spiritual use of images in ancient Chinese Christianity

Spiritual use of images helped to communicate Christianity across ancient Asia.  Within three centuries of Jesus’ death, Christianity probably had spread across Asia to western China.[1]  Christianity surely had reached the Chinese capital by the early seventh century.  In 638, the Chinese Emperor declared:

Bishop A-lo-pen of the Kingdom of Ta-ch’in, bringing with him the Sutras and Images, has come from afar and presented them at our Capital.  Having carefully examined the scope of his teaching, we find it to be mysteriously spiritual, and of silent operation.  Having observed its principal and most essential points, we reached the conclusion that they cover all that is most important in life, and that this Teaching is helpful to all creatures and beneficial to all men.  So let it have free course throughout the Empire.[2]

This imperial edict presents both text and images (“Sutras and Images”) as authoritative communication of Christian teaching.  The variously translated phrase “mysteriously spiritual, and of silent operation” possibly indicates a contrast between the spiritual work of paintings and that of sound-making spiritual instruments common in Buddhism.[3]

Avolokitesvara, a male Buddhist diety who became Guanyin in Chinese Buddhism

Christians in China in 638 appreciated images’ spiritual potency.  As part of welcoming Christianity to his realm, the Emperor ordered the construction of a Christian monastery in the Chinese capital city.  The capital city was Xi’an, modern-day Chang’an.  Twenty-one Christian priests lived in the newly constructed monastery.  The Emperor contributed to this monastery his own intermediating portrait:

Immediately afterwards {after “proper authorities” had constructed the monastery}, the proper officials were again ordered to take a faithful portrait of the Emperor, and to have it copied on the walls of the monastery.  The celestial beauty appeared in its variegated colours, and the dazzling splendour illuminated the Luminous portals.  The sacred traces conferred great blessings, and illuminated the holy precincts for evermore. [4]

The above text is not a non-Christian Chinese description of the Imperial portrait’s effects.  The text is inscribed in Chinese on the Xi’an stele that Christians erected in the Chinese capital city to proclaim their history in China.  The description of the Imperial portrait’s effects probably parallel Christians’ understanding of the effects of Christian sacred paintings.  Even if the description was a conventional Chinese description, the Imperial portrait’s claimed effects apparently did not offend the Christians’ spiritual sensibilities.  They chose to include that description in their proclamation of Christian history in China.[5]

Other evidence indicates that Christians’ spiritual use of images made by human hands existed across Asia before Islam.  Al-Buruni, writing in the early eleventh century among highly learned central-Asian scholars, indicated that icons were imported into Arabia from Syria prior to Islam.[6]  Early in the seventh century, Gabriel of Beth Qatraye in north-eastern Arabia declared that an icon is required at the height of the Christian liturgy:

The Cross and the Gospel are placed on the altar, and above them the icon of our Lord, amidst which the awesome Mysteries are consecrated: these fulfil the place of the person of our Lord …  Accordingly it is not at all permitted for the Holy Mysteries to be consecrated without the proximity of the Cross, the Gospel and the icon of our Lord.[7]

In a manuscript setting forth answers to 23 liturgical questions, Ishoʿbarnun, Patriarch of the Church of the East from 823 to 828, described an extraordinary use of icons:

Question 10 (f.371b), concerns the case of a priest who, in an emergency, has to baptize his own child when there is no one else apart from the mother — his wife — available to “receive” the child (that is, act as godparent). Isho’barnun’s solution to this dilemma is to say that the child should be placed on an icon instead, the person portrayed thus acting as godparent.  Specific reference is made here to an “icon of our Lord” (yuqneh d-Maran) if the infant is a boy, and an “icon of the Blessed” (Mary), if it is a girl.  Later on in the questions there is a passing reference to “icons of the saints” (Question 21, f.373b).  [8]

The question is like those of Roman rhetorical displays.  The rhetorically challenging aspect of the question is a priest having to baptize his own child with no one other than the child’s mother — his wife — present.  Those are highly unusual circumstances.  The solution is an unusual use of icons.  That solution implicitly suggests that icons had well-establish use in usual circumstances.

