Chinese Church Voices

Remembering Them Every May Fourth

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.


Like many things in China, history remains firmly under the control of the Party. Only approved topics are allowed to be researched and only approved interpretations are allowed to be taught. The narrative is tightly controlled. 

Very little is taught about the history of Christianity in China, and when it is touched on, it is done so in a negative light. Western missionaries have typically been portrayed as being part of the vanguard of imperialism. Less is known about some of the positive things early missionaries were engaged in. 

In recent years, however, a small space has begun to open up for the exploration of Chinese church history, as many educated Christians seek to understand the historical roots of their faith. 

The article translated below is an example of such an attempt. Posted to the WeChat public account called The Word Institute  the author introduces his readers to the missionaries who were responsible for the 1919 translation of the Mandarin Union Version, Old and New Testaments, which formed the basis for the version most commonly used in China today. 

The author links this translation work to the May Fourth Movement, which was sweeping China at the time. 

 The original article can be found here.

Remembering Them Every May Fourth

Ever since I saw this photo a few years ago, I have thought of the men in the picture every May Fourth.

A book they collaborated on—translating and revising it—was printed on April 22, 1919 in Shanghai, just days before the May Fourth Movement began.

Since then the book has had a profound impact on Chinese history and its influence continues today.

Compared to the large-scale May Fourth Movement of that year and the many subsequent, temporary, vigorous mass movements, whether they occurred when this book first came out, or more recently within memory of contemporary Chinese people, the book still is mostly unknown, even though many Chinese people have heard of it.

Without an unexpected prodding, I would not have paid close attention to the people in this photo and would not have been curious to find out what other events besides the 1919 May Fourth Movement have affected the Chinese people—events which are not part of my memory as are the well-known people, sayings, and events found in modern Chinese history.

In comparison to this book that they revised, these individuals are even lesser known to the public. Of course, they probably did not care whether future generations would remember them; what they clearly valued was the book itself and the impact it would have on the Chinese people.

The individuals in this photo deserve to be remembered because they were witnesses of the entrance of this book into the modern China which impacted so many Chinese both in China and overseas.

According to the references accompanying this photo, the men in the picture are, from left to right:

鲍康宁 Kangning Bao (Frederick William Baller, 1852-1922), 刘大成 Dacheng Liu, 富善 Shan Fu (Chauncey Goodrich, 1836-1925), 张洗心 Xixin Zhang, 狄考文Kaowen Di (Calvin Wilson Mateer, 1836-1908), 王元德 Yuande Wang, 鹿依士 Yishi Lu (Spencer Lewis , 1854-1939), 李春蕃 Chunfan Li.

In the researched historical documents, there are no exact birth and death records for those who only had a Chinese name listed.

From what I learned, 刘大成, Dacheng Liu was a mainland Chinese collaborator with the British-born missionary Frederick W. Baller; 张洗心 Xixin Zhang was the Chinese teacher of and collaborator with the American Congregational missionary Chauncey Goodrich; 王元德 Yuande Wang was a student of and collaborator with the US Northern Presbyterian missionary Calvin Wilson Mateer; and 李春蕃 Chunfan Li was the Chinese collaborator with the American Episcopal missionary Spencer Lewis.

The book they worked together to translate was the Mandarin Union Version, Old and New Testaments. Today in the Chinese world, the most prevalently used Chinese version of the Bible was based on the version these collaborators worked together to create.

The first time I saw a Bible it was in my home when I was in elementary school and it wasn’t called The Bible. Later I found out that my mother had bought it from a local southern suburban church. At that time it felt to me like an ancient Chinese book. Not only was it written in traditional Chinese characters and read from top to bottom and from right to left, but also the font and style of the title page were nearly the same as in the 1919 Mandarin Union Version, Old and New Testaments.

Although there were more people involved in the translation and revision work for this version of the Bible, Western missionary contributors included the following individuals:

白汉理 Hanli Bai (Henry Blodget, 1825-1903), 文书田 Shutian Wen (George Owen), 倪维思 Weisi Ni (John Livingston Nevius,1829-1893), 布蓝非 Lanfei Bu (Thomas Bramfitt, 1850-1923), 海格思 Gesi Hai (John Reside Hykes, 1952- 1921), 赛兆祥 Zhaoxiang Sai (Absalom Sydenstricker, 1852-1931, writer Pearl Buck's father), 安德文 Dewen An (Edwin Edgerton Aiken, 1859-1951), 林辅华 Fuhua Lin (Charles Wilfrid Allan), 克拉克 Lake Ke (Samuel R. Clarke), 林亨理 Hengli Lin (Henry M. Woods), 路崇德 Chongde Lu (James W. Lowrie), 瑞思义 Siyi Rui (William Hopkyn Rees, 1859-1924).

