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Silk Road Christians and the Translation of Culture in Tang China

  • Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (a1)

This article attempts to analyse the famous ‘Nestorian Monument’ from Xi'an, set up in 781 by Syriac Christians, as a document of cultural translation and integration. Previous scholarship on the monument has tended to privilege either the Syriac or the Chinese sections of the inscription. By combining the two, and by making use of recent advances in the study of Syriac Christians along the Silk Road, this article argues that the Syriac Christians who set up the monument were using their long history, extending from Persia to China, as a means of establishing their community publicly in new political circumstances of China in the 780s. The role of Syriac on this monument was twofold: it signalled to the local Syriac-speaking community their fundamental ties to the world of Persian and central Asian Christianity, while it also allowed, through ideological and linguistic interaction with Chinese, the maintenance of a Syriac Christian identity through the process of translation. The language of Syriac therefore provides the background of a community looking both backward and forward in a foreign, changing cultural environment.

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* University of Oklahoma, Department of Classics and Letters, Carnegie Hall, Norman, OK 73019, USA. E-mail:
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I would like to thank Peter Brown, Averil Cameron, Simon Ditchfield and Geoffrey Goble for their assistance in improving this article. The scholarly audience of the Ecclesiastical History Society's Winter 2016 Meeting was highly engaging and provided many excellent suggestions for improvement which found their way into the article.

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1 Deeg, Max, ‘Ways to Go and Not Go in the Contextualisation of the Jingjiao Documents of the Tang Period’, in Winkler, Dietmar W. and Tang, Li, eds, Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters: Studies on East Syriac Christianity in China and Central Asia, Orientalia-Patristica-Oecumenica 1 (Vienna, 2009), 139–52.

2 I am grateful to my Sinologist colleague Geoffrey Goble for his assistance with the Chinese nomenclature throughout this article.

3 Many of the basic problems with the terminology are discussed in Lieu, Samuel N. C., ‘Epigraphica Nestoriana Serica’, in Exegisti Monumenta: Festschrift in Honour of Nicholas Sims-Williams, ed. Sundermann, W., Hintze, A. and Blois, F. de (Wiesbaden, 2009), 227–46.

4 This reported correspondence appears at the end of Book 1 of Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History. However, Eusebius seems to have known less about the Syriac Church than he suggests: Sebastian Brock, P., ‘Eusebius and Syriac Christianity’, in Attridge, Harold W. and Hata, Gohei, eds, Eusebius, Christianity, and Judaism (Detroit, MI, 1992), 212–34. Elsewhere, Brock argues that the Syriac Churches constitute ‘a third lung’ for early Christianity, in addition to its more familiar Greek and Latin traditions: Sebastian Brock, P., ‘The Syriac Orient: A Third “Lung” for the Church?’, Orientalia Christiana Periodica 71 (2005), 520 .

5 The vehicular and prestige aspects of late antique multilingualism have been explored by Adams, J. N., Bilingualism and the Latin Language (Cambridge, 2003), for Latin, empire-wide; Bagnall, Roger S., Early Christian Books in Egypt (Princeton, NJ, 2009), for Greek, in Egypt; and Papaconstantinou, Arietta, ‘“They shall speak the Arabic Language and take Pride in it”: Reconsidering the Fate of Coptic after the Arab Conquest’, Le Muséon 120 (2007), 273–99; eadem, ed., The Multilingual Experience in Egypt, from the Ptolemies to the Abbasids (Farnham, 2010), for Coptic and Arabic in Egypt. I have attempted to place Greek in the same sociolinguistic landscape across the eastern Mediterranean in Late Antiquity: Scott Fitzgerald Johnson, ‘The Social Presence of Greek in Eastern Christianity, 200–1200 CE’, in idem, ed., Languages and Cultures of Eastern Christianity: Greek, The Worlds of Eastern Christianity 300–1500 6 (Farnham 2015), 1–122.

