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Xi’an: Stelae and Secrets

Journeys to the East

In a park in Xi’an, a hidden temple reveals the history of Christianity in China

By NewsChina Updated Apr.1

The Christian temple! Of course we know it,” said the driver. “It’s very old, you know. At least a thousand years old.” I was on the outskirts of Xi’an, in the Louguantai park, looking for one of the oddest religious buildings in China – a 1,300-year-old church, the Daqin Pagoda, later a Buddhist monastery. 

I’d always had a personal interest in visiting the Daqin Pagoda. It was my father, Martin Palmer, who rediscovered the site in the 1990s, using Japanese colonial maps to relocate it and make its existence known to the outside world. The locals had always known about the temple, of course – it was right there. But the importance of the site had been lost, even to the local government. 

Today, though, the site is a tourist attraction. As part of the long history of foreign religions in China, it’s a curious stop on a rich and enlightening tour around Xi’an. Contemporary Chinese read the name “Daqin” as referring to the Roman Empire, but in its original usage it often referred to either the Byzantine Empire, Rome’s successor, or to Syria. It was one of these second usages that gave the site its name – a reference to its original function as a Christian church, long before it became a Buddhist monastery. 

The pagoda itself is a six-story building, leaning slightly and worn with the ages. It’s been restored in the last decade, and a small exhibition put up that tells the story of the site and of Christianity in China. Next to it is a copy of the famous “Nestorian Stele,” recording the history of the faith in the Middle Kingdom.

 Much of the site is still shut off for restoration purposes, but if you ask, the local custodians will erect a rickety ladder for you to climb into the pagoda itself. There you can see the ruins of murals that some (like my father) claim show Christian scenes, such as the Annunciation and Jonah preaching before the walls of Nineveh. It was hard to tell, since so little was left, but the sense of awe at peering at the millennia-old murals and engravings by flashlight is an amazing thing. 

Christian missionaries arrived in China by the 6th century, if not earlier. They were Nestorians, who split from the regular Orthodox Church over a finicky debate about the nature of Jesus and Mary. Nestorians dominated Syria before the arrival of Islam, and from there spread across the Middle East into India, Central Asia, and China – hence Daqin’s name, the “Syrian Pagoda.” It was Nestorian monks who, in 551, successfully smuggled silk worms out of China to the Byzantine Empire, breaking what had once been a Chinese monopoly. 

The first official mission recorded in China was led by a Syrian monk called Alopen by the Chinese (probably originally Abraham), who arrived in the imperial capital of Chang’an – modern day Xi’an – in 635. The ruling Tang Dynasty was interested in and tolerant of foreign religions, including Manicheanism, Buddhism and Christianity, and the Taizong Emperor welcomed the group, asking them to translate their texts for the imperial libraries and preach their doctrine. 


Xi’an is one of China’s most popular tourist destinations, famous chiefly for the Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor, and for the magnificent and wellpreserved city walls, wide enough to park doubledecker buses side by side on. Flights are easy and common, and the city is full of a range of hotels, from the very cheap to the very glitzy. 

The Forest of Steles, or Beilin Museum, is an easy trip; taxi drivers know the Beilin Bowuguan well. Alternatively, you can take the subway to Wenchangmen Station, or a range of city buses. Reaching the Daqin Pagoda is a little trickier. There are regular tourist buses to the nearby village and temple of Louguantai that go from the north side of the square by the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an at 11:30 and 3:30, or regular buses on the hour from Fengqing Road.  
Louguantai itself has a gaudy but pleasant hotel right opposite the temple, the Louguan Resort Hotel, with friendly staff. They speak some English, and may be a source of help if you want to reach the pagoda. Local taxi drivers all know the site, either as the Daqinta, or as the ‘Christian temple’ - Shijiaotang. While you’re in the village, check out not only the Daoist temple and the beautiful park, but also the breeding center – which, depending on when you visit, may include a chance to see anything from the famous pandas to the somewhat less famous monkeys. 

You can see the original stele and read about Alopen at what should be an essential stop in Xi’an, the brilliant Beilin Museum, or the “Forest of Steles.” A stele is a stone slab or pillar covered in text, usually recording a particular achievement or commemorating someone. Beilin collects literally thousands of them from across China, spanning from the 6th to the 19th century. If you’re into Chinese calligraphy, this is a golden collection of the masters. Even those of us who can’t tell one squiggle from another can appreciate the beautiful form of the writing as a form of art in itself. 

Walking among the collected monuments, you can feel the weight of the past – the accumulated learning, and boasting, of dozens of generations. Some of the stelae are scarred or battered, a few barely legible – but others preserve the records of a thousand years ago as clearly as if they were written yesterday. 

One of those is the “Nestorian Stele,” or the Daqin Jingjiao Liuxing Zhongguo Bei – “the monument to the luminous religion of Daqin.” Jingjiao, “luminous religion,” was the first Chinese term used for Christianity; confusingly, it also came to refer to Manicheans, another Syrian-imported religion with Christian influence, and even to Buddhist sects. The monument was originally put up in 781 by the Christian community in Xi’an – and written in both Chinese and Syriac. It records a thriving community, spanning several Chinese cities, recounts the doctrine of the faith and Alopen’s mission – and like most stelae, heaps lavish praise on the emperors just to be on the safe side. Christianity seems to have enjoyed a certain imperial patronage, possibly as a club to wield against the Buddhists when their support got too strong in the endless court-theological contests of the Tang. 

That patronage didn’t last, however. Six decades after the stele was erected, it was buried – to keep it safe from a wave of religious persecution sweeping China. With Daoism, China’s only native religion, ascendant at court, the imperial authorities closed down tens of thousands of Buddhist monasteries in 845 and forcibly defrocked or deported hundreds of thousands of monks. Buddhism, originally an Indian faith, was slammed as a foreign import – and Christianity was caught up in the wake. The stele wasn’t rediscovered until the 17th century, when the Jesuit monks in the Qing Court were able to explain its origins and restore its place in Chinese history. 

Ironically, although the Daoists led the persecutions, the Daqin Pagoda is preserved near a much larger Daoist site – Louguantai, with its own famous – but much-restored – temple. It was from that spot that Lao Tzu, the legendary founder of Daoism, allegedly headed to the West and disappeared. Daoists like to claim that he taught the Buddha in India, but that the Buddha got all his teachings wrong, not being that bright. That’s an obvious slander – but I did think Lao Tzu would have appreciated the site being the final destination for preachers coming to the East, even as he headed to the West.