Author’s Note: This article is a consequence of a recent conversation I have had with another researcher – and of an earlier email – which mentions the subject of the ‘Luling Iron Cross‘. That email contains a translation of the poem often associated with this object – where it is referred to as the ‘鐵柱寶光留十字’ or the ‘Cross of the Iron Pillar – Emits the Treasure of Eternal Light!’. The symbol of the ‘cross’ predates Christianity and can be found in cultures throughout the world – including Europe. The so-called ‘Celtic’ and ‘Saxon’ crosses were often comprised as a ‘cross’ resting in the centre of a complete ‘circle’ – said to represent the four seasons. Ancient Egypt is made use of the ‘cross’ symbol in its hieroglyphs – but of course, not all regions of the world experience ‘four seasons’ as is common throughout the Western hemisphere (India, for instance, is said to experience only ‘three’ seasons, etc). It is also true that Early Christianity used many other symbols (including two fishes and a wand, etc) before the use of the ‘cross’ was borrowed and converted into a universal symbol. When this happened is open to debate, but I would suggest it was around the time that the Anathema was passed upon the Christian Sect of Reformed Judaism – and Christianity was ‘expelled’ from the Judaic religion. This process was well underway by the time the Roman State ‘legalised’ Christianity in 313 CE. Prior to this separation there was no great requirement for Jewish Christians to distinguish themselves as being ‘different’ from mainstream Judaism. Indeed, the early graves of ‘Jewish Christians’ are virtually indistinguishable from those of non-Christian Jews. ACW (24.4.2023)
The ‘cross’ was not invented by Christians and is not unique to Christianity (just as the ‘Swastika’ existed in Europe hundreds of years prior to the encountering of its counterpart in Asia). As a symbol, it could well have existed within ancient China – but possessed no obvious spiritual significance. The ‘Luling’ story is interesting as it represents a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) attempt to project Western (Catholic) Christianity into China’s historical past – as if China had been a ‘Christian’ country very near to the inception of that religion. This would imply that indigenous Chinese culture is somehow ‘incorrect’ or a ‘diversion’ from its true ‘Christian’ roots. This is, of course, an absurdity applied to a civilised culture that is far older than its Western equivalent and which is on a par with that of Ancient Egypt. It is far more likely that ‘ancient’ Chinese individuals made contact with the other cultures around the world (both ‘before’ and ‘after’ the founding of Christianity). The Luling Iron Cross was discovered during the ‘Hongwu’ (洪武) Period (1368–1398 CE) of the Mind Dynasty – or during the last 30-years of the 14th century CE.
Although ‘Nestorian’ Christianity had entered Tang Dynasty China in 635 CE – this was in fact representative of a movement within Middle Eastern Christianity that developed around the 5th century CE – and which had taken 200-years to spread into China. Nestorianism did not exist before the 5th century CE and so cannot be associated with the Luling Iron Cross. Why is this? It is because the Luling Iron Cross is said to have been dated to the ‘Sun Wu’ (or ‘Eastern Wu State’) [229–280 CE] of the ‘Three Kingdoms’ Period (more on this below). The ‘Eastern Wu State’ was situated within the South-Eastern part of China – a large geographical area which was comprised of today’s Jiangxi province (as well as areas of Shanghai together with Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces as well as parts of Northern Vietnam). The Eastern Wu State did include vast coastal areas which saw extensive trade and visitation (although Jiangxi is a landlocked province with ‘Zhejiang’ province being between it and the East China Sea). This is a significant fact because if the Luling Iron Cross is real – it is likely to have been transported to China via maritime trade and exploration.
Nestorius was born in Germanicia (present-day Turkey) around 385 CE – then a province of ‘Syria’ – which was part of the Roman Empire. He studied with Theodore of Mopsuestia at Antioch – where he became a monk and a priest. It is said that Nestorius was extremely good at preaching, and every time he preached, he could attract a large audience – an ability which earned him a very high reputation. In 428 CE, he was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople under the Eastern Roman Emperor – Theodosius II – becoming the Head of the Eastern Church.
At that time, Constantinople was not only the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, but also a centre of academic excellence. When large groups of learned people congregated – there was always something to discuss. Nestorius – who had just arrived in the capital from the province of Syria – soon became involved in the controversy regarding the developing interpretation of Christian theology. This included such pivotal questions as to whether Christ a ‘man’, a ‘God’ or ‘both’? This also involved the issue of how Mary (the Mother of Jesus) should be addressed. Could this woman be referred to as the ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos)? Did she give birth to Jesus – or did she give birth to God?
Although Nestorius himself was a devout Christian – his theological interpretation attracted many opponents – the most important of which was Cyril of Alexandria. With the support of the Pope, Cyril personally came to Constantinople to question Nestorius. The Byzantine Emperor – Theodosius – at the time was actually more inclined to Nestorius’ views, so in 431 CE he convened the Council of Ephesus, hoping to help Nestorius. Whilst a large number of bishops who supported Nestorius were still on their way – the Council (Chaired by Cyril) – condemned Nestorius and declared him a heretic!