Religious competition across Asia encouraged Christian spiritual use of images. Asia about 600 was religiously diverse.  Different religions engaged in decentralized competition for adherents.[9]  Images were an advantageous media of spiritual communication.  In central Asia early in the eleventh century, al-Biruni reported:

as common people will only acquiesce in pictorial representations, many of the leaders of religious communities have so far deviated from the right path as to give such imagery in their books and houses of worship, like the Jews and Christians, and, more than all, the Manichaeans. [10]

The Manichaean prophet Mani (lived c. 216-276) gained renown as an extraordinary painter.  A Manichaean holy book, the Arzhang or Artang, featured many painted images.  Al-Biruni quoted “the following words of Mani”:

The other religious bodies blame us because we worship sun and moon, and represent them as an image.  But they do not know their real natures; they do not know that sun and moon are our path, the door whence we march forth into the world of our existence (into heaven), as this has been declared by Jesus. [11]

In the late third century, the Zoroastrian prelate Kirder declared that throughout the Sassanian Empire (centered in present-day Iran) he had advanced Zoroastrianism and assailed other creeds:

And Jews and Buddhists and Brahmans and Aramaic and Greek-speaking Christians and Baptizers and Manichaeans were assailed in the land.  And images were overthrown, and the dens of demons were {thus} destroyed, and the place and abodes of the yazads {Zoroastrian fire-temples} were established [12]

Kirder declared that he helped to preserve Zoroastrian fire-temples in Syria, Anatolia, and up through Armenia and Georgia, including in the major Christian cities Antioch, Tarsus, and Caesarea.[13] However, doctrine and leaders opposed to the spiritual use of images created a competitive disadvantage.  Without offsetting advantages such as those of Islam, such doctrine and leaders were less likely to endure.

While the Byzantine Empire had a marginal position in Asia, spiritual use of images in Byzantium was probably similar to the spiritual use of images among Christians across Asia.  Recent work on Byzantine iconoclasm argues that the Islamic challenge to the Byzantine Empire increased Byzantine demand for spiritual communication and spurred Byzantine spiritual use of images made by human hands.[14]  A claim that Byzantine failures and Islamic successes prompted a spiritual crisis in Byzantine is plausible.  However, a trans-Asian perspective suggests that sufficient demand for the use of images made by human hands existed before Islam among Christians in Byzantium and across Asia.  Within the Roman Empire, Christian writers’ polemics against “pagan idolatry” probably represent particular elite problems and conflicts, not a stark Christian-pagan divide in common practices of spiritual communication.[15]

For understanding spiritual use of images in ancient Christianity, the broadly competitive visual-spiritual circumstances of ancient China provide better insight than the circumstances of Byzantine iconomachy.  Giovanni Marignolli, a Roman Catholic papal envoy to China, traveled across Asia and through southeastern China from 1339 to 1347.  He observed:

The Jews, the Mongols, and the Muslims, consider us {Roman Catholics} to be the worst of idolators, and this opinion is not confined to the pagans {non-Christians} only, but is held by some of the Christians.  For although those Christians show devotion to pictures, they hold in abomination images, carved faces and alarmingly life-like sculptures such as there are in our churches. [16]

Marignolli’s claim of Roman Catholic visual leadership, reflected in the self-consciously ironic expression “worst of idolators,” isn’t convincing. Christians in Asia outside the Roman Empire didn’t use crucifixes or cultic images in the round, but they did use icons and other figurative religious images.  No evidence exists of them attacking three-dimensional images.  Mongolian Buddhists commonly used images and sculptures in spiritual communication.  Richly illuminated caves and manuscripts found around Dunhuang indicate the vibrant visual, figurative culture of Central-Asian Buddhism dating from the fourth century through the next millennium.

Spiritual use of images did not readily distinguish Chinese Buddhists, Christians, and Manichaeans.  Consider the curious report of Marco Polo.  Marco Polo reported that he gained the trust of a secret group of Chinese believers in southern China about 1292.  He discovered that this group was reading Psalms and had in their temple paintings of three apostles. They revered and celebrated those apostles through those images.  The group said that they had preserved their faith for seven hundred years.  They now lacked priests and knowledge of their faith’s chief beliefs.  The combination of some holy text and some sacred images, however, had been sufficient for them to persevere in their faith.

