Thursday, August 14, 2008

Robert Morrison: The Chinese Bible

Robert Morrison, 1782 - 1834, a missionary of the London Missionary Society contributed an enormous amount to knowledge of Chinese in England. During his life he baptised only ten converts. His translation of the Bible into Chinese, the first complete translation, was published in 1823. For a scholarly account of his life read his bibliography and refer to the Morrison Collection on the Babelstone site.

The bicentenary of Morrison's arrival in China was celebrated in Hong Kong and in Washington in 2007,

The second ‘remarkable’ characteristic was the aim of the conference, namely to commemorate the bicentenary of Robert Morrison’s arrival to China. The question beckons why a missionary should be commemorated whose calling produced only the slimmest of concrete returns. A missionary without a sizeable number of converts would certainly have to be regarded as a failure; common sense would seem to dictate.

Furthermore, Morrison is all too often remembered as a hard-hearted hermit who neglected his family in order to compete with Marshman, his arch-rival in Serampore (India), in a race to complete the first translation of the Bible into Chinese. Such fanaticism would hardly bode well for future remembrance.

The conference, however, produced fascinating insight into aspects of Robert Morrison’s private - as well as professional – life, dispelling his rather sombre reputation as insubstantial. In particular the keynote paper by Barton Starr, as well as the insight provided by Christopher Hancock painted a much more nuanced portrait of Morrison, revealing a person capable of a high degree of tolerance as well as tender affection.

This biography presents the other translation and scholarly work that he was involved in and explains his importance to our knowledge of Chinese - English relations during that era.

Robert Morrison:

- born near Morpeth, Northumberland, England, 1782; grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne; following a rudimentary education, apprenticed to his father as a last and boot-tree maker; joined the Presbyterian church, 1798; decided to prepare for missionary work; studied at Hoxton Academy (later Highbury College), London, 1803; studied at the Missionary Academy, Gosport, Hampshire, 1804; appointed by the London Missionary Society (LMS) and studied medicine, astronomy and Chinese in London, 1805;

- ordained and sailed via Philadelphia and New York to Canton, 1807; pioneering Protestant missionary to China, though he saw few conversions himself; married Mary Morton (1791-1821), daughter of an East India Company surgeon, in Macau, 1809;

- became translator to the East India Company's factory in Canton, securing a legal basis for residence and a means of supporting himself, 1809; completed the translation of the New Testament into Chinese, 1813; it was printed, 1814; viewed with hostility by Chinese officials; baptised the first Protestant Chinese Christian, 1814;

- served as translator on Lord Amherst's abortive embassy to Peking (Beijing), 1816-1817; returned to Canton, 1817; on the completion of his Anglo-Chinese dictionary, received the degree of Doctor of Divinity, University of Glasgow, 1817; with William Milne (1785-1822) founded the Anglo-Chinese College, Malacca, for training missionaries in the Far East, 1818; with Milne, completed the translation of the Bible, 1819; visited Malacca, 1823; travelled to England, 1823-1824; Fellow of the Royal Society, 1824;

- helped to established the short-lived Language Institution in London; ordained the first Chinese native pastor, 1825; married Eliza Armstrong (1795-1874), 1825; left England and returned to Canton, 1826; died at Canton, 1834. Publications include: Dictionary of the Chinese Language (1815-1823); Grammar of the Chinese Language (1815); Chinese Bible and numerous Chinese tracts, translations, and works on philology. His son from his first marriage, John Robert Morrison (1814-1843), succeeded his father at the East India Company and became secretary to the Hong Kong government.

For an excellent scholarly book on Anglo-Chinese relations at the time, I would recommend
The Collision of Two Civilizations: Immobile Empire.

For information on contemporary Chinese Bible translations see this.

A bibliography of Morrison's works. Anyone interested in linguistics will enjoy perusing this list!

No comments: