Русский | Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate 3/98 | English Translation by Igor Radev
P. Ivanov

Orthodox Translations of the New Testament in Chinese

The history of the spread of the Holy Scripture in China began more than a half millennium ago with the arrival of Nestorian missionaries in the western parts of the Middle Kingdom. During XVII century, the first Roman-Catholic translation of the Bible appeared (J. Basse), and starting from XIX century onwards, numerous (up to several hundreds) Protestant translations both of the integral Bible and only the New Testament has been proliferated.

In the course of 1850s the Russian Imperial Spiritual Academy of Beijing also became engaged in the translation of the New Testament as well as the liturgical books into Chinese. This work gained boost in 1864, after the Mission was relieved of its diplomatic duties and thus fully passed under the jurisdiction of the Holy Synod.

It could be stated that the pioneer of this work was Hieromonk Isaiah (Polikin) who had lived in China between 1858 and 1871. A tireless preacher and a gifted administrator, he has left behind himself an array of Chinese language texts: The Book of Hours (almost complete), Short Notebook of Paschal Services, the basic chants of the Twelve Feasts and the first week of Lent as well as the Bright Week and Pascha, the Psalter (translated from the Greek into the vernacular), the Paraclesis Service, the Akathist to the Mother of God, the beginning of the Service Book, the Panachida Service, the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete (both in classical language and vernacular), Russian-Chinese Dictionary of Theological and Ecclesiastical Terms[1]. The enormous amount of work undertaken took its toll in the quality of some of the translations, which (as was discovered later) were abundant with imprecision.

A systematic work concerning the translation of the Service books and the Holy Scripture of the Old and the New Testament was commenced by Hieromonk Gury (Karpov, later bishop of Symferopol; †1882). From the time he was a member of the 12th Mission in 1832 he engaged himself in the translation of the Catholic Epistle of Holy Apostle James, the Prayer Rule to the Holy Communion, the Vigil Service, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom etc[2]. Archimandrite Gury headed the 14th Mission in Beijing (1858-1864) and beginning from 1859 he started to [3]”. Four years on the draft version was completed. Afterwards with the participation of several Chinese – Ivan, the teacher from the Mission’s boy’s school, Maria, the teacher from the girl’s school, her son Nikita and Moses the Albazinian (descended from the Cossacks who were captured by the Chinese) – during the period of two years they worked through the oral readings. The listeners retold the text as understood by them and Archimandrite Gury rectified it if the translation was wrongly understood. In addition, the above mentioned Nikita and Moses made corrections to the text.

Fr Gury in 1864 expounded on the process of printing of his translation to the editor of Irkustk Diocesan News: “First I had to write a list for the writer. Then I had to check his work. From that list another master had to write down the layout as should be in the book. After that, a new check out – are there any mistakes, is every comma and period in its place, was the transfer done in order? Then the craftsmen would put the list on a wooden panel and make the cuts. But that isn’t a work without mistakes. The list is put on the panel in such a way that all the letters come in reverse. Hence the independently minded master cutter would regardless of the original put a letter which according to no rule should be in that place. Thus we had new troubles, day by day”[4].

What followed next was to seek permission from the Holy Synod for putting the translation into practice in the Beijing Mission. Till then Fr Gury preferred not to tell around about his work[5]. The decision of the spiritual authorities was pronounced only after Fr Gury returned to his native country in 1866. However, drawing from the remarks made by the Beijing Mission veteran Fr Avvakum (Chestny), who was very close to the ruling circles in St Petersburg, it was decided to make some changes. Archimandrite Gury with indignation wrote about that to the chief secretary of the Holy Synod: “The Chinese themselves were witnesses to the fact that in order to put my translation under scrutiny I invited a whole commission of learned men, with whom I personally spent two years checking out the work. Who on earth would believe that a learned Chinese could know the Chinese language worse than Fr Avvakum… Hence, what a ‘nice’ robe of Chinese silk would be made if only a patch of red Russian-made cloth be attached to it”[6]?

While Fr Isaiah with the passing of time made the language of his translations ever simpler, Fr Gury preferred to use the classical language instead, making his text not too close to the original. After 1864, that text[7] for a long time was not republished, and so it gradually became forgotten. Thus I. Korostovec in his historical account of the Beijing Spiritual Mission does not mention at all of its existence[8]. As a matter of fact, even in our time the translation work of Fr Gury did not arouse much attention from the researchers[9].

