Official Blog Entry #6: Nestorian Christianity – Religious Tolerance in Chang’an China

After doing the readings on cosmopolitan Chang’an, one can really understand the diversity that flourished in Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty.  The Tang capital Chang’an was highly tolerant and different peoples lived openly celebrating their religions and customs of their homelands.  A Nestorian Church could be easily found next to a Buddhist temple.  During the time when Nestorian Christianity first came into China, there was also an influx of various other “exotic” peoples.  Armenian, Jacobite, and Byzantine Christians came into the area along with Zoroastrians, Manichaeans (Uighurs), and Jews.

It was immensely exciting to read the translation of the Nestorian tablet of the Syriac Church, and to visualize how Chinese characters along with Syriac script adorned the tablet with a cross at the top signifying its Christian origin.  Even though it is true that Nestorian Christianity has now been forgotten in China, the way the early Nestorian Christians infiltrated (positively) Chinese society is unique and deserves attention.  The Nestorian Antiochian Christians, after the divide from the Alexandrian Church, went into China and excelled in their knowledge of the Chinese script along with the Chinese culture and norms.  They preached Christianity from the viewpoint of a Chinese and not from a foreign westerner, so as to normalize the new religion and make it seem as already their own.  The foreign Christians wore Chinese garments and ate their food and lived like a regular Chinese, so as to create familiar bonds.  In the long run, this may have exactly been the reason why Nestorian Christianity disappeared from Chinese lands, but at the time, it allowed them the freedom to openly practice their religion without much opposition, and even to erect their own religious institutions (churches).  In Tang China, Assyrian churches were allowed to be built in every province in China!  But gradually, over time, Nestorian Christianity fell in a huge decline due to the lack of communication with centers in Mesopotamia, especially due to the rise of Islam and the Abbasid Caliphate between the two regions.  We can learn much from the history of religious tolerance in Chang’an, and a lot as well from the plight of Nestorian Christians in the Tang capital.

Assyrians in tradition garb in Arbil, Iraq

Present day Nestorians do not refer to themselves as such, but rather as Assyrians, belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East, or more officially to the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East (in Arabic: كنيسة المشرق الآشورية الرسولية الكاثوليكية المقدّسة).

The Assyrians refer to themselves as Christians, and maintain the theological difference with the Alexandrian Church, but at the same time, they completely dismiss the term Nestorianism, and anything to do with Nestorius, considering the term pejorative.

There are currently 4.5 million Assyrians in the world, and 1 million live in present-day Iraq.

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