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The Strength of Stele

The Assyrian International News Agency reports on China’s famous eighth-century Christian monument.

In a country that has displayed a positive obsession with recording its history on plaques and standing stones over thousands of years, China’s so-called Nestorian Monument is still its best-known inscribed tablet in the West. Unearthed in Xian in 1625, it’s dated 781 and pays tribute, in 1,800 Chinese characters and passages written in Syriac, to a “luminous religion” and its propagation in the Middle Kingdom. It bears a cruciform design above its title and describes a belief system that had come to China from afar and included a three-in-one god, a virgin birth, an evil force called Sadan, and ministers who traveled the earth and, making no distinction between rich and poor, brought the good news to all and sundry.

This has always been understood as referring to the Nestorian Church, a branch of Christianity that held a dissenting view of the dual nature (both man and god) of Jesus, and was widely active in Asia during the first millennium. Genghis Khan’s mother was a Nestorian Christian, and the church used Syriac for its liturgy. A notably tolerant attitude to imported religions held sway under several emperors during the Tang Dynasty, but suddenly all foreign religious sects were proscribed in China in the years 842 to 845, and the inscribed stone was probably buried then in order to hide it.

All this is lead-up to a review of Michael Keevak’s book The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and Its Reception in the West, 1625-1916.