Translation of the Bible in China
Rare ancient Chinese bibles are displayed in a recent exhibition
in Los Angeles, U.S.A.
Worldwide translation of the Bible began in
the 3rd century B.C., but records of the Chinese version of the
Bible go back to around the 7th-8th century.
According to Gu Changsheng, a researcher of
the history of Christianity in China, the earliest translation of
the Bible in China can be found at the time of the Tang Dynasty
(618-907). In 635, foreign churchmen arrived in Xi’an, capital
of the Tang Dynasty, preaching and translating the Bible. Some incompletely
translated versions of the Bible were published and circulated,
but were lost over time.
During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), missionaries
from Western Europe came to China and translated all the New Testament
and Psalms into Chinese. It’s said that the translated version
was transcribed with fine Chinese calligraphy. Unfortunately, no
copies still exist today.
From the last years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
to the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), West European
Catholic missionaries returned to China again. During the 130-year
period of their preaching, the Chinese version of the Bible hadn’t
yet been published. The only information available was question
and answer lists for Chinese disciples to read, which contained
some quotes from the Bible.
In the early years of the 18th century, French
Catholic missionaries translated some parts of the Bible into Chinese.
The translated manuscript is now kept in the Museum of London.
It was only in the early years of the 19th century
that Protestant missionaries started translating the whole Bible
into Chinese. The earliest Chinese version of the Bible appeared
The first Protestant missionary who came to
China was an Englishman called Robert Morrison, who arrived in the
southern city of Guangzhou in 1807. Some experts say that he was
also the earliest Christian to run a school in China. In 1814, he
published the New Testament he had translated independently. In
1823, he worked in cooperation with another Protestant missionary,
William Milan, to publish a whole translated version of the Bible,
bound with traditional thread and containing 21 volumes. It is referred
to as “Morrison’s Version.” From that time the
complete version of the Bible was introduced to China.
When Protestant missionaries in China held a
representative meeting in Hong Kong in August 1843, they passed
a resolution on re-translating the previous Chinese versions of
the Bible. During the re-translation, missionaries engaged in the
translation were at odds on translating some terms. Their biggest
point of contention was whether to translate God into shen or
shangdi. Agreement was never reached and the two translating
teams each translated it in their own way.
The team that translated God into shangdi
published the New Testament in 1852 and the Old Testament in 1854.
The other team published the complete translated shen version
of the Bible in 1863.
In 1868, the translation work led by Baptist
J. Goddard was completed, and the translated Bible, called “Goddard’s
Version,” was published.
In 1890, Protestant missionaries in China held
a nationwide meeting in Shanghai and passed a resolution that all
sects of the Protestant community unite to form a translation team.
After working on the project for 28 years, the new Chinese version
of the Bible was published in 1919, with the vernacular Chinese
version proving especially popular. After more than 80 years, this
version is still widely used in China, but is divided into the shen
version and the shangdi version.
In addition, some missionaries had dedicated
themselves to translating the Bible into various Chinese dialects.
For example, there are two versions in the Shanghai dialect. One
is in Chinese and the other is in Pinyin (the phonetic system for
transcribing Chinese characters). From the 1860s to the early years
of the 20th century, translated versions of the Bible in more than
30 ethnic minority languages in China were published, most of which
were in the Latin alphabet pinyin developed by foreign missionaries.
However, foreign Christians have said publicly
that translation of the Bible by foreign missionaries should be
confined to history, and they hoped Chinese Christians could take
on the important task of translating the Bible themselves and publishing
a Chinese version faithful to the original text and catering to
the majority of Christians in China.
After 60 years, the modern Chinese version of
the Bible co-translated by Chinese Christian scholars was published
in Hong Kong, translated by Xu Mushi, Luo Weiren, Zhou Lianhua,
Wang Chengzhang and Jiao Ming. What is disappointing is that this
version hasn’t been widely circulated until now.
In some experts’ opinion, translating
the Bible into Chinese has high requirements: First, the translators
must be devout Christians; second, they should undergo rigorous
learning of Chinese and foreign languages such as ancient Hebrew,
ancient Greek, German and English; third, they should be familiar
with lection and church history; and finally, they should steer
clear of ideology and prejudice, translate in pure Mandarin Chinese,
and seek unity of the translation of “God,” avoiding
the influence of different factions. It is also felt that young
Christians should be trained for this purpose and funds raised from
local Christians in order to set up a Chinese Bible translation
Translation and publication of the Bible in
China has a long history, and although not all the past versions
are now locally available, some rare editions have survived in the
American Bible Society Library in New York, the Museum of London
and Hong Kong.
“I was lucky to have seen some editions
in Shanghai. During my study in the United States, I once went to
the American Bible Society Library and saw most of the rare editions.
I spent about three months in the library in researching to write
a paper,” said Gu Changsheng, whose works include Missionaries
and Modern China and Brief History of Christians in China.