6 During the fifth and sixth centuries, Syriac Christians split into three different groups: East Syrian (formerly ‘Nestorians’), West Syrian (‘Monophysites’) and Chalcedonian (‘Melkites’). The basic outlines of these theological differences can be found in Brock, Sebastian P., ‘The Christology of the Church of the East in the Synods of the Fifth to Early Seventh Centuries: Preliminary Considerations and Materials’, in idem, Fire from Heaven: Studies in Syriac Theology and Liturgy (Aldershot, 2006), 125–42. The labels ‘Nestorian’ and ‘Monophysite’ are considered derogatory and are not used by scholars out of respect for the modern-day adherents of these groups. In the Syriac world, these labels correspond to the living traditions of the Church of the East and the Syrian Orthodox respectively. The term ‘Melkites’ (Greek melchitai) – a late eighth-century coinage – comes ultimately from the Aramaic malkā, ‘king’, translating the Greek basileus, ‘emperor’; they were, we might say, theological royalists (basilikoi). In the period, though not today, ‘Melkite’ was a derogatory label applied to them by their non-Chalcedonian co-religionists in the East. The term today signifies ecclesiastically the Christians under the Eastern Rite Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch. The ancient Melkites are today called Rūm Orthodox, from the Arabic term for the Byzantine Greeks.

7 The scholarly touchstone for this movement has long been Gutas, Dimitri, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʻAbbāsid Society (2nd–4th / 8th–10th Centuries) (London, 1998), although his work has been strongly criticized for downplaying Syriac's role in this process. Fowden, Garth, Before and after Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused (Princeton, NJ, 2014), redresses the balance to some degree.

8 Brock, Sebastian P., ‘The Syriac Background to Hunayn's Translation Techniques’, Aram 3 (1991), 139–62; idem, ‘Changing Fashions in Syriac Translation Technique: The Background to Syriac Translations under the Abbasids’, Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 4 (2004), 3–14.

9 For the history of the Church of the East, see Baum, Wilhelm and Winkler, Dietmar W., The Church of the East: A Concise History (London 2003); Walker, Joel, ‘From Nisibis to Xi'an: The Church of the East across Sasanian Persia’, in Johnson, Scott F., ed., The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2012), 9941052 .

10 We know of these translations and Christian literature in these languages largely through the discoveries at Turfan (western China) in the early twentieth century. Ideally that literature would be read in conjunction with the texts surviving in Chinese. See the articles in the following collected volumes for collaborative attempts at doing just that: Malek, Roman, ed., Jingjiao: The Church of the East in China and Central Asia, Collectanea Serica (Sankt Augustin, 2006); Tang, Li and Winkler, Dietmar W., eds, From the Oxus River to the Chinese Shores: Studies on East Syriac Christianity in China and Central Asia, Orientalia-Patristica-Oecumenica 5 (Vienna, 2013); Winkler and Tang, eds, Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters; and now (unpublished at the time of the writing of this article) Tang, Li and Winkler, Dietmar W., eds, Winds of Jingjiao: Studies on Syriac Christianity in China and Central Asia (Zürich, 2016). I have discussed the Turfan materials as evidence for Syriac along the silk routes in ‘The Languages of Christianity on the Silk Roads and the Transmission of Mediterranean Culture into Central Asia’, in Cosmo, Nicola di and Maas, Michael, eds, Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity: Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppes (Cambridge, forthcoming).

11 For the Nestorian Stele, I use throughout this article the edition, translation and commentary produced by L. Eccles and S. N. C. Lieu: ‘大秦景教流行中國碑, Stele on the Diffusion of the Luminous Religion of Da Qin (Rome) in the Middle Kingdom’, 27 July 2016, online at: <>, accessed 4 November 2016. The editors have divided the inscription into verses, the Chinese verses marked by brackets and numbered, and the Syriac verses marked by brackets with ‘S’ prefacing the number. Pelliot, While Paul, L'Inscription nestorienne de Si-Ngan-Fou, ed. Forte, Antonino (Kyoto, 1996), remains the standard edition and commentary for the stele, he does not edit or comment on the Syriac text, which makes reading the monument as a whole through his edition more difficult.

