Li M'Ha Ong

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Li Ma Li-hong or M'Hâ Ong (ca. 650 – ca. 730) was a Chinese scholar from Jiangnan, from a family of official clerks involved in tea transactions.

He is assumed to be the author of the translation of Christian texts into Chinese but also the transmission of Buddhist texts in Sanskrit. He was a member of the Library of corrections and embellishments of the Imperial Palace.

Only one piece of composition is definitively attributed to him. Although the original was lost, Treaty of Seeds and Stars is known through the copy and translation, unfortunately partial, done by Melchior Nuñez, possibly from a Sogdian original. Nuñez arrived in China in 1555 and had a sophisticated knowledge of Chinese. He gave this valuable work to Matteo Ricci which included, in addition, a half-dozen landscapes of the green and blue era - including a three mountains composition - a very popular motif in the Tang Dynasty.

Nuñez described him as a Nestorian monk but it is likely that the Jesuit used this trick to give the translation a Nestorian impression with impunity.

The early Christians arrived in China during the Tang Dynasty 618 - 907) and are indeed Nestorians of Iranian origin. They studied Chinese to better explain concepts of the Christian faith to the Chinese but their biggest challenge is finding a suitable vocabulary, which inevitably involves a long theory of proofreading and corrections. Among the 70,000 rolls discovered in 1909 in the Thousand Buddhas Cave, sealed in the tenth century, there are some Nestorian texts, a few of them in Sogdian.

Very quickly cut off from their roots, these Nestorians often had to make theological decisions without being able to refer to any authority. Over time, they relied increasingly in Chinese culture and attract the sympathy of some Chinese scholars, some of which are converted. Nevertheless, they remain little known because they don't interest scholars of the predominant religion in China, Taoism. The little that is known of their small communities, however, is extremely accurate and detailed information.

By the middle of the ninth century, however, during the reign of Wu Tang Zong, all "barbarian" (i.e. foreign) religions are prohibited in China. There were Nestorians present in the Court of Kubilai Khan whose mother was a Nestorian and where they are close to power. In the seventeenth century, the Nestorians have quite disappeared from China.

Two anonymous paintings are tentatively attributed to Li Ma-hong (private collection):

  • Reflections of Giants : vertical roll, ink and light color on silk, 79.5 x 36.3 cm. Steep mountain peaks, alternating with deep gorges and shaded, overlooking a lake, fed by a waterfall and surrounded by generous vegetation. The games of shadow and light tones of green and blue and the superposition of different plans (mountains/valleys, waterfall, lake/vegetation) give a sense of depth to the landscape in which it appears that there is a step to blend into its immensity, in the silence of its heights in the vertigo of its steep slopes, in view of its panorama.
  • Spring in the garden of Ma vertical roll, ink and colors on silk, 69 x 30 cm, kept in a wooden box without an inscription. Only beautiful garden remains, which includes a lake, and a few judiciously placed rocks as the mountains. Mountains and water are important elements of the Chinese garden. In this painting, the author joined Chinese landscape painting and garden design. The composition, in its lower part, shows massive peonies in full bloom near a crooked rock. In the foreground, a highly engineered grid protects the trunk of a gnarled tree. The space is furnished: table, chairs covered with fabric cameo, lacquered screen richly decorated with a stylized intertwining floral design. A feeling of comfort calm emerges from the ensemble, accentuated by the presence of a cat asleep.


  • This article is mainly inspired from a 1955 exposition catalog in Musée Guimet, Paris, (France) and from Monde de la Bible, special issue Chrétiens en route vers Pékin, 07/08 2008 (in French).

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