Nestorian and Franciscan Missions

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Nestorian and Franciscan Missions



Foreign Missions. Christian missionaries from the West began to enter China in the seventh century to preach and spread their faith, build churches, and convert the Chinese. Although they increased their influence slowly, they were finally expelled from China because of changes in political circumstances, as well as the antagonism and fear stimulated by a religion that never adjusted to certain essential Chinese attitudes and practices. The Chinese generally looked upon Christianity as “foreign,” and though its indirect influence in China was substantial, it never at any time appealed to any significant portion of the population. Both Buddhism and Islam were more successful than Christianity in China.

Nestorian Church. Nestorianism, a branch of Christianity practiced primarily in Syria by followers who had splintered off from the Eastern Orthodox Church, was introduced into China in 635 by Olopen (known as Jiang

Jiao), a monk from Da Qin (Syria). The Tang emperor Taizong welcomed him and asked him to build a church and monastery in the capital and to translate his religious books into Chinese. In addition, he and his followers were authorized to spread their faith. By the time a stela was erected in the year 781, Nestorianism, known as Qinjiao(Luminous Religion), had won many believers and the sup-port of some of the most prominent people, including the supreme commander of the army and chief ministers of state, who spent much money on restoration of churches and support of monks and priests. During the reign of Gaozong, the son and successor of Taizong, churches were constructed in many major cities, and for a moment Christianity looked like it would flourish throughout the empire.

Nestorian Influence. In the early Tang period (618-907) there was substantial cooperation between Buddhists and Nestorians, and in fact, the latter helped to introduce Buddhism into the early Tang dynasty. The Nestorians, however, suffered from many obstacles placed by, and persecution from, their Buddhist competitors. The Nestorian church, along with other “foreign” religions, was attacked during the great persecution of 842-845, and it was not until the thirteenth century that Christians were again allowed overtly to practice their religion in China. Nestorian missionaries were successful in converting many people in Central Asia—such as Uighurs, Kirghiz, Khitans, Keraits, Naimans, and Alans. After Mongol troops finally occupied China, during the reign of Kublai Khan, great movements of population throughout the empire resulted in the settlement of many Christians in China. The French Franciscan friar William of Rubrouck, who was sent to investigate the potential for Christian expansion in Asia, visited the court of the great Mangu Khan at Karakorum in 1253 and claimed that there were Nestorians in fifteen Chinese cities, as well as one bishop. It was said that there were thirty thousand Nestorians living in China during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). With the downfall of the Mongol empire, the toleration of Christians in Ming-era (1368-1644) China came to an end, and the Nestorian church vanished.

Destruction. Several factors, in addition to the chauvinism of the Ming rulers, were responsible for the total demolition of the Nestorian church. The faith in Western and Central Asia was nearly eliminated by the expansion of Islam and the esoteric Buddhism known as Tantrism. The Chinese, as well, could not easily identify the major differences between Nestorian and Buddhist ceremonies, so they shifted their interest to Buddhism or Daoism.

Franciscans. The Franciscan mission started its work in China around the middle of the thirteen century and continued throughout the Yuan dynasty until it was completely eliminated around the middle of the fourteenth century, a relatively short period of evangelization. The grand Mongol empire, after occupying the whole of Central Asia in the thirteenth century, carried out liberal policies toward religion, wanted to soak up foreign ideas, and employed distinguished and learned intellectuals, no matter what religion they practiced. In 1280 Kublai Khan established an office in charge of supervising Christian activities.


Nestorianism, a branch of the Christian faith that was practiced in Syria, arrived in China in the seventh century. In 781 a stone was erected in Chang’an in honor of the faith. A portion of the inscription on the stela appears below:

The true Lord is without origin, profound, invisible, and unchangeable; with power and capacity to perfect and transform, He raised up the earth and established the heavens.

Divided in nature, he entered the world, to save and to help without bounds; the sun arose, and darkness was dispelled, all bearing witness to his true original.

The glorious and resplendent, accomplished Emperor, whose principles embraced those of preceding monarchs, taking advantage of the occasion, suppressed turbulence; Heaven was spread out and the earth was enlarged.

When the pure, bright illustrious religion was introduced to our Tang Dynasty, the Scriptures were translated, and churches built, and the vessel set In motion for the living and the dead; every kind of blessing was then obtained, and all the kingdoms enjoyed a state of peace.

When Kau-tsung succeeded to his ancestral estate, he rebuilt the edifices of purity; palaces of concord, large and light, covered the length and breadth of the land.

The true doctrine was clearly announced, overseers of the church were appointed in due form; the people enjoyed happiness and peace, while all creatures were exempt from calamity and distress.

When Hmen-tsung commenced his sacred career, he applied himself to the cultivation of truth and rectitude; his imperial tablets shot forth their effulgence, and the celestial writings mutually reflected their splendors.

The imperial domain was rich and luxuriant, while the whole land rendered exalted homage; every business was flourishing throughout, and the people all enjoyed prosperity.

Sources: Charles F. Home, ecL, The Sacred Booh and Early Literature of the East, volume 12, Medieval China (New York: Parke, Austin & Lipscomb, 1917), pp. 381-392.

“Ch’ing-Tsing: Nestorian Tablet: Eulogizing the Propagation of the Illustrious Religion in China, with a preface, composed by a Priest of the Syriac Church, 781AJD.,” East Asian History Sourcebook <>,

Visiting Priest. At that time the Roman Catholic Church in Europe was interested in Asia and determined to send a mission to the Mongol empire. John of Montecorvino (Giovanni da Montecorvino), the first Roman Catholic priest to visit China, was permitted to construct a church in Beijing in 1300. He began to evangelize the Chinese, and by 1305 he had converted about 6,000 persons to Catholicism. He took about 150 boys under his protection and educated them in the Christian faith, helping them to learn Greek and Latin and then hiring them to transcribe Christian texts.

Growth. Early in the fourteenth century the Pope sent another mission to Beijing in order to help John increase Roman Catholic influence in China, while promoting John to archbishop and patriarch of East Asia. In 1313 a rich woman donated money to construct a church in the port city of Chuanzhou (Zayton), which had a close trade relationship with the Persian Gulf. This church was later made a cathedral to which a friary was attached, and other churches were constructed in the city in the following year. Undoubtedly, the Christians, part of a large foreign commercial population in Chuanzhou, needed these churches. By the time of Archbishop John’s death (1328) the Roman Catholic Church was well established in the capital and other cities, such as Hangzhou. Among its believers were some remnants of the Nestorian church, Armenians, and members of a Caucasian tribe who in the beginning were adherents of the Eastern Orthodox faith.

Decline. The Christian missionary force in China was relatively small and was repeatedly reduced by death. The Pope tried several times to send groups of missionaries from Europe to China, but few of them were able to finish their lengthy and dangerous trips to the East. Maintaining the mission was nearly impossible, despite the aggressive efforts of the Roman Catholic Church. Few native Chinese were converted to Christianity, and the Church comprised mainly foreign merchants, businessmen, alien Christian residents, and some Nestorians who were persuaded to join the Catholics. Subsequently, when a fierce persecution of foreign religions started again in the early Ming period, the missionaries were driven out of China. The scattered groups of Christians did not have any native leaders to hold them together and the influence of the Catholic Church declined.


E. R. Hughes and K. Hughes, Religion in China (London 8c New York:Hutchinson’s University Library, 1950).

Francois Jullien, The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China, translated by Janet Lloyd (New York: Zone, 1995).

Frederick W. Mote, Intellectual Foundations of China (New York: Knopf,1971).

D. Howard Smith, Chinese Religions (New York: Holt, Rinehart 6c Winston, 1968).