12 On this edict and other sources for it in Chinese literature, see Forte's comments, in Pelliot, L'Inscription nestorienne, 49–373.

13 The dynastic history (§§13–22) is too long to summarize here, but notable events that could be explored in more detail include the requirement to display the emperor's portrait in churches or monasteries (‘temples’), the persecution of Christians in Chang'an in 713 and their restoration under the Emperor Xuanzong, the celebration of Christian liturgy in the Xinqing palace in 744, and the rebuilding and embellishment of churches or monasteries (‘temples’) by the Emperor Suzong. No mention is made of any emperor converting to Christianity, but several of the Tang emperors are described as highly favourable to the religion.

14 See Lieu, ‘Epigraphica Nestoriana Serica’, for a physical description of the stele; and Keevak, Michael, The Story of a Stele: China's Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916 (Hong Kong, 2008), for a history of its reception in the West.

15 See the translation and contextualization of these documents by Tang, Li, A Study of the History of Nestorian Christianity in China and its Literature in Chinese: Together with a new English Translation of the Dunhuang Nestorian Documents (Frankfurt am Main, 2004), 103204 ; see also her study of the Chinese Christian inscription discovered at Luoyang: Li Tang, ‘A Preliminary Study on the Jingjiao Inscription of Luoyang: Text Analysis, Commentary, and English Translation’, in Winkler and Tang, eds, Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters, 109–33.

16 Indeed, the noted Syriacists Muriel Debié and David Taylor included the Nestorian Stele in a notable article surveying Syriac historiography and chronicle-writing: Debié, Muriel and Taylor, David G. K., ‘Syriac and Syro-Arabic Historical Writing, c.500–c.1400’, in Foot, Sarah and Robinson, Chase, eds, The Oxford History of Historical Writing, 2: 400‒1400 (Oxford, 2012), 155–79. However, in her recent magisterial monograph on the writing of history in Syriac, Debié concludes that the stele is not a piece of Syriac historiography but rather a public document seeking to explain each culture to the other, arising from a purely multicultural environment where genre disappears, perhaps, in the process of the document's construction: Debié, Muriel, L’Écriture de l'histoire en Syriaque. Transmissions interculturelles et constructions identitaires entre hellénisme et islam, Late Antique History and Religion 12 (Leuven, 2015), 126–7.

17 Deeg, ‘Ways to Go and Not Go’, 139–40.

18 Ibid. This is also known in a Sogdian version from Turfan: Sims-Williams, Nicholas, ‘A Sogdian Version of the “Gloria in excelsis Deo”’, in Au Carrefour des religions. Mélanges offerts à Philippe Gignoux; textes réunis, ed. Gyselen, R., Res orientales 7 (Bures-sur-Yvette, 1995), 257–62.

19 Deeg, ‘Ways to Go and Not Go’, 141.

20 Ibid. 149; Huaiyu Chen, ‘The Encounter of Nestorian Christianity with Tantric Buddhism in Medieval China’, in Winkler and Tang, eds, Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters, 195–213.

21 Deeg, ‘Ways to Go and Not Go’, 149.

22 Eccles and Lieu, ‘Stele on the Diffusion of the Luminous Religion’.

23 See the lists of these clergy in both languages: ibid. 9–14. On the names of the clergy and the habits of transliteration, see Erica C. D. Hunter, ‘The Persian Contribution to Christianity in China: Reflections in the Xian Fu Syriac Inscriptions’, in Winkler and Tang, eds, Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters, 71–86, at 78–80; Takahashi, Hidemi, ‘Transcribed Proper Names in Chinese Syriac Christian Documents’, in Malphono w-Rabo d-Malphone: Studies in Honor of Sebastian P. Brock, ed. Kiraz, G. A. (Piscataway, NJ, 2008), 631–62; idem, ‘On some Transcriptions of Syriac Names in Chinese-Language Jingjiao Documents’, in Tang and Winkler, eds, From the Oxus River, 13–24.

24 Hunter, ‘Persian Contribution’, 72.

25 Compare, however, the suggestion that the ‘Dhūta Monastery Inscription’ served as a model for Adam: Forte, in Pelliot, L'Inscription nestorienne, 473–87.

