Yes, here I am. At one of the wonders of the world. Not just from late 8th century China, but from any century. Last week I stood again in front of the ‘Nestorian Stele’, an over 10 foot tall monument filled with the history of the Church of the East in China from their arrival in 635 A.D. until it was erected in 781 A.D. It is done in the style of any other Stele in the T’ang Empire, and other Empires as well. Thus showing the desire of the Christians in China to communicate their history and message in a cultural form that was understandable.
I have blogged before about the Stele (See The Nestorian Stele of 781 A.D. T’ang China: Our Story in Their Story and Buried For 780 Years) but this was my second opportunity to visit. It is held in a museum in Xi’an, China called The Forest of Steles, as there are over 7,000 different pillars communicating different messages from poetry to Imperial proclamations. A key difference in this Stele is that it has not only Chinese characters on it but also Syriac, the language of liturgy of the Church of the East. It also has a cross near the top, which you can make out if you look closely.
It is hard to describe my emotions when I see it again. As on the first time, I want to burst into tears. Not only because it is such a priceless piece of primary evidence for the Church in China at such a early period. But because for almost 800 years it was buried in a field about an hour from Xi’an, then known as Chang’an, the capital of 13 different Chinese dynasties. To think of this majestic piece of stone having been buried out of sight for so long. Then found by farmers, and surviving all the centuries through all the changes in China and the world. It is not in a museum in the West. It is in Xi’an.
This artifact should be on the list of the seven wonders of the ancient world, in my opinion. Or the seven wonders of any world. As I have blogged about before, it brings up the key question, what else lies buried? Here is what Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, wrote in 1931 in his wonderful series of letters on world history to his 13 year old daughter, a future Prime Minister herself, Indira Nehru (Gandhi):
‘It is much more likely, however, that many of them (old buildings) still lie under the surface of the soil, waiting to be dug up. And as we dig them up and find old relics and inscriptions, the past history of our country will gradually open its pages to us, and we shall read in these pages of stone and brick and mortar what our ancestors did in the old, old, times.’
Nehru is writing there of India, and the history that most surely still lies buried under the ground. I have dreamed of finding new evidences for early Christianity in India that has been buried under the ground, especially in North India. Perhaps we still will one day.
I will not give up hoping until we do.