Supporting Article

The Origins of the Chinese Union Version Bible

Building on 700 years of Catholic translation work of portions of the Bible, the Protestant Chinese Union Version (CUV) of the entire Bible was published in 1919. The CUV was the summation of the work of several missionary translation teams. Lacking sufficient input from Chinese linguists, the CUV had some inadequacies. Yet, for 100 years it has been treasured by Chinese and has been the source of the remarkable growth of the Chinese church. This essay will describe the history of the translation of the CUV with lessons learned that might be used to improve ministry among Chinese people today.

The year 2019 will be the 100th anniversary of the translation of the Bible into the Chinese Union Version (CUV). Considering the staying power of the CUV Bible, and the remarkable growth of the Chinese church over the last 40 years, it is timely to revisit the origins of the Chinese Bible.

The Chinese Union Version is called the Heheben (和 合 本), in Chinese, literally, “drawn together into a whole book.” This title is fitting given the process by which several translation efforts were drawn together to create the complete CUV Bible.

Background on Scriptures in China

China has been a literary society for millennia and thus inclined toward the written word; even more, China history records a desire for, and a valuing of, scriptures. The Chinese word jing (经), translated into English as scriptures, is written using the radical for “sewing,” illustrating the traditional way books were assembled and held together. The origin of each of the three main religions in China is tied to a set of scriptures, all three of which amalgamate to form the core of Chinese philosophy and praxis.

Daoism (道 教), the oldest religion in China, was established on the thought of Laozi (老 子) in the 6th century BCE. Daoism is explained in the Daoist scripture, Daode Jing (道 德 经), “The Classic of the Virtues of the Way.” This is one of the most widely translated works in the world and explains the core metaphysical impulses found within Chinese culture, the sense that there is a universal way that humans can find and should pursue.

Confucius was a contemporary of Laozi; however, his works were assembled and promulgated later, in particular during the Song Dynasty (13th century AD). The Confucian scripture, Sanzi Jing (三 字 经), the “Three Character Bible,” is the embodiment of Confucian ideology and was the basis for teaching children up until the late 1800s. In fact, this scripture has made a comeback in recent decades as Chinese officials and parents have used it to instill moral beliefs in their young people.

The Buddhist scriptures, known as the sutras or fo jing (佛 经), came to China in the 2nd century BCE, in the form of Pure Land Buddhism, Jingtu Zong (净 土 宗). The entry of Buddhism into China was popularized through the classic 16th century novel Journey to the West (西 游 记) which told the story of Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey to India (the West) to secure the scriptures (取 经) and bring them back to China.

It is within this cultural and intellectual context that the Christian faith entered.

Entry of the Christian Faith

From antiquity, Chinese culture has valued the written word, and Chinese people valued jing, or scriptures. If one wonders about the role of scriptures in China in the modern era, consider the role of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book (毛主席语录) during the Cultural Revolution when Mao was venerated to deity status, and his book was treated as sacred.

Over the generations, Chinese people have sought sacred texts, treasured them, and taught them to their children. Hence, the introduction of the Christian faith into China met with a prepared audience. This background answers one of the key questions regarding the origins of the Chinese Bible, that is, what came first to China, the Bible or the church? The answer is—the Bible. The translation of the Bible, or the establishment of a jing, was the prerequisite to winning converts. In fact, as will be explained below, early Protestant missionaries used the Bible to teach Chinese people how to read, thus simultaneously raising their educational level and winning them to the Christian faith.

Translation of the Bible began during the Tang dynasty (7th century AD) when Persian Christian missionaries, the Nestorians, arrived in China (Standaert 2000). During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1636-1912), Jesuit missionaries of the Roman Catholic church and Russian Orthodox missionaries also worked on translations of the New Testament and Psalms (Sunquist 2001).

The Protestant Bible

The currently dominant CUV Bible is the fruit of nine different translation teams producing various Bible translations beginning in the early 19th century (Zetzsche 1999). The first challenge faced by these translators was deciding on the type of language to use. The issue of language resulted in three types of translation. The first Protestant translation (Marshman and Morrison/Milne) used the Wenli (文理) style. Wenli means “the principles of literature,” and used a high literary style. Even though the term Wenli is not a Chinese word historically, over time it came to mean “classical Chinese,” understandable only by scholars.

Following the Wenli was Easy Wenli. Easy Wenli was less literary and closer to the way people spoke at that time. It was used by the Schereschewsky translation team. The third type of language used was Guoyu (国 语), literally “the national language.” Guoyu was used by Medhurst, and came closest to integrating literary style and accessibility by the common people.  