Marco Polo concluded that the Chinese believers were Christians.  He urged them to declare themselves to the Emperor, who would be sympathetic to their faith.  Whether the group were Christians or Buddhists became a matter of dispute in the Emperor’s court. That such a dispute occurred suggests considerable similarities existed in general religious practices among Chinese Christians and Buddhists.  Moreover, while Giovanni Marignolli bragged that in fourteenth-century China, Roman Catholics were considered “the worst of idolators,” Marco Polo consistently and distinctively referred to Chinese Buddhists as “idolators.”  The Emperor gave the believers that Marco Polo identified the choice of declaring themselves to be Christians or Buddhists.  The group chose to declare themselves to be Christians.  Marco Polo estimated that those Christians numbered 700,000 households in southern China.[17]

Marco Polo’s identification of the believers as Christians is far from convincing.  Most scholars think that at least a large share of the believers were actually Manichaeans.  Recent study of tombstone inscriptions in Zayton strongly indicates that some Chinese Christians preserved their faith through centuries to Marco Polo’s time.[18]  The believers that Marco Polo identified could have included some Chinese Christians.  At least one ancient Manichaean shrine with a large figurative Manichaean sculpture became a Buddhist shrine and an object of Buddhist worship.[19]  Distinguishing Buddhists from Manichaeans or Christians in practice apparently was rather difficult.

Chinese Christians in church at Qoco, perhaps Palm Sunday, late 9th century

Christianity in Tang-era China was called “the way” and “the luminous religion.”  The name “the way” directly corresponds to the central, distinctive Christian proclamation that Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life.”  The term “luminous religion” could apply to Buddhism or Manichaeism as well as Christianity.[20]  In Asia, spiritual images played an important role in Buddhism, Christianity, and Manichaeism.  The story of Jesus, not its media of communication, distinguished “the way” in Asia.

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[1] From at least 2500 years ago, mobile pastoralists in the Eurasian steppe have connected Persia to China. Roman men in the first and second centuries complained about the immodesty of Roman maidens’ rage for diaphanous silk dresses, and they treasured silk scrolls.  Christianity could have moved across Asia to China as easily as silk traveled westward.  Christians lived in Gilan, southwest of the Caspian Sea, and Bactria, in present-day Afganistan, about 196.  More than twenty bishoprics existed in northern Mesopotamia and Persia in 225, including in the city of Forat, along the Tigris River just north of the Persian Gulf, and in the city of Beth Qatraye, in north-eastern Arabia. See Mingana (1925) pp. 298, 301, 302; Seray (1997) pp 207-8.  By 500, about 30% of Christians in the world lived in south-central Asia.  Calculated from Johnson & Chung (2004) Table 2.  The earliest Chinese Christians were probably Jews in China who heard and believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

[2] Imperial Edict of the Emperor T’ai-Tsung, trans. Saeki (1951), App. No. II, p. 450, apparently from official records.  The edict was also recorded on the Xi’an Stele, with one additional clause.  See id. pp. 57-8.  The Xi’an Stele is alternatively called the Nestorian Stele or Nestorian Tablet.  Christian presence in China before 638 is historically documented:

it is recorded in Chinese History that even in 587 A.D, already a great Nestorian {eastern Christian} family of Mar Sargis immigrated from the Western Lands to Lin-t’ao, Kan-su.

Id. p. 86.  Moreover, as described in the previous note, that Christians were in China centuries earlier is plausible.

[3] For “mysteriously spiritual, and of silent operation,” the Horne (1917) translation has “purely excellent and natural” and the Charbonnier (2007) translation (p. 30), “mysterious and transcendent nonaction.”

[4] Xi’an Stele, trans. Saiki (1951) p. 58.  I’ve adapted the translation slightly using the translations of Horne (1917) and Charbonnier (2007).  The Xi’an Stele indicates that Chinese Emperor Hsuan-tsung (712-755 GC), who was surnamed “the Perfection of the Way,” supported the Christian monasteries against Buddhist attacks:

In the early part of the period T’ien-pao {742}, he gave orders to his general Kao Li-shih to carry the faithful portraits of the Five Emperors and to have them placed securely in the {Christian} monastery, and also to take the Imperial gift of one hundred pieces of silk with him.  Making the most courteous and reverent obeisance to the Imperial portraits, we feel as though “we were in a position to hang on to the Imperial bow and sword, in case the beard of the Dragon should be out of reach.”  Although the solar horns {the Imperial portraits} shine forth with such dazzling brilliance, yet the gracious Imperial faces are so gentle that they may be gazed upon at a distance of less than a foot.

Id. p. 60.  Eastern Christians in ancient China perceived great power in images of Chinese emperors.  That they also perceived such power in sacred Christian figural images is also highly probable.