Nestorius was removed from the post of Patriarch, forced to return to his monastery in Antioch to continue hermitism – and was then exiled to Egypt. Whilst in Egypt, his hermitage was looted by bandits. At this time, Nestorius was badly wounded and subsequently he ‘disappeared’ from the historical record. Later, there were legends that he was rescued – had returned to Syria (his native land), and finally died in the great city of Petra. The Luling Iron Cross has to be dated to around 150-years prior to the birth of Nestorius – and according to the Chinese language historical records – was already in China when Nestorius was born! Where is ‘Luling’ (庐陵)? The name ‘Luling’ means:
a) 庐 (Lu) = hut, rudimentary lodging and ceremonial (mourning) building (near to a tomb)
b) 陵 (Ling) = Mound, Mount or hill (possibly ‘imperial’ or ‘important’ tomb)
During 1914, ‘Luling’ County within Jiangxi province was renamed ‘Ji’an’ (吉安) County.
c) 吉 (Ji) = auspicious, lucky and good
d) 安 (An) = peaceful, tranquil and quiet
What is interesting is that the designation ‘Luling’ (庐陵) does seem to be indicating what appears to be a ‘hut next to a burial mound’. I would suggest that this ‘hut’ is probably a ‘temple’ (as in ‘庙’ or ‘Miao’ – a Confucian temple associated with family gatherings at important, happy or solemn occasions). Furthermore, the name ‘Ji’an’ (吉安) seems to have a ‘Confucian’ air to it (as these are attributes achieved by a Confucian Scholar who study’s the Classic texts and deeply contemplates their meaning). Luling (Ji’an) is situated in West-Central Jiangxi province and is around 316 miles (508 km) from the China’s East Coast. If a ‘Cross’ (possibly of considerable weight) had been delivered to the Chinese coast during the 3rd century CE – it would have travelled across land for a considerable distance (although this journey would have been within the domain of the Eastern Wu State).
Although there is no physical evidence of a ‘Cross’ as such, there are a number of historical texts pertaining to it. In one such Chinese language text – the object concerned is referred to as the ‘Red Iron Cross Stand’ (赤铁十字架 – Chi Tie Shi Zi Jia) – as this seems to be its proper and original designation. Indeed, a more refined date relating to this unearthed (large) Iron ‘Cross’ is that of the fourth (ruling) ‘Era’ ascribed to the reign of Emperor Sun Wu – namely that of ‘赤乌’ or ‘Chi Wu’ – (238-250 CE). Therefore, the ‘Luling Iron Cross’, or the ‘Red Iron Cross Stand’ is said to have entered China at some point within these emphasised 12-years. It would seem that this ‘Cross’ was placed atop a burial mound at Luling – within which it eventually sank. Around 1,200 years later, for reasons that are not entirely clear, this burial mound was excavated – and this ‘Cross’ was rediscovered.
English Language References:
Chinese Language Articles:
There is a contradiction within Chinese language historical sources. There is an idea that couplets date back 3000 years (probably during the late Shang and early Zhou Dynasties), another says couplets existed during the Han Dynasty – whilst a third opinion states the origination happened during the Five Dynasties (and the Iron Cross). It is said that this is an ongoing debate.
The following suggests this story is contained within Ming official history.
Couplet is one of the foundations of traditional Chinese cultures. Its neat and harmonious art form is deeply loved by the literati.
According to historical records, the earliest couplets in China appeared in the Three Kingdoms period. An iron cross was unearthed in Luling, Jiangxi Province. .
However, with the passage of time, the construction of couplets have become ever more subtle. If there is no profound cultural background, the mystery will never be understood.
There is plenty of historical evidence that Christians, in the Middle East and elsewhere, have used the cross as a symbol of their faith since the beginning of Christianity. The most obvious proof to me: the Christian crosses found in the ruins of Pompei, a city in Southern Italy, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79AD. Those crosses cannot be more recent then 79AD, because they were necessarily there before the city was destroyed.
The fish was their secret symbol, used by Christians to recognize each other without being recognized by others. The cross was their more “public” symbol, used when they were amongst themselves or in places where they were at no risk of persecution by outsiders.
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Understood. I will look into this.
历史上的对联最早出现在三国时期，洪武年间出土过一尊铁十字架，上面写着孙权的年号。 作者：美拍中国 https://www.bilibili.com/read/cv7311811 出处：bilibili
Historical couplets first appeared during the Three Kingdoms Period. During the Hongwu Period – an iron cross was unearthed – with Sun Quan’s Era Year Name written upon it. Author: Meipai China https://www.bilibili.com/read/cv7311811 Source: bilibili
My point that this story is not included in the official Ming history is due only to the fact that none of the sources you gave me mentions that it is. One of your articles mentions several Ming-era texts who mention it, but it doesn’t mention the “History of Ming” does too. I therefore inferred that it probably doesn’t, because otherwise it would have been mentioned. I don’t have access to the “History of Ming”, to verify this – but maybe you do?