The first Bible, written in the Easy Wenli style and published by Marshman and Lassar in 1822, was rushed and, in the end, was considered a poor translation. One year later, the Morrison/Milne translation was completed using the High Wenli language. Although this translation became the foundation of Chinese Bible translation, it was “wooden and unclear” (Pfister 1998; Starr 1998). Its poor quality was attributed to insufficient involvement of local scholars in the translation process. It should also be noted that, at the time, the comparative values of formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence translation concepts developed and coined later by Eugene Nida were not yet considered. Formal equivalence translation, or literal translation, was the standard practice.

In 1838, Karl Gutzlaff published another High Wenli version of the Chinese Bible. In 1844, he formed the Chinese Union to employ Chinese evangelists to distribute Scriptures and evangelize. 

The early translations of the Bible followed classical Chinese patterns of literature where only the highly educated person could understand the text so that it was only understood by the reader himself. Reading was not an option for women at that time. With high rates of illiteracy, it was crucial that the common people could understand the Bible to some degree when read aloud which required the use of the common people’s language.

Surveys in the 19th century revealed that the Mandarin dialect was the common basis of language from the Great Wall to the Yangtze River. Initially, this dialect was considered inappropriate due to its “colloquial coarseness,” but the realization of the need for people to understand the Scriptures eventually held sway, and subsequent translations began to use Mandarin. For example, 1852 marked the publication of what is known as the Delegates’ Version (代表译本) of the Bible. It used a high style of language understood only by a small, highly-educated minority. However, four years later in 1856, a Mandarin Delegates’ Version was made, which was easier to understand. This Mandarin Delegates’ Version quickly became the most influential version of the Bible, and eventually 100,000 copies were successfully distributed. It was unique in that it was aided by a Chinese scholar of high repute, Wang Tao (Zetzsche 1999), the only Bible translator of that era known for literary work outside of Bible translation. After Wang Tao, several other Chinese scholars also engaged in Chinese Bible translation.

The Nanking Version came out in 1856, the Peking Version in 1872, and the progenitor of the Union Version, using Easy Wenli, appeared in 1902. This jump-started the process so that in 1907 a High Wenli version of the Union Version was published. The CUV translation of the New Testament required 16 years, the Old Testament another 13 years, with the entire Bible being completed in 1919 as the Chinese Union Version in the same form as used today. The Chinese translation was primarily based on the English Bible with reliance on the original languages as necessary.

It must be noted that non-Chinese missionaries were mainly responsible for the translation of the Union Version which resulted in many translation problems, including problematic choices regarding terms, grammar, and style. (See “Word Choice Challenges.”) Because it was made by non-native speakers of Chinese, the Union Version was highly criticized. It was also not extremely faithful to the original languages; however, it was embraced by the Chinese people, especially the overseas Chinese community. Their opinions prevailed over those of some mainland Chinese believers who wanted to modify the translation. This version became the Chinese Union Version used today and continues to have the widest following in Chinese churches throughout the world, even though the language is now outdated. Furthermore, it has an emotional following, so that today it is difficult to introduce new versions into Chinese churches.

Nevertheless, the love for the CUV notwithstanding, several excellent translations are now available in both traditional and simplified script. In 1980, the Modern Chinese Translation, the Xiandai Zhongwen Yiben (现代中文译本), was published making it easier for people to understand the Bible without first being familiar with Christian terminology. This was followed by the publication of the Contemporary Bible, the Dangdai Shengjing Banben (当代圣经版本). In 1993, the Chinese New Version, Xinyi Ben (新译本) was completed by the Worldwide Bible Society. It was somewhat like a revision of the CUV so it was both welcomed and very readable. Some Chinese Bible scholars believe that the Chinese New Version will replace the CUV. With their increased availability in China, these new translations have proven helpful.

Lessons Learned from the History of Bible Translation in China

The century-long process of Chinese Bible translation demonstrates that mutual dependence on other translators was very high. Morrison’s translation was highly dependent on Catholic sources which had been in process for 700 years. It is important in any era that people recognize the degree to which they are “building on another person’s foundation,” and acknowledge indebtedness to the work of those who have gone before.

