Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Christian Literature in Nineteenth-Century China Missions-A Priority? or an Optional Extra?

Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Christian Literature in Nineteenth-Century China Missions-A Priority? or an Optional Extra?

Article excerpt

Following the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, an international committee was appointed to investigate the issue of Christian literature in the missionary enterprise. As a general principle, the printed page was not intended as a substitute for the living voice of missionaries, but Christian literature admittedly possessed some merits that missionaries did not have. According to John H. Ritson, "It can be read and re-read and pondered over; it can reach a vastly greater congregation than is to be found within the walls of the sanctuary; it can accompany the hospital patient to his home, and penetrate the most secluded harem and zenana; it can travel forth as the pioneer where the climate is deadly, and the population is sparse and conditions are unfriendly and hostile. The printed page alone is the ubiquitous missionary." (1)

While the value of Christian literature was recognized generally, its significance was even further emphasized in the China missions. John K. Fairbank has suggested that missionary involvement in the written word "suited the original evangelical belief in the efficacy of the printed scriptures.... Chinese conditions reinforced this literary predilection. The Protestant mission to the Chinese became in larger part a matter of print." (2)

Throughout the long span of Chinese history, the class of literati had emerged as rulers of the people. The dominant philosophical and religious systems in China rested on a literary foundation and on the people's veneration for the writings of the sages. Confucianism, which was largely built on the Four Books and Five Classics, was for two millennia virtually synonymous with literature because of the implementation of the Civil Service Examination in imperial China. Furthermore, a large corpus of Buddhist sutras were brought from India and translated into Chinese from the second century onward. The significance of tracts in converting China to Buddhism was also mentioned by some missionaries, and it was proposed that Protestant missionaries follow this precedent of evangelizing China by means of religious tracts. (3) China also had a long tradition of distributing morality tracts among the common people with a view to inculcating moral and religious virtues. (4) Some Christian tracts were modeled on the style and terminology of these Chinese morality tracts. China's age-old reverence for the printed word therefore both constituted challenges and offered opportunities to the literary efforts of Christian missionaries.

Perspectives of Missionaries

Against this background it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of literature as a means of converting the Chinese to Christianity, something that was grasped by the early Jesuit missionaries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), an Italian, arrived in Peking in 1601, and by 1631 the Jesuit missionaries, together with their Chinese converts, had published no less than 340 treatises on religion, philosophy, mathematics, and natural sciences. (5)

Alexander Wylie (1815-87), from England, had a high regard for Chinese Catholic literature and recommended that his fellow Protestant missionaries learn from the experience of their Catholic predecessors: "The earliest Christian works extant in Chinese date from the beginning of the 17th century. On the arrival of the Jesuit missionaries, it soon became an object with them to employ the agency of the press in the dissemination of their views through the empire. The books which they have left must ever prove an object of interest to the disciple of Jesus." (6)

Christian literature indeed became prominent in the era of Protestant missions, beginning with Robert Morrison (1782-1834), the pioneering Protestant missionary to China in 1807. By the 1840s, missionaries lost any legal right to stay in mainland China and propagate Christianity there. A handful of pioneering missionaries, including Morrison and William Milne (1785-1822), dedicated themselves to the production of Chinese Christian literature in Southeast Asia (and secretly in China) to prepare for China's eventual opening. …

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