As the missologists Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls argue, the translatability of the Scriptures is essential to Christian tradition. Ever since the beginning of Protestant missions in China, Bible translation has been a huge part of mission work. Since its publication in 1919, in a relatively short period of time, the Chinese Union Version (CUV) has become the most dominant and popular translation. After almost a century, and even with all the changes in Chinese language and available new translations, its dominance is still unabated and unshaken. A Taiwan-based scholar put it this way: “It could well be the most influential ‘Chinese text’ among the Chinese readers for the past nearly one hundred years and also in the future. Undoubtedly, even if we cannot claim it has become a ‘canon’ in the Chinese world, it is certainly an ‘authority.’”
For the majority of Chinese Protestants, the CUV unquestionably remains an authority often with the status of “God’s Word.” It is recently reported that a Chinese believer loved God’s Word so much that he decided to purchase and compare various Chinese versions of the Scriptures, including the Catholic one. When his fellow believers got to know about this, they began to challenge him, saying only the CUV is the true Bible, and all other versions are erroneous and even heretical. This may be a fairly extreme case, but it is very telling.
Indeed, how fast the CUV rose to dominance and how enduring its dominance has turned out to be are truly mind-boggling and time-honored phenomena. The question becomes: How can we explain this? Many factors behind this occurrence have been identified by the scholars of Chinese Christianity. As a historian of Chinese Christianity, I would like to highlight the following factors.
1. The CUV played a pivotal role in providing and shaping the theological vocabulary of the Chinese Protestant Church.
In their long and pains-taking process of translating the Scriptures into Chinese in the early 19th century, Western and Chinese translators had accumulated a rich repository of theological notions and terms in Chinese languages. The CUV inherited and integrated them into its own translation.
When the CUV was published and circulated, it happened to be about the time the Western missionaries’ dominance came to an end, and the Chinese church came of age. Chinese Christians began to share leadership responsibilities and initiate indigenous evangelical revivals that swept across the country. More importantly for our topic, this was the formative time for indigenous Protestant theological understanding and tradition.
The timely arrival of the CUV provided the Chinese Protestant community with a ready-made set of theological notions and vocabulary that were immediately well received and embraced by Chinese believers. It did not take long for the CUV’s translation of such key biblical terms as “faith,” “sin,” “salvation,” and “grace” to become the standard “language of faith,” used by church leaders, theologians, and evangelists as well as the average churchgoer on a daily basis.
The CUV’s defining influence on Chinese Protestant theological thinking and church life is so profound that ever since its translation of key biblical terms has been deeply ingrained in the theological DNA of the Chinese Protestant community around the world. It is fair to say that this is the only theological language system known and used unquestionably by this community up to today. In contrast, one can hardly identify any single, vernacular translation of the Bible which has had such a commanding and lasting impact on church life in the West.
2. The CUV helped shape a universally, unifying identity for Chinese Protestant communities around the globe.
Before the CUV came into being, previous Chinese translations of the Scriptures had been done in either classical Chinese, only understandable to the educated elites in Chinese society, or in particular dialects for certain parts of the country. Therefore, the CUV’s aim to produce a translation understandable to all people from all parts of the country and all social classes turned out to be hugely strategic. It has served to unite all Chinese Protestant believers under one single Chinese version of the Scriptures. Today, when you worship with any Chinese congregation in mainland China or the Chinese Diaspora, you can easily feel the presence of a common, universal, Chinese Protestant tradition cemented by a shared set of “spiritual vocabulary,” classical hymns, and common version of the Bible, despite very different contexts. It is fair to say the CUV plays a big part in the forging and maintaining of this common identity among Chinese Protestant believers worldwide.
3. The CUV accompanied the Chinese church through its trials and suffering.
The past one hundred years have been a turbulent time for the Protestant church in China. It went through numerous wars, revolutions, constant pressure from an atheist regime, and finally all-out persecution during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Many Chinese believers would attest to the fact that it is in the texts of the CUV that they found comfort and strength. They greatly loved to read and even memorize texts from handwritten copies of the CUV during the darkest years of the Cultural Revolution. In fact, we can even say that the CUV is part of the Chinese church’s collective memory and heritage attesting to its perseverance and cross-bearing under tremendous suffering. There is a strong emotional bond between the CUV and the Chinese Protestant community that will not easily fade away.
