The Nestorian Stone

Matteo Ricci






Fr. Luke Dysinger, OSB



1. EARLY MISSIONS: 638-1456



CHRISTIANITY was first introduced into China by Alopen, the missionary commemorated on the Nestorian Stone. This monument had been erected in the province of Shensi in 781; but the history it described had been forgotten until its discovery in 1625. Alopen arrived in China in 635 from “Tachin” (probably Syria) and was received by the T’ang Emperor, the great T’ai Tsung, who gave permission in 638 both for the erection of a Christian church and monastery and for the missionaries to propagate their faith. Whatever Alopen’s theological persuasions may have been, the church he planted had become Nestorian and syncretistic by 781.


STONE (Stele). 781


The text on the Stone is surmounted by a cross above a lotus and cloud, the latter being, respectively, Buddhist and Taoist symbols (some claim the cloud symbolizes Islam). The name of the Nestorian Patriarch of Seleucia–Ctesiphon is mentioned on the Stone; but there is evidence that the far–flung Nestorian Christians in China also read and revered Manichean literature.

In 845 the Emperor Wu Tsung ordered the suppression of all foreign monasteries and foreign religions: within a century Christianity in China had vanished almost without trace.

Emperor Wu Tsung Nestorian Headstone

Nestorian monuments and altarware were occasionally unearthed in subsequent centuries; but in terms of an effect on Chinese culture it was as if the mission of Alopen had never been.

Equally unfruitful were the scattered Franciscan efforts roughly contemporaneous with Marco Polo’s voyages. It was to the Court of the Khans, then in the process of subdoing China, that various Friars travelled in 1235, 1254, and 1293. They were amazed to discover that Nestorianism had (re–) entered China with the Mongols, and that Christianity was thus known in “Cathay”. A Franciscan was made Archbishop of Cambaluc (Pekin) and “Patriarch of the East” in 1326 on the order of Clement V. But the Franciscan missionaries won few converts among the Chinese or Mongols, and their principal ministry was most probably to European merchants in China and such non–Chinese as the Alans. Their lack of success among non–Europeans is hardly surprising: they enjoyed the patronage of the Mongol overlords and thus earned the hatred of the Chinese; while the Mongols themselves preferred Nestorianism to the Catholic faith.

With the collapse of the Mongol dynasty in 1368 Christianity again rapidly disappeared from China. Persecution of Christian communities, indeed of all foreign religions, marked the rise of the Ming dynasty in the person of its first emperor, Chu Yuan–chang So complete was later Chinese amnesia concerning the Christianity of this period that as late as the seventeenth century European scholars remained unconvinced that the Cathay of medieval lore and Franciscan mission was in fact China. It was not until 1952 that archeological evidence was discovered which supports the Friars’ traditional claims.

Neither Alopen’s mission nor the labors of the Franciscans resulted in an indigenous Chinese church. Nevertheless, the account of their efforts provides a useful introduction to the perennial Chinese attitude towards things foreign, especially foreign religion. As late as the nineteenth century the Chinese regarded their nation as the “Middle Kingdom”, the center of the earth. All other nations were considered “barbarian” and devoid of culture.  Foreign ambassadors were admitted only as the representatives of “vassal states”; their visits were an opportunity for them to pay tribute to the Emperor, the “Son of Heaven”. Nothing which had arisen outside of China except Buddhism (which was also occasionally persecuted as a foreign religion’) was of interest or value to the Chinese. But a thing of no value can still constitute a threat. The Chinese had suffered humiliation and defeat at the hands of the Mongol usurpers; and the collective Chinese memory was long, if selective. Foreigners would always be regarded as a potential threat to the stability of the Middle Kingdom; and the religion of foreigners would be regarded with as much suspicion as foreigners themselves.



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IN the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the Portugese voyages of discovery again opened China to the West, bypassing the overland trade routes controlled by Muhammadans. In 1456 Pope Callistus III instituted the “Patronage of Portugal”, by means of which all ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Portugese territory outside Europe was given to the Order of the Knights of Christ with the King of Portugal as its hereditary Grand Master. Through the Patronage of Portugal the Jesuits came to have primary responsibility for the evangelization of China.

The most influential and controversial of the Jesuit missionaries to China was Fr. Matteo Ricci, who arrived at Macao in 1582 at the age of thirty. In 1601 he travelled to Pekin, where he won the favor of the Emperor. Within a short time Fr. Ricci had made members of his Society indispensable to the Imperial Court as cartographers, astronomers, and mechanics. He advocated a missionary approach which sought as far as possible to respect Chinese culture and traditions, and which attempted to make Christianity comprehensible to the Chinese in terms borrowed from Confucianist doctrine. He adopted the dress and manners of the Chinese “literati” or scholars, those who had studied and been examined in the Confucianist classics and thus been made eligible for public service.

