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Part 2: in Jining, the program begins

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Abby and Sarah in Xi'an

Discovering the Nestorian Pagoda

Eating Zongzi June, 2002

Mary Washington comes to China, Part 1
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Xi'an May 2002
   
Update
  
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Terracotta soldiers
   The Nestorian tablet

 

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Discovering the Nestorian Pagoda

For background to this page, please refer to the web section "Xi'an, The Nestorian Tablet." There, you will see the tablet, which tells of the arrival of Christian missionaries from the area of Syria and Persia in 635. The tablet was dated 781. At some point, it disappeared and was found in 1625 by some workmen digging a grave.

Further background: Last February when I was in Hong Kong, I visited one of my favorite bookstores and found a book entitled "Jesus Sutras," which seemed to be about the Nestorians in China. I didn't have time to assess the book very thoroughly, but it clearly included information related to the Nestorian Tablet, because it was pictured in the book. So I bought it for future reference. I didn't get around to reading it until about a month ago and still have only finished about half of it. But, I learned that there exists a pagoda that is all that remains of a church complex dating back to the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century, maybe 1300 years ago, near Xi'an , which was the capital of the Tang Dynasty and was one of the largest and riches cities of the world at the time. Because I was coming to Xi'an to visit Abby and Sarah, the two college students working with the YMCA here for a summer English program with junior high and high school students, I brought the book with me so I might ask around to see if anyone knew how to find this place. I did find it and took the photos shown below. Below the photos, I will also include the larger report I wrote earlier on the trip into the Xi'an countryside to find this pagoda.

Drying noodles.jpg (85497 bytes)View from cornfield.jpg (77355 bytes)Vertical across haystack.jpg (117137 bytes)Priest and lion.jpg (92956 bytes)

We parked the car in front of a row of mud brick houses, part of a cluster of such houses and courtyards of the village at the foot of the hill, or low mountain, on which the pagoda was built. The first picture shows homemade noodles drying in the sun. The next two pictures are of the pagoda, taken as we approached it. We followed a path through the cluster of houses and courtyards until we got to the flattened area where the pagoda and other buildings were. The old Buddhist priest was the first person we saw. This photo was taken in front of his house, which was also something of a very primitive temple.

We three and pagoda2.jpg (69287 bytes)Museum and tablet.jpg (85223 bytes)Sarah and sculpture.jpg (50866 bytes)Me with post1.jpg (61221 bytes)

I saw that recent additions included a reproduction of the Nestorian tablet which is now in a museum in Xi'an. That is the tablet you see in the first two photos. The little gray building is the museum. Inside the museum were only three rooms. Sarah is standing beside the lower half of a sculpture they think is Jesus and I am standing beside a hitching post which was located about a mile from the pagoda. Unrelated to the pagoda, the figure at the top appears to be the image of a Persian, which is the area from which these missionaries would have come. So, there were other Persians in the area. China in the days of the Tang Dynasty was very cosmopolitan and absorbed people from all over the world. This was the era of the Silk Road, so there were traders of all nationalities coming to buy Chinese goods for their customers in the west.

Pagoda through trees.jpg (109297 bytes)From rear2.jpg (56124 bytes)View through gate.jpg (55529 bytes)Church near pagoda.jpg (72331 bytes)

I could have taken many more photos; I was very reluctant to leave, it was so special to be there and to have found this 1300-year old pagoda, but we had to return to Xi'an. On the way out, I took one more shot from the foot of the mountain. On the way into the nearest small town, Sarah and Abby saw the top of this church building and mentioned it. I asked the driver to try to find it, which he did. It was incredible to find this Catholic church in such a remote area. The architecture and decoration were quite elaborate for a place at the end of a dirt road about a mile from town. The man I saw to ask about it said 2,000 people come there every Sunday to worship. There are photos of one of the Protestant churches in Xi'an on another section of the website, and on Abby and Sarah's page, they are seen worshipping there. That's where we went on the evening after we had been to the pagoda.

 

Here, I'll just reproduce most of the report I wrote the night after we had been to the pagoda.

Update: I flew into Xi'an , July 13, and took the shuttle bus to town, which is about an hour away from the airport. When I got off the shuttle bus, I still had to take a taxi to the YMCA Hotel. A guy offered me his taxi, so I got in. He spoke good English and offered to take me to see some of the many Xi'an historical sites for sightseeing. Of course, I have seen many of them, since this is my fourth visit to Xi'an , but I decided to try him out on my pagoda. First, I asked him if he had ever heard of Lou Guantai, which is a Daoist (Taoist) temple complex out of Xi'an where supposedly Laotze (Lao zi, Laotse) wrote the Dao de Ching, the famous text of Daoism. I figured many people know of it; in fact, it is on my larger map of Xi'an . He knew of it, so I tried for the Da Qin Jiao pagoda. He misunderstood me, thinking I asked about Xin Jiao Temple , and said yes, he knew. I got his phone number and said maybe I was interested in seeing it. Later, when I got to the hotel, I asked the woman who works with the YMCA itself, not the hotel, and she seemed to think she had heard of something like this, so I thought maybe it was legit. After talking with Abby and Sarah, we decided to go on Sunday morning, since that is their only day off. (We went to church on Sunday night.) I ran a further check at the Internet café by doing a Google search and found a short report of a visit to this pagoda by a British group called Friends of the Chinese Church. A group of people from this organization are teaching in the Amity summer program this summer. The report was brief, but at least it verified that it existed and could be found. We met the guy at 9:00 and headed out. After only a few blocks I discovered that he and I had heard each other say what we wanted to hear and that we had not really communicated. He thought I had said Xin Jiao Temple and I thought he said Qin Jiao Temple (in Chinese, ‘X’ is pronounced a little like ‘sh’ and ‘Q,’ a little like ‘ch,’ so it was easy to mistake the sounds.) The place I was looking for is not a temple, but I thought maybe someone who didn't know better might call it that. I pressed him to consider whether he could find the pagoda, as I really wanted to see it. I showed him a picture of an old map in my book to show how near it was to Lou Guantai. He made some phone calls to his brother and after a few minutes, we met the brother and switched drivers. The brother, it seems, knew more about how to get to this place. It turned out he had never been to this pagoda, but he had often been to the Lou Guantai, so he at least knew that much. He didn’t speak English, but that didn’t really matter.