26 For a detailed exploration of these options, see Eccles and Lieu, ‘Stele on the Diffusion of the Luminous Religion’, 19–22; Pelliot, Paul, ‘Deux titres bouddhiques portés par des religieux nestoriens’, T'oung-pao 12 (1911), 664–70, cited by Hunter, ‘Persian Contribution’, 73 n. 10; Lieu, ‘Epigraphica Nestoriana Serica’, 236–41; idem, ‘The “Romanitas” of the Xi'an Inscription’, in Tang and Winkler, eds, From the Oxus River, 123–40; and, generally, Hunter, ‘Persian Contribution’.

27 As an aside, we know that Timothy I was elected catholicos of the Church of the East in February 780, suggesting to most scholars that the news of his election had not travelled to Chang'an by time the stele was erected. However, Timothy I's election occasioned some controversy in the Church of the East in Iraq. He was opposed by Ephrem of Gundeshapur (Iran) and by Joseph of Merv (Turkmenistan): Hunter, ‘Persian Contribution’, 73. Joseph of Merv tried to get Timothy's election annulled through Caliph al-Mahdi in Baghdad and when that failed he converted to Islam: ibid. 73, citing The Book of Governors: The Historia Monastica of Thomas, Bishop of Marga, A.D. 840, ed. E. A. Wallis Budge, 2 vols (London 1893), 2: 383 n. 3; in turn citing Barhebraeus, Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, ed. Abbeloos, Jean Baptiste and Lamy, Thomas Joseph, Gregorii Barhebraei Chronicon Ecclesiasticum: quod e codice Musei Britannici cescriptum conjuncta opera ediderunt, latinitate donarunt annotationibusque, 3 vols (Leuven, 1872–7), 3 : col. 171.

28 It is sometimes presumed that, because he is given a different clerical office, this is not the same Adam who authored the inscriptions. Yet it is nevertheless intriguing that they share a name and that the son of Yazdbuzid is mentioned so prominently: Hunter, ‘Persian Contribution’, 77.

29 Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the traditional capital of Parthian and Sasanian Persia, had long been the ecclesiastical seat of the Church of the East but was no longer a centre of political and intellectual discourse under the Abbasids. Catholicos Timothy I moved the capital to Baghdad upon his election in 780.

30 Hunter, ‘Persian Contribution’.

31 Ibid. 74; Pelliot, Paul, ‘Christianity in Central Asia in the Middle Ages’, Journal of the Canadian Asian Society 17 (1930), 301–12, at 310–12. For instance, Thomas of Marga states in his ninth-century Book of Governors: ‘David was elected to be Metropolitan of Beth Tsinaye [China] – now I have learned concerning this man from the Epistles of Mar Timothy [I] – together with Peter his disciple who was alive and held the office of bishop of the country of Yaman [Yemen] and of Tsan'a [Sana]’: Book of Governors, ed. Wallis Budge, 1: 238, 2: 448, translation adjusted. On this passage and the knowledge of Thomas of Marga about the Eastern missions of the Church of the East, see Johnson, Scott F., Literary Territories: Cartographical Thinking in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2016), 115–32. Hunter notes that the use of Beth Tuptaye in Timothy's letters could possibly refer to the bishopric of Tibet: Braun, O., ‘Ein Brief des Katholikos Timotheos I. über biblischen Studien des 9. Jahrhunderts’, Oriens Christianus 1 (1901), 299313 , at 308–9, with other references in Hunter, ‘Persian Contribution’, 74 n. 14. See also Dickens, Mark, ‘Patriarch Timothy I and the Metropolitan of the Turks’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 3rd ser. 20 (2010), 117–39, on Timothy I and the Church of the East among the Turks.

