Nestorian Archbishopric Is Founded in Beijing Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In 1275, a Nestorian archbishopric was founded in Khanbalik, the capital of the Yuan Dynasty. Although the Nestorians reintroduced Christianity into China, they did not stay, leaving shortly after the dynasty ended.

Summary of Event

After its disappearance at the end of the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907), Nestorian Christianity reentered the Middle Kingdom when the Nestorian tribes from Central Asia moved into northern China during the Khitan Liao (907-1125) and Jin (Chin; 1115-1234) Dynasties. In two diplomatic missions to China between 1245 and 1253, Franciscan friars reached Karakorum, the old Mongol capital, and saw a high level of religious freedom enjoyed by the Nestorians at the court and in areas under Mongol rule. Religion;Mongols Mongols;religion China;religion When Kublai Khan proclaimed himself emperor in 1271 and called his dynasty the Yuan, or “origin,” he tolerated all religions within the Mongol Empire. (The Song were defeated in 1279; thus, the dates for the Yuan Dynasty Yuan Dynasty in China are generally given as 1279-1368.) In this religiously diverse environment, Nestorian Christianity claimed devotees within the ruling family and benefited from political support of the court. [kw]Nestorian Archbishopric Is Founded in Beijing (1275) [kw]Archbishopric Is Founded in Beijing, Nestorian (1275) Nestorianism China;1275: Nestorian Archbishopric Is Founded in Beijing[2520] Religion;1275: Nestorian Archbishopric Is Founded in Beijing[2520] Cultural and intellectual history;1275: Nestorian Archbishopric Is Founded in Beijing[2520] Kublai Khan

The Nestorian patriarchy in Baghdad took advantage of the cosmopolitanism of the Mongol Empire and established five missionary metropolitan provinces along the ancient Silk Road—Merv (now Mary, Turkmenistan), Samarqand, Kasghar, Almalyk, and Ningxia—thereby contributing to the rapid expansion of Nestorian Christianity from the Middle East to Central Asia and China. Because of the long distance from Baghdad, the archbishops of these provinces remained independent of the control of the home church in Persia, and they did not take part in the internal administration of the home church and the selection of a new patriarch.

In 1275, a metropolitan archbishopric was founded in Khanbalik, the new capital of Yuan Dynasty China, and archdeacons were chosen from the local clergy to assist the archbishop. The only other missionary metropolitan province in China was Ningxia. After the collapse of the Southern Song Dynasty (Sung; 1127-1279), the newly conquered territory was subject to the metropolitan archbishop of Khanbalik. The Yuan officials used the Chinese word yelikewen to refer to Christians without making a differentiation among Nestorians, Armenian Christians, and Roman Catholics. Because the Nestorians fully recognized the authority of the Mongol rulers, they were rewarded for their loyalty with official titles in the Yuan government. As a result, the Nestorian church hierarchy was deeply integrated into the Yuan administration.

After moving his capital to Khanbalik, Kublai Khan founded the office for the Christian clergy (chongfu si) in 1280 to administer the Nestorian bishops, priests, monasteries, and ritual affairs in China. In 1291, he appointed an Arab Nestorian named Isa (Jesus) as the first commissioner of the office, who was succeeded by his son Elijah. With official approval, Elijah set up several Nestorian monasteries in southern China. Of all the Nestorian leaders, the most famous was Rabban Sauma Rabban Sauma , who embarked on a long journey to Europe on behalf of Kublai Khan in 1287. Another well-known leader was Bishop Mar Solomon, the supervisor of the Christians, Manichaeans, and Nestorians in southern China. In 1315, forty years after the founding of the Nestorian archbishopric in Beijing, there were seventy-two Nestorian religious offices (yelikewen zhangjiao si) across China.

The archbishops were usually chosen from the celibate monks, who were allowed to ordain native priests and archdeacons to assist with the church administration. Almost all the Nestorian monks, priests, and archdeacons in China were of foreign origin, except Ke Cuncheng Ke Cuncheng , the only Chinese admitted into the Nestorian church hierarchy as an archdeacon. Despite their non-Chinese backgrounds, many Nestorian leaders successfully accommodated themselves to Chinese culture. Wu Anduonisi, the head of the Daming Monastery, not only adopted a Chinese surname and mastered written Chinese but also used Buddhist terminology to express his Christian faith.

