Alopen was the first, recorded Christian missionary to enter the Chinese empire, reaching the T’ang dynasty capital, Changan (Xian), in 635. Known to history only by his Chinese name as inscribed on the Nestorian Monument (erected in 781), Alopen was a Syriac-speaking Persian. He undoubtedly traveled across Asia by the Old Silk Road and was welcomed by the second T’ang emperor, the great T’ai-Tsung (626-649), who providentially had reversed his father’s anti-foreign, anti-Buddhist policy adopting a policy of religious toleration.
Attracted by the fact that the foreigner’s faith was the religion of a book, the emperor, a zealous patron of learning, brought Alopen into the imperial library and ordered him to begin translation of his sacred books.
Of the earliest Chinese documents identified as Christian or Christian-influenced which were discovered along the Old Silk Road in Central Asia’s Takla Makan desert, four have been described very tentatively by the Japanese scholar P. Y. Saeki as dating to the period of Alopen, that is, mid-seventh century. In 638, three years after Alopen’s arrival, the policy of religious toleration was reinforced by an official edict; the first Christian church in China was built in the capital at the emperor’s expense; and the presence of twenty-one Nestorian monks in the empire was recognized. The monks were probably all Persian. This was the beginning of the first opening of China to the Christian faith.
The Nestorians were sometimes persecuted and sometimes granted unusual favor by T’ang rulers, and they prospered for at least two and half centuries, but they disappeared about A. D. 907 along with the great dynasty that had protected them. For at least the next 300 years there is no record of Christians in China. Not until the Mongol dynasty (1260-1368) do Nestorians reappear in the empire.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- The only early source on Alopen is that Nestorian Monument itself.
- Complete English translation of the text are in John Foster, The Church of the T’ang Dynasty (1939) and P. Y. Saeki, The Nestorian Documents and Relics in China (1951).
- In addition to Foster’s and Saeki’s works on the T’ang church, see Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, vol. 1 (1992), chap. 15, and A. C. Moule, Christians in China before the Year 1550 (1930), chap. 2, both with bibliographical references.