Saturday, September 17, 2005

Quangzhou Tombstones

Tombstone with cross on lotus flower and inscription in Phags-pa, photo by Ken Parry.

"Christian Angels on the South China Coast is an historically significant photographic exhibition featuring photos, never before seen outside China, of Christian tombstones of the Mongol Period from Quanzhou in South China.....The tombstones are unique and their significance lies in the fact that they provide evidence of a multicultural society in Quanzhou in the 13th and 14th centuries."

I was entranced by Andrew West's comment about Phags-pa,

"I was in Quanzhou (Marco Polo's Zayton) earlier this year, and the Quanzhou Maritime Museum has the most amazing collection of gravestones and architectural artefacts dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, when Zayton must have been the one of the most cosmopolitan cites in the world. In addition to a complete Hindu temple, a Tamil inscription dated 1281, and hundreds of gravestones inscribed in Arabic, Syriac and Uighur, there are a number of Christian tomb stones. The most important of them, in Latin script, was that of the 3rd bishop of Zayton, the Italian Andrew Perugia (Andreas Perusinus), dated 1332. However the gravestones for ordinary Christian Chinese had inscriptions written in Chinese using the Phags-pa script. These stones are a rare example of Phags-pa being used for private use rather than offical purposes, and I don't know of any non-Christian tomb stones or memorial stones that are written using the Phags-pa script."

I was trying to recount this story to a friend and, not knowing exactly where Quangzhou was, I had to read further. That is how I came on this radio program City of Light.

"Nearly all the Christian tombstones from South China are of the late medieval period, and they’re almost exactly contemporary with Marco Polo’s visit to China. And they are all early to mid 14th century..... They were all found in or near the medieval city port of Quanzhou near the modern city of Xiamen which is the capital city of the province. It’s just on the Taiwan Straits, as the nearest bit of China to Taiwan..... The Christian community in medieval Quanzhou came mainly from Central Asia, and by that time the Silk Road used a mixture of languages.

Well the first thing that’s apparent is the use of the cross, and of course this is unique to the Christian world. But the very interesting thing is that we find in the iconography is the cross is supported on a lotus flower, and we first find this actually in China dating back to the 8th century. So we find that on these tombstones, the iconography relates actually to earlier Christian iconography in China, and shows quite clearly I think, a continuity between the earlier and the later period."

Addenda: Visit Andrew's new webpage 14th Century Christian Tombstones from Quanzhou.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've now made my pictures of the Quanzhou tombstones available at 14th Century Christian Tombstones from Quanzhou.

5:27 AM  
Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thank you. They are great. You raise an interesting question about whether the Phags-pa tombstones are in the Franciscan ie Catholic, rather than Nestorian tradition.


7:29 PM  

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