The Spalding Lecture 2020

Report by David L Gosling, Life Member and former Spalding Fellow at Clare Hall

Dr Tang began her lecture by mentioning some of the traders and others who first explored parts of what became known as the Silk Road, which stretches from Mesopotamia to China. Historically the Silk Road facilitated not only trade but also the dissemination of several world religions, including Buddhism, Syriac Christianity and Manichaeism.

Around the first century of the Common Era (CE), Buddhism spread from northwest India via central Asia to China. It was characteristically Mahayanist, and the translation of large numbers of Indian Buddhist scriptures into Chinese, plus other works composed in China, had considerable implications for the spread of Buddhism throughout East Asia. Chinese Buddhism incorporated Taoism, and many manuscripts found their way into European libraries (such as the Stein Collection).

Syriac Christianity and Manichaeism both reached China from Persia in the seventh century CE, which meant that by this time all three major religious traditions were present to a greater or lesser extent along the length of the Silk Road. Syriac Christianity owes much of its distinctiveness to its use of the Syriac language, a dialect of Aramaic, which is closely related to the Aramaic of Jesus Christ.

Manichaeism was founded by Mani, a third century CE Persian prophet, who taught that there is an ongoing struggle between a good, spiritual world of light and an evil, material world of darkness. Mani claimed to be the Paraclete, whose coming was preached by Jesus, and his followers lived austere lives; there may have been Zoroastrian influence on the Manichaean churches.

Between the fourth and fourteenth centuries, CE hundreds of caves were hand-carved and decorated out of the rock cliff face along the northern Silk Road for religious veneration – especially around the oasis cities of Dunhuang and Turfan. Among the cluster of grottoes in Dunhuang was a recently discovered library cave which had been sealed in the eleventh century.

This library cave and other ancient sites in Turfan have yielded silk banners, paintings and fragments of texts written in more than twenty languages and scripts. The majority of these texts have Buddhist, Christian and Manichaean contents, written in Syriac, Old Turkic, Chinese and several Iranian languages.

Dr Tang gave a lucid account of the discovery of these religious fragments, exploring in the process how textual evidences have revealed a dynamic inter-religious encounter among the religions of the Silk Road.

The lecture was introduced by Julius Lipner, Professor Emeritus in Hinduism and the Comparative Study of Religion, University of Cambridge, and a Spalding Trustee. Also present were Dr Anne Spalding and Dr Michael Loewe, a Trustee and former Chair of the Spalding Trust. The Trust, which funds the Spalding Fellowship, was founded by Mr and Mrs H N Spalding in the 1920s to promote a better understanding between the great cultures of the world by encouraging the study of the religious principles on which they are based.

Photo credit: David Johnson