Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Union Version: History, Reception, and Future

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Union Version: History, Reception, and Future

Article excerpt

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The year 2019 marks the centennial anniversary of the publication of the most important Chinese translation of the Bible in history. Since its publication in 1919, the Chinese Union Version (¾⅜⅜) has been by far the dominant translation used by Chinese people. The explosive growth of Christianity in China during the past several decades has only increased the impact of the Union Version, which still functions as a sort of "Authorized Version" for Chinese readers just as the King James Version once did for English readers. Chinese Christians especially have reason to pause and give thanks to the Lord (and to the translators) for this translation which has played such an essential role in our salvation and in the growth of the Chinese church both in China and worldwide. In the recent past, these Bibles were often difficult to acquire in China and were smuggled in, sometimes at great risk.1 Relatedly, major online retailers in China stopped selling Bibles in April 2018.2 Today, every time the Union Version is read for personal devotion, preached from a pulpit, or discussed in a smaller group, its impact is extended yet further. The centennial anniversary of the Union Version is also a fitting occasion to recall key aspects of the history of this translation and to reflect on its reception and on the work of Bible translation generally in anticipation of the next 100 years, if the Lord tarries.


The history of the translation of the Chinese Union Version ... has been treated at length in a book by Zetzsche.3 What follows is only a brief history.

The Chinese Union Version is neither the first nor the most recent Chinese translation of the Bible. Although the first complete published translation of the Bible into Chinese was technically Marshman and Lassar's in 1822, pride of place is generally given to Morrison and Milne's translation. Published in 1823, it was superior to Marshman and Lassar's, and more widely used.4 Helped along the way by Chinese assistants (as would also be the case with the Union Version), this version used literary Chinese. Such a translation was specifically aimed at the educated class, a strategy which continued that of the Jesuits from a few centuries before. During the next fifty years, several other translations would be completed, some also in literary Chinese and others in various Chinese dialects.

The first Mandarin (or guanhua ... , later called guoyu ... translation of the whole Bible5 was completed by the Peking Translation Committee in 1874 and is known as the Peking Version. This vernacular translation was the work primarily of five missionaries: Blodget, Burdon, Edkins, Martin (on a more limited basis), and Schereschewsky, along with their Chinese coworkers.6 The missionaries were good friends and were able to refer to existing translations, such as Marshman's and Morrison's.7 For the Greek NT, each translator was assigned a portion to translate, which would be circulated to the others for feedback. This feedback would be incorporated by the original translator and a second version circulated again, which would be followed by a meeting for discussion.8 A short time after beginning the translation of the NT in 1864, the team decided that Schereschewsky should focus on translating the entire OT.9 As a Lithuanian Jew who converted to Christianity, a former student in a rabbinic school, and a fluent reader of both the Hebrew Bible and Jewish commentaries, he was uniquely gifted for the task. This complete Mandarin translation of the Bible by these five missionaries would later become the basis for the (vernacular) Union Version.

With the proliferation of translations since the 1823 translation of Morrison and Milne, the General Conference of the Protestant Missionaries of China decided at their 1890 meeting in Shanghai to collaboratively produce a "Union Version" of the Chinese Bible. …

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