The development of the Chinese Bible also shows the occasional, unfortunate influence of foreign missionaries. At the time, the missionary translators did not expect the CUV translation to be the final product. They expected Chinese Christians to improve upon it; unfortunately, this never happened. This underscores the importance of local people being involved in translation and writing projects from the outset. In present-day China, Western Christian materials are frequently translated by Chinese coworkers; however, local Chinese Christians often have little say in what gets translated. The lessons of history should be heeded. Local believers need to be engaged in determining what resources are needed and ensuring they have access to the highest quality biblical and theological resources. This problem was also common in the period between 1912 and 1937, which Tang has called the “golden era” of dissemination of the Bible in China (Tang 2006).

Generally speaking, the Protestant Chinese Bibles were made in great haste which compromised their quality. There is a lesson here for Protestants today who are equally hasty to translate non-Chinese Christian books or training materials for use in China. Hasty translation is poor translation which results in literature that either is never used or is misleading. At a minimum, it sets a poor precedent for Christians implying the acceptability of using poor-quality materials. However, even though it is not perfect, the Union Version did take 29 years to translate and was a better translation than previous versions. Furthermore, it has stood the test of time.

As mentioned previously, Chinese people have a high regard for scriptures. However, it must be noted that they tend to view scriptures in a precritical way, not so much valuing scientific or historical accuracy but rather accepting that ancient authors had a level of wisdom that moderns cannot achieve. Likewise, the Bible is often viewed similarly to the way other Chinese classic scriptures are viewed. Having said that, non-Christians and intellectuals find that the realism and validity of the Bible enhances its validity in contrast to the mysticism of other Chinese holy books (Lin 1959).

The Bible also had an empowering impact on the lives of people, especially women (Li 2004).  The Bible, as a piece of literature available in the language of the common people, coupled with the Christian conviction of the need for education for all, especially women, spurred the growth of literacy in China in a remarkable way. In the 19th century, 99% of women and 90% of men in the north were illiterate. As women began to enter the wide-open door of the church, it became evident that their level of education needed to improve. In order to receive baptism, new believers needed to memorize the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and other passages, but at that time, wide-spread illiteracy among women limited their access to these important Christian statements. Therefore, the main component of most women’s worship services and gatherings was the teaching of songs, Chinese characters, and the Bible. Later, they began using 1000 Characters as a textbook. Some churches and evangelistic meeting points established short-term literacy and preaching classes, and even schools for women (Cao 1995).

The growth of the Chinese church since the introduction of the Policy of Openness and Reform (改革开放) in 1978 has surged due to the confluence of two streams. The first was the 1980s rural revival of common people with lower educational levels seeking new life in Christ from an experiential perspective. Elements of this revival resembled folk religion (Ramstad 2005). On the other hand, the second revival, primarily after the June 6, 1989 Tiananmen incident, took place primarily among urban dwellers, intellectuals and returned overseas Chinese (海归) (Aikman 2003; Fulton 2015).

The conversion of these educated individuals was highly dependent on literary resources which included, in addition to the Bible, materials that explained the Bible from a Chinese cultural and philosophical perspective (Hamrin et al. 1997). Among these materials were Yuan Zhiming’s several books, including Lao Tzu and the Bible (老子与圣经), and the film The Cross: Jesus in China (十字架耶稣在中国), which were particularly influential among Chinese intellectuals as they related the Christian faith to traditional Chinese culture and philosophy. Another influential work was The Way and the Word: A Meeting of Chinese Culture and Christian Culture (道与言——华夏文化与基督文化相遇), a compilation edited by Liu Xiaofeng (Liu 1995).

These books satisfied the many cultural and philosophical questions that Chinese intellectuals struggled with regarding the validity of the Bible (Johnson 2017; Yang 2014) and its relationship to Chinese culture. The intellectual needs of Chinese seekers are a reminder of why the translation of the Bible and other theological works into Chinese is so important. Good materials from many languages need to be translated into Chinese, and this translation needs to be of high quality.


The high value placed upon the written word by the Chinese people from antiquity prepared the ground for the Bible’s introduction into Chinese culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Bible not only provided the Word of God to the Chinese people, it also brought liberation and opportunity to women and people of all classes. As the 100th anniversary of the translation of the Chinese Union Version of the Bible approaches, it is appropriate to reflect on this history and learn from its many lessons.


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Image credit: Wesley Fryer, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link
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Mark A. Strand

Mark A. Strand

  Mark A. Strand, PhD, professor in public health at North Dakota State University, lived in China with his wife and three children for nearly twenty years. While in China he was involved in medical research and development with a non-profit organization in collaboration with the Chinese government.View Full Bio