Negotiating Belonging: The Church of the East's Contested Identity in Tang China




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The Church of the East entered along the Silk Roads from Persia through Central Asia to China during the prosperous and cosmopolitan Tang dynasty, and the church, naming itself Jingjiao, enjoyed an official status before the imperial court from 638 to 845 CE. This dissertation uses four important stone-inscribed commemorative texts from the Jingjiao community, along with the larger historical record, to explore the ways leaders and well-placed lay people of the church sought to negotiate for the church and for themselves a place of belonging in China even as various dynamic forces within Chinese society contested that identity. A crucial part of Jingjiao’s context is the method of the church-state relationship that the Church of the East had learned under Sassanian rule and continued under Muslim rule, for the model of political and social integration with religious distinctiveness marked Jingjiao’s attempts to negotiate its place of belonging in Tang China. Beginning with the Jingjiao bei’s account of Jingjiao in the High Tang, this study also draws upon other transmitted and excavated texts to explore how Jingjiao leaders sought to negotiate a place for the church within the Tang state and society during the empire’s most secure and broad-minded period. Though Jingjiao experienced difficulty during the time of Wuzetian’s Zhou dynasty and the tumult of the restoration of the Tang, the record of Jingjiao’s response and efforts to reclaim its lost position reveal yet more of its strategy to negotiate a legitimate identity in China. A rhetorical analysis of the bei’s visual rhetoric as well as of its text preface and verse traces Jingjiao’s argument that, as China recovers from the devastation of the An-Shi Rebellion and emperor Dezong begins to institute reforms to restore a political structure nearer to that of preRebellion times, the Creator-God, the Three-in-One who reaches out to humankind through the Messiah, has blessed China when wise emperors honored Jingjiao, and He stands ready to bless emperor Dezong as he follows their precedent and honors God by securing the church’s place before the Court and, thus, in Chinese society. The study then draws primarily upon recently excavated commemorative stone inscriptions from three near-contemporaries from Luoyang’s Jingjiao community. Rhetorical analyses of the muzhiming of Han man (d. 827) and of his Sogdian wife (d. 821) draw upon historical context and studies of the muzhiming genre while comparing the oddly different texts in order to draw conclusions about the aspirations and social obstacles facing Christian, mixed Han-Sogdian families in 820s Luoyang. Next, the dissertation studies the innovative use of a Buddhist dharani pillar form to bear a Jingjiao devotional text and commemorative inscription at the grave of a Sogdian woman by her Han and Sogdian family upon her burial at Luoyang in 815. Then, the discussion weaves observations of the three commemorative stone inscriptions with the time’s intellectual and political currents that culminated in the Huichang Persecution of Buddhism and other foreign religions in China.



China—History—Tang dynasty, 618-907, Church of the East, Stele (Archaeology), China—Ethnic relations, Epitaphs—China


©2019 Kenneth T. Morrow