Review: Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters – Studies on East Syriac Christianity in China and Central Asia

Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters: Studies on East Syriac Christianity in China and Central AsiaTang, Li., Dietmar W. Winkler; LIT Verlag 2009WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

 Who would have thought that between the 1st and 14th century, before the western missionaries landed in the Orient, there were Christians living across Central Asia, reaching as far as China, and even Korea and Japan? These early Christians in the East predominantly owed their allegiance to the church based in Mesopotamia. It was called in Late Antiquity the “Church of the East”, but more commonly known as the “Nestorian Church”, a misnomer suggesting links to a 5th century heresy to which the Church of the East did not subscribe in the first place. In scholarship nowadays, it is more appropriately described as the East Syrian Church or the East Syriac Church. The former indicates its historical origin in the East (not to be equated with the modern state of Syria), whereas the latter emphasises its liturgical and literary tradition in the Syriac language. When East Syriac Christianity reached China in the 7th century, it was given the name Jingjiao, or Luminous Religion. Tang Christianity disappeared in the 9th century under severe political persecution, to be reintroduced by the Mongols in the 13th-14th century under the name of Yelikewen. All these terms refer to the same religion from different perspectives. The Church of the East is still a living church today both in their homeland in the Middle East and in diaspora (Europe, North America, Australia and India). They are known in four denominations: “Assyrian Church of the East”, “Ancient Church of the East”, “Chaldean Catholic Church” and “Syro-Malabar Catholic Church”. Before their extinction in the East in the 14th century, the Church of the East covered vast territories, diverse ethnic peoples, cultures and languages that surpassed western Christianity in the Roman Empire. Christians in the east were a minority, but they survived over many centuries, even flourished in more relaxed political environment, and created a rich heritage of artefacts and literature.

Now thanks to the discoveries of new archaeological finds and the rediscoveries of old textual evidence, the story of the early eastward expansion of Christianity has begun to be known. But it is only in the hands of researchers that the mute ancient inscriptions, manuscripts and texts can speak volumes. Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters represents such an effort in most recent time. The volume is a collection of papers presented at the Second International Conference “Research on the Church of the East in China and Central Asia”, which was held in Salzburg in 2006. Research on East Syriac Christianity in Central Asia and China is indeed an intercultural encounter in a real sense. Its cross-cultural nature is reflected in three ways. Firstly, the subject matter itself, i.e. the spread of the Syriac version of Christianity in the far-flung landmass of east Eurasia is a historical phenomenon of cross-racial, cross-cultural and cross-lingual experiences. After having left their homeland in Mesopotamia, Christians and Christian ideas had to come face to face with not just diverse peoples and languages, but also other systems of religious ideas such as indigenous Taoism and Shamanism as well as other international religions such as Buddhism and Manichaeism. It is a story about adaptation, competition, co-existence and mutual influence. Secondly, the cross-cultural nature of research is seen in our sources. They come in different forms: gravestone inscriptions, steles, manuscripts, art works, ancient church and government records, private documents, travelogues, etc; and in different languages: Chinese, Syriac, Sogdian, Turkic, Arabic as well as European languages. Thirdly, due to the nature of the subject matter and the sources used to study it, cross-disciplinary collaboration needs to be made by researchers in the fields of Archaeology, Religious and Ecclesiastical History, Sinology, Syrology, Central Asian Studies and Theology. The book is appropriately named in that it is indeed about cross-cultural encounters in all three ways described above. The interaction of Christian ideas and practices with its other counterparts in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual context is a theme in most of the papers, written by scholars from various disciplines from Europe, Central Asia, China, North America and India.

This volume also contains many pleasant surprises of hidden treasures. Papers are organised around four themes: 1) Inscriptions, 2) Manuscripts and Texts, 3) History and 4) Liturgy and Arts. On the note of inscriptions and manuscripts, publications on new development in the research of early history of East Syriac Christianity are not as frequent and common as one would desire. This book brings readers up to date with some much needed new discoveries of inscriptions and manuscripts with preliminary results, translations and comments. “A Preliminary Study on the JingjiaoInscription of Luoyang: Text Analysis, Commentary and English Translation” by Li Tang, for example, makes information available to English readers on a religious pillar discovered in 2006 from Luoyang, the second largest city in Tang China in the 9th century. Li Tang’s study reveals valuable insights into the Christian community there: their ethnic identity, social status, beliefs and practices. Peter Zieme’s “Notes on a Bilingual Prayer from Bulayik” does the same for a Turkic Christian community in Turfan.

Not only new discoveries, old evidence is revisited to apply new perspectives and bring out new information hitherto unknown. The Xi’an Jingjiao stele has been studied for a long while now, but this time Erica Hunter studies the Syriac part of the inscription in detail and, as a result, reveals the Persian contribution to the Luminous Religion and offers much insight into the “actual” face of Tang Christianity, vis-a-vis its “official” stance in Chinese. Also very useful are surveys of evidence found across regions or over times. Mark Dickens’ survey of the Syriac Gravestones in Tashkend History Museum is such a case in point.

Gems are also found in the History section of the book. There are surveys of historical sources on early Church of the East in Central Asia and China in languages such as Syriac, Chinese and Italian of ancient, medieval and early modern times (“Reference to China in Syriac Sources” by Mar Aprem Mooken; “Medieval Sources on the Naiman Christians and on their Prince Küchlüg Khan” by Li Tang; and “Jesuit Jingjiao: the ‘Appropriation’ of Tang Christianity by Jesuit Missionaries in the Seventeen Century” by Matteo Nicolini-Zani). Interesting hypotheses are put forward – sometimes with surprising twists. For example, Glen Thompson investigates the role of Alopen, the Syriac monk who introduced the Luminous Religion into Tang China in the 7th century, and finds him not just an ordinary “Missionary”. Jürgen Tubach explores the mission field of the Apostle Thomas and searches for the missing jigsaw puzzles that could help us figure out the real identity of Alopen and the mystery why his name wasn’t at all preserved in church record, given the huge profile and influence of his mission in China. In the true spirit of cross-cultural inquiry, Chen Huaiyu sheds light on the interesting relationship of Jingjiao with Tantric Buddhism in Tang China. The volume is correctly dedicated to Syriac Christianity in the East up to the 14th century; but I find Dietmar Winkler’s survey of East Syriac Christianity in Iraq from the First World War until Today most welcome. The church survived in Central Asia and East Asia for a vast span of time until the advent of Islamic conquest; it exists still today all over the world. But what will its fate be in the future in its own homeland?

Contributions by Chinese scholars are a welcomed sight in this book. Apart from two papers on the translation and study of gravestone inscriptions by Niu Ruji 牛汝极 (one of which is with Li Chonglin), there are three papers on liturgy and arts by researchers from China. In the past findings and achievements of Chinese researchers have been virtually unknown in the west. It is hoped that not only Chinese, but also Russian and Japanese scholarships will be included in the study of ancient religions along the Silk Road in the future.

The diverse interdisciplinary scholarship this book represents is an asset as well as a challenge for the editors, which they fully acknowledge in the Introduction. There are minor overlaps, repetitions and different transcriptions of non-English terms, and an absolutely logical order of papers in each section seems hard to achieve. For readers not familiar with religious history along the ancient Silk Road in Central Asia and China, this book could present challenges in its specialised knowledge.

The editors have written a very useful introduction with a concise overview of history and the scope of research. A synthesis of the most current research status would be greatly appreciated by readers and students alike, but perhaps that is a separate research project on its own.


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