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24.02.05 Nicolini-Zani, The Luminous Way to the East

24.02.05 Nicolini-Zani, The Luminous Way to the East

Preface: I review this book as an English professor who has published on Marco Polo and is interested in the global Middle Ages--not a Sinologist or Syriac religious-studies specialist. My review is likely most useful for other English/Western medievalists in the TMR community who will engage these Eastern texts with the fascination of a “general reader,” for such readers are specifically welcomed by this book (see x), which seeks to be read widely and not just by advanced scholars in Eastern religious studies.

This majestic volume is Matteo Nicolini-Zani’s (MNZ) La via radiosa per l’oriente: I testi e la storia del primo incontro del cristianesimo con il mondo culturale e religioso cinese (secoli VII-IX), Magnano: Edizione Qiqajon (2006),translated into English by William Skudlarek (2022) in a “revised and enlarged” translation of the original Italian, funded by the Yoga Science Foundation (Ashland, OR). MNZ presents an amazing collection of Christian texts that witness the presence of the Eastern (sometimes misleadingly called the Nestorian) church in China during the Tang Dynasty, part of a network of communities established by missionaries of the Eastern Syriac Church.

As Sebastian Brock says in his Foreword, the book can also offer relief and hope to the minority Christian communities currently in China: “At a time when China is one of the places in the world where Christianity is expanding, it is particularly important that modern Chinese Christians should become aware of the presence of an eastern--and Sinicized--form of Christianity in their country during the Tang period” (x). Readers don't have to share the religious or political ambition set forth here, but nonetheless this volume potentially has more than just a scholarly function. Readers will no doubt engage with the texts variously as teachers, cultural historians, general intellectuals, religious advocates, or as people of faith, be that Western or Eastern or both. The vast bibliography indicates that these texts are by no means understudied, but they are not generally well-known among western medievalists, nor easily available in one locus, with reliable annotation, in an accessible volume in English. So this book provides a fantastic opportunity for European medievalists to learn more about this history and these incredibly compelling religious texts.

MNZ is an accomplished Sinologist and a “monk of the ecumenical Monastic Community of Bose, Italy” (book jacket) who (I would aver) serves in the tradition of Thomas Merton, seeking for historical and spiritual connections between East and West, and wanting both religious communities to contemplate the rich spiritual intertwining of Christianity with Buddhism and Daoism. And that interweaving is dramatically apparent in the texts themselves that comprise most of this volume. To read even a single sentence of these documents is to experience a simultaneous marriage of Christian/Hebrew scripture with the religious traditions of China. The experience defies paraphrase, so I will offer below a few excerpts (drops in a vast sea that readers will want to immerse themselves in).

Anyone who has read the Dao de Jing or any Buddhist Sutra, while at once reading or studying the Bible, will be tempted to carefully parse every statement, every image, every assertion to try to determine how exactly the God of the Hebrews, Jesus Christ, the Buddha’s teachings, and the creative forces of the Dao figure in the texts. So deep is the philosophic merger of the doctrines--as if the very DNA of all the religious traditions has been intertwined--that delineation of any distinctions becomes unnecessary. Rather, this reviewer recommends (and often took the pleasure of) simply contemplating these mergers as a “contemplative” would, for almost each verse has an aphoristic effect, so often the question of where Christianity ends and Buddhism/Taoism begins is joyously mute. This is my reaction, based in part of Brock’s invitation to “skip the footnotes” (x), which is, however, often difficult, because the notes do that detailed work of parsing, explaining the origins in Scripture (Biblical Buddhist and Daoist) of so many verses and explaining the detailed meaning of Syriac and Chinese terms (thousands of phrases are printed in Chinese and pinyin). The footnotes are addictive and full of fascinating information, so reading the texts and notes is a lot like reading the Bible (for obvious reasons) or other allusive and mystical texts like Blake, or Milton--a hour goes by, and you realize that you have only read one page.

