The first Christian missionary in China

February 27, 2010

Emperor Taizong

We often think of Christian missionaries as Europeans, having and promoting European culture. The first recorded “Christian” missionary to China was not European, but Persian. His name was Alopen (阿罗本).

In 1623, digging in the ancient Chinese capital Chang-An (near present day Xian) workmen unearthed a monument written almost 1000 years before European missionaries arrived. It recorded Alopen’s journey across the silk road:

When the accomplished Emperor Taizong began his magnificent career in glory and splendour… there was a highly virtuous man name Alopen in the Kingdom on Ta-chin. Auguring from the azure sky he decided to carry the true scriptures with him, and observing the course of the winds, he made his way through difficulties and perils. Thus, in the ninth year of Chen-Kuan [635 AD] he arrived at Chang-An [Xian].

Alopen was not an orthodox Christian, or a European, but a Syriac speaking Nestorian who came from Persia. In his homeland of Sassanid Persia Christians were an often persecuted minority, under the ruling Zoroastrians. However, the Persian empire was fading, allowing Christians more freedom, and was soon to be swallowed by a rampant Islam in 644.

When Alopen arrived in China he was warmly received,

The Emperor dispatched his Minister, Duke Fang Hsuan-ling, with a guard of honour, to the western suburb to meet the visitor and conduct him to the Palace. The sutras were translated in the Imperial Library. [The Emperor] investigated “the way” in his own forbidden apartments, and being deeply convinced of its correctness and truth, gave special orders for its propagation.

The Tang dynasty that welcomed Alopen was itself new. Although the previous Sui dynasty managed to unify China for the first time in 400 years, it had quickly collapsed. When, in 613, Emperor Yang of Sui had chosen to launch a series of unpopular campaigns against Goguryeo, sections of the army deserted and farmers revolted. In 628, seven years before Alopen arrived, China was once again united by Emperor Gaozu and his son Emperor Taizong – the founders of the T’ang dynasty.

This T’ang welcome of Christianity did not last long. In 649, Emperor Taizong died. One of his widowed concubines, beguilingly beautiful Wu Zetian, would normally be expected to spend the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun. Instead this ambitious woman worked her way back into the ruling family. After killing her own baby to frame the existing Empress, the new Emperor Gaozong took her (his own father’s concubine) as his wife. When the Emperor died, she deposed two sons from the throne and in 690 set herself up as the founder of a new dynasty. She remained fanatically pro-Buddhist, even taking a Buddhist monk as a lover, and declared Buddhism the state religion in 691. Persecution of Nestorian Christians began in 698, when mobs sacked the first ever church in the historic capital of Luoyang.

There were many ups and downs, but the first taste that China had of Nestorian Christianity lasted until the fall of the T’ang dynasty in 907. As the Tang empire fell, the ensuing violence was not kind to religious minorities. One traveller (Abu Zeid) reported that as many as 120,000 Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians were put to the sword. Eighty years later, the Nestorians were all but gone.

In the year 377 [987 AD], in the Christian quarter [of Baghdad] behind the church, I met a monk from Najran, who seven years before had been sent by the Catholicos to China with five other clergy to set in order the affairs of the Christian church… I asked him for some information about his journey and he told me that Christianity was just extinct in China; the native Christians had perished in one way or another; the church which they used had been destroyed and there not one Christian left in the land. (Abdu’l Faraj)

China’s next taste of Christianity would be another 300 years later, also from a non-European source – this time from the Monguls.

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13 Responses to “The first Christian missionary in China”

  1. Mr Z Says:

    Very interesting indeed. A passage from the Wikipedia entry of Nestorianism in China says:

    “In 845, during a time of great political and economic unrest, Emperor Wuzong decreed that Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism be banned, and their very considerable assets forfeited to the state.

    As for the Da-chin (Roman Empire) and Muhu (Zoroastrian) temples, these heretical religions must not alone be left when the buddhists have been suppressed; they must all be compelled to return to lay life and resume their original callings and pay taxes, or if they are foreign they shall be sent back to their native places.

    [3][verification needed] [4]

    What began in opposition to Buddhist excesses, first among Confucian officials, was continued by a pro-Taoist emperor. Christian monks and nuns were evicted from their monasteries, forced to seek a secular lifestyle, and their properties were confiscated. Books and artifacts were destroyed and leading figures — especially those of foreign extraction, whose continuing role is condemned in the decree — were forced to hide and hold underground services or to flee. Missions from Mesopotamia and Bactria in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, however, strengthened the churches in some provinces, but evidence for their condition or survival throughout Tang provinces is fragmentary.”

    I feel that this illustrates a basic tenant of human drama and dogma: The victor writes the history, and the religion with the strongest soldiers survives the question of who is right. Indoctrination ensures it’s survival past that point, growing it’s soldier numbers by indoctrination of children.

    At any point where there is no warfare pressure on Christendom, it fractures into sects who bicker with one another until no outsider can see the value in any of them. This strikes at both the value and the purpose of religion and belief, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Islam etc.

    Any set of ‘truths’ that are said to be THE truth depend greatly on who is listening. Humans do not listen innocently, we know this. If a religion must be spread by sword and indoctrination, it’s value is certainly questionable. A lesson from the history of mankind which lowers the value of all religions, if not outright denies their value.

    I believe that what happened to the early Christians in China is not unlike what was made of the Knights Templar by the French King and the Pope. Any religion that did not support war, genocide, and wholesale killing of other humans simply was wiped off the map, much as the Cathars of France were during the Inquisition []. It has been opined that the crusades were not to rid the holy land of Islam, but to rid the world of dualists. A truly Christian act, it might be said.

    What can be known of mankind: his religions are spread by war and indoctrination, not the value of their message. In this there is little difference between the great religions of mankind. What can be said of the religions that are not now great? They had few and poor soldiers.

  2. Mr Z Says:

    argh, submitted too soon. It can be argued that Constantine was THE Christian soldier []. Before he united an army under Christianity it was a persecuted minority religion with no better a doctrine than any other. At any point in the history of mankind, angering the King was not good for your health, and between the whims of faith of the ruling court and mob rules, only the religions with soldiers survive. Even in modern times, it’s not good to anger those in charge [].

  3. Chucky Says:

    I don’t think that Persian Christians really had political power, or control of the schools to indoctrinate people. When Constantine did convert, they suffered the so-called “Great Persecution”:

    The same could be said today in China. Christianity is spreading at the rate of half a million new converts every year, and most of these are in house churches and frowned on by the autocratic government.

    These aren’t people who believed because of politics or the sword – although you’re definitely right that there are a lot of them. These are people who believed despite the sword.

  4. Mr Z Says:

    I believe that it was after the great persecution that Constantine took his Christian army to war… against, tada, other Christians. But that was the start of the Holy Roman Empire, thus my comment. Yes he was in power during the great persecution and did nothing… late bloomer I guess.

  5. Chucky Says:

    Mr Z,

    I think we are talking about different events. You’re thinking of the persecution by the Romans, I am talking about persecution by the Persians. Confusingly they’re both called the “Great Persecution”.

  6. […] The first Christian missionary in China « Thoughtful Faith […]

  7. MESAY Says:


  8. Anastasios Says:

    Don’t forget that King Trdat III of Armenia converted to Christianity over a decade prior to Constantine. He, too, attempted to suppress paganism by the sword (although he may have felt he was justified by the Old Testament examples of Israelite kings doing the same thing with divine favor).

  9. […] was a fiery Irishman, Alopen a refined Persian. Both were monks, both gifted communicators. Entirely independently, both were […]

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