Western writing and the Church of the East in China

I wanted to write about a fascinating object called the Nestorian Stele, a block of stone inscribed with Chinese and Syriac in 781 CE. The stele is entitled Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin (大秦景教流行中國碑; pinyin: Dàqín Jǐngjiào liúxíng Zhōngguó bēi; the stele is commonly known simply as jingjiaobei). It describes the establishment of a Nestorian Christian church in China in the late antiquity, known as Beth Sinaye in Syriac and jingjiao in Chinese. The monument was erected in 781 by the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong to commemorate 150 years of Christianity in China, which had arrived with Syriac missionaries in 635 (for a concise yet thorough description see Lawton 2008). In 845 CE, the monument was buried during a period of religious suppression and was only rediscovered in 1625. From then on, there has been a steady but small stream of Western interest in the object; in 2008, a book by Michael Keevak was published entitled The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916.

The most striking part of this object is the inscriptions in Syriac (which, incidentally, are written top-to-bottom like Chinese rather than right-to-left as usual). The Syriac script was developed from Aramaic and in late antiquity was strongly associated with the Church of the East. Given the historical background of missionary activity, the creation of a bilingual inscription is not remarkable. Yet the Nestorian Stele is definitely an example of a script being used outside its “normal habitat.” The Syriac inscriptions are there because of Nestorian Christian missionaries who came to China. Specifically, the Syriac inscriptions describe the circumstances of the stele’s erection, including names of priests and bishops and similar details (Saeki 1916). I would imagine that the Syriac on the stele was meant to be read by the Nestorian missionaries, though I suppose it is possible that Chinese Christians learnt some Syriac to read religious texts.

The next example of a Western script in China does not come until the 1300s, when there are two examples of gravestones for Europeans living in China (Ertl 2015). One (right, from 1317) has a bilingual inscription in Syriac and Chinese for a Nestorian Christian known as Elizabeth. The other (left, from 1342) features Latin script (!) about Catherine Vilioni, the daughter of an Italian merchant. Both make prominent references to Christianity, with the second in particular offering a prayer:

In the name of the Lord Amen. Here lies
Catherine, daughter of the late Sir
Domenico de Vilioni, who died
in the year of the Lord 1343 in the month of June.

For whom were these inscriptions intended? Again, the obvious answer is that the non-Chinese scripts are used among the community of Christians, with explicitly religious associations. It is also possible that these religious associations are yet more important: perhaps Latin and Syriac are sacred in the sense that they are the scripts of God. In other words, perhaps these inscriptions were created to appeal directly to the divine.

I find these examples fascinating for their own sake. It is fundamentally weird for me to see Chinese and Syriac side-by-side. This feeling ultimately arises from our understanding of these scripts’ “natural habitat.” I would imagine that ancient people had similar if not stronger associations between certain scripts and contexts. I think it is interesting to study the examples of scripts outside their “natural habitats” if only to disrupt these predetermined associations we hold. I wonder, though: what deeper lessons should or can we learn from examples like these, beyond the simple fact of cultural contact? Is studying the Nestorian Stele a purely academic exercise, or are there important and immediately relevant wider points to be made? To put it simply: why and how does it matter who the agents and audiences of scripts are?

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