Chinese Church Voices

Untangling the Complexity of Chinese Bible Translations

Chinese Church Voices is an occasional 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.

How many Chinese translations of the Bible are there? Which Chinese Bible translation is used most in China? In this excerpt from the Chinese version of 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible posted on “I Love Baojiayin,” Dr. Chen Ekron breaks down the history and use of Chinese Bible translation.

The chapter on translations in the original English version of the book by Robert L. Plummer dealt with English translations. When it was translated for Chinese readers, he asked Dr. Chen to write the chapter about Chinese translations of the Bible.

The book, 《释经学40问》published by上海三联书店 , is available in China via the WeChat platform. See the “I Love Baojiayin” page for more information. It is also available on Amazon.

Which Chinese Bible Translation is the Best?

From the editor:

It is reported that there are around 5600 different languages in the world. According to the count displayed by Wycliffe Bible Translators, up to October 2019, there are only 683 languages with a Bible containing the full Old and New Testaments. That is only 12% of all languages worldwide. I am very thankful that, for those of us whose mother tongue is Chinese, there are now many different versions of the Bible in Chinese (although they can be extremely hard to purchase). On encountering different Bible translations, are readers clear about their individual characteristics? For example, which translation is best for rigorous research? Which version is best for giving to a seeker? Which would be best for a group of believers reading through the whole Bible in a year? Let today’s article comb out the tangle of Chinese Bible versions for you.


I often have theology students or believers in churches ask me: “Which Chinese Bible translation is the best? What are your thoughts?”

During the past 20-30 years, a few different editions of the Chinese Bible have been published. But currently, in Chinese churches, almost everyone uses the Chinese Union Version (hereafter CUV) as the standard. Only a very few Chinese Christians have tried other Chinese Bible translations. Among this extremely small group, most only use the other versions for reference. Currently there is a version of the CUV with updated punctuation, and a revised version, but most Chinese Christians still largely use the traditional CUV.

In the English-speaking world, the traditional King James Version has already been superseded; various other English Bible versions are widely used. It looks as though the day has not yet come when Chinese Christians adopt other versions apart from the CUV as their main everyday reading Bible.

This writer encourages believers who take studying the Bible seriously to consult different Bible versions more often. This will lead to a more correct understanding of the Bible.

The Original Bible Languages

The Bible was written over a period of around 1500 years (from approximately 1400 BCE until 90 CE), and was composed in three different languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, with a small part in Aramaic, and the New Testament was written in Greek. The Old Testament was translated in ancient times into several different languages (the most important of these being Greek). But when the Christian faith began to spread into other cultures, the entire Bible was rapidly translated into multiple languages: Syriac, Ethiopic, Latin, and so on.

The Two Philosophies of Translation

There are two major philosophies of Bible translation, and all Bible translations fall somewhere along their dichotomy. The first kind is called “functional equivalence” or “dynamic equivalence.” The aim of this kind of translation is to use the target language to accurately express the meaning of the original language. It is not concerned with preserving the original grammar or structure word-for-word. Modern Chinese Bibles are all of this kind.

The other philosophy is called “formal equivalence.” This method of translation pays utmost attention to, as far as possible, preserving the grammatical structure of the original text at both word and sentence levels. Because two different languages may have enormous differences, “formal equivalence” may create passages of translated writing that don’t flow or are hard to read. Lv Zhenzhong’s translation is of this kind.

The CUV is somewhere in the middle between the two kinds. If compared to other translations, it’s more functionally equivalent than Lv Zhenzhong’s translation and more formally equivalent than Today’s Chinese Version.

If reading Scripture fast (for example, when attempting to read the whole Bible in a year), a “functional equivalence” translation is a more logical choice.

If doing close-up, rigorous Bible study, a “formal equivalence” translation is probably more suitable.

In preaching or teaching, if a difficult passage needs to be explained, sometimes using different translations can help clarify the Bible’s meaning. Further, for personal reflection and study, referring to different Bible versions can frequently give us a deeper understanding of the Bible.


A “paraphrase” is not really a kind of Bible translation; it is just an attempt to freely use Chinese to express the meaning of Scripture anew.