Ancestor Tablet Matteo Ricci

After much study and consultation with Chinese converts to Catholicism Ricci concluded that the traditional ceremonies performed before tablets bearing the names of ancestors or of Confucius were acts of filial piety and civil respect. They did not in his opinion constitute superstition or idolatry, and Christians could thus perform them. The Jesuit mission prospered exceedingly, and was able to survive the collapse of the Ming dynasty and the rise of the Manchus in 1644.

A problem appeared during this period which was to afflict Catholicism in China for the next three centuries: namely, the shortage of Chinese priests and the almost total absence of Chinese prelates. Despite the fact that seminaries were created specifically to train Chinese for the priesthood (The most famous of these was the Seminaire General of the Missions Etrangeres)  there was great reluctance to ordain them, apparently due to racial prejudice and a fear that the Chinese would not remain orthodox without close supervision and control. The only Chinese to be created bishop before the twentieth century, Gregory A–Lou who was consecrated in 1674, was provided with a companion–theologian charged to ensure that the new bishop would not inadvertently lapse into heresy.’ Christianity thus remained a religion principally associated with foreigners; and the Jesuits’ attempts to reconcile it with Chinese traditions were rapidly being called into question.

As early as 1598 misgivings had been expressed by certain Jesuits regarding the liceity of the “Chinese Rites”, the prostrations before tablets and the adoption of Confucianist terminology which Ricci advocated. These misgivings were shared by Dominican and Franciscan missionaries who preferred a simpler and more frankly Western approach to evangelization: the Franciscans, for example, would regularly appear in habit, holding aloft a crucifix, and preach in the streets to the amazed (and often appalled) Chinese onlooker.  The Friars may also have been suspicious or jealous of the success in winning converts and the imperial favor enjoyed by Ricci and his companions. Whatever their motives, the Dominicans procured condemnation of the Rites by Innocent X in 1643. A subsequent appeal by the Jesuits, however, convinced Alexander VII in 1656 to permit selective toleration of the rites.

In 1673 a Dominican superior who had fled from persecution in China published in Spain an attack directed against the Jesuit’s missionary methods. Thus the issue of the Rites became widely–publicized in Europe and rapidly acquired political overtones. The Jansenists, for example, seized on the question as yet another example of Jesuit hypocrisy, and pressed for a condemnation.

Emperor Kang-xi Letter of Emperor to Pope Clement XI Pope Clement XI

Worse yet, the Manchu Emperor K’ang–hsi defended the Rites both in a letter to the pope which reached Rome in 1701 and through an embassy which arrived in the holy city in 1711. In the meantime, Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon had been consecrated bishop and appointed as papal legate to the East Indies and the Qing Empire of China by Clement XI. He arrived in 1705 and was at first received kindly by the emperor; however, after forbidding the rites under pain of excommunication, he was imprisoned in Macao 1707 where he died.

Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon Pope Benedict XIV

Thus the papal letter formally condemning the rites, Ex Illa Die, issued by Clement XI in 1715, was interpreted by the emperor as a personal insult. In 1742 Benedict XIV reaffirmed the decision of Clement XI in a detailed condemnation of the Rites, the bull Ex Quo Singulari, which remained in effect until it was reversed by Pius XI in 1935.  Persecution of Christians, both Chinese and foreign, was renewed with the approval of Emperor K’ang–hsi; and a third extinction of Christianity in the Middle Kingdom seemed imminent.

But this time the Christian faith did not entirely disappear. The astronomical skills of the Jesuits were still required; and the emperor’s son and successor, Yung–cheng, permitted a small number of Jesuits to remain in Pekin. They continued the work of winning converts in the capital; but even in the provinces missionaries of various Orders continued to preach, usually in secret. Persecutions were intense and martyrdoms numerous during the next century. The suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773 meant the end of the work in Pekin begun there by Ricci, but the faith he had helped to spread endured. In 1839, the year in which China was forcibly and violently opened to colonization by the West, there still remained scattered communities of Christians, despite the persecutions of the preceding decades.

