Signs of the cross in China

by Rob Gilhooly

LOU GUAN TAI, China There is only one way into the pagoda, through a small window 10 meters above ground. Climbing the walls would likely land me behind bars: The building is around 1,300 years old and leans as prominently as the Tower of Pisa — no doubt a result of an earthquake 500 years ago.

Da Qin Pagodain Lou Guan Tai is thought to have been part of a Christian monastery built in the early 600s.

What’s more, the official on duty isn’t exactly handing over the key. I don’t have the appropriate papers, he says.

But for all its archaeological aesthetics and picturesque setting, I haven’t come all this way merely to stand and gaze at an ancient, seven-story pagoda. It’s what is purportedly inside that has aroused my curiosity — a relief depicting Christ’s Nativity.

It’s a lengthy persuasion process, but the official eventually agrees to get a ladder (it seemed I had the necessary “papers” on me after all). Two hours later, a group of local farmers have cobbled one together out of construction poles.

As I reach the window ledge, a first glance through the opening suggests it was not worth the wait. In the semi-darkness of late afternoon, the interior of the pagoda appears dusty and bare. But as my eyes adjust to the fading light, something looms out from the wall above my head — a clay and wood relief about 2 meters high, and 1 meter across.

Graffiti inside the pagoda is believed to have been inscribed by early followers.

Although badly decomposed, the relief seems to depict a cave set amid a backdrop of mountains. Inside the cave, the torso and legs of a figure are visible. For years, the figure in the relief, one of two inside the pagoda of Da Qin, a former Taoist monastery, has baffled Chinese experts as it does not conform to traditional Chinese iconography.

Then, British conservationist Martin Palmer stumbled upon the site last summer and provided a stunning explanation. “The figure in the cave is a representation of the Virgin Mary,” said Palmer, a Cambridge-educated Sinologist and secretary general of the Manchester, England-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Were her upper body visible, she would be holding the baby Jesus, he added. “The grotto is China’s earliest Nativity scene.”

These and other findings uncovered by Palmer at Da Qin, which include what he believes to be the wing of an angel, provide “irrefutable evidence that over 1,300 years ago this was a thriving Christian site.” Da Qin may be a missing link for those who believe Christianity played a considerable role during the Tang Dynasty, Palmer adds.

The arrival of Christianity in China at the beginning of the 6th century is supported by relics and documents uncovered during the early part of the last century. The most renowned of those is a stone monument recording the arrival of missionaries in the ancient capital of Xian around AD 625.

Dated AD 781, the 10-meter-high Nestorian Monument, which currently stands in a museum in Xian, describes the missionaries’ arrival via the Silk Road from Assyria, present-day Iraq/Iran. Most of the inscription is written in Chinese characters, some in Syriac, the language of the Assyrians.

Led by Bishop Alopen, the missionaries represented not the Christian church of the Roman or Byzantine empires, but the Church of the East, whose headquarters were, and still are, in Baghdad. It is thought that the Assyrians were the first people to adopt Christianity after St. Thomas visited there within a few years of Christ’s death. It had a slightly different view of Christianity, stressing, for example, that the idea of Mary being the Mother of God was blasphemous (how could God have a mother, it was argued).

Catholic churches near Da Qin are well attended, yet parishioners are aware that Catholicism was not the first form of Christianity to enter China.

The monument was unearthed in the early 17th century, some say by a farmer who came across it while plowing a field in the grounds of Da Qin, which is located a 2-hour drive southwest of Xian in the village of Lou Guan Tai. Its burial was likely undertaken in the mid-9th century to protect it from Emperor Wu-Tsung’s Taoist-controlled court, which ordered the disbandment of rapidly expanding “foreign” religions. While for over 200 years the Nestorians had benefited from the religious toleration and intellectual curiosity of the Tang rulers, in 845 they were suddenly ordered to return home.

In addition to the tablet, archaeologists and scholars — some of them Japanese — have uncovered dozens of artifacts and documents from the period. In his book “The Nestorian Documents and Relics in China,” published in 1937, Waseda University professor Yoshiro Saeki includes photographs and translations of documents, some allegedly penned by Bishop Alopen, tombstones and other relics sporting the Nestorian cross.