Paraphrased Bibles are usually reliant on one individual working independently to bring to completion. In comparison to “functional equivalence” translations, they contain more interpretive language. Sometimes, paraphrases deliberately rewrite the content of Scripture to fit with cultural mores.

The clearest examples of these are some children’s Bibles.

The Dispute Concerning Translating God as “Shen” or “Shangdi”

The Hebrew Elohim and Greek Theos are both translated into English as God. If the translator wrote god or gods, then that would mean idols – false gods (in Chinese: false shen). When missionaries came and translated these words into Chinese, there were differences of opinion on how best to proceed. Most of the American missionaries favored translating these words as “shen”, the closest word to the English word God. But the missionaries who came from Europe conversely believed that using the name of the most high god in ancient Chinese writing, “Shangdi”, would fit better with Chinese people’s existing recognition of the Most High God. This translation dispute was extremely heated.

Until the early 20th century when the CUV was first published, this dispute still hadn’t come to conclusion. Finally, both sides decided that publishing a “Shen edition” and a “Shangdi edition”—two different versions of the Bible—was best. Each got what they wanted.

Up until the present day, in different Chinese church networks, there are still some people accustomed to calling God “Shen”, while others use “Shangdi”. But the two names are already interchangeable; there is no longer any heated dispute about them.

The History of the Chinese Bible

Before the mid-twentieth century, the history of the Chinese Bible was inextricably linked to the history of Western missions in China. Because of space constraints, I will not give a detailed description of Christianity in China here.

The big picture is, the earliest Christianity in China arrived during the Tang dynasty and was called (in Chinese) “Jing Jiao”. It was a kind of Nestorian Christianity, and came from Persia. At the time, only a few books of the Old and New Testaments were translated. The language was similar to that used in Buddhist texts.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Jesuit Catholics translated most of the Old and New Testaments into Chinese from Latin, giving the resulting work the name “Gu Xin Shengjing” (Ancient New Bible). Neither the early Nestorian translation not the Catholic translation were formally published.

The first Protestant missionary, Robert Morrison, finished a complete translation of the New Testament into Chinese in 1813. It was published the following year in Guangzhou. Five years later, Morrison and the missionary William Milne finished a complete translation of the Old Testament that was published in Malacca. In 1823, a volume containing the entire New and Old Testaments together was published, and called “Shen Tian Shengjing” (God of Heaven Bible). It became the model on which other Chinese Bibles were later based, and is the most commonly-used Classical Chinese Bible.

Afterwards, a group of four (including Robert Morrison’s son, John Robert Morrison), revised the “Shen Tian Shengshu”., which paved the way to publishing “Xinyi Zhaoshu” (“New Edict” – i.e. the New Testament) in 1837 and “Jiuyi Zhaoshu” (“Old Edict” – i.e. the Old Testament) in 1840.

Other Classical Chinese translations include American Presbyterian missionary Elijah Coleman Bridgman’s translation, the Bridgman Translation (1862); the Goddard Translation (1868); Griffith’s Simple Wenli Translation (1885, New Testament only), and Schereschewsky’s Simple Wenli Translation (1902).

The first Bible translated straight from the original texts into Chinese was published in 1854: the Wenban Translation. Three years later, two missionaries, Walter Henry Medhurst and John Stronach, took the Wenban Translation, revised it and translated it to make the first vernacular New Testament: the Nanjing Mandarin Translation. Other vernacular translations are the Beijing Mandarin Translation (New Testament only), Stronach’s Mandarin Translation (Old Testament only), and Griffith’s Mandarin Translation (New Testament only, 1889).

The CUV in the 20th Century and Other Chinese Translations

It can be said that the CUV is the most important milestone in the translation of the Bible into Chinese—because it is the fruit of the labor of all the missionaries, brought together.

In 1890, the British and Overseas Bible Society held a conference in Shanghai to establish three committees. The committees were separately responsible for three kinds of Bible translation: into Classical Chinese, Simple Wenli, and Mandarin (vernacular). Later on, the Classical Chinese and Simple Wenli were amalgamated, and a complete Bible containing the New and Old Testaments was published in 1919. Sadly, after the movements to promote vernacular language in China, Classical Chinese had already become unpopular, and the unfortunate consequence of this was that the Classical Chinese Union Version met with a cold reception.

