The Translation of the Bible into Chinese: The Origin and Unique Authority of the Union Version by Ann Cui’an Peng. Studies in Chinese Christianity, Eugene, OR Wipf and Stock Publishers, Pickwick Publications, 2021, 238 pages. ISBN-13 9781532675669 (paperback); 9781532675676 (hardcover); 9781532675683 (eBook). All three editions available at Wipf and Stock.
I have now spent nearly half of my life reading and worshipping with the Chinese Union Version (和合本 or CUV) translation of the Bible. By far the most beloved and influential Chinese language translation of the Bible currently available, the CUV enjoys an authoritative place within the Chinese church that is somewhat akin to the reverence the King James Version (KJV) English-language translation of the Bible enjoyed in the English-speaking world during previous centuries. For me personally, the phrases and rhythms of the CUV have become familiar, with the specific Chinese wording of many passages now a source of deep comfort and encouragement.
Over the last two decades I have encountered a fairly steady stream of people who are dissatisfied with the CUV translation. Most vocal are expatriate China workers—typically with limited Chinese language skills—who insist that the CUV translation is inaccurate and the language outdated. They are usually accompanied by younger or at least newer Chinese believers and inquirers who complain that the Bible is too hard to understand. Expatriates tend to view this as related to the same outdated language problem—and most Chinese are quick to admit that the CUV does not read like a modern Chinese novel. And yet the Chinese church around the globe is full of old and young, educated and unschooled, women and men who all find the CUV to be a tremendous source of blessing.
Years ago I asked one of China’s leading scholars of the famous classical Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Mansions 《红楼梦》what he thought of the Chinese Union Version of the Bible. Though resistant to Christianity, he quickly admitted that the language of the text itself was beautiful and elegant (文雅). Expatriates, on the other hand, tend to wrinkle our noses at the language of the CUV—though this is largely due to our preference for Chinese grammatical structures that are closer to English syntax.
The CUV was written in early twentieth-century Chinese Vernacular (白话), a language closer to classical Chinese than the modern Chinese prose with which we are familiar. While this can be challenging for students of Chinese as a second language, it is unlikely that Chinese citizens, who are required to memorize extensive classical texts as part of their schooling, would find the older syntax of the CUV daunting. When Chinese people express difficulty reading the CUV, a closer questioning often reveals that their frustration stems from the CUV’s extensive use of people and place names that are completely foreign to modern Chinese readers, in as much as world history from Bible times is not part of the Chinese education curriculum. This is a real challenge for Chinese readers of the Bible, but hardly one unique to the CUV.
In her recent book The Translation of the Bible into Chinese: The Origin and Unique Authority of the Union Version, Ann Cui’an Peng provides an introduction to the CUV designed to encourage readers to share her love for this particular translation of the Bible. Currently serving as associate editor for the excellent Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Peng has arranged her book into three sections that most ChinaSource readers will find of increasing interest. The first and longest section provides an overview of the history of Protestant translations of the Bible into Chinese, culminating in the Union Translation or heheben 和合本.
For her account, Peng utilizes the research of leading scholars such as Irene Eber, Marián Gálik, Thor Strandenaes, and Oliver Zetzsche to outline the many people and issues that shaped the emergence of the final product.1 The “Term Question” over how to translate the name of God into Chinese, disagreements over translation method, the role of Chinese assistants, and the influence of various earlier translations are all presented in a succinct manner that suits the broad overview at which Peng is clearly aiming. Those already familiar with this story will appreciate Peng’s efforts to adjudicate discrepancies between some of the earlier studies.
The second section of the book turns to a closer examination of the text of the 1919 CUV itself. First, Peng explores in detail the principles of translation employed by the translators, and the accuracy of the final translation. Specific attention is given to the role of the 1872 Peking Version in guiding translation decisions, as well as the adopted resolution to the Term Question. Next, she traces the various twentieth-century attempts at revising the CUV, from both within and outside of China, culminating in the 2010 release of the Revised Chinese Union Version currently used in most Chinese churches.
In the final section of the book, Peng makes her case for the value and continued relevance of the CUV. She begins by exploring the significance of the 1919 CUV from a historical cultural perspective, highlighting the influence and popularity afforded the CUV throughout the last hundred years. The rapid adoption of the CUV and its warm reception from Chinese believers, its significant influence on the evolution of the modern Chinese language,2 and the high praise it continues to receive from many prominent Chinese elites are all addressed. Here Peng’s love for the Union translation shines brightly as she presents the CUV as “the one version that meets every need in a Chinese Christian’s life” (p. 141). In one of her more intriguing observations, Peng notes that despite the Three-Self Patriotic Movement’s (TSPM) focus on indigeneity, they continued to make use of the missionary-led Union translation (p. 141).
Following her defense of the significance of the CUV, Peng concludes by examining the history and merits of the many other Chinese translations of the Bible that have emerged since 1919, paying particular attention to the key role of Chinese Christians in the translation process—past, present, and future. In the end, Peng’s love for the CUV is not blind. Without rejecting the value of the Union translation for Chinese Christians around the world, she recognizes that there is a place for new translations as the Chinese church moves “from the stage of the UV only towards that of multiple versions” (p. 178). For any new translation to become accepted, however, dedicated and godly Chinese Christian scholars well versed in translation principles and the original biblical languages must selflessly labor to produce a text that builds on the strengths of the CUV and overcomes its weaknesses. A tall order, but in Peng’s view an honest assessment of the task.
Reading Peng’s book, alongside the research of many other scholars of the Chinese Bible, reminds China workers today of the very real merits of the Union translation as well as its prominence within the Chinese church. Rather than bemoaning the difficulties the CUV presents to those for whom Chinese is not our mother tongue, expatriates involved in China ministry would do well to redouble our efforts to appreciate its strengths and to work with the text that has comforted, informed, and encouraged so many Chinese women, men, and children throughout the past century.
Our thanks to Pickwick Publications, imprint of Wipf and Stock for providing a copy of The Translation of the Bible into Chinese: The Origin and Unique Authority of the Union Version for this review.
- Irene Eber, S. K. Wan, and Knut Walf, eds. The Bible in Modern China: The Literary and Intellectual Impact, Monumenta Serica Monograph Series 43 (Sankt Augustin: Institut Monumenta Serica, 1999); Marián Gálik, eds. Influence, Translation, and Parallels: Selected Studies on the Bible in China, Collectanea Serica (Sankt Augustin: Institut Monumenta Serica, 2004); Thor Strandenaes, “Principles of Chinese Bible Translation as Expressed in Five Selected Versions of the New Testament and Exemplified by Mt. 5:1–12 and Col. 1,” PhD Dissertation, Uppsala University, 1987; Jost Zetzsche, The Bible in China: History of the Union Version: Or the Culmination of Protestant Missionary Bible Translation in China, Monumenta Serica Monograph 45 (Sankt Augustin: Institut Monumenta Serica, 1999).
- For a fascinating and detailed study of the influence of the CUV on the development of the modern Chinese language, see George Kam Wah Mak, Protestant Bible Translation and Mandarin as the National Language of China (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
Image credit: Chris Liu via UnSplash
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