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How I Learned to Love the CUV

I still remember my first Mandarin language class back in the 1980s. From the moment my professor—a gifted artist and calligrapher from Tianjin—first pronounced the four tones, I was hooked. I took every China-related course my college offered, but at no point was I exposed to the Bible in the Chinese language.

After graduation I took a position teaching English in China, and began worshipping at a local registered church. I opened the Chinese Union Version of the Bible (CUV or 和合本圣经), and was immediately confused: why couldn’t I read it? Many of the characters were familiar, but the grammar was wild and the names were all over the place. My immediate impression was that this was old-fashioned language, like the King James Version of the English Bible, and in need of updating. When the Bible came up in conversations with students or friends, I made up my own “conversational Chinese” paraphrases of scripture, consciously avoiding the (to me) hard to understand language of the CUV.

One day an old woman came into my classroom looking for a “foreign Christian.” She reached into her bag and handed me a very old and worn Chinese book and told me this was her family Bible handed down and preserved through the difficult decades of the twentieth century. She wanted to give it to me so that I could share the gospel with future generations of Chinese young people. I cried, she cried, and I accepted this gift for which I was (and am) unworthy. But with complex characters this Bible was even more difficult for me to read!

After graduate school, I returned to China to work long-term, this time determined to learn the biblical Chinese language of the CUV. With the help of a patient tutor, I soon discovered that some of my frustrations stemmed from the difference between modern Chinese (普通话) as spoken in mainland China today and the partially modernized vernacular (白话) of the 1920s that was used as the model for the CUV. As I became more comfortable with the strange names and the older sentence patterns, understanding dawned, but the sense of it being “off” persisted.

I recall a dinner from these years with my wife’s tutor and her husband, a famous Dream of the Red Mansion 《红楼梦》scholar. Though he was not a Christian, he was familiar with the CUV and greatly admired and respected the text. His description of the Chinese Bible as “beautiful and elegant” forced me to reexamine my view of it.

As my Chinese language studies brought me into closer contact with classical Chinese literature and poetry, I gradually realized that the CUV phrases that had previously seemed awkward or confusing to me often reflected more traditional Chinese patterns of prose, using sentence patterns and grammatical structures that were different from the subject-verb-object constructions that are so comfortable for native English speakers. Similarly, a preference for certain cadences (for example sets of four characters, concluding with sets of five or three characters) and a general tendency to use fewer words made the CUV text read as more “foreign” to native English speakers. And yet these same characteristics were comforting and familiar for local people raised on Tang Dynasty poetry and traditional folk operas.

Through these experiences I came to see the language of the CUV as a meaningful and even powerful tool for speaking truth into the hearts of Chinese believers. Instead of my awkward and alien-sounding paraphrases, I began memorizing key phrases from the CUV. I quickly discovered that the language of the CUV had a kind of authority that resonated powerfully with Chinese listeners. I still regret having waited so long to begin memorizing CUV passages.

More personally, I also began to experience the devotional value of encountering God’s word through the CUV translation. The economy of phrase and elegant word choice became less of a barrier and more of a comfort to me. I also discovered places where the CUV captured aspects of Biblical truth that were less obvious in my English translations. As just one example, I have developed a great appreciation for the explicitly plural second person pronoun of the Chinese language (你们 or “y’all” as opposed to the singular 你 or “you”). Here the CUV provides an important corrective to the individualistic applications of the epistles that are so prevalent in North American Christianity.

A few years later I was invited to assist with a new Chinese translation of the Bible that was being prepared in Hong Kong. I met the team, learned about their translation goals, and offered to help test their manuscripts in country. Believers in my area rejected the more literal translations from the committee, gravitating instead towards renderings that were most similar to the language of the CUV. Nor were the translators (highly qualified, skilled native Chinese speakers with advanced degrees) upset by this. They too were keen to preserve the beauty and elegance of the Union Version.

In recent years the quality of preaching in mainland churches has improved dramatically, as younger pastors with higher education levels and more training in the biblical languages assume greater roles in pulpit ministry. It is not unusual for a preacher to speak from the CUV while making reference to the contextual meaning of key biblical terms in the original languages: shalom, agape, logos, and so on. Other Chinese translations are increasingly employed by Chinese believers and church leaders for comparison purposes, to aid their comprehension of the text. And as Bible software Chinese-language databases improve, and it becomes easier for Chinese pastors to explore the relationship between the language of the CUV and original language biblical texts, we can expect even more in-depth textual engagement from mainland Chinese preachers—all without ever having to abandon the much-loved Chinese Union Version.

Over my quarter century of living with the Chinese Union Version of the Bible I have learned to see this particular translation of God’s Word as something not foreign or out of date, but rather as a beautiful and powerful text. I have learned through shared faith and life experiences with my Chinese sisters and brothers to view the Chinese Union Version of the Bible as a faithful, elegant, and eminently readable translation (信、雅、达)—one that consistently draws me closer to my Lord.

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Image credit: Joann Pittman

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China.View Full Bio

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