The Nestorian Monument: An Ancient Record of Christianity in China/The Holm-Nestorian Expedition to Sian 1907

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3771267The Nestorian Monument: An Ancient Record of Christianity in China — Translation of the Nestorian InscriptionJingjing, translated by Alexander Wylie



IT is with the greatest regret that I have not been able to enjoy the honor extended to me by the President of the Congress to accept his invitation to be present at the deliberations of the Congress and there exhibit and lecture on the replica of the Nestorian Stone of Sianfu; but I have thought fit to submit a brief statement of my work to the Council, to be dealt with as the President and his Council may decide.

After several months of constant study in the British Museum's library, and due to a keen interest I have always taken in matters Chinese from my former residence in that great empire, I decided to undertake an expedition to the capital of the province of Shensi, Sian-fu, known generally as the place of refuge of the Chinese Court during and after the Boxer troubles. I was fortunate enough to obtain the necessary financial means in London and New York, where I arrived in February, 1907, from Europe, and I likewise found much moral support from several university professors, scientists and museum authorities in various countries.

The chief aim of the expedition was to proceed to Sianfu and there on the spot examine the local and outer relations of the Nestorian Stone of A. D. 781, with a possible view of purchasing the ancient monument or obtaining a true copy or monolith replica of the same.

I copy the following paragraphs from my book-manuscript (part I):

"Of all the historical monuments near and in Sianfu, the famous Nestorian Stone, or Chingchiaopei as the natives call it, un

Standing by the Nestorian Stone before its removal.

doubtedly ranks as the very first. It is perhaps not too much to say, that while these lines are being written on the river Han in Hupeh province medio July, 1907, the Nestorian Tablet, as it stands outside the west gate of Sian, unheeded and neglected, although known to science, is the most valuable historical monument in the world, that has not, as yet, been acquired by any museum or scientific society or corporation.

"Tt is true that prints and photographs have been taken of the famous inscription and that translations have been made and published of the same,—but the stone stands there, lonely, in all kinds of weather, and only the very rare traveler, who gets as far as Sianfu, or an occasional missionary, pays the Chingchiaopei a visit of short duration.

"As already formerly alluded to, Christianity first came to China in the beginning of the sixth century in its Nestorian form and was allowed to flourish during some three centuries under the protection of the early emperors of the famous Tang dynasty. Still Nestorians were found in Cathay and Manji, i. e., North and South China, by Marco Polo, when he traveled in these regions towards the end of the thirteenth century.

"The priests of Nestorianism enjoyed the favor of the court and were allowed to erect churches and monasteries. The Nestorian Tablet proves above all suspicion the early existence of Christianity in the Middle Kingdom.

"The Chingchiaopei is dated A. D. 781 and was accidentally found by some laborers in 1625, when it was placed on a "fair pedestal" by the governor of Shensi. It was early visited by many Chinese who took an interest in the ancient monument's inscription, which is marvelously well preserved.

"For decades after, the stone was little thought of and rarely visited, and the arch which had been built over it disappeared. Towards the end of the last century (1891) a small roof was erected over the stone at the instigation of the corps diplomatique at Peking, which had induced the Tsungli Yamen, the then Foreign Office, to guard the monument against injury. One hundred taels were sent to Sianfu from Peking; but in those days there was no post office, and only five taels reached Sian in safety, the balance having been mysteriously absorbed underway. Thus the shed erected was of a very inferior kind and to-day has quite disappeared. Mr. W. W. Rockill, the U. S. Minister to China, who made a name for himself by journeying in the Koko Nor Lake district some fifteen years ago, told me, while in Peking, that "the Chinese thought quite a good deal of the stone and had a shed erected to protect it some time ago"; but I am afraid the honorable gentleman would

Photograph by Holm.

be very disappointed to see the precious old monument stand as naked and unprotected as its innumerable fellow-stones of minor value, which are to be found by the score in the vicinity of the ancient capital. Several translations, more or less correct, more or

From a sketch by Mr. Holm.

less complete, of the Chinese and Syriac inscriptions have been published. The task of translating the ca. 2000 characters on the stone is a very difficult one, but the translation by the well-known sinologist Dr. Wylie,[2] is generally considered the best.

