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Chinese Bible Translation and Printing: Qing to Republic

Anastasiia Akulich explores the history of Bible translation and printing in China from the Qing Empire to the People's Republic.

A guest post from Anastasiia Akulich, a PhD candidate in history at the University of Manchester. Anastasiia’s thesis is dedicated to the Russian Orthodox Mission in China. Her chief academic interests include history of Chinese Christianity, missionary history, and history of the Sino-Russian relations.

Protestantism arrives in China

In 1807, Robert Morrison arrived in Guangzhou (Canton) as the first Protestant missionary to China. His arrival predated the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860), which secured access into China’s mainland for missionaries and merchants. During his time in East Asia Morrison stayed in Guangzhou (Canton), where Western trade was restricted, in the Portuguese-controlled port of Macau, and in the South Asian port of Malacca. Morrison employed Chinese teachers and assistants to help him to learn the language and translate important Christian texts into Chinese.

Translating Christian Scripture

While Catholic missionaries had been present in China since the 17th century, they never translated and published a full Chinese version of the Bible, focusing on instructional texts such as catechisms and lives of saints instead. Translating the scripture itself, however, was important to the Protestant missionaries, who emphasised the personal relationship between converts and scripture, and, through scripture, God.

In 1813, Morrison was joined in Malacca by fellow missionary, William Milne. The two worked together to found the Anglo-Chinese College there and to continue translating Christian scripture. Meanwhile, Joshua Marshman, a missionary to India, was working on another Chinese translation of the Bible together with Macau-born Armenian, Hovhannes Ghazarian. The Serampore Bible (Figure 1), published in 1822, is the first known complete printed version of the Bible in Chinese.

Figure 1: The Serampore Bible, Serampore, 1815-1822 (Spencer 21082)

The following year in 1823, Morrison and Milne published a 21-volume Bible (Figure 2). The publication of this version, in addition to the earlier Serampore Bible, was the start of a process that saw Christian scriptures become increasingly available to Chinese audiences.

Figure 2: Morrison and Milne (transl.), Holy Bible in Chinese, Malacca, 1823 (R100800)

Problems with Early Translations

These early translations of the scripture were not flawless. Liang Fa, early Chinese Protestant preacher, reportedly said that Morrison and Milne’s translation had used “inverted and unusual phrases”. Nonetheless, this translation was influential. Liang himself included extracts from Morrison and Milne’s translation in his most influential work, Good Words to Admonish the Age (1832).

Liang’s work is believed to have inspired Hong Xiuquan, a founder of the early Chinese Christian movement that led the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). This was one of the most violent civil conflicts in the 19th century. The rebellion itself, however, tended to use an edited version of the Karl Gützlaff’s translation of the Bible (1838) rather than Morrison and Milne’s.

Printing the Bible

One of the most exciting features of the Morrison and Milne Bible is that although the content was imported, it was presented in a book format that would have been familiar to the Chinese audiences. The Bible was printed on rice paper using woodblock printing technology, a process that was widely used in China for centuries. Similar formats were used by Catholic missionaries for their works in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In contrast, the Serampore Bible used movable metal type printing technology (MMT). Movable type was not completely new in China in the 1820s. However, producing the thousands of Chinese characters needed for this technology required substantial initial investment. MMT printing was possible for the Serampore Bible because it was published by a well-established and institutionalized mission, but MMT projects were uncommon at this time because of cost. This soon changed.

Figure 3: London Missionary Society Letter, undated (R217687)

Missionary Printing Presses in China

As missionary enterprises became more established in China, investment into printing technologies became possible, and this had major consequences for print culture. The letter above (Figure 3) from the London Missionary Society, for example, discussed a new publication of the Bible printed using mechanised movable type.

Movable type presses significantly sped up the process of printing, which later enabled the development of the national press, including daily newspapers. Missionaries such as Young J. Allen and Karl Gützlaff started printing missionary periodicals in Chinese, which introduced Chinese readers to an array of religious and scientific ideas from Western Europe and North America. These technologies were adopted by Chinese entrepreneurs and intellectuals. From the late 1890s, more and more Chinese-run newspapers developed, and treaty ports such as Shanghai became major centres of printing culture.

A Variety of Dialects

Engaging directly with the text of the Bible was of utmost importance for most Protestant denominations. As such, it was essential to make the text of the Christian scriptures accessible to the broadest audience possible. The written language of the Chinese ruling class, the Classical Chinese, was incredibly different from the language (and even languages) spoken by the people in different Chinese provinces. Missionaries and Chinese Christians were thus preoccupied with translating the Bible into colloquial languages as well as Classical Chinese. These translations included the Peking Mandarin Colloquial Bible (Figure 4), as well as dialects native to other provinces. These texts were particularly important for enabling people unfamiliar with the language of the political elites to engage with the scriptures.

Figure 4: Chinese. Peking Mandarin Colloquial Bible. I., Shanghai, 1887-1890 (R5731)

Colour and Images in Religious Texts

As the Christian readership in China grew, so did the desire for more elaborate illustrated texts that would be appealing for their appearance as well as their content. For example, the late 19th-century copy of the Bible pictured below (Figure 5) included colourful maps of the Holy Land. This edition utilised colour-printing technologies such as lithography, which made publications visually attractive as well as intellectually stimulating.

Figure 5: Xinjiuyue quanshu, Shanghai, 1891 (R159324)

The 1929 Pilgrim’s Progress (Figure 6) is an example of a religious but non-Biblical text that was disseminated in China. Its illustrations are representative of Republican-era (1911-1949) developments in Chinese Christian art, which sometimes presented Christian stories in Chinese settings, using visual references familiar to a Chinese audience.

Figure 6: Tianlu Licheng, Shanghai, 1929 (R69534)

Bibles in the Chinese Republic

After the establishment of the People’s Republic (1949), the position of Christianity in mainland China became increasingly insecure, especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Many religious communities experienced persecution and had to go underground. These communities did not, however, cease to exist.

The 20th-century copy of the Bible below (Figures 7 and 8) was, according to John B.W. Deane who donated it to the John Rylands Library, published to be used in communist-controlled mainland China. The book is deliberately inconspicuous with its small size and black cover. There is no date or place of publication, so that the publisher could not be traced.

Figures: 7 and 8: Chinese Language Bible (Heheben), Place of Publication Unknown, 20th Century (R197024)

Cultural Exchange and Cultural Imperialism

The tradition of Bible printing in China maintained elements associated with both Chinese and Western approaches into the late 20th century. The 1980s Hong Kong Bible pictured below (Figures 9 and 10) represents this. This edition of the Bible reflects the cosmopolitan nature of Hong Kong, the complex history of Chinese Christian printing, and the introduction of Western printing technologies into China generally. Missionaries, beginning with Morrison and Milne, played an important and controversial role in these developments. They were both actors of cultural exchange, and agents of cultural imperialism.

Figures 9 and 10: Shengjing: Xinjiuyue quanshu, Hong Kong, 1988 (R159326)

You can find more about the Chinese Collection at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library here. You can also access digitised items in the collection via Manchester Digital Collections. Our current exhibition, Qing: China’s Multilingual Empire, is open to visitors until 13th March 2022. You can find more information about visiting us in person here.

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