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I was surprised to read this – but ‘yes’ – a number of Chinese language texts appear to agree on this point.
My point hinges upon histotical certainty – when did the Christians first make use of the cross (a symbol which predates Christianity – but which was not used within Judaism)? A Christian cross could not exist in China when Christians in the Middle East did not use crosses. Of course, I am discussing from an objective, historical (secular) perspective. My Christian friends (who adhere to the ‘literalism’ of Biblical Scholarship) inform me that NOTHING exists before – or OUTSIDE – of Jesus Christ, so therefore the cross has been used for all time. As I do not adhere to that idealistic position – I am relying upon archaeology and philology. I assume you are aware of the interesting picture of Jesus using a wand. Just because he is depicted using a wand does mean that he is the founder of ‘magic’. What I find suspicious is that although the name ‘Jesus’ (大泽 – Da Ze) is used in the couplet (which seems to mean ‘Great Grace’) – there is no mrntion of ‘Christianity’ in the surrounding literature. I note your comment that this story is not included in the official Ming history.
Is it reasonable to say that the couplet on the Luling cross might be the oldest known Duilian couplet?
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Thanks, will read that now.
I see you haven’t validated my first comment – I published two in a row, you validated 2) but not 1).
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I was asked to translate this Chnese Ch’an text – and discovered the Luling Cross is mentioned! https://wenshuchan-online.weebly.com/the-couplets-of-the-luling-iron-cross-and-the-lingyin-temple.html
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I am familiar with Celtic Christianity. According to legend, its founder, St-Patrick, was a Christian from Roman Britain who was captured and sold as a slave in Ireland. Whether this is true or not, it was likely founded by Britons from the Roman part of Britain, who reached out to their kin outside Roman influence, with minimal direct input from Rome.
Rome was the primary mechanism that spread Christianity after Emperler Constantine’s conversion in the 4th Century – even this is debatable, the Nestorian Church of the East was a major missionary force with little Roman influence. But before that, Christianity simply spread by ordinary believers travelling and preaching everywhere, with no political or military power whatsoever.
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Interestingly, in the UK there is the recorded presence of a Celtic, monastic-based Christianity – that was not ‘Roman Catholic’. The Vatican has acknowledge its presence – but has no explanation as to where it came from. It seems to have flourished in Ireland and along the West coast of the UK. The Roman Empire was the primary mechanism that spread Christianity and as the Romans never got anywhere near China – this could not have been the case in this situation. Missionaries could have infiltrated – but this needs to be proven. A collegaue of mine commented that the idea of a cross leading Christians into pagan lands (and conquering) emerged from the Crusades – and only entered the popular imagination around the 13th or 14th centuries. It is interesting that this date matches exactly the date during the Ming Dynasty this story emerged in China. As far as I am aware, there is not a single cross associated with the Nestorian presence within 7th and 8th century China.
2) “The ‘Luling’ story is interesting as it represents a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) attempt to project Western (Catholic) Christianity into China’s historical past – as if China had been a ‘Christian’ country very near to the inception of that religion.” – this seems far-fetched to me! If the Luling cross existed and was authentically Wu in origin, this only proves there was one individual in China at that time who believed in Christianity and therefore had the cross made for himself, maybe for his tomb – he was definitely a fairly rich individual to be able to order such an artefact, but he was not necessarily acting in any official capacity. So this in no way implies that Christianity had any State support at that time, even less that it was a Christian country before even Rome!
The first Christians believed their message was for the whole world, including China, so it makes perfect sense that some Christians would have tried to preach also in China during the very first centuries, long before Christianity became established in the West. It is currently not certain if they did reach China, which makes sense too as China was probably the farthest away part of the known world from the birth place of their religion.
So, I would say it is possible that some anonymous Christian preachers reached China as early as the 3rd Century, and the Luling cross, if it ever existed, might have been built by one of their converts.
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Two thoughts that it came to my mind when I read the article:
1) What do you mean by insisting so much on the fact that the symbol of the cross also exists outside of Christianity? While this is certainly true, the cross clearly had a crucial – according to the etymological sense of the word! – role to play in Christian history and theology since the beginning, as the instrument on which its founder was put to death. Of course early Christians also used other symbols, some of them even at times more frequently then the cross – for instance the Good Shepherd seems to be the most common Christian symbol during the 1st Century – but the cross was always amongst the symbols they used. About 18 Christian crosses were discovered in the ruins of the Roman city of Pompei, destroyed by a volcano in 79 AD, all of them arranged in order to direct toward what seems to have been the main Christian meeting place in the town.
This insistence gives the impression that your point is: even if a Three-Kingdom era cross was discovered in China, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was a Christian cross because other people use crosses too. To me, it seems extremely likely that if this cross indeed existed, then it was definitely a Christian cross, and even if it was fake, then it was still meant as a false proof of a Christian presence in China.
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