"On the 10th of June, 1907, I first visited the resting-place of the unique monument. I went out alone on horseback through the west gate, traversed the western suburb and, having passed some military barracks outside the western suburban gate, had no difficulty in finding the old Buddha temple, on the premises of which the stone is situated. A large brick entrance in ruins and some remnants of a decayed Löss wall show the former large extent of the temple. But to-day we only find a comparatively modern center building, which is more of a farm than a temple. Everybody was busy with the wheat harvest, even the three Buddhist priests, and nobody interfered with me as I walked about snapshooting and wondering at the ruinous surroundings of such an invaluable monument.

"Behind the farm-temple is a piece of ground where a large stone arch and several memorial slabs are situated. In a row of five stones, the Chingchiaopei is the fourth, counting towards the east. Like most stones of a similar kind it stands on the back of a clumsily worked stone-tortoise, but nothing is left of a protecting shed, and nothing indicates, as some authors most likely wrongly, assert, that the stone and its neighbors, which do not even stand in a straight line, have ever been built into a brick wall. An old picture of the stone shows it encased in a kind of brick niche, and it is by no means impossible that this has given rise to the wrongful idea concerning a brick wall. But there is no trace of any niche around the tablet, nor of any later wooden shed, and the 74 years old chief priest, who has been constantly on the spot for over 50 years, only remembers the stone standing free and frank and lonely—looking apart from the ramshackle shed of 1891.

"The much-discussed cross on the stone is not very plain and must almost be searched after before found, but the characters are beautifully preserved with the exception of one or two which are said to have been wilfully injured by the Bonzes, who thought that too much attention was being paid to this ancient relic of Christian fame. Still this is hardly probable.

"The other stones on the temple ground are of no immediate value or interest, their inscriptions giving the history of the farm-temple and the names and titles of the various donors.

"The photographs show the slab to be very large; it is ten feet high, its weight being two tons. The difficulties in connection with the transport of the original or a replica were consequently appalling, as it would be necessary to transport the stone on a specially constructed cart over 350 miles to the nearest railway station, Chengchow." …

Seated where the Nestorian stone had stood before its removal.
Photograph by Holm.

I may shortly mention that I did everything in my power to obtain the original by applying to the local authorities in an indirect manner etc.; but although the Chinese do not care more to-day for the stone than for any ordinary brick, they at once got suspicious; and I might as well have endeavored to "lift" the Rosetta Stone out of the British Museum, or take the Moabite Stone from the Louvre, as to carry away the Chingchiaopei from Sian.

I shall not dwell here on the almost insurmountable difficulties the officials and even some of the foreign missionaries laid in my way when I decided to confine my efforts to obtain and carry home to Europe or America a replica of the venerable tablet. Suffice it to say that both the local, the transport and eventually the customs difficulties were all overcome in due course, and after eleven months on Chinese soil I was able to leave Shanghai on the last day of February, 1908, bound for New York.

The original Nestorian tablet of A. D. 781, as well as my replica, made in 1907, are both carved from the stone quarries of


It is believed to be a copy from memory of the Roman papal cross of the sixth century.

Fu Ping Hsien; the material is a black, sub-granular limestone with small oolites scattered through it, probably dating from the Carboniferous formation of some 15 or 20 millions of years ago.

This replica is one of the most beautiful pieces of Chinese workmanship I have ever seen. In the first place there is not a measure, not a character, not a detail that differs from the original tablet— even the weight is the same. In the second place this piece of art was executed by four native stone-cutters in eleven days, including polishing, after the huge slab had been brought from the Fuping quarries to Sian. In the third place the Chinese artisans have been able to accomplish the miracle of carving the cross and chiseling the Syriac characters, which they did of course not know, to absolute perfection.

On the 16th of June, 1908, in accordance with arrangement with Sir Purdon Clarke, Director, the replica was deposited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the City of New York, as a loan.

