Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Nestorian Stele 

Sally from the Youth Hostel has been pestering me to go to the Banpo museum of Ancient history. Today, she offered to take me there. She told me it was a museum of ancient history, but ancient history doesn't quite say it. This is not really ancient history, this is prehistoric. These people supposedly lived six thousand years ago. I would question the dating on that, but they clearly predate any sort of Chinese culture. When we got there today, the actual ruins were being renovated, so we were not able to see them. They are in the process of building a large pavilion to house and protect the ruins. I think this place will be worth seeing when it is finished. But it was still good for me, because it gave me a basis for research. For example, I looked up "Banpo" on the internet this evening, and found that it is called the "Banpo Neolithic Village."

After viewing the village design in the part of the museum that was still open, I asked Sally and her friend, Heather, if they wanted to go with me to the Forest of Steles (BeiLin). The Forest of Steles is so named because it is a collection of large stone tablets containing inscribed writings. But I didn't really come to see the forest. I came to see one "tree." One stele from the Tang Dynasty (below). It is a stone tablet about eight or nine feet high, which contains the story of the Nestorian missionaries coming to China in 635 AD. The text of the story was written by a Nestorian missionary from Persia, and inscribed by a calligrapher in 781 AD. So it tells the history of the Nestorians up to that point, which would be close to 150 years after they came. Christianity was forbidden shortly after that, and the stele was lost for almost a thousand years before it reappeared in the 17th Century. It is an extraordinary document, because it establishes the presence of Christian missionaries in China during the Tang dynasty.

It would take a far better historian than me to assess the impact of the Nestorians on that most creative of periods in the history of China's many dynasties. But the mere fact that they were here is significant, and just as significant is the fact that they seem to have disappeared almost as suddenly as they appeared. Perhaps their failure was in the fact that they did not distinguish themselves clearly enough from the world around them. At any rate, there was no continuing Christianity, that I know of, between the time of the Nestorians, and the Nineteenth Century, when missionaries from the West again came to China.

I took this picture with my little pocket camera, and without any special lighting, so you really have to expand it quite a bit to see the writing, but it is quite amazing to contemplate that this stone document was inscribed some twelve hundred years ago. Who knows what forces of man and nature it has managed to resist to stay alive all these centuries?

And in other news, Rainbow from the youth hostel managed to get me a soft sleeper to Beijing for tomorrow. It's time to go home.

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