[5] The Xi’an Stele itself attributes its erection, with a Syrian-language attribution, to “Lord Yazedbouzid, priest and chorepiscopus of Kumdan, the {Chinese} Royal city.”  Id. p. 68.  Yazedbouzid was the son of a church leader in the central-Asian city of Balkh.  The spiritual power that early Christians in China attributed to images was probably representative of Christians’ beliefs across Asia.

[6] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910), vol. 1, p. 123. Al-Biruni is probably referring to Marian icons imported from Syria to Arabia before Islam.

[7] Gabriel of Qatraye, Commentary on the Liturgy, sec. 45-6, trans. Brock (2003) pp. 211-2.

[8] Brock (2003) pp. 200-1, describing the contents of the unpublished manuscript Vatican Borg. Syr. 81.

[9] Religious competition in China about 600 was particularly diverse and vigorous.  Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Manichaeism all competed for adherents.  Jews also lived in China.  Moreover, within these individual conventional labels of religions were many competing groups of believers.

[10] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910), vol. 1, p. 111.

[11] Id. vol. 2, p. 169.  The Shahnameh, written from 980 to 1010 in the Central-Asian Samanid and Ghaznavid empires, describes Mani as a “painter’ and “image maker” who was a “man from China.”  In the Shahnameh, the chief (Zoroastrian) priest of King Shapur Zu’l Aktaf says to Mani:

You love images; why do you foolishly strive with God in this way … Why do you put such trust in images, ignoring the advice of the prophets?  Images are multiple, but God is one, and you have no choice but to submit to him.  If you could make your images move, then you could say that this is a demonstration of the truth of what you say.  But don’t you see that such a demonstration would fail?  No one is going to believe your claims.

Shahnameh, trans. Davis (2007) p. 598.  The Zoroastrian priest speaks here as a good Muslim.  The concern about making images move suggests that Mani or his followers made such claims about images.

[12] From the inscription of Kirder on the Ka’ba-yi Zardusht (composed under Vahram II, 276-293 GC), trans. Boyce (1984) pp. 112-3.  The inscription itself describes Kirder in various ways, including Kirder the Mobad of Ohrmazd, and Kirder the Herbad.

[13] Id.

[14] Brubaker & Haldon (2011), esp. pp. 58-60, 777.

[15] See, e.g. Tertullian’s De idolatria (On idolatry).

[16] Travel notes of Joannes de Marignolis, ed. and trans. Yule & Cordier (1913), vol. III (no. 37) p. 264.  The underlying Latin text describing the offending items is “abhominantur larvas, facies, et horrendas sculpturas sicut sunt in ecclesiis.”  The term “larvas,” translated above as “images,” is probably better translated in this context as “crucifixes.”

[17] Marco Polo, The Description of the World, trans. Moule & Pelliot (1938) pp. 349-350 (Ch. 156, “Here he tells of the city of Fugiu {Fuzhou}”).  The story of the Chinese crypto-Christians is found only in the fourteenth-century Latin Z manuscript, discovered in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932. Scholars regard that story as authentic to Marco Polo.

[18] Lieu (2012) p. 34.  Id states:

Undoubtedly, there were very large numbers of foreign Christians, especially members of the Church of the East, in China under the Mongols, but some of the surviving material from Quanzhou, especially inscriptions on simple tombstones which are entirely in Chinese, is inexplicable in the context of a religion predominately adhered to by foreigners.

A Christian monk who identified himself with the city of Najran traveled in India and China from 980-987 at the order of a Christian bishop.  Reporting his personal conversation with the monk in late tenth-century Baghdad, al-Nadim wrote:

{The monk said that} the Christians who used to be in the land of China had disappeared and perished for various reasons, so that only one man remained in the entire country. He mentioned that they had had a church there which was destroyed. He said, “When I saw that there were none to whom I could give support in their religion, I returned in less time than I had gone.

Al-Nadim‘s Fihrist, trans. Dodge (1970) v. 2, p. 837.  The monk’s statement shouldn’t be interpreted literally.  The monk probably traveled only to Xi’an, the historic center of Christianity in China.  Under persecution, Christians plausibly would have deserted Xi’an and moved elsewhere in China.  A sutra-stele discovered at Luoyang in 2006 dates itself to 829. It has flying figures of angels flanking a cross on a lotus flower.  The continuity between that iconography and the iconography of Christian tombstones in fourteenth-century Zayton (Quanzhou) indicates continuous Chinese Christian culture from the ninth century to the fourteenth century.  On the art at Quanzhou, see Parry (2012).  For recent scholarly discussion of the Jingjiao Stone Pillar from Luoyang, see the program of the 3rd International Conference on the Church of the East in China and Central Asia, June 4-9, 2009, Salzburg, Austria.  The program photo shows only the cross, not the flying angels.  The flying angels have iconography similar to a Buddhist flying apsara from Dunhuang.

