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10 Quotes about the Chinese Bible

According to Jost Oliver Zetzsche, author of The Bible in China: The History of the Union Version or the Culmination of Protestant Missionary Bible Translation in China, "the first edition of the completed Mandarin Union Version was received from the printer on April 22, 1919." (p. 328) That is 100 years ago today!

In honor of this important anniversary, here is a collection of quotes from last year’s ChinaSource Quarterly on the topic of the Chinese Bible.

1. The CUV’s defining influence on Chinese Protestant theological thinking and church life is so profound that ever since its translation of key biblical terms has been deeply ingrained in the theological DNA of the Chinese Protestant community around the world. It is fair to say that this is the only theological language system known and used unquestionably by this community up to today. In contrast, one can hardly identify any single, vernacular translation of the Bible which has had such a commanding and lasting impact on church life in the West.

Kevin Xiyi Yao, in “A Century Later, Still Dominant”

2. The past one hundred years have been a turbulent time for the Protestant church in China. It went through numerous wars, revolutions, constant pressure from an atheist regime, and finally all-out persecution during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Many Chinese believers would attest to the fact that it is in the texts of the CUV that they found comfort and strength. They greatly loved to read and even memorize texts from handwritten copies of the CUV during the darkest years of the Cultural Revolution. In fact, we can even say that the CUV is part of the Chinese church’s collective memory and heritage attesting to its perseverance and cross-bearing under tremendous suffering. There is a strong emotional bond between the CUV and the Chinese Protestant community that will not easily fade away.

Kevin Xiyi Yao, in “A Century Later, Still Dominant”

3. For most Chinese believers, the CUV is much more than just another Chinese translation of the Scriptures; it is very close to their hearts. That is why, with all the criticism of the CUV’s “antiquity” and “inaccuracy,” there is virtually no sign that its dominance will change in the foreseeable future. 

Kevin Xiyi Yao, in “A Century Later, Still Dominant”

4. 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.  

Mark Strand, “The Origins of the Chinese Union Version Bible”

5. In translating the Chinese Union Version (CUV) Bible, the choice of key words often presented a challenge. One example of word choice error was the word used for “sin” (ἁμαρτία in Greek, or “to miss the mark”) which was translated as zui (罪), crime, rather than guofan (犯), miss the mark, a more accurate translation (Strand, 2000). This created the misconception among many generations of Chinese listeners that sin is the breaking of civil and moral laws, rather than missing God’s mark. The same can be said for the word “fellowship” which was translated as jiaotong (交通), which in common Chinese usage means “traffic” or “communication,” while the preferred word choice would be tuanqi (契). These errors might have been avoided had there been more involvement of Chinese translators. At the same time, these errors may have been difficult to avoid. Many of these theological concepts were not germane to Chinese culture, and thus time was required for Chinese church members to understand a concept before the preferred Chinese word could be chosen. However, since translation preceded the establishment of the church, the only option would have been for these errors to be corrected in later versions, but this did not happen.

Mark Strand, “Word Choice Challenges”

6. 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.

Mark Strand, Word Choice Challenges”

7. Despite some word choices that might have been more accurately translated with different Chinese words, the Chinese Union Version of the Bible has been the Word of God for the Chinese church.  Mark Strand, Word Choice Challenges”

8.  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.  

Ben Hu, Can the Chinese Union Version Be Replaced in China?”

8. The Bible does not have access to the market in China. China does not allow for the importation of books into China, whether it is the Bible, a Harry Potter book, or the latest from Jordan Peterson. In order for any book to be legally sold or distributed in China, it must have a China-issued ISBN. Although there was much optimism that it was about to happen around the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, to date, the government has not issued one for the Bible. Instead, the Bible is classified as an “internal document” (neibu内部) of the China Christian Council/Three-Self Patriotic Movement (CCC/TSPM). As such, Bibles are only legally available from CCC/TSPM outlets such as registered churches, registered meeting points, and approved distribution centers.

Joann Pittman, Bibles in China: A Question of Availability”

9. Historically there have been two approaches used by outside organizations that feel called to address the issue of availability and accessibility of Bibles in China: smuggling them in, and purchasing/distributing within official channels. Before the advent of Bible printing in China, receiving smuggled Bibles was the only method that many believers inside China had of obtaining Bibles. After Bibles became available within China, many believed that smuggling was no longer necessary, and any availability problems could be addressed internally. The debate continues today.

Joann Pittman, Bibles in China: A Question of Availability”

10. Be encouraged by God’s power, wisdom, and faithfulness. God endowed Robert Morrison with all of the following: a memorizing mind—uniquely required for learning Chinese characters; a gift for languages that enabled him to hear and mimic the strange sounds and tones; a devotion to study and hard work; an obedient heart to go to China, not Africa, when asked. In the same years that God was shaping Morrison, he gave Dr. W. Moseley a passion and vision for translating the Bible into Chinese. The project seemed too expensive, China too closed to Protestant missions, and the language too difficult to learn for most…A lasting shoot of the gospel had indeed been planted within the soul of China; the church, even in the face of renewed persecution, is alive and flourishing. Robert Morrison played a vital part in equipping those who planted and harvested. If God could do this through an English shoemaker, what might he accomplish in this mess of a world through those who are available today? 

BJ Arthur, Be Amazed, Encouraged, and Challenged for Under $10”

Finally, be sure to check out the page on how to obtain a Chinese Bible, both inside and outside of China, including links to popular Bible-reading apps.

May the Word of God continue to run and be glorified in China for the next 100 years, and forever!

Image credit: Kerrynow from Pixabay
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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