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Nestorian Stele – an illustration from Henri Havret's publication of 1895.
Nestorian Stele – an illustration from Henri Havret's publication of 1895. Henri Havret 1895. La stele chritienne de Si-ngan fou. Paris, 1895 Image: unknown
© Public Domain

In 987 in Baghdad (now in Iraq) a Nestorian writer Abu’lfaraj met a monk who was returning from China. The monk complained that ‘Christianity was just extinct in China; the native Christians had perished in one way or another; the church which they had used had been destroyed; and there was only one Christian left in the land’ – perhaps he meant himself.

This episode reflects the early inroads of Christianity in China. The Assyrian Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church, had developed in the 1st century of the Common Era and later expanded through Asia as far as India and China – a vast area, larger than any other Christian denomination before the European age of discovery and colonisation.

This Assyrian Church of the East was associated, although not entirely, with the Nestorian doctrine which attempted to explain the duality of Christ where Human Person was separate from Divine Parson. This was declared a heresy by the Council of Bishops in Ephesus (now in Turkey) and its promoter Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople (428 to 431) was removed from his position. Nestorian controversy was at the roots of the first major split of Christianity when the Church of the East assumed its distinctive character.

It was the Nestorian Church that took Christianity to China. One of the earliest documents of this apostolic enterprise was the 8th century stone tablet known as the Nestorian Stele carved in 781. The inscription on the Stele records that Christians arrived at the Chinese capital Xian in 635, during the Tang Dynasty, where they were allowed to build churches and to propagate their faith. The text records other details of the Nestorian Church and the names of some patriarchs and bishops.

In 845, Emperor Wuzong decreed that Christianity, along with Buddhism and Zoroastrianism be banned, and their rather sizable properties were confiscated. It must be in this turbulent time that our refugee-monk described the demise of Christianity in China when the Nestorian Stele was pulled down and eventually buried in rubble. It was unearthed centuries later in the 1620s and eventually erected again when Christian missionaries returned to China. The Stele was studied and various arguments were made about its authenticity and religious significance. Its text was published, translated and in some ways contributed to the awakening interest in Sinology in the 17th century Europe.

Before the Stele was removed and transported to the Beilin Museum in Xi'an City of Shaanxi province in 1907, a copy of the text was made in the traditional Chinese method of reproduction – an ancient equivalent of photocopy. This copy-document was donated to the Australian Museum in 1917 by Reverend Charles Needham Lack, an Australian missionary to China, and in his youth a pupil at the (next door) Sydney Grammar School.