See the Current
Stones indicate earlier Christian link?
By Wang Shanshan (China Daily)
One day in a spring, an elderly man walked alone on a stone road lined
by young willows in Xuzhou in East China's Jiangsu Province. At the
end of the road was a museum that few people have heard of.
A Chinese theology professor says the first Christmas is depicted in
the stone relief from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220).
In the picture above a woman and a man are sitting around what looks
like a manger, with allegedly "the three wise men" approaching
from the left side, holding gifts, "the shepherd" following
them, and "the assassins" queued up, kneeling, on the right.
As he wandered into the dimly-lit gallery, he was stunned by what he
saw. Was he standing, he asked himself, in front of the famous Gates
of Paradise in Florence?
Wang Weifan, a 78-year-old scholar of early Christian history in China,
said he saw images from Bible stories similar to those engraved in the
doors of the Baptistry of St John. But in Florence he didn't.
Even so, the art objects could be more precious in their own way if
the early Christian clues that Wang believes he detected can ever be
confirmed. They are from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), China's
parallel to the Roman Empire, and almost a millennium older than the
gilt-bronze gates of Florence.
"There was Christmas. There was Genesis. There was Paradise Lost.
They were on display, one by one, on 10 stone bas-reliefs excavated
from an aristocrat's tomb in the Han Dynasty," said Wang, a professor
of theology at the Jinling Theological Seminary in Nanjing, as he told
his story to China Daily.
Before Wang's discovery tour to the Han Dynasty Stone Relief Museum
in 2002, no one seriously believed that, merely 100 or so years after
the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, his teachings could have reached as
far as to China.
There were myths. There was legend. But hardly any evidence.
But now Wang says the early Christian connection with China no longer
seems entirely groundless. "It really happened," he said.
The reliefs were carved on the stone tablets from two tombs, discovered
in 1995 at a place called Jiunudun, or "Terrace of Nine Women,"
in suburban Xuzhou. Many stone reliefs were found when tombs at the
site were first excavated in 1954.
Art historians have long believed that the stone carvings portray the
tomb owners in their life after death in ancient China. The styles and
the themes were simliar to those found in Shandong Province.
But Wang has a different interpretation.
"The Bible stories were told on the stones in a kind of time sequence,"
One of the reliefs showed the sun, the moon, living creatures in the
seas, birds of heaven, wild animals and reptiles - images that Wang
linked to the Creation story in Genesis.
"Another one depicted a woman taking fruit from 'the tree of knowledge
of good and evil' and a snake biting her right sleeve," Wang said.
"It also included the angel sent by God to guard the tree. That's
similar to the 'Eve Tricked by the Serpent' story in the Bible."
The professor thought at first it was Judaism in which the owner of
the tomb possibly believed, but what he saw in two of the stones changed
"There were four fishermen in the picture," Wang said of an
image in the eighth stone. "It reminded me of the story in the
New Testament about Peter, Andrew, James and John, (four of Jesus' disciples)
who were all fishermen."
And in the sixth stone, a woman and man are sitting around what looks
like a manger, with three men approaching from the left side, holding
gifts, and other men queued up, kneeling, on the right. In that scene,
Wang said he saw the first Christmas.
The bas-reliefs followed the artistic style of early Christianity in
the Middle East, Wang said.
"Some have decorative designs of the Arabic number 8, formed by
two rare animals crossing their necks. They were almost the same as
designs on Uruk oval seals found in the Euphrates River and Tigris River
valleys in the Middle East," he said.
Scholars agree that the date of the tomb is in the mid-to late Han Dynasty
period, which could be anywhere from about AD 100 to 220. And it seems
equally clear that the aristocrat buried in it commissioned artisans
to carve the scenes.
But could he have been a Christian?
If Wang's suspicions are right, the time of Christianity's arrival in
China could be as early as the end of the 1st century, more than 500
years before the widely recognized date.
However, Wang's opinion is opposed by a number of Chinese historians,
archaeologists and other scholars.
Historians currently believe that Christianity had been introduced to
China by the middle of the 7th century.
In evidence is a stone stele, about 2.75 metres tall, bearing inscriptions
about an AD 635 meeting between a Nestorian Christian monk named Alopen
from Syria and Chinese Emperor Taizong (599-649) of the Tang Dynasty
The stele, excavated in 1625 in Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's
Shaanxi Province, documented Taizong's approval to spread Christianity.
Xi'an, called Chang'an in the Tang era, was the capital of one of the
most open and prosperous dynasties in Chinese history.
Nestorians were believed to be the first Western expatriates in China,
according to Wang Meixiu, professor at the Chinese Academy of Social
But the Nestorians had little time to convert the Han. Emperor Wu Zong
abolished Buddhism and other religions except Taoism in AD 845.
