The Nestorian Stele of 781 A.D. T’ang China: Our Story in Their Story


One of the Seven Wonders of the Christian world is in Xian, China, the starting point and terminus of the original Silk Road. It is the Nestorian Stele, a 10 foot stone tablet carved in 781 A.D. to commemorate the 150 year history up to that point of the work of the Church of the East in China. Sometime in the 840’s, under intense persecution, the Christians buried it in a field outside Xian. (then called Chang’an). It remained buried until the 1640’s, when a farmer uncovered it and alerted the Jesuit missionaries from Europe who lived in the area. (See my blog posts Hidden in Plain Sight For Almost 1400 Years, Part 1 and A World Beyond Trump: Hidden in Plain Sight for 1400 Years, Part 2, and What Else Lies Buried?)

Last week I was giving a lecture at an academic conference at Princeton Theological Seminary,. Teaching at this institution for many years was Prof. Samuel Hugh Moffett, author of, in my opinion, the best overview of the History of Christianity in Asia in two volumes. The first volume, which I highly recommend to people interested in going deeper in Asian Christian history, goes up to the year 1500 and has lots of excellent information on the Church of the East history, including in China.

After my lecture in an upstairs room of the library building, I walked over with some colleagues to look at a copy of the Nestorian Stele (or monument), one of several copies in the world. (The original, which I’ve seen, is prominently displayed in a museum in Xian.) It is in a framed glass case, and was presented to Princeton in the 1930’s, I believe. I took a photo, only to discover that the lighting was too strong on it. Now it is no secret that I’m not a skilled photographer, but in this case an interesting thing happened when I looked at the picture. As you can see in the accompanying photo to this post, due to the lighting my reflection is in it, right down the central part.

Seeing my reflection on the Stele in the photo got me thinking about how our stories intersect with the story of others in history. The story of the Church of the East in China, told in part in this Stele from 781, is a series of stories of people. It may seem very remote from us today, but as we learn more about them, and tell those stories to a new generation, we enter into that story. It becomes our story as well. One of the most exciting things about history is when we discover connections in stories, and how we can relate to those connections.

I spend quite a bit of time trying to imagine what the lives of those that have gone before us were like. What were the stories of the first group of Persian missionaries led by Alopen who arrived outside the walls of ancient Chang’an sometime in 635 A.D.? What routes did they travel across Asia to get there? What were their strategies as they arrived to spread the faith of Christianity? There are many things we do not know. But the carving of the Stele in 781 gave us some answers to how the history unfolded over the next 146 years.

History is to a great degree about stories. And the more we can see ourselves relating to those stories through connections of interest, passion or actual relatedness will increase the level of hunger to know and spread those stories. Sometimes people tell me that history to them is boring. Perhaps when told without passion, or without any connection to stories, it may be. But history in actuality is anything but boring. It is incredibly exciting, filled with the reality of countless people who lived and died in light of eternity.

I love that my photo was reflected on the photo of the Stele. It affirms a connection I long for with the history of the Church of the East in China in the 8th century. It embeds me in a story that needs to be recalled more often, and more deeply.

What history, what stories, do we long to be more connected to? To be more embedded in?

3 thoughts on “The Nestorian Stele of 781 A.D. T’ang China: Our Story in Their Story

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s