The vernacular Union Version was also published in 1919. To start with, it was named “Guanhua Hehe Ben Xin Jiu Yue Quan Shu” (“The Complete Book of the Mandarin Union Version New and Old Testaments”). Afterwards, its name was changed to “Guoyu Hehe Yiben” (“Chinese Union Version”). During the one hundred years since then, it has become the standard Chinese Bible version in Chinese churches. The CUV was the final, and most influential, contribution of the Western missionaries to Chinese Bible translation. The New Punctuation CUV was published in 1988, with modern standard Chinese punctuation and updated translations of names.

In 1946, Pastor Lv Zhenzhong began a translation of the Bible from the original texts, and by 1970 he had published the complete Old and New Testaments. The Lv Zhenzhong Version was the first complete Bible translated independently by a Chinese person from the original texts. Lv Zhenzhong’s version emphasized direct, literal translation of the original languages. You can say that, among Chinese Bible translations, it is the one that sticks most strictly to the original words.

Many Chinese Scholars Collaborate and Translate the Bible into Modern-Day Chinese

“Shengjing Dangdai Shengjing Ban” (“Bible Modern Bible Version”) took as its origin the English Living Bible, and employed modern Chinese to produce a paraphrase. The complete Old and New Testaments were published in 1979. During the same year, the United Bible Society published a modern Chinese translation.

“Shenjing Xiandai Zhongwen Yiben Gaidingban” (“Today’s Chinese Version Bible, Revised Version”) took as its source the English Today’s English Version, and used the “functional equivalence” method of translation. It was completed in 1995.

The “Huifu Ben” (“Recovery Version”) Chinese Bible was a translation written by Li Changshou, according to his own theological ideas. He made his own individual interpretation of the faith the basis for this translation.

The Roman Catholic Chinese Bible was published in 1968 as the “Sigao Ben”, afterwards called the “Xin Yelusaleng Shengjing Zhongwen Ban” (New Jerusalem Bible, Chinese Version).

Among the Chinese collaborative translations of the not-so-distant past, the most monumental scope has belonged to the Xinyiben Bible (Chinese New Version, CNV; also, in Chinese, simply called Xinyiben). This translation involved more than 30 Chinese scholars translating from the original texts. The New Testament was published in 1976, and the complete Old and New Testaments took until 1992 to complete.

On entering the 21st century, many Chinese Bible translations were in progress. A revised version of the CUV was completed in 2006, and that complete revised version of the Old and New Testaments was published in 2010.

The “Zhongwen Biaozhun Yiben” (Chinese Standard Version) integrated the strong points of direct translation and paraphrase; a New Testament was published in 2008.

The aim of the “Xin Hanyu Yiben” (New Chinese Version—not to be confused with the Chinese New Version!) was “to be faithful to the original texts as far as possible”—a New Testament was published in 2010.

The “Xinpuji Version” followed the English New Living Translation, and was published in 2012. Its target readership is young new believers.

Other Bible versions that have been published recently include American Bible scholar Tucson translation, the “Xin Yi Jianming Shengjing” (New Clear and Simple Bible) (a New Testament and some Old Testament books), and the “Fengxiang Version”, which follows the English NET Bible, also called the Translated NET Bible Chinese Version, and so on.

At the present time, the number and quality of Chinese Bible scholars are sufficient to produce excellent Bible translation work. But we mustn’t forget the original Western missionaries’ life-long labors to translate the Bible into language Chinese people could read; a contribution that went so deep and far it is hard to put into words.

Chen Ekron has a PhD in philosophy from the Southern Baptist Seminary in America, and currently occupies a post at Logos Evangelical Seminary (in America) as associate professor of systematic theology and academic dean.

Original Article: 哪个中文圣经译本最好? on 我爱报佳音.
Translated and edited by ChinaSource.

Image credit: Ilona Gr from Pixabay
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