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Can the Chinese Union Version Be Replaced in China?

In China, the Chinese Union Version (CUV) is the Bible itself. Even before I started seriously studying the Bible, I had no less than five of these Bibles given to me by older sisters within the Three-Self Church. Among those sisters was my grandmother who first shared the gospel with me. Her passion for God’s Word is exemplary, and for her, the Chinese Union Version is the Bible. Every word within it is God’s Word.

This view of the Chinese Union Version being the Bible itself is most evident among older Christians. At the bookstores of Three-Self Churches, most Bibles sold are the CUV, mainly because it is the cheapest version available which most Christians in China can afford. The Amity Foundation provides the paper on which it is printed, making it affordable, and this has increased its market share in China as price is definitely a factor for Chinese Christians.

Due to my grandmother’s influence, I was baptized in a Three-Self Church. While their baptism classes did not help me understand the full gospel, they did give new believers a simple understanding of how to discern a false gospel. They would tell believers that if someone used a different Bible, he or she likely belonged to a cult. For example, we all know that the Christians who use the Recovery Version are influenced by Witness Lee. Or, if someone reads the New World Translation, then we know he or she belongs to the Jehovah’s Witness sect. Since Chinese people naturally prefer to do what is politically correct, they stick to the most commonly known, and therefore safest, version of the Bible—the CUV.

I recently saw someone selling a Bible that featured annotations of the Romanization of all the characters in it. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a CUV Bible with a pronunciation guide. However, the seller was advertising it this way:

There are many words in the Old Testament that you can’t pronounce, which you skip over while reading your Bible. This is failing God. We need to read every single word of God’s revelation. With this annotated Bible, you will no longer fail God when you read your Bible. We recommend that every Christian have a copy. Invest in your faith.

Based on this ad, it is apparent that the seller considers the CUV part and parcel of God’s direct revelation.

However, if there are many words in the CUV that today’s Christians can no longer understand, why do we not simply say that the CUV is no longer a suitable translation for contemporary Christians? Why must we label all the words in this version with the pronunciation so that people will know how to read each word aloud? If someone does not know a word and is taught to pronounce it, does that help that individual to suddenly understand the meaning of the word? Our Chinese language is not a phonetic writing system, so we cannot understand a word’s meaning simply by reading it out loud.

We all know the five solas of Reformed doctrine, the first of which is “Scripture alone.” Superficially, it looks like the Chinese church does this well. However, as I look around, the majority of Chinese Christians think that “Scripture alone” means the CUV alone. As long as a Christian reads this version, as long as preaching from the pulpit is based on it, then we are adhering to “Scripture alone.”

Many churches, including the one I attend, commonly use the CUV. There are three times during our Sunday worship service when we use this version. First, someone reads an Old Testament passage from it; then another person reads a New Testament passage, and finally, during the sermon, the elders lead us in reading the passage upon which the sermon will be based—all from the CUV.

However, if the CUV is not the best option, why would the church use it so much? This Chinese church tradition of reading a Bible passage together greatly emphasizes that the Bible is the special revelation God has given us, but for us to read together, we all need to read from the same translation. The CUV meets this need, and in addition, has a clear advantage in quality and price.

A brother in Christ once asked our elders if the church could use a different translation of the Bible. Our elders replied that replacing the CUV with another Bible translation would require a lot of time teaching the congregation to adapt. The Chinese church has many important things to do and to teach, and spending our energy on adjusting to another version of the Bible is not essential. Nevertheless, he encouraged church members to use a child-friendly translation with their children at home. For example, they could use the Chinese Contemporary Bible in which words are easier and the language more contemporary.

Using the CUV, however, is not set in stone. There is a weekly Bible study at our church, and a different brother leads the Bible study each time. Some brothers will use the Revised Union Version on their PowerPoint slides. While the goal of this Revised Version was to avoid changing anything unnecessarily, still, using this version does send a good message. In studying the Bible, our goal is to understand what the Bible is saying—not what the CUV says.

Worth celebrating even more is the fact that when we encounter some difficult passages, most members of the Bible study are willing to look the passage up in an English version. Perhaps the English version is clearer and easier to understand than the Union Version. Some members even look up the original text or reference other Chinese translations, such as the Chinese Contemporary Bible. These are very good ways of studying the revelation the Bible has for us.

The popularity of the CUV is often rooted in its own mistakes. This is something I have only realized this past year. Since most Chinese pastors use this version for Bible study, the places where it mistranslates allows the mistake to be brought into the sermon, then into the exegesis, and finally into the application. If now, a different translation were used, what would happen with the earlier exegesis and application? This is a thorny and challenging problem elders will have to face.

Even though I tend to be “anti-CUV,” I think that every translation has its strengths, weaknesses, and readability for time and place. In one era, one translation serves people of that time. The Wenli translation (see “Origins” article by Strand) is beautiful, and very ably done. Its translation of the Lord’s Prayer is especially attractive. Yet, very few people in China still use this translation because not many of us can read classical Chinese. Likewise, as modern Christians, the beauty of the CUV is not our first concern; rather, the major issue is that we understand God’s revelation.

I use the Chinese Contemporary Bible in my daily devotions, but this presents a challenge when reciting a verse with a group as what I recite is different from what others recite. Though we are reciting the same verse, it may sound very different. Nevertheless, this gives me an opportunity to explain to others why I memorize from the Chinese Contemporary Bible, and not the CUV.

May we all love God’s special revelation, the Bible, the most—more than the tool of transmission, a particular translation.

Article translated by ChinaSource.

Image credit: Thomas H. Hahn Docu-Images.
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Ben Hu

Ben Hu is a member of a church in Shanghai. He is currently a lay leader in his church and in training to be a pastor.View Full Bio