The short foreword by Sebastian Brock also explains the history and discovery of the bilingual Chinese-Syriac monumental, eighth-century stele, the source of the most famous of these works (text A in this anthology). Tourists to China can find the original housed in the “Stele Forest” or Beilin Museum in Xian. MNZ’s Preface follows, starting with a passage from Marco Polo where the traveler in 1288 encounters people “whose religion no one understands,” who tell the traveler that they are Christians, just like the Italians, having learned Christian truths ‘from [their] ancestors’” (xi): evidently those converted by the Syriac missions 600 years prior, whose travels and writings are the subject of the book. This episode provides the perfect rhetorical introduction to grip readers as they enter into this ancient history that Marco Polo himself was fascinated to encounter and which also predates by centuries the journeys of William of Rubruck to the court of the Great Khan (just to mention another text that many of us have taught in the context of the Global Middle Ages).

MNZ explains that these texts have been previously available, but that “the past translations into several different languages often show a partial and unacceptable approach to the sources” (xiii) either displaying a prejudicially Christian or Buddhist and Taoist approach, thus either neglecting the “Chinese context in which they were shaped” or their “original Christian contents” (xiii). Therefore “these new translations are accompanied by copious notes to help readers understand concepts, images, and expressions taken from the Chinese cultural religious world...and also to indicate more or less direct references to Christian Sources” (xiii).

Chapter 1, “The Luminous Breeze Blew Eastward,” recounts the history of the “Church of the East from Persia to China,” where MNZ traces (in the absence of any canonical records on a par with Acts or Paul’s Epistles) as best as can be discerned “the footsteps of the missionaries of the church of the East” as they reached finally into the “heart of China” (4). The Christianity that moved East is variously described as “Syriac” or the “Church of Persia,” though the “Church of the East owes its birth to the Church of Antioch” (5). And the term “Nestorian” which MNZ will not use, is discussed as misleading (see 7). The histories of peoples, tribes, kingdoms, rulers, synods, missions and doctrines are pretty thick to plow through in this chapter, and only the seasoned historians of the Near East will move with ease through discussions of the last Sasanian rulers, the Christian communities at Seleucia-Ctesiphon or Sogdiana, the Synod of Yahballaha, the Hephthalite Huns, and the cities of Merv, Herat, and Balkh. And therefore the Western medievalist will find the story of Christianity’s move East fascinating and informative. The archeological, anthropological, and textual data generated by years of complex scholarship have unearthed as best as possible the history of cultural exchange along the Silk Road, revealing how the “Church of the East” benefited from a thoroughfare that allowed it to become a missionary Church” (44).

Chapter 2, The Brilliant Teaching Turned toward the Tang Empire, explores the nature of the Chinese Christianity expressed in the texts, explaining why past designations such as “Nestorian” fail to describe it. Rather, MNZ draws our attention to the way that Christianity was not imposed according to any particular doctrinal designation but rather emerged in concert with existing Chinese beliefs. For understanding Chinese Christianity requires “approaching others with a desire to listen to them on the basis of their identity and not pigeonholing them in categories that in our case would be Western and, what is more, doctrinal” (59). What follows in this chapter is a stunning exploration of the Chinese imagery, symbolism, linguistics, and philosophy (cosmic and ethical) that permeate these Chinese Christian texts, which can thus only be understood as cultural mergers that defy preexisting western designations. Highlights in chapter 2 include discussion of St. Thomas of India (70-72); some fascinating exploration of imperial political intrigue as the backdrop for the history chronicled on the famous stele; evidence of the suppression of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians and Buddhists as heretics; and, importantly, various causes for “the eventual disappearance of the Church of the East at the end of the ninth and the beginning of the tenth century” (79-80), including the “Muslim conquest of Persia,” massacres of Christians and other groups in Guangzhou during the Huang Chao rebellion in 877-78; and the basic fact that in two centuries, “Christianity had failed, or simply had not had enough time and means, to penetrate deeply into the different strata of Chinese society” (84). The chapter also explores the names and titles of the monks on the stele and potential locations of monasteries and Christian communities.