Although the replica is not yet the property of the museum, there is a probability that it may never leave its new abode again; but the fact should not be overlooked that all museums and universities of the world can now be supplied, if so desired, with plaster casts of the Nestorian tablet, casts which would not be more accurate, had they been taken from the original itself.

Photograph by Holm.

It is not a generally known fact that in North China, in the provinces of Shansi, Shensi, Kansu and Honan, thousands of Chinese families live all their lives in caves dug out of the Löss. This wonderful geological deposit is indeed the fortune of the peasant of North China. It yields two harvests a year, the first a wheat-crop, the second a crop of maize, millet and the like. And when the agriculturist seeks a home, he takes his spade or shovel and he digs for his wife, his children and himself, a cave in the soft Löss wall, which, although badly ventilated, gives him a safe shelter, cool in the heat of the summer and offering a cosy corner during the harsh winter. These caves are almost destitute of any furniture; sometimes we only find the kang or hot bedstead, a "sofa" made of Löss and heated from below with a steady fire, which cheers the whole family and the rare traveler during the long winter night.

Many a time during my expedition has it been necessary for my men, my animals and myself, to seek the shelter of an abandoned cave against the terrible dust-storms of North China; and once I slept in a cave with a corpse in a black coffin as neighbor, while my men and beasts occupied the neighboring cave with the garde funèbre.

Photograph by Holm.

Three miles before we enter the east gate of Sianfu, which towers like a huge castle over the high wall, we leave the last Löss wall for some time to come; it is about sixty feet high and has an abundance of caves—in fact the greater part of the population of the hamlet of Chilipu lives in caves.

We may take it for granted to-day that in times gone by, many a Nestorian convert was to be found as a permanent resident of these humble caves.

Once more to quote my manuscript (II. part):

"The second day of October, 1907, saw, at Sianfu, the fulfilment of an act which ought to have taken place nearly 300 years ago.

Photograph by Holm.

“Being the day previous to the final departure of the replica, I rode out to the farm-temple in order to supervise various arrange- ments concerning the packing of the stone etc., and in order to "square" my account with the old chief priest Yü Show. Nearing the temple grounds I noticed with feelings that can easier be imagined than described, that the original Nestorian Tablet had disappeared!

"I galloped up to its former resting-place, and all I saw, was a hole in the ground, where the monument's pedestal, the sad-looking stone-tortoise had been left. The stone itself had certainly gone, and I wondered whether any harm had befallen the replica in the temple-barn. Half a minute brought me to the temple where I found the replica in prime condition.

"The chief priest said that the officials had caused the tablet to be moved—he did not know its destination. So, my business over, I rode back through the western suburb, promising to come back the next day to see the replica off.

"About half way between the suburb and the city gates I overtook the Nestorian Tablet, which was being slowly carried by no less than 48 coolies towards the city. They carried it, hanging under a multitude of bamboo yokes, in the same way heavy coffins are usually transported.

"The 'Peilin,' or 'forest of tablets,' a place where innumerable small and large tablets with inscriptions of great age are kept, was the destination of the Chingchiaopei. The 'Peilin' is a place of great interest, and it is well-nigh incredible that the officials on the spot had never thought of moving the stone thither.

"The repeated, earnest representations of the corps diplomatique and the missionary bodies in Peking for the preservation of the ancient Christian relic had, through years, proved futile. The missionaries on the spot had done next to nothing to preserve "their" venerable tablet. It was therefore a great satisfaction to me to know that my expedition had been the direct cause for the removal of the stone to a place, where it will not be exposed to wind and weather, and where it will stand a fair chance of being able to adequately fight a long, long battle against age and time."



Mr. Holm, the enterprising young Danish traveler who on another page gives an account of his recent Nestorian expedition to Sian-fu, certainly deserves the heartiest congratulations on the success of his very notable achievement. Although the rare value of his prize, the earliest Christian monument in China dating from 781 A. D., has long been acknowledged by students and missionaries, he is the first who has had the enterprise to cause a copy to be made and conveyed to the Western world. Casts of this replica may now be made as frequently as there is any demand for them, with as absolute accuracy as if made from the original stone which is now jealously guarded in the most remote quarter of the earth.

