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Four Historical Stages of the Indigenization of Chinese Christian Art
He Qi
March 28, 2000

China's Christian Art have experienced four stages in the process of its contextualization and indigenization:

1. The Stage of Nestorian (The Period of The Tang and Yuan Dynasties);
2. The Stage of Catholic Jesuits (The Period of The Ming and Qing Dynasties);
3. The Stage of Semi-Colonialism (The Period of the late 19th century and early 20th century); and
4. The Stage from the 1980s to the Present.

part 2 | part 3 | part 4
Part One: The Stage of Nestorian (The Period of The Tang and Yuan Dynasties):

The Nestorians came to China in the 9th year of Tang Emperor Zhen Guan (635 A.D.). Emperor Tai Zong and Emperor Gao Zong of the Tang Dynasty, courteously received and treated the Nestorians well in the Imperial Court. During the reign of Emperor Tai Zong, because of the respect the Emperor held for Olopen who was a missionary from Persia, cathedrals were allowed to be built for him and were decorated with western and central Asian hues. Indigenous Chinese decoration was not stressed. In the 12th year of Zhen Guan, Emperor Tai Zong built a cathedral specially for the Persian missionary Olopen and named it "The Persian Cathedral". By the time of Emperor Gao Zong's reign, there were Nestorian Cathedrals built in every prefecture. As the Nestorian Tablet recorded: "Cathedrals are in every city and the Gospel is pervasive and popular."

From the time of the Tang Emperor Xuan Zong, Nestorians tended to strengthen the outside package of Nestorianism to be Chinese and Buddhism as well. This was done because Buddhism was strongly supported by Wu Ze Tian when she became the Empress. Buddhism had already been packed very well with indigenous Chinese traditional art in central China, which to some extent, made Nestorians frustrated in their mission in China. There were even cases where Nestorian cathedrals were destroyed. In order to have a firm stand in central China, Nestorianism had to pack itself to be Chinese and to be Buddhism also, so that it could have more space for greater development. A typical example is: The Tang Emperor Xuan Zong, had a compassion for Nestorians. He gave order to his brothers to repair a ruined cathedral. He asked that an altar to erected inside the cathedral, and more than that, he asked that the portraits of the five late emperors be put inside the cathedral as protective deities. The five late emperors were Gao Zhu, Tai Zong, Gao Zong, Zhong Zong, and Rui Zong. Because Buddhism was so prosperous in central China then, and in order to compete with Buddhism, Nestorians who came later from the West, tried in every way to absorb and mingle into their outside package some of the Buddhist plastic art. Therefore in the 5th year of Hui Chang (845 A .D.), when the Tang Emperor Wu Zong promulgated the decree to get rid of Buddhism, Nestorianism suffered as well because of its similar outside package to Buddhism.

The Tang Dynasty's "Nestorian Tablet" (Picture 1) was a typical paradigm that survived, which demonstrated the tendency of Nestorianism to be Chinese and Buddhism. The Tablet was built in the 2nd year of Jian Zhong, in the reign of the Tang Emperor De Zong (781 A.D.). By that time, Nestorianism had already been in China for a century and a half and had finally yielded Chinese fruit. Apart from the epigraph and the format of the Tablet pattern which are so traditional Chinese, on the top part of the Tablet, there are the typical Buddhist lotus pedals encircled with auspicious clouds under the Cross, which revealed that Nestorianism in China blossomed as a Buddhist flower, but bore Christian fruit.

In the middle of the 9th century when Buddhists were persecuted in the period of the Tang Emperor Wu Zong, Nestorianism became almost extinct as more than 2000 Nestorian missionaries were driven out together with Buddhist monks. There is no recorded proof of the existence of Nestorianism down to the Song Dynasty. According to the study by Xu Rulei, a professor at the Jinling Union Theological Seminary, there was once an Nestorian top leader who sent an investigator to China in the early Song Dynasty (980 A.D.) and after the investigator traveled over the country, he found only one Nestorian follower. After the fierce military invasion of the Mongolian Yuan entered the central region, the Song Dynasty enjoyed only a limited part of China. From the period of the late Tang to the early Song dynasties, Nestorianism gradually removed to those regions such as the marginalized minority area north of the Great Wall, the south eastern coastal area as well as the north eastern parts of the country. It was not until the 13th century when the Mongolian minorities established their power, was Nestorianism able to spread to the central part of China and was greatly developed again. By the year of Shun Yuan (1330 A.D.), Nestorianism had a membership of over 300 thousand. At that time, Nestorianism and Catholicism which had come to China by then, were both recognized as the religion of "Ye Li Ke Wen", though, they actually were different denominations. Further, their outside package was different as well. For example, Giovani da Montcovino, the Franciscan missionary who was sent to China by the Pope, did not agree with the tendency of Christianity being indigenous. The evangelistic materials which he brought with him were filled with illustrations of Western style art. The traditional Nestorianism on the contrary, obviously revealed its indigenous, Buddhist tendency in its outwardly wrapped package, such as the Nestorian grave stone unearthed in Yanzhou (Picture 2), the top part of which was found the form of the lotus cross which was similar to that of the Nestorian Tablet.

The Nestorian outer Buddhist package was also clearly found on several other Mongolian Yuan Nestorian crosses unearthed in the He Tao area, Gansu Province (Picture 2). These crosses were usually used by Nestorians as entombed articles. The crosses were decorated with Buddhist Transmigration ideograms of "nedemktion", which implied that Nestorians had put the Buddhist Transmigration doctrine into the Christian teachings of redemption and everlasting life. According to the newest archaeological findings, there were pictures of Nestorian angels unearthed. There is no archaeological proof, however, that these angels were similar to the Buddhist Fei Tian in China.

part 2 | part 3 | part 4


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