It was hidden in plain sight. For almost 1400 years, a leaning, frail looking tower-like structure had existed on a wind-swept hill. Fifty miles outside the Chinese city of Xian, the Da Qin pagoda is another living testament to the existence of Christianity in China in the 7th century. (For more on Xian and the Church of the East in China, see my two posts from November, Buried For 700 Years and What Else Lies Buried?)
A few weeks ago I trudged up a muddy path with a few colleagues, amazed that I was finally going to see the structure that many scholars believe was built by a group of Persian Church of the East missionaries. Led by a monk named Alopen, they had come to China along the Silk Road, arriving in the Xian (then called Chang’an) area in 635 C.E, the capital of the T’ang dynasty. (The name Da Qin has a meaning of from the west, or from the Roman Empire. Alopen and his group had indeed arrived from the west, though not from the Roman Empire. It has also come to mean “of the Christians” for many.)
In this post and a follow-up one I will discuss more about the evidence that this structure was indeed a Christian church or part of a monastic complex. This is not undisputed, and in fact the actual site has for many years had a group of resident Buddhist monks, who have adorned it with small Buddhist altars in the front area. During most of our several hours there we heard continuous chanting indicative of a site believed to be a Buddhist sacred space.
One of the strongest evidences that it was originally a place of Christian worship many centuries ago is that in 1625, nearby in a field, the two-ton stone stele, or tablet was found. Called the Nestorian Stele, and now able to be viewed in a museum in Xian, this monument had been erected in 781 and had been carved with details of the history of the Church in East in China from 635 until that point. This carving of historical and religious proclamations on stone was an established part of Taoist and Buddhist culture for many centuries. (See my post on it from November, Buried for 780 years.)
For almost 13 centuries, until early in the 20th century, the Da Qin pagoda or temple had remained hidden in plain sight. But then in 1937, in a book published by Japanese Church of the East scholar P. Saeki, the site of a tower was identified on a map that Saeki claimed was a remaining building of a Christian monastic complex. A few years prior to that a group of Chinese scholars had visited in 1933 and also believed in its Christian roots. Saeki himself never actually visited the site, but his map has drawn others there.
Many years later, in 1998, a British writer followed Saeki’s map and found the site of the pagoda. His name is Martin Palmer, and he has chronicled his journey in a book on the Church of the East in China called The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity. On pg. 18-19, Palmer described his first visit to the structure, and I can certainly relate to the emotions he felt that day. Here is what he found, “And there is was. Across the valley, about a mile and a half away, a solitary, magnificent pagoda rose like an elegant finger pointing to heaven. Excitement rose in us all. Nw we had to find out if this really was the building we were looking for.”
“Sitting beside the temple entrance was an old woman selling amulets. We turned to her and, after gently declining to buy a cheap plastic amulet of Lau Zi (the founder of an indigenous faith in China called Taoism), asked who the pagoda belonged to. ‘It’s Buddhist,’ she said, again offering us a cheap plastic Buddha amulet. My heart sank. Thanking her, I turned away. ‘But it hasn’t always been Buddhist,’ the old lady said. Turning back I asked her what she meant.
“‘Oh no. It used to be Taoist.’ Disappointment hit me like a brick. Thanking her again I turned once more to go away. ‘But it doesn’t really belong to either of them,’ continued the enigmatic old lady. I turned again and asked her to elaborate. ‘Before either of them it was founded by monks, who came from the West and believed in One God.’ (emphasis mine)
“Her words struck me like some ancient prophecy. They were words I could have never dreamed of hearing. Monks from the West who believed in One God could only mean Christians… By now I was in a state of high excitement. Not only was the pagoda still standing, but local legend said it was Christian. Now we needed physical proof.”
I had read this book, The Jesus Sutras, in 2005, just before beginning my doctoral studies on the Church of the East. Finally getting to be at the site of the finding of the Stele as well as Da Qin was a great thrill, and I can identify with Palmer’s excitement. In the next post I will write more about the need for physical proof as Palmer mentioned at the end of the above quote. I’ll also relate an amazing meeting my colleagues and I had with the present curator of the site when we visited just six weeks ago.
It may be hard to believe that a structure of such historical importance was hidden in plain site in China for almost 1400 years. But is that of any greater surprise than a stone tablet being discovered after being buried for 780 years.