Blog Entries

The Chinese Bible

History, Challenges, and Recommendations

Current Use

More Christians read the Chinese Bible than most other translations of the Scriptures. Tens of millions of Chinese Christians within China and elsewhere see this as the Word of God. They read it, memorize it, reverence it, and preach from it.

History–Danger and Difficulty

When Robert Morrison was making the first translation of the Bible into Chinese, his helper kept a vial of poison ready in case the police came in suddenly. He knew that he would endure a terrible death for violating the law.

The main translator of the Old Testament part of the Chinese Union Version (CUV), Anglican Bishop Samuel Isaac J. Schereschewsky, was a converted Russian Jew whose mother tongue was Hebrew. An injury affected his hands, so that he had to type his translation using only one finger on each hand.

For decades, government policy has forbidden the publication or distribution of the Bible in China outside of official channels. Since the demand far exceeds the supply, brave foreigners have had to carry in Bibles by hand, and equally courageous Chinese believers have taken huge risks to distribute them to spiritually hungry believers in unregistered churches throughout the vast land. The penalty for getting caught has ranged from jail to beatings and even death. For many years, a desperate shortage of printed Bibles forced believers to copy them out by hand. For the same reason, Christians memorized extensive portions of the Scriptures, and sometimes the whole Bible itself.

What is this remarkable book, that has evoked fear and harsh repression from government officials and inspired such acts of heroism?

The mostly widely used edition is the Chinese Union Version, completed in 1919 by a team of Western missionaries and their highly trained Chinese helpers. This version has a long history, beginning with the first translation of the Bible into Chinese by Robert Morrison and his coworker William Milne, with Chinese assistance. Working under great duress, they labored over this translation—as well as a massive dictionary of Chinese—for many years, and it stands as a monument of loving and careful scholarship.

Nevertheless, other missionaries who knew the original languages as well as Chinese saw the need for revisions almost as soon as Morrison’s translation was published in 1823. Sometimes alone, but usually in teams, they produced one translation after another during the nineteenth century. These men were all gifted linguists with an intimate knowledge of both classical and more recent Chinese.

We must therefore reject the charge that the CUV is a product of only Western missionaries, for these Chinese assistants played a critical and often decisive role in the translation process, and the missionaries themselves had all lived in China and immersed themselves in the language and culture of the Chinese, whom they loved and admired.

Eventually, after the General Missionary Convention in Shanghai in 1877, they selected a group of their best scholars, who chose outstanding Chinese Christians to help them, and the result was the Chinese Union Version, published in 1919. Though it has often been revised, the CUV remains the unofficially “authorized” Chinese Bible by virtue of its faithfulness to the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, its elegance of literary style, and its long history of almost universal use by Chinese Christians.

The CUV was born during a period of great cultural and linguistic revolution in China, when the old literary language was finally abandoned and replaced by what we would call spoken Mandarin, the lingua franca of government officials and educated people throughout China. This dialect enabled people from different places, whose local dialects were mutually incomprehensible, to communicate with each other in a common medium.

In this era of literary ferment, the CUV rapidly gained the admiration of educated people. In fact, rather like the King James Version of the English Bible, it made a huge impact on the literature of the new nation.


Several controversies have hindered and often delayed the translation of the Bible into Chinese.

In the nineteenth century, missionaries differed as to which of several styles of written Chinese should be used. Eventually, they settled on modern spoken, but not without heated arguments and multiple editions in other styles.

Even sharper disputes arose over which Chinese to use to translate the biblical word for “God.” Some preferred Shang Di, the name of the supreme deity in the Chinese pantheon, who shared some important resemblances with the God of the Bible. Others believed that the word shen, a generic term for god, or spirit, better conveyed the meaning of the Greek theos, which also denoted both pagan gods and had been employed both in the Greek Old Testament to render the Hebrew word Elohim and in the New Testament for “God.”

In the end, no compromise could be reached, so two editions have been published up to this day, one using Shang Di and the other Shen.1

There was disagreement also about the proper translation of the Greek word for “baptize,” with the Baptists insisting upon a term that denoted immersion.

Nevertheless, when the CUV was published in 1919, it immediately received almost unanimous praise not only from Western missionaries but also from Chinese Christians. They all recognized it as a remarkable literary product that was highly faithful to the original biblical languages.