We drove off into the countryside west-southwest of Xi'an . The Chinese countryside is always interesting and I enjoyed watching the people and seeing the villages and crops along the way. Abby and Sarah and I talked as we went and the time passed quickly. After about an hour and a half, the driver stopped to ask some villagers how to go, and a guy on a motorcycle said he could lead us, so our driver paid him 20 Yuan (about $2.50) to take us there. He took off and we followed him. Sure enough, before too long, we could see a pagoda on a distant hill. We arrived at a very small village and got permission to park our car in front of a dirt brick house and headed off on foot on a path through the village and then through the crops, up a hill, to the pagoda. I could see from photos in my book that it was the same one. I huffed and puffed up the steep hill until we were soon standing at the base of the pagoda. The pagoda is standing in a small area in the midst of crops, including a lot of corn, extending from the base of the hill to the top. There is a new restraining wall that has been build behind the pagoda to protect it from mud slides from up the hill. They had reproduced the Nestorian Tablet and placed on a concrete platform. We three had our pictures taken on the platform with the tablet, with the pagoda behind us. We had beautiful weather today. It was hot, but not as hot as in the city, though after climbing the hill, I perspired quite a bit. The sun was out, giving a radiance to the scene that made all the colors more vivid. The pagoda was an ochre color with floor levels marked with dark brown rings.

Around it were some outbuildings. One building, rather old and primitive, was the home of a Buddhist priest, I guess he was. He was dressed in that kind of clothing. He invited us in and we sat on some benches and asked a few questions, but he didn't really give us much information. He smiled a lot with a mostly toothless smile, and tried to get us to burn incense, but we declined, saying we were Christians. Then, we went out to look at the pagoda and surroundings. A middle-aged man came out, wearing a suit, looking a little out of place in that remote location. He looked a little more upper class than the villagers. It turned out he works for the bureau of historical relics and has been assigned there to manage the pagoda site. I would imagine he might be pretty lonely, as I don't believe the place gets many visitors. I assume he actually lives somewhere else, but he obviously comes to work there every day, as we had no appointment to be there.

There was a side building, which turned out to be a little museum, housing a few relics from what had been the church complex and a number of photos and articles related to the finding and repair of the pagoda. The repair had been reported and pictured in my book. It seems this man knew the author of my book, the guy who discovered this pagoda and caused it to be repaired enough to protect it against further erosion and decay, though it hasn't been restored inside. Looking at the photos in the museum, I could see the progression of the repair work and of delegations from abroad and from history and antiques experts from Beijing University . There were copies of several newspapers and magazine stories on it hanging on the wall. Two or three were in English. A tall post with an interesting sculptured top was in the building, as was a square stone, both of which had been pictured in the book.

The antiquities man opened the pagoda door, but inside was only a Buddhist worship center now, as this had been used by Buddhists for several hundred years. The Christian church represented by these people had been officially disbanded in about 845 AD. There continued to be Christians of this tradition for a time in China, at least until the fall of the Yuan, or Mongolian, Dynasty in 1369, but after that, they largely died out.

From photos in the book and on the wall of the little museum, I know there are two mud sculptures, one of an Eastern style nativity, and one presumably of Nineveh and Jonah, but we didn't get to see those. You would have to enter through an upper window. There is a heavy concrete reinforcing rod grid as a roof over the Buddhist worship center, protecting anyone below from any falling debris, so there is no way to ascend from inside. I would imagine it would be harmful to the pagoda for it to be entered very many times.

We took lots of pictures and finally brought ourselves to leave. Driving into the nearest community, Abby and Sarah saw a church structure off to the left and I asked the driver to investigate. We found a rather imposing Catholic church, which we learned had been built in 1988, a replacement for an earlier structure which had perhaps decayed or been damaged in the Cultural Revolution. The man I spoke to there reported that 2000 people worshipped there each week. Looking around at the farmland, removed from a town, you wouldn't think there would be 2000 people near enough for that, but I'm sure his report was true. Of course, there are several thousands of Protestant Christians in Xi'an and surrounding areas, probably a hundred thousand or so, so it is good to know that even though the formal work of the Nestorians died out, God is still alive and working not only in this part of China but all across this vast land.