China is now portrayed in much of the news media as the world’s fastest-growing Christian country, and an increasing amount of attention is being paid to the plight of Christians inside China. Without downplaying either the successes or the struggles of modern Chinese Christians, particularly vis-à-vis the state, much of this coverage lacks a certain historical dimension, relevant to modern Orthodox and Catholic efforts inside China. Christianity – Eastern Christianity – has a long history in China which includes notable and well-respected individuals in Chinese culture.
An interesting factoid I came across recently in my traverses through Chinese opera in prose translation, is that郭子仪, the ‘loyal and martial’ Prince of Fenyang 汾阳郭忠武王, historical military governor (jiedushi 节度使) of Shuofang Prefecture 朔方郡 (centred on present-day Ordos in Inner Mongolia) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and literary inspiration for one of the heroes of Hong Sheng’s opera The Palace of Eternal Youth 《长生殿》, was in fact a member of the Syriac-Persian Nestorian Church of the East, a committed advocate for the rights of Christians in the Tang Empire, and – if such a thing can be believed – a peaceful warrior.
Guo’s portrayal in The Palace of Eternal Youth was that of an ‘upright and loyal official’ (zhongchen 忠臣) of the Tang court, an embodiment of Confucian virtues and righteousness, a cautious and deliberating general, generous to his troops and therefore popular, and one of the earliest officials to understand the deep threat posed by allowing An Lushan to go free. It was Guo’s swift and timely actions that allowed Emperor Minghuang to escape Chang’an with his life, and which allowed Emperor Suzong to regain control of the Empire after Yang Yuhuan’s death.
Guo Ziyi served as a military general under four Tang Emperors (Minghuang, Suzong, Daizong and Dezong), and was distinguished by his service to the Tang in putting down the rebellion of An Lushan. However, some of his greatest victories were achieved by being a peaceful warrior. In the true spirit of Sun Wu (or, indeed, in the spirit of some of the military martyrs of the Church), Guo Ziyi was able to ‘subdue the enemy without fighting’. In the wake of the An Lushan rebellion, sensing weakness, the semi-independent Tibetan Empire and the Uighur Khaghanate sent invasion forces to loot, pillage, harry and invade chunks of the Tang Empire. Guo Ziyi was able to force the Tibetans to retreat with a mere four thousand tired and grumbling troops, using misdirection and trickery (lighting fires at various intervals and firing off firecrackers to confuse them and make them believe they were surrounded). In another instance, at the age of seventy, he went himself, unarmed and unarmoured, toward the Uighur camp. When they, who had been told he was dead, saw him and recognised him, they knelt down and surrendered to him at once. Guo thus turned the Tang Dynasty’s military fortunes around in a relatively bloodless way.
He ‘turned the other cheek’ in domestic affairs as well – never fighting back even when he was slandered by jealous members of the eunuch faction at the Tang court, particularly Yu Chao’en. In another instance, his son boasted to his wife, a Tang princess, that his father Ziyi, powerful general that he was, could become Emperor any time he wanted. Guo Ziyi, who valued loyalty above every other consideration, punished his son severely for that boast, imprisoning him and offering him up before Emperor Daizong for judgement. But when Emperor Daizong entered the court, he forgave the junior Guo, saying, ‘When son and daughter fight, it’s better as old men to pretend to be deaf.’
Guo Ziyi’s military service indeed calls to mind that of the Syrian-Byzantine Saint Andrew Stratelátes – Saint Andrew, like Guo, was able to surprise and trick superior enemies into retreat from engagement using relatively small numbers of troops. Also like Guo, Saint Andrew fell wrongful victim to court intrigues; though, whereas Guo Ziyi was merely dismissed temporarily from his post by Yu Chao’en’s slanders and did not attain martyrdom, Saint Andrew and 2,593 of his soldiers were martyred at the hands of Emperor Diocletian.
Interestingly, though, it was Guo’s selfless and grateful treatment of the great Tang poet Li Bai 李白 – then suspected of desertion during the An Lushan rebellion – that exhibited in literary critic Wu Jingxiong’s 吴经熊 view the Christian temperament of the good general. Li Bai had saved Guo’s life long before, when he had been facing court-martial and execution for offending his commander in Shanxi. From The Four Seasons of Tang Poetry (pardon the Wade-Giles):
Unfortunately for Li Po, the troops of Prince Ling were routed in 757, and our poet had to escape to P’eng-tse in Kiangsi, but was caught and put in prison. He was sentenced to death, but Kuo Tzu-i, whom he had saved twenty years before, and who was by this time Minister of War and commander-in-chief of the imperial troops, went to the new Emperor and offered to ransom the life of Li Po by giving up his own official rank. Incidentally, Kuo Tzu-i, the greatest soldier-statesman of T’ang, was a Nestorian, and in this case he certainly showed the spirit of Christ. As a result of his intercession, the death sentence was remitted, and instead Li Po was banished to Yeh Lang.
For all of Guo Ziyi’s distinction in military service, being a servant of Christ he was also truly a man of peace, who desired peace and stability for his country above everything else, even though that state was not guided by Christian values. He was willing to subordinate his own personal interests and even suffer personal insults from high officials without complaining or retaliating, if doing so meant that he could preserve the dynasty. And he remembered what Li Bai had done for him in his youth, and laid down his career and even perhaps his life to save Li’s: the witness of Guo Ziyi for Li Bai is, perhaps not exactly analogical to, but mildly reminiscent of the intercessions of saints of the Church (like Saint Nicholas of Myra and Saint Alexandra of Rome) for criminals, even deserters, who were caught by the state and sentenced to death. Interestingly, the same virtues and skill that made Guo Ziyi a great general who could win battles without fighting and who became respected without striving for power and titles, also made him respected among the Confucian literati of his own time.
Guo Ziyi’s example may be something for Chinese Christians – indeed, all Christians – to consider. Balancing one’s loyalties to the ‘two cities’ is never easy, let alone practising an ethic of peace from a position of military authority, and Guo Ziyi’s example shows both the limitations and the personal sacrifices and risks entailed. At the same time, the fascination of Guo is that he shows a loyalty both to the Chinese dynasts and to Christian praxis to be possible.
Matthew Cooper is an Orthodox Christian, specialist in economic development, and English teacher based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He taught English and Western history in Inner Mongolia and Henan Province from 2012 to 2015.
*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.
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