The generously illustrated Chapter 3, The Scriptures Were Translated, focuses on the textual sources used for the edited works, including: an exciting history of the discovery of Xian stele (erected 781); discussion and images of the 815 Luoyang Pillar (which offers both Buddhist and Christian images and thus displays “a cross-cultural approach to religious iconography adopted by the Church of the East in China” (140); and the discovery of this volume’s other major source outside of the stele, the Dunhuang Manuscripts. A full catalogue of the manuscripts of the so-called “corpus ‘nestorianum’ sinicum” thus follows (159-163); and then comes a sub-chapter, The Production and Literary Forms of the Texts, which includes: “Dating and Authorship” (164-69); “Chinese Style Translations and Compositions” (169-77); and a history of approaches to the “Content of the Texts” (177-89), which reveals the limits of an “entirely modern Christian approach” and the evolution of more fitting “intercultural” approaches. In the record of contemporary reception, one constantly wonders how to “quantify the degree of assimilation of Chinese cultural and philosophical-religious elements into the Christian theological system” (181). Understanding the “transformations” wrought by “transmission” and “translation” (182) are ever critical to comprehension of these texts, and relevant here is an awareness of a “pervasive ‘taste for harmony’” (183) in Chinese culture.

Part II features the texts themselves. Text A is the “Stele of the Diffusion of the Luminous Teaching of Da Qin in China”, by Jingjing, monk of the monastery of Da Qin. “Jingjing” refers to “Adam,” the Syriac monk composing the text, and Da Qin is Chinese application of the term “Great China” on to “Rome,” including the near east and here therefore referencing the Syrian lands from which the monks have come, and thus in this inscription meaning, as MNZ reports, “a Christian Monastery in China” (198).

The opening of that text meditates on the Book of Genesis and on the creative power of God understood through the language of Daoist cosmology (square brackets are in the text):

It is said that [there is a being] constant in truth and

tranquility, prior to every beginning and without origin,

profound in intelligence and transparency; a transcendent and

unlimited being, who, concentrating his mysterious power,

creates and transforms [everything]; a supreme honored being,

who inspires all holiness--is this not properly God, the

transcendent person of our Three-One, True Lord without

origin? (198)

It offers as well a description of the “way” that the Christian monks will practice through “fasting,” and in “solitude and meditation” to reinforce “their abstinence by quietude and vigilance,” performing acts of worship, “purifying their heart and thus restoring its purity”:

This true and Unchanging Way is transcendent and difficult to

define with a name. However, its effectiveness is manifested so

brightly that we, striving to describe it, will call it the Luminous

Teaching. The Way cannot be spread without a saint, and a saint

cannot achieve greatness without the Way. [Only] when the

Way and the Saint are bonded together as [the two parts of] an

agreement is the world educated and enlightened. (203-204)

Text B is a Hymn in Praise of the Salvation Achieved through the Three Majesties of the Luminous Teaching, a two-part set of aphoristic verses in praise of God (italics in the text):

THE HIGHEST heavens adore thee with deep deference, the whole

earth meditates continually on thy universal peace and harmony.

Human beings, in their original true nature, find in thee support

and rest, God, Merciful Father of the three domains. (222)

Text C is a Discourse on the One God, which reads a bit like a scholastic text and a bit like Augustine’s On the Trinity, contemplating divine volition, the unity of God, the nature of the human soul, sensual perception, the opposition of earth and heaven (the manifested material world and the divine), the nature of evil, the importance of almsgiving, and a host of other doctrinal, philosophical, metaphysical and ethical matters. It states: “If one wishes to be able to see the One God, the heart must be pure, and serious reflection must follow to be sure that this is so” (241), an idea that recalls many Western medieval texts; the ME Cleanness for example, comes immediately to mind.

This text also contemplates the Incarnation and crucifixion:

Whoever, by lying, claims that he is God deserves death. For this

reason the Messiah was not [recognized as] the Honored One.

