ROAD TO EMMAUS: Ioannis, will you tell us about the beginning of Orthodoxy in China?

IOANNIS: There are records of Nestorian Persian monks in China by the seventh century with churches and monasteries. It is possible that there was earlier Christian influence by unknown missionaries, traders, or embassies for which we have no evidence; we were on the Great Silk Road and there were many foreign travelers.

The Orthodoxy that exists today began in Beijing (formerly Peking), the capital, where later, there were Orthodox martyrs from the Boxer Rebellion. Today, there are about two hundred Orthodox Christians in Beijing, and we call them the Albazin. The Beijing mission began after a 17th-century border dispute between the Qing (Ch'ing) Dynasty and the Russian Empire at a fort near Albazin. We Chinese won, and took the captured Russian Cossack soldiers to Beijing, to the famous Emperor Kangxi, who pardoned them and set them free. Most went back to Russia, but a few stayed in Beijing and married Chinese women, becoming part of the Emperor's guard. They were called the "Russian Hundred." There was a priest among the captives, Fr. Maxim Leontiev, and those who stayed asked the Emperor for a place to worship. He gave them an unused Buddhist temple that they turned into an Orthodox chapel. Later, Tsar Peter I sent several other priests to Beijing to establish a small mission. That was the beginning of Orthodoxy in China, although for many centuries it did not spread very far beyond the Russian community.

RTE: Why was that?

IOANNIS: The mission was primarily for the Russian community, and in some ways it was a diplomatic tool of Tsar Peter the Great. He had already abolished the patriarchate and in its place, he created a synod of bishops closely tied to the government. I believe that he thought the first duty of the mission was to be useful to the Russian government. He also told the priests to be very cautious, not to stir up the Chinese authorities. Over a century later, when Orthodoxy began to spread, native Chinese priests and deacons were ordained, and services were translated into Chinese.

RTE: Were there Orthodox monasteries in China?

IOANNIS: China has always had a strong monastic tradition among the Daoists (Taoists) and Buddhists. I know of several Orthodox monasteries in Shanghai, Beijing, and Harbin, where the monastics were both Russian and Chinese — I once saw an old photo of these Chinese Orthodox monks and nuns. These monasteries were closed after our communist revolution in 1949, and the monastics exiled or driven out. Now, a few young people are becoming interested and I hope that someday we can reestablish monasticism.