Skip to comments.Silk Road Paved With Christian Tradition (1,500 Y.O. Church In Western China)
Posted on 12/22/2002 4:04:11 PM PST by blam
Silk Road paved with Christian tradition
December 20, 2002
BY ANDREW GREELEY
Martin Palmer, an English Sinologist, was searching western China in 1998 for a pagoda, which was all that was left of the monastery of Da Qin. He believed the pagoda was a remnant of the Christians who for several hundred years flourished along the ancient Silk Road. One day he and a couple of his colleagues came upon a pagoda in a field, time-worn but still standing.
He asked a woman (a Buddhist nun, as it turned out) what the pagoda was.
All that remained of a great Buddhist monastery, she replied.
What was it before?
A great Taoist monastery, sir.
Disappointed, Palmer turned to leave.
''But it doesn't really belong to either of them. . . . Before either of them, it was founded by monks who came from the West and believed in one God.''
Soon everyone in the neighborhood knew that story. When Palmer and his colleagues returned the next year, the Chinese provincial government already was repairing the building. Palmer was able to scale the side walls and enter on one of the upper floors. Terribly afflicted by acrophobia, he was suddenly struck dumb by a huge statue: the Nativity scene, Mary and child, in the style of Byzantine art of the first half of the first millennium. Christmas, hardly called that, had come to China, almost 1,500 years ago.
Only a few scholars like Palmer know about the Syrian Church, which spread eastward out of Edessa beginning in the 400s, about the time St. Patrick came to Ireland. It had spread to what we call Iraq, Persia, Afganistan and Northern India, using the Irish missionary technique of building monasteries. It never had a religious monopoly, though often it was the major religion in the countries to which it came.
There were many Greek colonies from the time of Alexander the Great to which the monks preached. In Afghanistan, there were so many Christian dioceses that Herat became an archdiocese. In 635, a team came to western China and presented itself to the emperor of the new Tang dynasty and was warmly received. These were the people who founded Da Qin and whose successors for almost a thousand years acted as a strong and vibrant Christian tradition in China.
We tend to think that Christianity spread outward from Palestine to Greece and Rome and then to the barbarian tribes. However, at the time when the Western Christianity of Pope Gregory the Great consisted only of the ruins of Rome, several barely civilized Germanic tribes and the ever-present Irish, the Syrian Church already was preparing to expand to China.
The Syrians viewed humankind as basically good, denounced slavery, preached the equality of all and advocated vegetarianism. Members were also pacifists who didn't engage in religious wars. Palmer's book, The Jesus Sutras gives translations of some of the documents of paper and stone found in the monasteries of Western China at the beginning of the 20th century.
All along the Silk Road, converts joined the church: Mongolians, Turks, Ugyrs, White Huns, members of all the wandering tribes that moved across Eurasia in the first millennium. The churches prospered until a Chinese equivalent of Henry VIII suppressed all the monasteries, Islam swept away the bases of the Chinese churches in Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, and the Mongols destroyed the cities along the Silk Road, killing all their inhabitants.
Chinese Christianity of that era necessarily took different forms than has the Christianity of the West. If it had survived, we might have learned much from it, as Chinese Christians might have learned from us. Christianity is much bigger than any of its local manifestations in time and space. Yet the Jewish Mother and Child in Bethlehem seem to be both always and everywhere.
Palmer argues that the Buddhist goddess Guanying is a remnant of the Chinese Christian esteem for the mother of Jesus.
All the more reason for crying out this week ''Merry Christmas.'' (And whispering hail Mary.) And a genial ''happy holidays'' to you who do not want or are unable to celebrate Bethlehem.
Note: this topic is from 2002.
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