Ching-Ching (Adam) (Eighth Century)
Christians Who Changed Their World

A Nestorian epigraph from China. (Baomi / Wikipedia Commons)

Nestorian Christianity was established in China in the seventh century through the work of the Persian missionary Alopen. Although it seems that most Christians in China were foreigners, several rose to important positions in the Empire. Among these was Issu, whose Persian name was Yazdbozid.

Issu was the son of a missionary priest from Balkh, now in northern Afghanistan. He was simultaneously a Christian priest and a high-ranking general in the Chinese army. It may seem odd that a priest would also be a general in the army, but Buddhist and Christian priests both served as military commanders in China. Issu was also an assistant to the Nestorian bishop of Chang’an (the capital city, modern Xian) and was known for his generosity to the poor.

Issu had a son named Adam, also known by his Chinese name of Ching-Ching. Like his father, he became a priest of “the Luminous Religion,” as Christianity was known in China, and eventually rose to become bishop. He is best known today for composing the text of the Nestorian Monument.

The Nestorian Monument
The Nestorian Monument was put up in 781 at the behest of Issu, Ching-Ching’s father. It tells the story of Christianity in China from Alopen’s arrival and summarizes the key teaching of the “Luminous Religion.” Not surprisingly, Ching-Ching devotes an entire paragraph to Issu. The text describes Issu as follows:

Our great benefactor, the Imperially-conferred-purple-gown priest, I-sz' [i.e. Issu], titular Great Statesman of the Banqueting-house, Associated Secondary Military Commissioner for the Northern Region, and Examination-palace Overseer, was naturally mild and graciously disposed; his mind susceptible of sound doctrine, he was diligent in the performance; from the distant city of Râjagriha, he came to visit China; his principles more lofty than those of the three dynasties, his practice was perfect in every department; at first he applied himself to duties pertaining to the palace, eventually his name was inscribed on the military roll. When the Duke Koh Tsz'-í, Secondary Minister of State and Prince of Fan-yang, at first conducted the military in the northern region, the Emperor Suhtsung made him (I-sz') his attendant on his travels; although he was a private chamberlain, he assumed no distinction on the march; he was as claws and teeth to the duke, and in rousing the military he was as ears and eyes; he distributed the wealth conferred upon him, not accumulating treasure for his private use; he made offerings of the jewelry which had been given by imperial favor, he spread out a golden carpet for devotion; now he repaired the old churches, anon he increased the number of religious establishments; he honored and decorated the various edifices, till they resembled the plumage of the pheasant in its flight; moreover, practising the discipline of the Illustrious Religion, he distributed his riches in deeds of benevolence; every year he assembled those in the sacred office from four churches, and respectfully engaged them for fifty days in purification and preparation; the naked came and were clothed; the sick were attended to and restored; the dead were buried in repose; even among the most pure and self-denying of the Buddhists, such excellence was never heard of; the white-clad members of the lllustrious Congregation, now considering these men, have desired to engrave a broad tablet, in order to set forth a eulogy of their magnanimous deeds.1

This is a good illustration of the important position Nestorian leaders held in the T’ang dynasty.

After this, the Monument outlines the beliefs of the Nestorians.

The Nestorian Monument’s theology as a whole is orthodox. It includes a statement on the Trinity and goes on to discuss creation, human nature as created good, the Fall, and salvation through Christ. None of the issues that divided “Orthodox” and “Nestorian” in the West appear here, and in fact it would be hard to convey the distinctions between the two in the Chinese language. In discussing the Christian life, the Monument advocates a solid balance of worship, piety, social action, and evangelism. It adapts Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian terminology to express these ideas, making some people concerned about syncretism, though the terminology could equally be seen as contextualization of the Christian message in terms understandable in Chinese culture.

There are some odd omissions, however. The Monument includes nothing about the Crucifixion or Resurrection. This is obviously troubling, but given that other documents from the Nestorians in China discuss these in detail (including some attributed to Alopen), the omission in this Monument does not seem to be particularly significant.