Christianity flourished to different extents three other times before
the 20th century: during the Yuan (1271-1368), late Ming (1368-1644)
and early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, and after the First Opium War
Both Nestorians and the Catholics arrived in the second wave in the
13th century, and Christianity flourished again mainly among the ruling
Mongols and the ethnic minority groups.
But its influence vanished soon after the Mongols retreated to the northern
grassland when the Yuan Dynasty fell.
Catholic missionaries who arrived from the 16th to the 18th centuries
converted a number of Han including a Chinese prime minister named Xu
Guangqi (1562-1633), but their achievements failed to continue in the
early 19th century for complicated reasons, Wang Meixiu said.
In the late 19th century, Christianity flourished for its fourth time
in China with the arrival of Western colonialists.
St Thomas in Asia
But as it often happens, legends that do not go exactly in line with
the official history have been handed down for millennia.
One of them concerns the arrival of Christianity in China in the 1st
century, said Gu Weimin, historian and professor at Shanghai University,
in his book "Christianity and Modern Chinese Society," published
by Shanghai People's Publishing House in 1996.
According to the legend, St. Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles, left Jerusalem
for Babylon and from there sailed to India. He landed in Cranganore,
now called Kodungallur, on the southwestern coast of India, about 1,300
kilometres south of Bombay.
Legend says that after Thomas established a base of operations there,
he headed for China. He was killed in India in AD 72 after he returned
from the trip.
Both J. Xaveriana (1506-52) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), two of the
most influential missionaries from the Society of Jesus, claimed in
their writings that they found evidence supporting that Thomas had made
his way to China successfully. They said they were quoting evidence
from documents in Indian and Roman churches, Gu said.
"If St Thomas really made it, he should have left some clues for
us to find," he added.
One of those clues could be the 10 stone bas-reliefs in the aristocrat's
tomb, which, archaeologists have determined through various methods
including carbon dating, was built during the Eastern Han Dynasty.
"The owner of the tomb, about whom little has been known, was probably
a Christian, though he was not necessarily converted by St Thomas or
his disciples," Professor Wang Weifan said.
"It was natural that people had a statement made in their tombs
of their identities," remarked Qi Tieying, president of the Yanjing
Seminary in Beijing. "It happened that Christians usually buried
a copy of the Bible with them.
"The tomb owner probably commissioned artisans to make the beautiful
stones stating his beliefs."
Other scholars, however, doubt Wang Weifan's opinion. About Wang's linking
the reliefs to the Bible stories. Zhu Qingsheng, professor at Peking
University, said: "Stone reliefs from the Han Dynasty can be interpreted
in too many ways because they are all vague and dim."
And Xin Lixiang, director of the department of archaeology at the National
Museum of China, was more direct.
"Fancy those stones having anything to do with Christianity!"
he said. "I am more than familiar with those reliefs in the Jiunudun
Tomb and cannot imagine their telling the Bible stories. It's impossible."
Other Chinese theological researchers also thought the Nanjing-based
professor's interpretation "hard to believe."
"Why was such an evidence of early Christianity was found only
in Xuzhou?" said Wang Meixiu, of the Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences. "The city lies inland, away from the ancient route of
communications between the East and West. How could the ancient Christians
travel there without leaving any trace in those towns along the route?"
Xin cited a parallel in the arrival of Buddhism to China.
"As often was the case, foreign religions first arrived in China
through international transportation," he said. "There were
recent pieces of evidence of the arrival of Buddhism during the Han
Dynasty, also earlier than it is commonly thought. But they were all
collected from excavation sites in coastal cities, such as Lianyungang
and Yinan, both on the East China Sea. Little, so far as I know, could
be obtained from Xuzhou, which is more than 250 kilometres away from
Besides their location in an inland city, the date of the reliefs is
also problematic when considered as evidence of the arrival of Christianity,
according to Tong Xun, professor at Beijing Union University.
"The timing of the 1st century is too early to be true," she
said. "Christianity was far from being well-established then. Even
at its place of origin, it spread mainly among the disadvantaged people
Despite the many objections of the other scholars, Wang's discovery
will definitely arouse the interest of historians in the Chinese Christian
community, who will take up the research, said Qi, of Yanjing Seminary.
"They are not going to say no to Professor Wang without making
investigations, because he is the 'flagship' historian in the Chinese
Christian community," Qi said. "He is a master not only of
the Christian history in China, but also of Chinese art and culture.
"There could be an earthquake in the world's Christian community
and probably outside it if Professor Wang is right.
"World history could be rewritten."