[However], in his human body he revealed the Honored One

through his unlimited sanctifying action. His work was not of

human origin, but divine. [Nonetheless] he took a body subject to

the passions, and this is precisely the place of the temptation he

shares with Adam, [and therefore also] with you. (255)

Text D, the Book of the Lord Messiah, provides further discourse on the material and immaterial, the nature of human creation (the notion of theimago dei perhaps), and the nature of evil: “The heavens and the earth are pervaded by numerous and powerful forces of evil” (269). Though this seems like a purely Manichean concept, the text quickly associates these “forces of evil” with political corruption and injustice: “[It happens that] those who serve and promote them are solicitous for the country and thus are given many official titles and are offered the greatest varieties of food in huge quantities” (269). This text also lists the ten vows, which adapt the Hebrew commandments into Chinese-Buddhist ethical doctrines. This text is incomplete and ends abruptly while recounting the life of Christ.

Text E, the Book on Profound and Mysterious Blessedness, is a dialogue in which the Messiah answers questions (the manuscript is damaged at the beginning but the context indicates an initial question from Peter) about the nature of the way. The Messiah tells him: “Simon Peter, [along with] all those who follow the transcendent way, first of all abandon emotions and passions. [Indeed], without emotions and passions there will be no yearning or [mental] activity” (283). He continues in a wide-ranging sermon on passion, ignorance, confusion, ethics, freedom, merit, and on the nature of his own incarnation (“I am in heaven, and yet I am also on earth” 285) as a model of transcendence toward the path to the “mountain of blessedness” and the healing “fruits of the jade forest” (290) to be harvested there, representing the wisdom that heals all error. The Messiah’s disciples want more information, but he tells them he has said enough already, and more words might “confuse” them (297).

The Final text F is The Book of the Luminous Teaching of Da Qin on Revealing the Origin and Reaching the Foundation. Here an acolyte, the King of the Doctrine, raising his eyes to “the Lord of all reality” (299) and offers a sermon on God’s creative power and supreme nature. He reports that “If one understands that [God] is without origin, then every obstacle will disappear” (300), as he explores the power of God’s creation and how “Living beings, both hidden and manifest, are prompted to respond [to him] with grateful acknowledgement” but sometimes “go astray” and “lose their way” (301). At the end of the sermon, “all entered into contemplation and were enlightened” (303).

A vast bibliography follows: five pages of primary sources, some of which contain “transcriptions or editions of the Chinese originals” translated in this book; many are European translations (into English, French, German, and Latin) of texts in Arabic, Chinese, and Syriac. Then follows 72 pages of secondary sources in Chinese, Japanese, English, German, Italian and more. There is a helpful “Index of Names, Texts, and Manuscripts” but no general index, which would have been a vast undertaking but which would have been a helpful search tool for concepts and topics, and that’s the only substantive weakness in the apparatus.

This majestic, beautifully printed and bound book by Oxford will be of profound interest to many of us European medievalists engaged in the global Middle Ages. Religious historians, and of course those in Syriac and Chinese studies, will have known these histories already, but they will welcome the new translations, the handy collection of these texts together, and the detailed scholarly notes and introductions to them. So the specialist will dig deep into the notes and bibliography, and the “general reader” will cherish discovering these texts and integrating them into research or in class. This is obviously not a teaching volume/classroom text, but it will enhance every medievalist’s and teacher’s personal and school libraries, for these texts can help medievalists reach our diverse reading communities in our Global Medieval and World Literature classes, which will evermore include students of Eastern and Western background and faith. Further, outside the classroom, if one (as a cosmopolitan intellectual) tends to read both the Bible and the Dao De Jing in order to integrate Buddhism into one’s religious and philosophical awareness (or vice-versa), then these Tang Dynasty texts will bring endless hours of contemplation, and for those who seek actually to practice these faiths together, much wisdom about both God and The Luminous Way.