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Christianity and Islam in the Tang (618–906) and Song (960–1279) Dynasties

Plate in the shape of a flower

Plate in the shape of a flower. China; Tang dynasty (618–906). Glazed earthenware. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P524.

Nestorianism was the first branch of Christianity brought to China. After breaking from the Western church during the Council of Ephesus in 431 over differences concerning the nature of the Holy Trinity, Nestorians took refuge in Persia and dispersed widely through Asia. The record of the 781 Nestorian Monument (discovered in 1623, during the Ming dynasty) in the Tang capital has been translated as follows:

In 635, during the reign of Emperor Taizong [627–649], a Nestorian missionary A-lo-bun came to the capital of China, Chang’an. He was received by the prime minister Fang Xuanling. A-lo-bun stayed in the capital and translated Nestorian scriptures there. In 638, Emperor Taizong issued an edict concerning Nestorianism. In the edict, Taizong considered that the teachings of Nestorianism were helpful to human beings, and he permitted the Nestorians to teach their doctrines freely throughout the empire.

It was characteristic of Nestorians to adopt many Buddhist and Taoist terms in interpreting and explaining their faith. For instance, the missionaries adopted both the Taoist term “the Way” and the Buddhist term “the Law” in their writings.

Nestorianism persisted in China until 845 when the emperor Wuzong banned Buddhism and Nestorianism. Buddhism rapidly recovered after the ban was lifted. However, the ban virtually ended the Nestorians’ history during the Tang. It was not until the Yuan (1271–1368) that Nestorians returned to China.

“Seek knowledge even unto China,” the Hadith quotes the Prophet Mohammed as saying. About two decades after the death of the Prophet, the third Caliph of Islam dispatched a deputation to visit the Tang court of Emperor Gaozong. This event in 651 marked the beginning of Islam in China. Consistent with the Tang policy of tolerance of various religions, Emperor Gaozong permit- ted the practice and teaching of Islam in China and ordered the construction of a mosque. Due to the good relations between the Tang and the Arab empires, many Muslim merchants came to China to do business, and they played a major role in spreading Islam in China.

By the time of the Song dynasty, Islam was firmly established in China. Muslim merchants immigrated to China and gradually settled in commercial centers such as Quanzhou, Guangzhou, Yangzhou, and Huangzhou. In these cities, Muslims built their communities and mosques. One surviving example is the Shengyou Mosque at Quanzhou. The mosque was built in 1009 with a dis- tinctive medieval Arabic minaret. Muslim merchants mingled with the local people and acquired influence in the locale. For example, a descendent of Arab Muslims named Pu Shougeng was appointed as an official in charge of the international trade in Quanzhou in the late 13th century. Even though during the course of Tang and Song, Islam was primarily the religion of Arab immigrants and their descendents, it went on to flourish in China during the Yuan dynasty. Today, China has more than ten million Muslims.

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