investigating what had been translated, the reasoning was found to be unclear and the vocabulary off. The Buddhist monastery and Daqin church were to keep their residences separate and their practices entirely apart. Adam should transmit the teachings of the Messiah, while Buddhists shall propagate Buddhist scriptures, so as to keep the doctrines separate, and the peoples from excessive intermingling.6

This accounts suggests to me that while the state authorities respected both religions, they desired to keep them separate. In light of the elegant Chinese that Adam composed for the stele of 781, we can infer that he was quite learned in the Chinese classics, and therefore likely mingled with aristocrats in the capital. In such circles eminent Buddhist monks and Daoist priests were also active, thus there were many opportunities for elite religious thinkers to interact.

Another interesting fact about Nestorianism in China is that their clerics are on record as having practiced medicine in China. As to the type of medicine they practiced, I have reason to believe that it was actually Greek. Returning to the travelogue by Du Huan, he gives the following interesting account.

The Daqin are adept in treating eyes and dysentery. Some can foresee illness before symptoms emerge. Some can perform trephinations and remove parasites.

The New History of the Tang also mentions such medical practices in Byzantium.

There are skilled physicians capable of performing trephinations and removing parasites to heal eye diseases.

Cranial surgery of this type was well known in ancient Greek medicine. As Arani and others note, “Cranial trepanation was first recorded by Hippocrates (460–355 BC).”7 This surgery was apparently performed in China as early as the late years of Emperor Gaozong 高宗 (r. 649 – 27 December 683). There is a story recorded in the Old Book of Tang 舊唐書, compiled in 945, and elsewhere that a cranial operation was performed on Gaozong.


The Emperor was suffering intolerable headaches. His retainer physician Qin Minghe said, “It could be healed by piercing the head and drawing a bit of blood.” The Empress [Wu Zetian] behind a screen said, “He should be beheaded, wanting to draw blood from the leader of men!” The Emperor said, “My headaches are severe. Drawing blood is not necessarily bad.” The crown of the skull was pierced. The Emperor said, “My eyes has cleared up!”

The name Qin Minghe 秦鳴鶴 here possibly indicates a foreigner. The surname Qin could be derived from Daqin and in light of the surgery he performed he was likely from abroad. Huang (2002) and others attempt to identify him as an immigrant Nestorian clergyman.8 Although this is not certain, there are still other accounts that confirms the presence of Nestorian physicians in Tang China. In year 28 of reign era Kaiyuan 開元 (740), the clergyman Chongyi 僧崇一 healed the younger brother of Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗 (r. 712–756).9 A report by Li Deyu 李德裕 (787–849) states that a certain Daqin cleric proficient in optometry (醫眼大秦僧一人) was present in Chengdu 成都 at one point.10

It is therefore clear that Nestorian clergyman did in fact practice medicine in China during the Tang dynasty, and moreover they most likely brought with them Greek medical techniques. They also introduced other foreign sciences and arts, such as astronomy and astrology. In 1980 in Xi'an the tombstone of a court astronomer was discovered. His name was Li Su 李素 (743–817) and he is identified as a Persian. It seems that he was a Christian clergyman from the community of Persians resident in Guangzhou. Sometime between 766–779 he was summoned to the court to work in the bureau of astronomy. Later his 'courtesy name' of Wen Zhen 文貞 alongside the corresponding name 'Luka' in Syriac appears on the list of Christian clergymen on the stele of 781.11 Although not immediately clear from his biographical information, he likely practiced Hellenistic astronomy in light of his ethnic and religious backgrounds. Earlier 'foreign' court astronomers, such as Gautama Siddhārtha, employed and even translated Indian astronomy. Li Su as a replacement for Gautama Siddhārtha was likely functioning as a 'second opinion' at court in matters related to astronomy and calendrical science, providing a perspective based on foreign methods.

Nestorian clergymen clearly played important roles throughout the Tang dynasty. They were eliminated in China as an institution and religion in 845 when Emperor Wuzong 武宗 (840–846), a Daoist zealot, initiated a purge of foreign religions. Buddhism, Manichaeism and Christianity were, at least in the capital region, rapidly dismantled and their assets liquidated. Buddhist sangha members were defrocked, while Manichean priests were put to death.12 Christianity was to a large part eliminated as a major religion in China until several centuries later under the Mongols.

2《大唐貞元續開元釋教錄》卷1:「大秦寺波斯僧景淨」(CBETA, T55, no. 2156, p. 756, a20-21)

3 This is reported in fasc. 49 of the Tang huiyao 唐會要.

4 There were many ethnically Iranian persons in Tang China, including those identifying themselves as Persians, but also Sogdians and Bukharans.

5 Chisan 遲散 here refers to Alexandria. This is geographically problematic, but the Chinese understanding of the Near East was pieced together from multiple, often chronologically disparate, sources. See Yu Taishan, "China and the Ancient Mediterranean World: A Survey of Ancient Chinese Sources," Sino-Platonic Papers 242 (2013): 34.

6《貞元新定釋教目錄》卷17 . CBETA, T55, no. 2157, p. 892, a7-15.

8 Huang Lanlan 黃蘭蘭, “Tangdai Qin Minghe wei jingyi kao” 唐代秦鳴鶴為景醫考, Zhongshan Daxue xuebao 中山大學學報 42, no. 5 (2002): 61–67.

Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書 (fasc. 95).

10 See fasc. 703 of the Quan Tang wen 全唐文.

11 Rong Xinjiang 榮新江, “Yi ge shi Tangchao de Bosi Jingjiao jiazu” 一個仕唐朝的波斯景教家族, in Zhonggu Zhongguo yu wailai wenming 中古中國與外來文明 (Beijing: Sanlian Shudian, 2001), 255–257.

12 This is recorded in the journal of Japanese monk Ennin 圓仁 (794-864):【四月】中旬 敕下,令殺天下摩尼師。剃髮,令着袈裟,作沙門形而殺之。摩尼師即迴鶻所崇重也。

Indian Buddhist Sites

Here are a number of photos I took of Indian Buddhist sites between 2011-2014.

Lumbini (on the Nepalese side of the border), where the Buddha was born.

The Aśoka pillar at Lumbini.

Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved awakening under the Bodhi Tree.

Varanasi (Ganges River), and Sarnath at Deer Park, where the Buddha first taught.

Rajgir and Vulture's Peak, where the Buddha spent some years.

Nalanda, a major Buddhist monastery near Rajgir.

Kushinagar, where the Buddha passed away.