Monday, November 15, 2010

An Early Contextualization in China, Part 2

I am continuing my post from last week regrading the Nestorian/Sianfu Stele in China. The monument is 10' high by 3'4" wide, just under one foot thick and weighs two tons. It is made of a black, sub-granular oolitic limestone. The figure-head decoration of the tablet consists of an immense pearl held between two dragon-like creatures called "Lungs.” The lung is a Chinese symbol that has taken on different shades of meaning over the many centuries of China’s cultural history and continues to be a subject of much debate by scholars. 

To the Chinese, lungs are exclusively benevolent; they were seen signs of auspicious good omen for the community, as well as symbols for vitality and creativity. The lung is also a form of totem that came to be regarded as a symbol of the Chinese people themselves, including the emperor, who was regarded as a son of the lung. In addition to these associations, the lung has become an object of worship for some Chinese communities.

Just below the pearl and above the Chinese characters at the top, stands a Syrian cross on a lotus blossom.  The lotus is a symbol of purity: though rooted in mud it blossoms into a beautiful flower. The flower is claimed as an important symbol by Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, with various philosophical and/or divine associations within each movement/religion. In this example the cross, standing on the lotus blossom, is symbolically elevated by the flower. The clouds are Taoist symbols of heaven, as well as associated with Islam in China. Rather than symbolizing the suffering and death Jesus, the cross is understood as a cosmic symbol of resurrection into life.  

So, what to make of the Sianfu Stele's attempt at contextualizing Christianity in China? Although I haven't done an exhaustive study on the symbolism of the lung, I am beginning to see the deep differences between the positive image it has in Chinese society, versus the negative connotations in Western culture, connotations which are based on biblical references to Satan as a dragon (see Revelation 12 and 13). I think (as author Lau Hua Teck asserts on p. 6/90 of his article) that we must regard them as two completely different creatures. However, this does not settle the issue of whether the lung is a good symbol to redefine in order to help express the Gospel. Many of the symbols and ideas embraced by the Nestorians in China may have had as much to do with political acceptance from the government as with clearly presenting the Gospel. But I think that lungs probably could be used in such a context, if the native Chinese in a given community of believers decided this was acceptable.  My initial thought would be to compare it to the use of cherubim throughout the art and architecture of the ancient Near East by both Israel and her pagan neighbors (see my post on cherubim in ancient Israeli and pagan temple architecture).  In addition, there is the dual idea of Jesus as the Lion of Judah in the New Testament, while simultaneously, the devil is called a lion as well (1 Peter 5:8).  And, like cherubim, many Old Testament-era pagan cultures incorporated lions into their art and architecture as well.  I also like the symbolism of the two lungs on this monument holding up a pearl, which reminds me of the pearl of great price, i.e., the Gospel (although the pearl also has other associations in Chinese culture).

Teck has proposed that the unique portrayal of the cross and lotus designed by the Nestorians was not meant to denote that the three religions (Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity) are one, but rather to propagate the unique message of the cross of the Messiah. Interestingly, he notes that a Buddhist monk of the time did indeed see Nestorian Christianity as a different religion:

It is evident that the Scholars in T’ang society knew clearly that the Nestorians were preaching a new message, as the eminent monk Yuanchao of the Tsi-ming Temple commented: “…. A Buddhist monastery and a temple of Ta-ch’in differ in customs and in their religious practices, Ching-ching should preach the teaching of the Messiah and the Buddhist monk must make known the message of Buddhist Sutra….. Truth and error are not the same, just like the Ching River and the Wei River are not alike….” Yuan-chao saw clearly the uniqueness of the Nestorian message and the Ching-ching missionary position (p. 11/95).

One further example of cross and lung sculpture is the Yuan Dynasty Stele, which commemorates the founding of a Nestorian monastery in 1383 in Da Qin, China. At the top is a carved Syrian cross, held by four lungs, with no lotus or clouds.

Some might say that because of contextualization in these cases (or syncretism, if it applies), that Christianity did not make a lasting impact in China. Although I am no scholar on the subject, from what I've read, there are/were a lot of factors involved, including internal church divisions and too close of a relationship with various Chinese dynasties that did not last.  In any case, here are a few additional sources on the subject:

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