Tag Archives: military

China’s Peaceful Warrior

by Matthew Franklin Cooper

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 bit of history I came across recently in my traverses through Chinese opera in prose translation, is that Guo Ziyi 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, and joined his army to fight against the Tibetans.

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.’

Interestingly, however, 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. 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.

The Real Saint George

by Jim Forest

illustration by Vladislav Andreyev for Saint George and the Dragon (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

True stories become streamlined into legends and legends are compressed via symbols into myths.

The real Saint George never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. We are not even sure he had a horse or possessed a lance or sword. It is even possible he was a farmer. The name “George” means tiller of the soil. For this reason Saint George is a patron saint of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

A Christian convert who was born late in the third century after Christ and died early in the fourth century, Saint George was one among many martyrs of the early Church. What made him a saint among saints was the completely fearless manner in which he proclaimed his faith during a period of fierce persecution when many other Christians were hoping not to be noticed. According to one ancient account, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested, tortured and beheaded in the town of Nicomedia (in the northwest of modern Turkey). His courageous witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized. The probable date of his martyrdom was April 23, 303. His body was brought to his birthplace, Diospolis, later known as Lydda (and today as Lod in what has become Israel).

Saint George was one of the early victims of the anti-Christian persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian that began in February 303. Churches were destroyed and biblical texts burned. All Roman subjects were ordered to make ritual sacrifices to Rome’s gods. Those who refused risked severe punishment. Many were sent into exile as slave laborers in quarries and mines in Egypt and Palestine. Thousands were tortured and many executed. The attack finally ended in 311. With Diocletian in retirement and the emperor Galerius ill and close to death, Galerius published an edict of toleration allowing Christians to restore their places of worship and to worship in their own way without interference, provided they did nothing to disturb the peace.

Persecution ended, but the memory of those eight years of suffering would never be forgotten. George was one of the saints whose witness remained fresh. His icon hung in more and more churches. As centuries passed, he became patron saint not only of many churches and monasteries but of cities and whole countries.

In icons made in the centuries before the legend of the dragon became attached to George’s name, we see him dressed as a soldier and holding the cross of martyrdom.

Perhaps he was in the army, but it may be that George is shown in military gear because he so perfectly exemplifies the qualities that Saint Paul spoke of in his letter to the Ephesians in which he calls on Christ’s followers to wear the helmet of salvation and the armor of righteousness, to be girded with truth, to clad their feet in the Gospel of peace, to possess the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and to protect themselves from the devil’s flaming arrows with the shield of faith.

Such symbolic use of a soldier’s equipment of war does not rule out the possibility that George was a soldier. People from every class and profession were drawn to the Gospel, soldiers among them. George may have been one of these.

It was only in later centuries that the dragon legend emerged. It has been told in many variations, but in its most popular form it concerns a dragon living in a lake who was worshiped by the unbaptized local people who, in their fear, sacrificed their children to appease the creature. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. While she was going toward the dragon to meet her doom, George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the vanquished creature into the city.

According to the Legenda Aurea written by Blessed James de Voragine about 1260, the wounded monster followed Elizabeth “as if it had been a meek beast and debonair.” Refusing a reward of treasure, George called on the local people to be baptized. The king agreed, also promising to maintain churches, honor the clergy, faithfully attend religious services and show compassion to the poor.

From the point of view of journalism, the dragon story is a literary invention. Yet when you think about it, what better way to symbolize the evil that George actually confronted and defeated than to portray it in the form of a fire-breathing dragon? George fought and was victorious over an adversary which enslaved and terrified most of the people of his time.

The white horse George rides in the icon, a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider, represents the courage God gave to George as he faced the power of death. It is the courage God gives to any Christian facing martyrdom.

In many versions of the icon, the lance George holds is shown resting lightly in his open hand, meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil.

Notice how thin the lance is and that, in many Saint George icons, there is a small cross at the top of the lance. The icon stresses that it is not with weapons of war that evil is overcome but with the power of the Cross, the life-giving Cross that opens the path to the resurrection.

Similarly, George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. His tranquil face reminds us of Christ’s commandment that, even in conflict, his followers must love their enemies.

In many versions of the icon, the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing. This detail is

a reminder that whatever we do bears good fruit only if it is God’s will and has God’s blessing.

In more detailed versions of the icon there are scenes before and after the battle with the dragon. Sometimes a castle is in the background from which Elizabeth’s royal parents watch all that happens.

Following George’s victory, icons sometimes show Elizabeth leading the wounded dragon on a leash made of her belt – a victory of life over death similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Bringing a wounded but still living dragon back to the town provides us with a powerful image of the conversion rather than the destruction of enemies. The final fruit of George’s combat with the dragon is not victory over a monster nor financial reward for successful combat but bringing unbelieving people to conversion and baptism.


Finally, as is the case with any icon, the Saint George icon is not a decoration but is intended to be a place of prayer. It belongs in the icon corner of any home where courage is sought – courage to be a faithful disciple of Christ; courage to fight rather than flee from whatever dragons we meet in life; courage to prefer the conversion rather than the death of our adversaries;  courage to live in such a way that others may be made more aware of Christ and the life he offers to us. ❖

This text is drawn from the afterword of a new children’s book, Saint George and the Dragon, due out in September from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His most recent book is All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day.