The Luminous Way to the East: Texts and History of the First Encounter of Christianity with China offers the most up-to-date English translations of the Luminous Teaching (Jingjiao) Christian texts, written in the Tang period of China (618–907 CE). Although the texts are important for rediscovering the forgotten Christian history in ancient China, there had not been a standardized academic translation of these texts. Even though there had been some translated versions of these texts, they were often interpreted the texts “one-sidedly through a Buddhist or Daoist lens,” and frequently ignored recent archaeological evidence and contemporary philological studies (ⅹⅲ). As a result, the pre-existing translations were often not broadly acceptable to the academy because many of them were biased, not reflecting contemporary academic work. However, this new translation by Matteo Nicolini-Zani provides balanced interpretations of the texts, while reflecting the cutting-edge archeological evidence. Consequently, many scholars who study sinology and Asian Christianity will benefit from these new translations of the book and enable them to study the primary sources of Jingjiao Christianity, which is also known as luminous teaching (religion) or Nestorian Christianity that thrived in the Tang period of China.
One of the strengths of the book is that it not only provides fine translations of the texts, but also background information about them. The first chapter of the book introduces the brief history of the Syriac Church from Persia to China. This overview successfully shows the influence of the Syriac (Nestorian) Church on the early Chinse Christian community, which is essential to understand the missional nature of Jingjiao Christianity. Chapter 2 deals with the history of Jingjiao Christianity in China. Here, Nicolini-Zani highlights that the early Christians in China needed to undergo, as all missionaries do, a process of inculturation so that they could accommodate their new religion to the existing religious cultures and politics of the Tang era. Lastly, chapter 3 provides the history of the Jingjiao texts. In this chapter, the author briefly talks about how the texts were discovered, translated, and researched in contemporary scholarship. Because the author provides essential background knowledge about the primary texts, this book can serve as a good introduction to their subject matter.
Another strength of the book is that it includes many photographs and figures along with a long bibliography. Through the visuals in the book, the readers can see not only the Christian words but also the art pieces that were enculturated into ancient Chinese culture. Because the content of the book can be foreign to many English-speaking readers, these visual images give readers a visual sense of ancient Chinese Christianity.
Most significantly, The Luminous Way to the East provides accessible translations for English-speaking readers. This translator prefers to use Christian terminologies rather than Daoist or Buddhist terms directly from the Chinese language. This method makes the translation easy and accessible to English speakers. In addition, Nicolini-Zani offers many references in his translation to explain difficult concepts or words in the original Chinese characters. These comments are extremely helpful for understanding basic Buddhist/Daoist beliefs and the ancient Chinese language. This book also applies verse notation to the translated texts so that readers can compare the translated texts with other versions. In general, the book does an excellent job of offering accurate knowledge about, and translations of, the Jingjiao texts.
Although the book is a great resource to study the Jingjiao texts, it leaves a few things to be desired. For example, the volume sometimes misses some important translational or theological points. One example is when Nicolini-Zani simply translates “a cross” without any explanation (199). In fact, the original text borrows the Chinese character for the number ten to describe a cross because it looks like a cross. This seemingly minor fact is an important element for readers who are interested in the method of translation or the theology of the ancient Chinese Christians because it is related to the theme of practical accommodation. In this instance, it would be better if the author had given a bit more attention to theological and linguistic detail, although these may not be the main concern of this book.
In addition, because Nicolini-Zani does not explain thoroughly his translation philosophy, even an expert is left to wonder why the author made the choices he did, and a reader with no background in Chinese is left unaware that the decision was made in the first place. Given the characteristics of some Chinese ideographic characters, translators are afforded considerable freedom when translating certain terms; consequently, it would be helpful to outline some guidelines, or provide a longer translation philosophy, at the beginning of the book.
Nonetheless, I think that this book deserves a huge reception in the academy because it is a great asset for those who research Jingjiao Christianity. Overall, the book offers a thoughtful, broad, and accurate depiction of Jingjiao Christianity, while also providing great translations of the primary texts. I highly recommend this book to people who are interested in sinology, Chinese Christian history, and Christian missiology.
Heejun Yang is a United Methodist pastor in the North Carolina Conference and an adjunct instructor at High Point University and Duke Divinity School.
Date Of Review:
February 17, 2023
Matteo Nicolini-Zani is a Catholic monk of the ecumenical Monastic Community of Bose, Italy, and a sinologist. As an independent scholar, he conducts historical and literary research on Christianity in China. He is the author of Christian Monks on Chinese Soil: A History of Monastic Missions to China.
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