While these artifacts support the view that the Nestorians were in China for over two centuries, their precise influence remains unclear. In his book “The Cross and the Lotus,” Lee Shiu Keung writes that by 638 the Tang emperor was so pleased with the Nestorians’ achievement he ordered an imperial decree proclaiming the virtue of the Nestorian faith, which he named “the religion of light.” He also ordered the building of a Nestorian monastery within the city walls.

However, Lee is suspicious of the monument’s claim that this was one of many churches built in China, concluding that the stone “greatly exaggerates” the importance of the Eastern Church in China.

The authenticity of the monument has also been questioned. Some experts argue that while the Syriac engravings are 8th-century, the Chinese characters were probably a later addition. Still others doubt there were even any Chinese among the clergy and parishioners of the Eastern Church.

Palmer is adamant, however, that Da Qin provides irrefutable proof that the Church of the East enjoyed “considerable power.”

Da Qin’s geographical layout is proof enough of its Christian origin, he says. While Chinese monastic sites traditionally were built on a north-south axis, this temple complex runs east to west, the cosmic directions of Christian churches, he explains.

What’s more, Da Qin stands amid what was once one of the most important Taoist monasteries in China, he adds.

Lou Guan Tai is home to a temple complex that once covered an area of several square kilometers and functioned as an intellectual and spiritual center during the Tang Dynasty. In Saeki’s words, the site “is to the Taoist what Mecca is to the Mohammedans.” The building of a Christian church inside such an important imperial compound is proof of the high esteem in which Christianity was held, Palmer states.

“It’s like the Hare Krishnas being allowed to open up a vegetarian restaurant outside Canterbury Cathedral on land donated by the Queen,” Palmer says. “It is clear that the Christian church was so favored by 650 that the emperor donated land to build a place of worship right in the middle of a major Taoist center.”

Palmer was drawn to the site after studying Saeki’s work. While a “Ta Chin” is thoroughly discussed by Saeki, its exact location is not clear, the Briton said. However, Saeki’s inclusion of a small map and a report made by four Chinese scholars, who visited the site in 1933, includes mention of Lou Guan Tai, a name that Palmer was already familiar with. Just two years previously, he had visited Lou Guan Tai during unrelated research.

Much like Palmer, the four Chinese scholars had virtually stumbled across the pagoda after discovering a 14th century bell nearby, an inscription on which confirmed Da Qin’s imperial sanctioning during the Tang era.

The scholars had subsequently climbed into the pagoda and seen the two reliefs, determining them to be Tang era depictions of Guanyin, the Chinese Buddhist goddess of mercy. They also discovered graffiti inscribed on the inner walls of the 4th story of the building, but dismissed it as Tibetan script.

Palmer’s theory is somewhat different. The inscriptions, he says, are written in Syriac by Nestorian monks. As for the reliefs, he agrees they are depictions of Guanyin, but insists they further confirm the influence the Nestorian Church had on China. “For centuries, Guanyin was depicted as a male. It was only in the 8th century, when Christianity was most widespread in China, that Guanyin started to be depicted as a woman carrying a baby — just like the Virgin Mary.”

Stylistically, the reliefs are more or less identical to ones found at other Nestorian sites in Greece and Russia, Palmer adds. “The Chinese team never drew any conclusions as to whether the site was Christian or not. No one had visited the site since to make a positive confirmation,” he explains, adding that until recently the area had been closed to visitors for decades.

The views of the local community tend to side with Palmer, who, in addition to writing a number of books on China, recently completed another on the early church in the Middle Kingdom, which will be published this fall.

Zhao Yin-sheng, a priest from a catholic church in neighboring Jixian village, said the site is known throughout the 10 churches of his diocese to be unquestionably Christian, and hinted at its occupants’ former status.

“You have to wonder why this site is still standing. It is surely a sign of the power it once held,” he says.

Chinese authorities are also taking Palmer’s claims to heart, recently undertaking restoration work to steady the lower part of the pagoda and installing a wooden stairway to facilitate access to the upper floors.

Palmer believes there are likely other Nestorian sites in China, but does not hold out much hope of finding many more relics. Most of the early monasteries, he said, were built in major cities, making them easy targets for the 9th-century wipeout. Lou Guan Tai’s remote location was likely the reason the Da Qin pagoda still stands today.

Anything that may have been left behind was likely plundered, or destroyed, by Japanese “spies,” posing as archaeologists or geologists prior to the Sino-Japanese War, he added. “I doubt we will find another Da Qin. Which makes it all the more important to preserve.”