Throughout the Yuan Dynasty, Nestorian Christianity was largely confined to the non-Chinese population. There were three types of Nestorian communities in Central Asia and China: the Nestorian nomads of Mongol and Turkish origins in the northern province of Lingbei (modern-day Mongolia and Siberia), the Nestorian settlements scattered across the Silk Road in Central Asia, and the Nestorian merchants who came to China through the Maritime Silk Route across the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. They lived in major coastal cities such as Quanzhou, Wenzhou, and Yangzhou, among the Buddhists, Daoists, and Muslims.

Although the support of the Mongol rulers contributed to the spread of Nestorian Christianity across Central Asia and China, the Nestorians failed to make inroads among the Chinese partly because of their confinement in foreign communities and partly because of hostility from their Buddhist and Daoist counterparts. The Nestorians were involved in several incidents of ritual and property conflicts with the Buddhists Buddhism;Nestorianism and and Daoists. In 1254, a debate arose at the Mongol court about whether Christianity or Buddhism was compatible with the Mongol folk religion. The Franciscan friar William of Rubrouck William of Rubrouck supported the Nestorians in the debate and defended the Christian doctrine of monotheism against what he called Buddhist atheism. In 1304, the Mongol ruler issued an imperial edict ordering the Nestorians to stop proselytizing among the Daoist communities in Jiangnan (Lower Yangtze Valley). Because the Nestorians attempted to provide the Daoist clergy with tax exemptions in exchange for their conversion to Christianity, the Daoist Daoism;Nestorianism and leaders complained to the government that the Nestorians violated the ritual order of the Mongol Empire in which the Daoist and Buddhist monks were above the Nestorian clergy. In 1311, the Yuan government ordered the return of two Nestorian monasteries to the Buddhist communities in Zhenjiang. All these conflicts had little to do with religious differences and rather were the result of the ongoing power struggles among the Nestorian, Buddhist, and Daoist leaders at the court.

The end of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368 posed many obstacles to the Nestorians in China. Gone were the political protection and economic support they had received from the Mongol court, foreign merchants, and converts. Then Tamerlane’s conquest of Central Asia completely cut off the overland trading routes from the Middle East to China and disrupted the communication between the home church and archbishopric in Khanbalik.


The founding of the Nestorian archbishopric in Beijing in 1275 symbolized the reintroduction of Christianity into China. In the diverse ethnic and religious world of the Mongol Empire, the Nestorian faith flourished as a legal and tolerated religion across Central Asia and China. Yet the long history of cultural interaction between China and the outside world did not lead the Chinese to subscribe to Christianity. Although the Nestorian church had its devotees within the Mongol ruling family, the Chinese were rather indifferent to, if not hostile toward, the church.

The Nestorian church of the Yuan Dynasty shared the same fate of its forerunners in Tang China, which fell with their imperial patrons. In 1368, the Nestorian missionaries appeared to have left China for Central Asia with the Mongols, and in the early sixteenth century, the archbishopric of Khanbalik was incorporated into that of India. The collapse of the Mongol Empire clearly marked the beginning of the second decline of Christianity in China.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">England, John C. The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia. Delhi: Indian Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1996. Provides an overview of the development of Nestorian Christianity in China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Irvin, Dale T., and Scott W. Sunquist. Earliest Christianity to 1453. Vol. 1 in History of the World Christian Movement. Orbis, N.Y.: Maryknoll, 2001. Contains a brief section on Nestorian Christianity in Mongol China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moffett, Samuel Hugh. Beginnings to 1500. Vol. 1 in A History of Christianity in Asia. Orbis, N.Y.: Maryknoll, 1998. Discusses the experience of Nestorian communities in China in the wider context of the Christian expansion across continental Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rossabi, Morris. Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West. New York: Kodansha International, 1992. A fascinating story of Rabban Sauma’s journey from China to Europe in the late thirteenth century, with a brief account of the Nestorian activities in Mongol China and Central Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Standaert, Nicolas, ed. Handbook of Christianity in China: 635-1800. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2001. Provides the most comprehensive account of the early history of Christianity in premodern China. Examines Nestorian Christianity in the Yuan Dynasty.

Categories: History