Ching-Ching as Translator and Scholar
Along with composing the text of the Nestorian Monument, Ching-Ching was a scholar and translator. This was not surprising; Christians in many cultures were known for their linguistic abilities and work as translators. Ching-Ching was credited in The Book of the Honored Ones, a tenth-century document, with translating thirty works. Among other things, he prepared translations and paraphrases of the Bible, including the Gospels, portions of Acts, Paul’s Epistles, and the Psalter; he may also have translated parts of Isaiah and the Torah.

One of his translations was the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. J. Foster prepared a free translation of the Chinese version of this hymn:

The angels of the highest heavens in deepest reverence praise.
Great earth, its universal peace doth call again to mind.
And man’s own spirit-nature knows his refuge and repose.

The Powers Three in Alaha2 their gracious Father find …
Great Holy-One Who art adored by all, Messiah Thou,

We praise Thy gracious Father for his ocean-store of love.
Great Holy-One Who dost proceed from Him, the Holy Ghost,

We know Thy will shall here be done, all human thought above.3

Ching-Ching’s translation work has raised some controversy due to his collaboration with the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna. Prajna arrived in China in 782, the year after the Nestorian Monument was created. He brought with him Buddhist sutras which he was asked to translate into Chinese. Since he knew neither Chinese nor “Hu” (Uighur), he approached the famous scholar and translator Ching-Ching to help him with the translation. Ching-Ching agreed, and the two of them set to work translating the Buddhist sutras, making them available in Chinese for the first time.

These translations contributed to the development of Buddhism in China; they may have had an enormous impact on Japanese Buddhism as well given that Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, and Dengyo Daishi, the founder of Tendai Buddhism, the progenitor of Zen Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism, were at the same monastery in Chang’an as Prajna while he was working with Ching-Ching on the translations.

This incident raises a number of questions that are difficult or impossible to answer. What is a Christian pastor doing translating texts on behalf of a missionary from another faith? Did the Emperor ask him to do the translation? If so, he may not have had a choice; our only source on the incident is silent on this point, though it seems likely that whatever the circumstances, Ching-Ching worked with Prajna willingly. Was this a matter of scholarly collaboration and an attempt to understand Buddhism better? Philip Jenkins’ description of the event is as likely as any:

Together, Buddhist and Nestorian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical goodwill, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued: So, what exactly is this “bodhisattva” we hear so much about? Do you really care more about relieving suffering than atoning for sin? And your monks meditate like ours do?4

Especially in light of the use of Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian terminology in Chinese Christian texts mentioned above, this incident raises the question of whether Ching-Ching and other Nestorians were too accommodating to the non-Christian religions of the area. Did Ching-Ching create a syncretistic version of Christianity, combining it with elements of Buddhism?

On the whole, it seems this was not the case. The surviving Nestorian texts retain their essential orthodoxy despite the foreign language they use to describe the faith; some even warn against syncretism. The linguistic borrowings seem simply to be a matter of adapting imagery that was familiar to the Chinese to the Nestorian message.

More interesting is the possibility that the influence worked in the other direction: it seems that the Buddhists were concerned that Ching-Ching was importing Christian ideas into the Buddhist texts. In other words, he was not trying to make Christianity more Buddhist, but it was feared that he was trying to make Buddhism more Christian. This suggests that Ching-Ching was known as a faithful Christian whose beliefs were thought likely to influence his scholarship and translations, and who would be unlikely to be seriously influenced away from Christianity by the Buddhist texts he was translating.

Samuel Moffet’s conclusion on this point is that “a consensus has emerged that from the limited evidence available T’ang-dynasty Christianity was neither heretically Nestorian nor fatally syncretistic.”5 It thus appears that Ching-Ching and his companions upheld orthodox Christian belief in the middle of a religiously diverse Empire while at the same time playing an active role in scholarship, cultural life, politics, and even the military.

1 Some spelling errors were corrected.

2 A name for God, probably a transliteration of a Syriac word.

3 Quoted in Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. 1, Beginnings to 1500 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 301.

4 The Lost History of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 15-16.

5 A History of Christianity in Asia, 312.

Next Steps

Do you have any relationships with practicing believers from other religions? How are you able to keep your faith “non-syncretistic” as you maintain these friendships?

Further Reading:
Try “An Army of Worms” for a piece on evangelism in modern China. For a book on how Christianity has grown in our time, go to the Online Store and purchase God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China.

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.