4. The CUV’s exquisite rendering of the biblical texts gives it a special quality and lingering charm.
Linguistically speaking, the CUV does have its own advantage in the contemporary context. As we know, the CUV is largely based on the vernacular in northern China but integrates some elements of classical Chinese. This combination reflects the genius of the original translating team. It makes the CUV understandable to ordinary folks but also appealing to the educated segments of society.
It is true that the existence of classical Chinese elements sometimes makes certain wordings read awkwardly or seem old-fashioned today. However, in reality, the CUV’s combination of the vernacular and classical may ironically play to its advantage. As many Chinese believers, especially the more educated ones would say, they prefer the CUV over other more colloquial translations of the Scriptures precisely because a special quality comes with its unique style. After all, God’s Word has to be special and unique!
Of course, there is the technical issue of circulation and availability. Some Chinese believers will tell you that they only know the CUV because they grew up with it and no other Chinese version of the Scriptures was available.
5. The CUV contributed to the emergence of the modern, Chinese national language and the New Culture Movement and still commands significant respect within the greater Chinese society.
Indeed, the longevity of the CUV’s popularity also has to do with its influence beyond the church. Since the late 19th century, China’s modernization project has gradually led to the transformation of a traditional dynasty into a modern nation-state. As part of this nation-building process, attempts were made to replace the single written language (classical Chinese) and diverse dialects, with one, single, unified, written/spoken language for the entire nation.
The breakthrough came in the form of the May Fourth New Culture Movement of the early 20th century, right around the time the CUV was published. It emerged as one of the very few texts that met the goal of a vernacular, Mandarin-based, unified national language and immediately won popular endorsement. As both Christian and non-Christian scholars agree, the CUV is a masterpiece of the modern Chinese language. It has served as an example for the modern Chinese literature movement and also benefited from the movement’s successful, rapid, popularization of the new vernacular based upon the Chinese national language.
The CUV’s contribution in this regard is still widely recognized today by Chinese academia. One scholar even claims that “as John the Baptist paved the way for Jesus, these vernacular Mandarin translators of the Bible are the pioneers in making vernacular Mandarin a national language.” Not surprisingly, the CUV’s role in China’s nation-building is compared with the roles of Bible translations in nation-building in modern Europe.
Additionally, the CUV’s influence within the larger society of China is attested to by the fact that the CUV is the most cited Bible translation when the biblical terms and texts are quoted by secular academia today. In other words, the CUV enjoys de facto status of being the scholarly norm in China.
In conclusion, the reasons behind the enduring popularity of the CUV among Chinese Protestants and in society run deep historically and presently. For most Chinese believers, the CUV is much more than just another Chinese translation of the Scriptures; it is very close to their hearts. That is why, with all the criticism of the CUV’s “antiquity” and “inaccuracy,” there is virtually no sign that its dominance will change in the foreseeable future. We can ask whether it is theologically correct to equate the CUV with the Word of God, and whether some Chinese believers have a tendency to turn the CUV into an idol. However, the reality is, if any viable revision of the CUV has a chance to win popular acceptance, it has to keep the CUV’s original texts intact as much as possible and make as few changes as possible. Yes, as a prominent Chinese church pastor declares, the CUV is a precious gift to the Chinese church from God and has been used by him to nurture generations of believers. How much longer is God going to use the CUV for his glory in China? God alone knows.
Editor’s note: This article is available at Christianity Today in Chinese, both Simplified and Traditional versions.
Chiu Wai Boon（趙維本), Tracing Bible Translation—A History of the Translation of Five Modern Chinese Versions of the Bible（譯經溯源──現代五大中文聖經翻譯史), (China Graduate School of Theology, 1993).
Zetzsche, Jost Oliver, The Bible in China: The History of the Union Version or the Culmination of Protestant Missionary Bible Translation in China, (Sankt Augustin: Monumenta Serica Institute; Nettetal: Steyler Verl., 1999).