Mr. Holm, who was only twenty-five when he started on his expedition, was formerly special correspondent to the London Tribune in China, prior to which period he had received an officer's education in the Royal Danish Navy, and so was already a traveler and explorer of repute when he entered on this latest mission. It was in London in the early part of 1907 that he formed the idea of procuring a replica of the famous tablet with the scientific and historical value of which he had made himself acquainted during his previous residence in China. Obtaining the support of some friends, whom he persuaded of the feasibility of his plans, he came out to China again, and proceeded to Tientsin, where he completed his final preparations for the expedition. He left Tientsin in company with two Chinese attendants, an interpreter and a boy, on the 2d of May, 1907, and traveled in a house-boat to Taokow, where the Peking Syndicate had an establishment, and thence continued his journey on horseback westward to Weichingfu and Honanfu, where he organized a regular caravan. Setting out again when all was ready, he reached his destination, Sianfu, on the 30th of May, and then proceeded cautiously to put his long-cherished plan into execution.

Taking up his quarters as unostentatiously as possible he engaged the services of a skilled Chinese draughtsman and three stonecutters, explained to them what he wanted, and made a bargain to pay them 150 taels (about $100) for an exact copy of the famous tablet. The contractors, as they may be called, were obliged to proceed with the task very cautiously indeed. First of all a suitable piece of stone had to be procured; Mr. Holm stipulating for a slab of the same material and dimensions as the original. This being procured, it had to be conveyed to a shed without attracting notice, which was done; it then had to be shaped and dressed, and afterward the stone-cutters, chiseling from the marvelously accurate drawings of the Chinese draughtsman, slowly and tediously proceeded with the task of carving it.

It is said that the foreigners in Sian, missionaries all with one exception, did not view the enterprise with any great favor; still no opposition was offered and at length it was finished.

Mr. Holm was then in Hankow, having gone there for various reasons, among them ill-health, after the work had been fairly started in Sian. On hearing of the completion of the undertaking, he hastened back to the Shensi capital, invited the Chinese officials to inspect the replica, which they did, and finally, after much negotiation, succeeded in obtaining permission to take it away. Mr. Holm, it may be mentioned, is the only foreigner so far, who has been officially received by the mandarins of the Shensi Foreign Office in their yamen, where he was most courteously and considerately treated by the President and members of the Provincial Board of Foreign Affairs.

The conveyance of the great stone from Sian to Hankow was an immense undertaking. First of all it took 24 coolies to lift it from the ground and place it on the heavy cart which had been specially constructed to carry it to Chengchow, Honan, where it was put on a railway truck and by that means taken to Hankow.

Here, according to statements made by Mr. Holm himself, his troubles really began, and strange to relate, it was not from Chinese officials they proceeded, but from the foreign Commissioner of Customs, a Mr. Aglen. For some unexplained reason this gentleman seized the stone and impounded it, instructing Messrs. Jardine, Matheson & Co. not to let it leave their premises on any account until they heard further from him.

Sir Robert Hart, who knew of Mr. Holm's enterprise from his own narrative, issued instructions that the stone was to be restored to the owner, for him to do what he liked with it.

Mr. Holm then returned to Hankow, obtained possession of the great piece of work once more, shipped it on board the "Loong-wo" to Shanghai, where it was put on board the s. s. "Kennebec" for final conveyance to New York via the Suez Canal, a voyage of about 15,000 miles.

  1. Communicated to the XV. International Congress of Orientalists at Copenhagen, August 19, 1908, to the Anthropological Society of Washington, the Explorers' Club of New York, West Point Military Academy, Johns Hopkins University, etc. during 1909.
  2. Dr. Wylie's translation, taken from the second part of Dr. S. Wells Williams's great work, The Middle Kingdom, precedes this chapter.