The first Christian missionary in China
February 27, 2010
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.