Rubbing from a Nestorian Christian Stele

Chinese (Chinese)
Stele carved 781; rubbing taken ca. 1900
ink on paper
Credit Line
Hope College Collection
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The Church of the East, sometimes called the Nestorian Church after its early leader Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople, evolved as a distinct branch of the larger Christian family tree following the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE. The Church of the East first flourished under the protection of the Sasanian Empire in Iran, spreading from there to other states in Central Asia and India during the 5th and 6th centuries. In 635, a delegation of Nestorian missionaries arrived in China and were granted permission to establish churches there by the Tang Dynasty emperor Taizong. The Church of the East survived in China for more than two centuries, but its followers gradually dwindled away in the face of religious persecutions and civil wars during the 9th and 10th centuries.

This rubbing was taken from a large stone tablet, or stele, that was carved in the Tang Dynasty capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in 781 CE. The text commemorates the introduction of Nestorian Christianity into China and celebrates its continued existence there at the time the stele was carved. The stele was buried in 845 to protect it during a period of anti-foreign religious persecution, and it remained hidden in the ground until it was rediscovered in 1625. At that time, the first wave of Christian missionaries from Europe was reaching China and the stele was used by them to claim historical precedence for their own presence in China. The stele attracted great attention again in the latter half of the 19th century when a second wave of European and American missionaries made another big push to win converts in China. Today, the stele is preserved and displayed in the Forest of Steles Museum in Xi’an, China.

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