I have referred to its elegant literary style. I am no qualified critic of Chinese literature, but even I can appreciate the sheer aural beauty of the CUV when it is read aloud, and my Chinese friends tell me that its purity of word choice, economy of expression, and rhythmic cadences speak to their hearts while delighting their ears.

The CUV also receives high marks for its excellence as a translation. When I was supervising the translation of the Greek-English lexicon into Chinese, which involved quoting passages from the Bible, I asked my Chinese translators about literally hundreds of words and phrases and learned that the CUV renderings of the original were generally quite accurate.

The CUV also makes full use of the incredible wealth of Chinese vocabulary. Since most Chinese “words” are composed of two characters, Mandarin has the capacity to express nuances of thought that English simply does not. Take the word “love” for example. The CUV draws upon, and even creates, two-character compounds that reflect the different denotations and connotations of agape in Greek.


Of course, no translation can be perfect, the CUV included. The language, though technically “modern” in 1919, now sounds archaic to most Chinese readers. It’s rather like the difficulty we have with the King James Version of the Bible. In particular, names of places, nations, and peoples have changed in modern times, and those in the CUV are sometimes meaningless to modern Chinese readers.

Other weaknesses stem from the unique character of the Chinese language itself. Speaking generally, the verb has no tenses (though time can be expressed to a limited degree); the nouns and adjectives have no cases; neither verbs nor substantives have plural forms (though pronouns do); there is no definite article (“the”); and so on. Greek, on the other hand, is one of the must plastic and precise languages on earth, and it was perfectly suited for the use of the writers of the New Testament, especially in the epistles, where complex theological concepts receive extremely nuanced rendering in Greek. To some degree, English possesses more of this ability to convey the subtleties of the Greek, which is why I used to recommend that Chinese Christians with facility in English to use a good English translation alongside the CUV.

Biblical and linguistic studies have advanced in the past hundred years, making some corrections in the translation necessary.

Some renderings in the CUV reflect theological or exegetical biases. For example, “women” or “wives” in 1 Timothy 3:11 is rendered as “female deacons, deaconesses,” which has led to the inclusion of women as deacons in many Chinese churches. “Prophesy” in 1 Corinthians 14:31 is translated as “act as a prophet and preach,” in accordance with the “cessationist” view that “prophesy” must mean only preaching. And there are many other such cases.

A Way Forward

Considering the weaknesses of the CUV as well as its strengths, Chinese Christians now often use both it and some other modern translation. I have asked several knowledgeable people for their recommendations. They have responded that two versions are needed to be read at a time, the CUV and a more recent one. One scholar wrote: “We should use a newer version of the CUV: The Holy Bible—Revised Chinese Union Version” (RCUV), the Chinese title of which is 《聖經和合本修訂版》.

It seems that Today’s Chinese Version is the favorite edition to be read along with the CUV, despite its being a “dynamic equivalence” translation, not a literal one. Some like the Good News Translation, but it contains some highly questionable translations of key statements in the New Testament.

For English versions, I recommend the English Standard Version, New American Standard Version, or New King James Version, which are even more literal than the CUV.

In my own ministry to Chinese, both educated and uneducated, from 1980 to the present, I have found that, despite its outdated style, even younger readers eventually become adjusted to the CUV. In public meetings, it is still the standard text from which I preach and teach, with explanations along the way.


We can thank God for giving Chinese the Bible in their own language, to strengthen and grow what is now one of the largest Christian churches in the world, and one with the potential to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.

For the foreseeable future, we can also thank God for providing the CUV, a book that has shaped not only Chinese Christianity but modern Chinese literature. So far, no other version as arisen that can replace it.

Further Reading

The book to read is Ann Cui’an Peng’s masterful volume, The Translation of the Bible into Chinese: The Origin and Unique Authority of the Union Version (2021), in the Studies in Chinese Christianity series published by Wipf & Stock, edited by G. Wright Doyle and Carol Lee Hamrin.


  1. For reasons why I think that Shen is the better choice, go to
Share to Social Media
Image credit: Chris Liu via UnSplash.
G. Wright Doyle

G. Wright Doyle

G. Wright Doyle is the director of China Institute ( and Global China Center (, the editor of Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity (, and co-editor of Studies in Chinese Christianity, published by Wipf and Stock. For more on effective ministry among Chinese, see Reaching Chinese Worldwide, by G. Wright Doyle.View Full Bio

Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.