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The Rhetoric of Antiquity: Politico-Religious Propaganda in the Nestorian Stele of Chang’an

The Rhetoric of Antiquity: Politico-Religious Propaganda in the Nestorian Stele of Chang’an

By Max Deeg

The Journal of Late Antique Religion and Culture, Vol. 1  (2007)

Abstract: This article proposes a new reading of the Nestorian stele of Chang’an, a Christian monument from the ancient Chinese capital dating from the eighth century AD, which covers the history of Nestorianism in China from its introduction in 635 to the date of its erection. Since its (re-) discovery by western missionaries in the 17th century this document has been repeatedly translated and studied as a witness for an early Christian presence in China, also with a view to legitimise Christian missionary activity in China. In turn its authenticity was called in question by enlightenment critics like Voltaire. This article acknowledges the authenticity of the document but points out that the content of the stele cannot be understood narrowly from a western ‘History of Christianity’ angle. Rather, it must be seen as a Chinese religious document with its own specific rhetoric using official terminology and concepts recognisable in the context of mainstream imperial religious policy. A significant insight in this context is that many of the Chinese concepts used in the stele to explain Christian teaching are not originally Christian, but were previously related to other religions, including Buddhism and Zoroastrianism.

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