Across Boundaries: How International Networks Shaped the 1836 Manchu Translation of the New Testament

Researcher Dr Anastasiia Akulich explores the international and multi-denominational influences that produced the 1836 translation of the New Testament in Manchu.

The Rylands' copy of the New Testament translated into Manchu, in seven volumes
Figure 1: The New Testament translated into Manchu by Stepan Lipovtsov and published in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1836 (Crawford 434)

The John Rylands Research Institute and Library holds a copy of the 1836 translation of the New Testament in Manchu. In this blog-post researcher Dr Anastasiia Akulich explores the international and multi-denominational influences that produced this translation and shows how these networks transcended national and religious boundaries.

Catholic Missionaries in China: de Poirot’s Translation

Manchu is a Tungusic language, a family of languages spoken in North-East China and Central and South-East Siberia. It was one of the official languages under the Qing, the Manchu dynasty that ruled China in 1644-1911.

Catholic missionaries from the Society of Jesus (or Jesuits) settled at the Qing court in the seventeenth century and were possibly among the first Europeans to learn Manchu. They found this language easier than Chinese, because it had a phonetic script and familiar grammatical elements, such as a case system, which Chinese lacked (Figure 2).

A bilingual certificate that shows the difference between Manchu (left) and Chinese (right)
Figure 2: A bilingual Manchu (left) and Chinese (right) certificate issued to the parents of a successful army officer in the 15th year of Daoguang Emperor (1821-1850, Qing era) (Crawford 460)

The Jesuits translated works of European thinkers and scientists into Manchu and published a work on Manchu grammar (1696). As Catholic missionaries, they also set a precedent for translating Christian literature into Manchu. Whether translating into Manchu or Chinese, the Jesuits primarily focused on instructional literature and lives of saints, rather than the Bible. However, French Jesuit Antoine de Poirot (1735-1813) made an early attempt at translating the Old Testament into Manchu. Though Poirot’s work was never published, several copies of it have survived to this day. One of these copies travelled to St. Petersburg in 1825 and played a role in bringing Russian Orthodox students and British Protestant translators together to produce the 1836 Manchu New Testament.

A Russian ‘Student’ in Beijing: Stepan Lipovtsov

While Catholic missionaries entered China through the southern ports, Orthodox Christianity came from the north. Russian encounters with China began in the mid-seventeenth century and resulted in conflict, which was only settled with the aid of Jesuit translators. Relying on Catholic missionaries in matters of diplomacy and trade was, however, undesirable for Russian officials, who suspected the Jesuits of conspiring against them. For this reason, in 1727-1728 the Russian Orthodox Mission in Beijing (est. 1715) started employing ‘students’, laymen who learned Chinese and Manchu to assist in diplomatic communications. While in China, they translated official correspondence and collected Chinese and Manchu books. Upon their return to Russia, former students taught Chinese and Manchu, and wrote and translated works on China.

Among these students was Stepan Lipovtsov (1770-1841). After spending thirteen years (1794-1807) mastering Manchu in China, Lipovtsov returned to Russia a successful scholar and his works were widely published. His academic activities coincided with a growing interest of the Russian intellectual circles in China, and the missionary scholarship on China’s history, geography, and languages flourished. As an expert in the field, Lipovtsov was therefore appointed by the Russian Bible Society to translate the New Testament into Manchu (Figure 3).

Page from the St. Petersburg New Testament with stitch binding on the left, as Manchu is read from left to right
Figure 3: Page from the St. Petersburg New Testament, published using traditional Chinese methods. Unlike Chinese, Manchu is read from left to right, so the stitch binding is on the left, rather than the right (Crawford 434)

The Russian Bible Society and the 1836 Manchu Translation of the New Testament

The Russian Bible Society (est. 1813) was an organisation closely associated with the Protestant translation project. Because most branches of Protestantism encouraged Christians to engage directly with the text, missionaries were keen to translate the Bible into as many languages as possible. For this purpose, the British and Foreign Bible Society was created in 1804. Its Russian branch, the Russian Bible Society, included a mixture of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox clergymen interested in the Society’s translation efforts.

Talks of translating the Bible into Manchu first started in 1816 and resumed in 1820. By then, Lipovtsov was considered Russia’s foremost expert on Manchu and was therefore engaged as the translator. Lipovtsov first translated the Gospel of Matthew in 1823 and completed his full translation of the New Testament by 1825. Lipovtsov’s New Testament, however, was not approved for publication by the Russian state and church authorities, who were suspicious of the plans to translate the Bible into vernacular languages and the role Protestant missionaries played in this process.

Nonetheless, missionary translation activities continued. The St. Petersburg’s collections of Chinese and Manchu books, which included de Poirot’s Manchu translation of the Old Testament (see ‘Catholic Missionaries in China’ above), remained an important point of reference for missionary translators. Among them were British Protestant missionaries William Swan and George Borrow, who came to St. Petersburg to study de Poirot’s Old Testament in 1832. While on this trip, Borrow met Lipovtsov and worked with him to publish his Manchu Bible, which finally came out in 1836. Thousands of copies of the work were printed and ended up in a variety of institutions all over the globe.

As noted by Johannes S. Lotze, the copy held at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library appears virtually unused (Figure 4).

Page from the Rylands' copy of the New Testament in Manchu showing no signs of ownership
Figure 4: Page from the New Testament. The thumb index (the column on the right) includes the folio number (emu or one), as is traditional in Chinese books (Crawford 434)

This may suggest that Lipovtsov’s translation was struggling to find an audience. Manchu was the language of many Chinese documents, and knowledge of it was necessary for diplomatic exchange at the Qing court. However, by the nineteenth century the majority of China’s Manchu speakers were at least bilingual and could read the Bible in Chinese. It seems therefore unlikely that this Bible was used as an instrument to convert them to Christianity.

Despite its lack of popularity, the 1836 translation of the New Testament into Manchu is not only an important linguistic document: it is also the product of a network which involved Jesuits at the Qing court, the Russian Orthodox mission in China, and Protestant missionaries in Britain. Its history is therefore an example of how translation projects existed across state and religious boundaries.

Further Readings

Giovanny Stary, ‘Christian Literature in Manchu,’ Central Asiatic Journal 44 №2 (2000), 305-316.

Hartmut Walravens, ‘Christian Literature in Manchu: Some Bibliographic Notes,’ Monumenta Serica 48 (2000), 445-469.

Hartmut Walravens, ‘Christian Literature in Manchu,’ Central Asiatic Journal 58 №1-2 (2015), 107-224.

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