This brief summary of early Catholic missionary work in China brings into focus three problems which had become apparent well before the beginning of the nineteenth century. First is the issue of dependence on and identification of missionaries with a foreign power. The Patronage of Portugal was theoretically ended by Urban VIII in 1633; but many Chinese continued to regard Christianity as a foreign religion associated with the practices of traders in the port of Macao. This view of Christianity as an alien phenomenon was aggravated by the second problem, the reluctance on the part of Europeans to ordain Chinese priests. The third issue, wrangling between missionaries, in this case within and between religious Orders, was a major factor in the Rites Controversy which further widened the gulf between China and Rome. These problems intensified during the nineteenth century and they remained unsolved until the time of Lou Tseng–Tsiang and Vincent Lebbe. 






THE tragedy of the Rites Controversy provides the background to the proscription of Christianity by the Manchu emperors. The Christian religion had become a symbol of much that was foreign and possibly dangerous to the Middle Kingdom; thus missionaries were forbidden to enter China and were usually killed when found. The stability and future of China itself seemed to be at stake, as indeed it was. The western world which Christianity represented had advanced far beyond China in all areas of technology, including the technology of warfare: and the next official opening of China to missionaries would result from events which are still a source of shame to the West – the Opium Wars.

The Chinese traded with the West only on their own terms. Ports were open during specified months of the year, and commerce was permitted only as local officials and the Imperial Court allowed. Western merchants regarded Chinese restrictions on commerce as intolerable, and armed conflict became inevitable.

Lin Tze-hsu Letter to Queen Victoria Queen Victoria

The concept of mutually-binding treaties with barbarian “tributary peoples” was unknown in China; so it was an act of uncommon courtesy for Lin Tze-hsu, the commissioner appointed to end the detested opium trade, to write Queen Victoria before taking action against the foreign traders. He then proceeded in 1839 to impound and destroy over twenty thousand chests of opium, an act perfectly in keeping with the Chinese way of thinking, but one which provided a casus belli for the English.

China had nothing to match the force of the British ships which were brought against her, and was promptly defeated. The treaties of 1842-1844 ceded Hongkong to Britain and opened five Chinese ports to foreign trade and residence. Foreigners were to be subject only to their own laws and were under the protection of the local consul. Travel into the interior was still forbidden; but the French and American treaties guaranteed freedom of religious worship and the right to build churches in open ports. Thus the Middle Kingdom had not only been humiliated by barbarians through defeat in war; the Chinese were now forced to endure the presence of their enemies’ missionaries and opium traders in the coastal cities. Certain of the  Mandarins tried diligently to prevent these “evils” from spreading into the interior, and persecution of Christians continued.

In the years which followed France came more and more to assume the role of protector of Catholic missionaries in China. Napoleon III felt that playing the role of defensor fidei would strengthen his political position in France .  In 1854 a French priest ministering in the forbidden interior of China was executed, together with his flock. This event together with the seizure by the Chinese of a British–registered ship in 1856, provided France with an opportunity to join with England against China. The principal reason for the war which followed was dissatisfaction on all sides with the treaties and trade agreements of 1842-44; but the French professed to have evangelical motives. The significance of this was not lost on the Chinese: Christian missionaries had profited from the first Opium War; the spread of their perfidious religion was now being used as an excuse for the second Opium War.

China was again defeated. The foreign traders stayed, and the greatest beneficiaries of the humiliating treaties of 1858-60 were the missionaries. Not only were the Chinese required to permit evangelization in the interior of China; but both missionaries and their converts had the right of recourse to foreign consuls, thus placing them above the jurisdiction of local Chinese officials. This system was principally utilized by Catholic missionaries, all of whom were technically considered to be French subjects while in China, and who thus obtained both for themselves and their converts the protection of the French authorities.  The exempt status of missionaries did much to increase Chinese antipathy towards foreigners and their religion, and the latter years of the nineteenth century were filled with outbreaks of hostility against Christianity and its heralds.









Benedict XIV, Maximum lllud (1919) in Modern Missionary Documents and Africa, tr. The Catholic Institute for International Relations, ed. R. Hickey (Dublin, 1982) pp. 30-47.

Vincent Lebbe, Correspondence, in Cahiers de la Revue Theologique de Louvain vols. 5,7,i 9 (Louvain-Ia-Neuve, 1982 & 1983)

Leo Xlll, Ad Extremas (1893) in The Papal Encyclicals, tr. Claudia Carlen (Raleigh, 1981) pp.307-309.

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Matthew Ricci, China in the Sixteenth Century, The Journals of ·Matthew Ricci: 1583-1610, tr. L.J. Gallagher (New York, 1953).




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