The China Connection: Nestorian Stele Tells Ancient Tale

by Weam Namou

Nestorian Stele

This article was originally published by The Chaldean News (January 2016)

A direct connection between China and the Church of the East has been brought to Michigan by Dr. Michael David Hanna.

This past fall, Hanna traveled to China on business as a senior technical consultant for an auto-part manufacturer. While there, he came in close vicinity of a famous stone called the Nestorian Stele.

For years, Hanna has been active in researching his ancestors’ history, the Shikwana family, who were scribes. The process led him to make connections with many scholars in different institutions, some of whom happened to be in China.

“One of these scholars made me aware of our church history in China,” Hanna said. “I talked to my friend, Deacon Khairy Foumia, about this information and he said that the church is interested to have a copy of the stele.”

Foumia already knew about the stele as he’d read about it in an Arabic article written in 1993 by Fr. Yousif Habbi, who lived in Iraq. In that article, Fr. Habbi addressed the spread of Christianity in China and described the text engraved in the stele.

The stele’s inscription describes in Chinese “the Messiah” and His virgin birth, and it states the preservation of 27 scriptures, a reference to the New Testament. It includes the declaration of the Christian faith, called “the Luminous Religion,” and a summarization of the history of Christianity in China as well as the manner in which some of the kings of China received and treated the Christians.

The last major part is a lengthy poem honoring God and the emperors who supported His church. The concluding lines give the date, name the ruling patriarch of the “luminous communities of the East,” and name the artist who inscribed the text on the stele. The Syriac sections list more than 70 bishops, priests and monks.

“There are a number of books written about the stele,” said Foumia, “but none written in Arabic.”

The Nestorian Stele is a limestone block that’s about 9 feet tall and 3 feet wide, weighing two tons, with text in both Chinese and Syriac describing the existence of early Christian communities in several cities in northern China. According to the stele, Alopen, the first recorded Christian missionary, and 17 of his fellow Syriac missionaries came to China from the Roman Empire in 635, bringing sacred books and images.

“Alopen and the missionaries went through the Silk Road, establishing many stations on their way, including in Afghanistan and India,” said Hanna.

On the stone monument is engraved the history of the Assyrian Church of the East in China between 635 C.E., the year this branch of Christianity arrived there, and 781 C.E., the year the stele was erected. According to author Yoshio Saeki, the missionaries arrived at a time in Chinese history that is “generally characterized by liberal-minded emperors who welcomed this variety of practical thinking.”

“The kings of China liked the missionaries and their message, but after a couple of hundred years, somehow Buddhism was favored and Christianity was stopped,” said Hanna. “There are a lot of books that talk about how Christians were forced to convert to Islam. It’s the same history that is happening to us in Iraq today.”

The stele is thought to have been buried in 845, during a campaign of anti-Buddhist persecution that also affected the Nestorians, and was not rediscovered until 1625.

“The Chinese language and culture was completely different than that of the missionaries,” said Hanna. “For example, the Chinese liked the cross, but the cross in Chinese character is the number 10. So there were some cultural mix-ups.”

Hanna said the Mesopotamians in China lasted more than 300 years as they intermarried and went back and forth to Mesopotamia to bring more people and help spread the word of Jesus and their knowledge of science and medicine.

“When they were persecuted, some of them went back to Mesopotamia,” he said. “That’s why some of our people have Asian features. They might have those genes.”

Hanna also noted that the time the missionaries went to China was around the same time that Rabban Hormizd Monastery was built in Alqosh, about 640 A.D.

“It was probably the hype of Christianity,” said Hanna, “because during that time, Mesopotamia was under the rule of the Persian Empire.”
The stele is housed in the Forest of Stele Museum in Xian. Since Hanna was far from that city, a colleague with family there told him he could help get a rubbing copy of it. This man went to the museum a number of times and consulted with the directors, and finally got a nice copy on rice paper.

“Ninety-nine percent of our people do not know about this stele that came from Mesopotamia to China,” said Hanna. “That’s why I felt very happy about bringing it here and making it known.”

When he brought the copy of the stele to America, the Chaldean bishop and priests marveled at it. It was gifted to the bishop’s library and currently the Chaldean Cultural Center is discussing ways to replicate it and include it in their museum.

“This stele is a treasure for our church in China,” said Foumia. “But it’s also a truly wonderful thing to have a very old and antique item in our museum.”