32 Lieu has argued that the consonantal orthography of zynst'n is replicated by the Greek word τζίνιστα which appears in the Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes: Lieu, ‘Epigraphica Nestoriana Serica’, 229 and n. 12. However, the τζ- cluster would seem to me to resemble more the Syriac tsinaye than the Persian/Sogdian z, even though all are distantly related. Given Cosmas's East Syriac connections and the fact that he mentions Church of the East monasteries in Taprobane (Sri Lanka) in the same passage in which he uses τζίνιστα, I would suggest that he is mimicking Syriac orthography and should not be taken as evidence of the widespread use of zynst'n outside Persian/Sogdian circles. The point here is that the stele is using a very unusual spelling for the Syriac term for China which is influenced by its trajectory across central Asia.

33 See Hunter, ‘Persian Contribution’, 77–8 n. 30. On the Luoyang Christian inscription, see Tang, ‘Preliminary Study on the Jingjiao Inscription of Luoyang’; Nicolini-Zani, Matteo, ‘The Tang Christian Pillar from Luoyang and its Jingjiao Inscription: A Preliminary Study’, Monumenta Serica 57 (2009), 99–140 ; idem, ‘Luminous Ministers of the Da Qin Monastery: A Study of the Christian Clergy mentioned in the Jingjiao Pillar from Luoyang’, in Tang and Winkler, eds, From the Oxus River, 141–60.

34 Hunter, ‘Persian Contribution’, 81. Many of the Semirechye inscriptions were edited by Chwolson, D. A.: Syrische Grabinschriften aus Semirjetschie, Mémoires de l'Académie impériale des sciences de St-Pétersbourg VIIe série 34/4 (St Petersburg, 1886); Syrisch-nestorianische Grabinschriften aus Semirjetschie, Mémoires de l'Académie impériale des sciences de St-Pétersbourg VIIe série 37/8 (St Petersburg, 1890); Syrische Grabinschriften aus Semirjetschie (St Petersburg, 1897 edn). On the material remains in Quanzhou, see Samuel Lieu, N. C., Medieval Christian and Manichaean Remains from Quanzhou (Zayton), Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum, Series Archaeologica et Iconographica 2 (Turnhout, 2012).

35 Deeg, ‘Ways to Go and Not Go’, 146–8. On the confusion surrounding the names Abraham, Aluohan and Alopen in scholarship on Christianity in China in this period, see Forte, in Pelliot, L'Inscription nestorienne, 375–428.

36 By 781, the term Daqin had become an archaic designation for the Roman Empire, the more common term under the Tang being Fulin. The word Qin was the name of an infamous dynasty in Chinese history (221–207 BCE) which ultimately gave China its name (Qin = Ch'in in Wade-Giles transliteration). The geographical significance of the Daqin in the context of the stele is still debated, but under the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) the Chinese interpreted the name Daqin (‘the great/greater Qin’) as deriving from themselves, because the Roman Empire resembled that of China: Lieu, ‘Epigraphica Nestoriana Serica’, 236–41; and now idem, ‘Da Qin and Fulin: The Chinese Names for Rome’, in idem and Mikkelsen, Gunther B., eds, Between Rome and China: History, Religions, and Material Culture of the Silk Road (Turnhout, 2016), 123–45.

37 Pelliot, L'Inscription nestorienne, 364; cf. Lieu, ‘The “Romanitas” of the Xi'an Inscription’.

38 Interestingly, the last seated emperor of Sasanian Persia, Yazdgerd III, having been defeated by the Arab armies in the battle of Nihavand in 642, was buried by the Church of the East's bishop of Merv in 651: see Lieu, ‘Epigraphica Nestoriana Serica’, 235.

39 Barrett, T., ‘Buddhism, Taoism, and the Eighth-Century Chinese Term for Christianity: A Response to Recent Work by A. Forte and Others’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 63 (2002), 555–60.

40 Todd Godwin, ‘Persian Christians at the Chinese Court: The Xi'an Stele and the Church of the East, 410–845’ (PhD thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, 2015), 84; see also Sundermann, W., ‘An Early Attestation of the Name of the Tajiks’, in Medioiranica: Proceedings of the International Colloquium organized by the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven from 21st to 23rd May, 1990, ed. Skalmowski, W. and Tongerloo, A. van, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 48 (Leuven, 1993), 163–71.