[19] The Cao’an Temple on Huabiao Hill in Jinjiang City, Fujian, is a rare surviving Manichaean temple currently used for Buddhist worship. It includes a large statute of Mani worshipped as the Buddha of Light.  This informative article includes photos of the Cao’an Temple on Huabiao Hill and the Mani Buddha of Light sculpture.

[20]  The imperial edict of 638 giving Christians freedom in China names Christianity as “The Way.”  The imperial edict of 745, which renamed Christian monasteries from “Persian monasteries” to “Roman monasteries” (Da Qin or Ta-Ch’in) names Christianity as the “Luminous Religion” (Jingjiao).  Source texts, trans. Saiki (1951), App. II & III, pp. 456-7.  The phrase “the way, and the truth, and the life” is from John 14:6.  Christian Chinese documents from the Tang era use the name “Roman Luminous Religion” (Da Qin jingjiao). Tang administrators often used the term “Roman religion” (Qinjiao) when referring to the Church of the East.  Lieu (2012) pp. 27-8.  Tang-era Chinese Christian texts described Christianity with terms and concepts closely associated with Taoism and Buddhism.  Raguin (2002).  For detailed discussion of historical usage of the terms “Da Qin” and “jingjiao” in China, see Lieu (2009).


Boyce, Mary. 1984. Textual sources for the study of Zoroastrianism. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books.

Brock, Sebastian P. 2003. “Gabriel of Qatar’s Commentary on the Liturgy.” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, vol. 6.2, pp. 197-248.

Brubaker, Leslie, and John F. Haldon. 2011. Byzantium in the iconoclast era (c. 680-850): a history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Charbonnier, Jean. 2007. Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000. San Francisco, Calif: Ignatius Press.

Davis, Dick, trans. 2007. Firdawsī.  Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings. London: Penguin.

Dodge, Bayard Dodge. 1970. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: a tenth century survey of Muslim culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Horne, Charles F., ed.  1917. The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East.  New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb; Vol. XII, Medieval China, pp. 381-392 (Xi’an Stele translation).

Johnson, Todd M., and Sun Young Chung. 2004. “Tracking Global Christianity’s Statistical Centre of Gravity, AD 33 – AD 2100.” International Review of Mission. 93 (369), pp. 166-181.

Lieu, Samuel N.C. 2012. “3. The Church of the East in Quanzhou.” In Lieu, Samuel N. C. 2012. Medieval Christian and Manichaean remains from Quanzhou (Zayton). Turnhout: Brepols.

Lieu, Samuel N.C. 2009.  “Epigraphica Nestoriana Serica.”  Iranica: Herausgegeben von Maria Macuch, Band 17.  Harrassowitz Verlag: Wiesbaden.

Mingana, Alphonse. 1925. The early spread of Christianity in central Asia and the Far East: a new document. Manchester: University Press.

Moule, A. C. and Paul Pelliot. 1938. Marco Polo. The Description of the World.  2 vol. G. Routledge & Sons: London.

Parry, Ken. 2012. “11. The Art of the Christian Remains at Quanzhou.” In Lieu, Samuel N.C. 2012. Medieval Christian and Manichaean remains from Quanzhou (Zayton). Turnhout: Brepols.

Raguin, Yves. 2002. “Jesus-Messiah of Xi’an.” Tripod, v. 22., no. 124.

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Saeki, Yoshiro. 1951. The Nestorian documents and relics in China. Tokyo: Toho Bunkwa Gakuin: Academy of Oriental Culture, Tokyo Institute.

Seray, Hamad Bin. 1997. “The Arabian Gulf in Syriac Sources.”  Pp. 205-232 in Smart, J.R., G. Rex Smith, B.R. Pridham. Majallat Al-dirāsāt Al-ʻArabīyah Al-jadīdah. New Arabian studies 4. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Yule, Henry and Henri Cordier, trans. and eds. 1913. Odorico, Rashīd al-Dīn Ṭabīb, Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, Joannes de Marignolis, Ibn Batuta, and Bento de Góis. Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society.

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