In addition, there were at least two other Chinese contributors: 诚静怡 Jingyi Cheng (1881-1939), co-worker of the English London Missionary Society missionary George Owen and 邹立文 Liwen Zou, a student of the US Northern Presbyterian missionary Calvin Wilson Mateer.

These names are not commonly seen in most modern Chinese historical records. However, if one explores a little deeper into history, a close link can be found between these people and the formation of modern China.

Indeed the impact they had on modern China was not like the impact of those who initiated the May Fourth Movement and its successors.

They helped open the era of modern Chinese history even earlier than the initiators of the May Fourth Movement. For some of them, shaping modern China was a byproduct of their being sent to China. They were more concerned about translating and revising this book that describes how eternity entered into our temporal world.

For them, China was a part of that temporal world, just as were the United States or the United Kingdom from where some of them came. They also valued the knowledge they brought from the West to help improve the life of the Chinese people, but ultimately for these men, the knowledge they brought was to help Chinese people know and enter the eternal realm.

Since 1919, the initiators of the May Fourth Movement and those who followed clearly focused on the survival of the temporal realm. To many who understand modern Chinese history, the importance of this vision is very understandable.

The same view was also common among many Western missionaries and the Chinese people under their influence. Since the 19th century, the gap in many aspects of daily life between China and the West, along with all sorts of conflicts generated after the West forced their entrance into China, created a sense of urgency among many to change the reality they were facing.

For humanity it is difficult to transcend the times. However, some were impacted by the eternal realm that entered into this temporal world, and they did not let the trends of the day determine their path. Perhaps their expectation was not to see the establishment of the eternal realm in the temporal world but they did not ignore the earthly world where they resided.

Indeed it is not surprising that in addition to revising the translation of the Bible, their presence was often seen in some of the earliest modern Chinese schools, universities, publishing, hospitals, and orphanages.

After I first saw the photo at the top of the page, I tried to find its source and the date it was taken. According to what is known, this photo was in the 1906 "China and the Gospel, Annual Report of the China Inland Mission.”

Seeing that both Chauncey Goodrich and Calvin Wilson Mateer are in the picture, the photo was probably taken in 1906 or not long before. At that time Mateer was still the Translation Revision Committee chair for the "Mandarin Union Version" of the "Old and New Testaments," a post he held until he passed away in 1908 and Chauncey Goodrich succeeded him.

Later, I saw another photo that was related to this committee. Compared to the photo above, the one below is clearer. Calvin Wilson Mateer, who established the first university in modern China, had already passed away. Recognizable in the picture are Chauncey Goodrich (second from left) and Frederick W. Baller (second from right). The clothes they were wearing are different from those worn in the Qing Dynasty. The picture was probably taken closer to the time when the manuscript of the translated version of the Bible (seen in their hands) was completed in 1918 and then published in April 1919. 

Looking at the differences between these two photos, a question of classical versus modern occurred to me.

In the detailed historical records of vernacular Chinese, the Mandarin Union Version of the Old and New Testaments was often mentioned. Western missionaries were also identified as change agents for the modern Chinese vernacular movement, just as they were naturally associated with the formation of modern China.

However this does not mean that Western missionaries were modernists. In fact, the Union Version vernacular Bible was only one of the Bible translation projects initiated at the 1890 General Assembly held in Shanghai. There were also the High Classical Chinese Union Version and the Easy Classical Chinese Union Version each with their own committees. Even before these three translations, there were both classical Chinese versions and vernacular Chinese versions of the Bible circulating in China.

This means that these missionaries, unlike some of the vernacular Chinese movement, did not simply embrace the vernacular and deny the classical Chinese language.

After all, the classical and the modern are related to each other; both are within time.

But whether classical or vernacular, what is conveyed in this book is timeless.

Original article: 每逢五四,就想念他们

References in original article:

题图来自1906年版《中国与福音,中国内地会年报》 (China and the Gospel, Annual Report of the China Inland Mission) 46-47页间,转载于   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bible_revision_China.jpg  ;

第二张官话和合本委员会照片来自畢家興,“1919年《官話和合本》的奇妙之旅”,2015年10月25日,https://www.fhl.net/main/announce/announce423145.html

1919年官话和合译本图片,来自 http://www.ebaomonthly.com/ebao/readebao.php?a=20100704

1919年文理和合译本图片,来自 http://www.aswetalk.net/bbs/blog-936-51829.html

Header image credit: Fisher, Daniel Webster, 1838-1913 [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
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