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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Cultural naturalization and the Church of the East in China : using interreligious iconography and inscriptions to investigate identity in Yuan China Becklin, Eric Robert


For well over a century, the Church of the East in China (also known as Nestorian Christianity or Jingjiao) has been commonly regarded as a syncretic sect of Christianity, possibly even adapting itself into oblivion. However, while the original basis for such an assessment is unclear, the actual evidence indicative of syncretism pales in comparison to the evidence that argues against it. For this reason, this essay makes use of the relative paucity of sources to lean into the question of what a better alternative, envisioned as cultural naturalization, could contribute. Cultural naturalization, as outlined in this paper, entails an analysis of interaction after initial contact between differing groups and posits a transition between contact and the final results of interaction. In effecting this, naturalization focuses on observing the evidence of how groups preserve or shed their identities as they negotiate the effects of contact. In the context of Jingjiao in the port city of Quanzhou, China, applying the ideas of naturalization allows us to interpret the religious group in a transitory state of interaction. The evidentiary support for more exact and final results of interaction does not currently exist to make a substantiated assessment. However, as the essay constructs naturalization as an analytic tool for explaining the evidence of interaction, the concept lends itself well to circumventing this problem of evidence that limits the use of syncretism by treating interaction as a necessary process of groups in contact—either in the positive or negative or a mix of both. In doing so, the concept of cultural naturalization acts as a tool to examine the identity of the Church of the East in China—and other groups—through the evidence of their interaction.

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