Description and Significance of the Nestorian Stele, “A Monument Commemorating the
Propagation of the Da Qin Luminous Religion in the Middle Kingdom”
The limestone monument known in the West as the Nestorian Stele, Tablet, or Monument
is arguably one of the most important documents in the history of Christianity and East-West
relations. This engraved stone monument, now housed in the Forest of Steles Museum (西安碑
林博物館) in Xi’an (西安), the capital city of Shaanxi Province in central-northwestern China,
eulogizes the history of the Assyrian Church of the East in China between 635 C.E., the year this
branch of Christianity arrived there, and 781 C.E., the year the stele was erected. The jingjiaobei
(景教碑), as the stele is called in Mandarin Chinese (漢語), stands just over 9 feet high by over 3
feet wide and is slightly less than one foot thick.1 The text eloquently conveys its narrative using
nearly 1,900 inscribed Chinese characters and approximately 70 words and 70 personal names in
Syriac, the latter appearing mostly along the bottom of the face and on the two sides of the
As stated in the stele’s inscription, the composer of the text was a Christian priest named
Jingjing (景淨), or Adam in Syriac, and the calligrapher was Lu Xiuyan (呂秀巖).3 The text
consists of three sections. The introduction is primarily doctrinal. It relates how a supreme,
triune, creator Being responded to the disobedience of humanity by being born to a virgin in Da
Qin (大秦), a name that loosely refers to the Roman Empire.4 The inscription summarizes the
life and mission of this Son, or Messiah (弥施訶), and states that works of scripture were
preserved. In addition, it describes the way of life and liturgical practice of his followers in
China, who named this doctrine Jingjiao (景教), the Luminous Religion or the Religion of
Light.5 The second section of the inscription relates the history of the first 146 years of the
Church in China. In the year 635 C.E. (early Tang Dynasty, 618-907 C.E.), a priest named
Alopen (阿羅本) traveled from Da Qin (most likely Syria) to Chang’an (長安), then the capital
of China and now named Xi’an, and met with Emperor Taizong (太宗). This tradition’s
scriptures were translated into Chinese, and after studying them the emperor issued an imperial
edict in 638 endorsing the dissemination of the religion throughout China. Monasteries were
built in Chang’an and many other cities, monks served the needs of the poor and the sick, and the
Jingjiao community enjoyed imperial gifts and support. With thanksgiving for the success of the
Luminous Religion in China, the writer concludes with a celebratory poem. The inscription then
documents that the stele was unveiled on February 4, 781, and subsequently lists approximately
70 names of Christian clergy, written in both Syriac and Chinese.6
It is not clear where the monument was originally erected. It is believed that it was………
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1 P.Y. Saeki, The Nestorian Monument in China (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1928), 12; Michael Keevak, The
Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and Its Reception in the West, 1625-1916 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong
University Press, 2008), 8.
2 P.Y. Saeki, The Nestorian Documents and Relics in China (Tokyo: The Maruzen Co., 1951), 41-2; Saeki, The ……………………
Nestorian Monument, 14-5.
3 Saeki, The Nestorian Monument, 162-180, 245.
4 Keevak, 8-9; Saeki, The Nestorian Monument, 162-180, 207.
5 Keevak, 5, 8-9; Martin Palmer, The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity (New York:
Ballantine Wellspring, 2001), 43.
6 Keevak, 8-9; Saeki, The Nestorian Monument, 35, 162-180, 207.