41 Hunter, ‘Persian Contribution’, 75. Pelliot posited that Yazdbuzid was an Armenian: ‘Christianity in Central Asia’, 303. While there was a substantial exile Armenian community in Balkh, here the East Syrian context seems more likely, especially given that Yazdbuzid's father's name was Milis.

42 On contemporary Buddhist steles, see Wong, Dorothy C., Chinese Steles: Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist Use of a Symbolic Form (Honolulu, HI, 2004). This special relationship is signalled throughout the Chinese sections of the stele and through various epithets and honours attributed to individuals, such as, in the colophon: ‘[36] Assistant Supervisor: the High Statesman of the Sacred rites, [37] the Imperially-conferred-purple-gown [38] Chief Monk Yeli’ (i.e. Gabriel).

43 Translation by Max Deeg, ‘A Belligerent Priest: Yisi and His Political Context’, in Tang and Winkler, eds, From the Oxus River, 109–10 (with typographical corrections and with slight modifications based on Eccles and Lieu, ‘Stele on the Diffusion of the Luminous Religion’); text and punctuation follows Pelliot, L'Inscription nestorienne.

44 Deeg, ‘Belligerent Priest’.

45 Ibid. 111–12.

46 Ibid. 110–12.

47 For this and an explanation of all the Chinese titles granted Yisi, see ibid. 112–14. On the significance of the Kāṣāya, see Forte, in Pelliot, L'Inscription nestorienne, 494–5.

48 See Takakusu, Junjirō, ‘The Name of “Messiah” found in a Buddhist Book: The Nestorian Missionary Adam, Presbyter, Papas of China, Translating a Buddhist Sūtra’, T'oung Pao 7 (1896), 589–91; Huaiyu Chen, ‘The Connection between Jingjiao and Buddhist Texts in Late Tang China’, in Malek, ed., Jingjiao, 93–113; Deeg, ‘Ways to Go and Not Go’. On the Chongfu-si Buddhist monastery in Chang'an as a site for this intercultural and multilingual translation work, see Forte, in Pelliot, L'Inscription nestorienne, 429–54.

49 This argument can be extended further by tracing the activities of Suzong's early reign in reforming the tax system and curtailing the building of Buddhist monasteries. The stele was in this sense a ‘self-promoting and self-protecting’ mechanism of public identity-formation to which Suzong was apparently receptive, as evidenced by Buddhist and Manichaean petitions from the same period. See Deeg, ‘Belligerent Priest’, 115–18, especially 118: ‘I think it cannot be completely ruled out that some of the issues addressed in these petitions, although the emperor's reaction was not completely foreseeable, are reflected in some passages of the inscription.’

50 Stroumsa, Guy, The Making of the Abrahamic Religions in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2015), 33 .

51 Subsequent to the Hellenistic period, during which Jews throughout the Mediterranean diaspora used Greek translations for their scriptures, not least the Septuagint, Hebrew began to take on a more preeminent role in self-definition of Jewish worship and community: Rajak, Tessa, Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible of the Ancient Jewish Diaspora (Oxford, 2009); Smelik, Willem F., Rabbis, Language, and Translation in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2013).

52 As a counterpoint, one might cite the role of the Latin in the medieval West as the definitive scriptural language, in opposition to regional vernaculars. However, it was never claimed that Latin was the original language of the Old or New Testaments. Latin was a sacred and authoritative language, but the Latin Vulgate was still known to be a translation.

53 For a survey of the issues involved, see Tang, Nestorian Christianity in China, 103–44.

54 Another sign of this collaborative effort, which appeared too late for incorporation into this article, is Pier Giorgio Borbone and Pierre Marsone, eds, Le Christianisme syriaque en Asie centrale et en Chine, Études syriaques 12 (Paris, 2015).

I would like to thank Peter Brown, Averil Cameron, Simon Ditchfield and Geoffrey Goble for their assistance in improving this article. The scholarly audience of the Ecclesiastical History Society's Winter 2016 Meeting was highly engaging and provided many excellent suggestions for improvement which found their way into the article.

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