The next phase in the creation of Orthodox translations of the New Testament is connected with the work of archimandrite Flavian (Gorodecky, later Metropolitan of Kiev and Galicia; †1915). For the first time he went to China in 1874, when he got engaged in the translation of the short commentaries to the Gospel with the help of the renowned sinologist Archimandrite Palady (Kafarov). Becoming Head of the 16th Mission (1879-1883), Fr Flavian made the decision to introduce the Chinese language in the services for which many of the old translations of Fr Isaiah were considered and also some new were made. With the participation of Hieromonk Nikolai (Adoratsky) and Hieromonk Alexy (Vinogradov) and also the Holy Martyr Fr Mitrophan Ji, he completed the translation of the Oktoechos Paschal Services from the Greek into Classical Chinese. In the redaction of the text Hosea, a teacher from the Mission, and translator Evmeny took part. Just about that time the translations of the Services to the Twelve Feasts, the Services of Passion Week and Bright Week, Chrysostom’s Liturgy, the one of Saint Basil alongside with the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts and the Book of Hours were also completed.

Fr Gury’s translation of the Gospel was seriously reexamined and published again in 1884[10]. We shall not concentrate now on the analysis of the textological differences; instead we would just point out that the text of the Gospel in this new edition was accompanied by short explanatory notes written in small characters. In the future the tendency toward putting commentaries continued. Translators usually encountered significant difficulties connected with the transfer into Chinese of theological terms, in particular, the dogmatic truths about the Holy Trinity, the Mystery of the Incarnation etc.

In the course of the study of the different translations of the Holy Scripture into Chinese, the experts are trying to explore the mutual influence of different texts[11]. In the present moment we do not have sufficient evidence on the nature of the materials used by Archimandrite Gury. Concerning Archimandrite Flavian, we have the testimony of Fr Nikolai Adoratsky who said that in their work they had made use of the Protestant translation of the Holy Scripture done by S. Sherevshesky[12].

The third and till this moment the last Orthodox translation of the New Testament was made in the beginning of XX century, during the period of the 18th Mission, by its Head His Eminence Innokenty (Figurovsky), Bishop of Pereyaslav, later Metropolitan of Beijing and China (†1931)[13]. Under his supervision the publishing activity of the Beijing Spiritual Mission got tremendous impetus. The old translations were being published anew; e. g. in 1911 the Apostle of Fr Gury was republished. The Book of Needs was translated again[14]. Till 1910 the translation of the Four Gospels was also completed.

In fact, the translation of His Eminence Innokenty is constituted by the Gospel itself but accompanied by abundant commentaries. In it a substantial move was done toward modernization of the language. The text was significantly made closer to the contemporary vernacular, which is particularly seen in the use of a new vocabulary. A definitive mark of the lexicon of baihua (白话) is the abundance of two-syllable words represented by pairs of characters. But in that time there were still some occurrences of grammatical features of the classical wenyan (文言).

The revival of the care of the Russian Orthodox Church for the fate of Orthodoxy in China will put before the missionaries the task of renewing the good traditions of the Beijing Spiritual Mission. The Orthodox translations of the New Testament and the service books that have come all the way to us could be adjusted in concordance with the changes, which have occurred in the Chinese language, and thus republished.

[1] Ι. Ν. Α. [Hieromonk Nikolai (Adoratsky)]. The present state and the contemporary activity of the Orthodox Spiritual Mission in China // The Orthodox Collocutor. Kazan, 1884. August. Pg. 378.

[2] Chinese Evangelist, Beijing 1916. № 9-12. Pg. 167.

[3] From the letters of His Eminence Bishop Gury to I. I. Palimpsestov about the translation of the New Testament in Chinese// Russian Archive. SPb., 1893. № 11. Pg. 394.

[4] On the activities of the Orthodox Mission // Irkutsk Diocesan News. Irkutsk, 1864. № 11. Pg. 185.

[5] Cf.: extracts from the reply of the Head of the Imperial Spiritual Mission in Beijing, Archimandrite Gury, on the state and the activities of this Mission during 1859-1862. // Christian Reader. SPb., 1864. January. Pg. 494.

[6] Letter of Archimandrite Gury to I. G. Gersinski on the translation of the New Testament into Chinese // Russian Archive. SPb., 1894. № 1. С. 97-98.

[7] 新遺聖經. (The Holy Scripture of the New Testament). Beijing, 1864.

[8] Korostovec I. Russian Spiritual Mission in Beijing. Historical review. // Russian Archive. SPb., 1893. № 9. Pg. 80.

[9] Cf.: Augustine (Nikitin), Archimandrite. St Petersburg Spiritual Academy and the Russian Spiritual Mission in Beijing. Archimandrite Gury (Karpov), 1814-1882 // Orthodoxy in the Far East. 275-year anniversary of the Russian Spiritual Mission in China. SPb., 1993. Pg. 42.

[10] Gospel with Explanations. Beijing, 1884.

[11] Cf.: Strandenaes T. Principles of Chinese Bible Translation (as Expressed in Five Selected Versions of the New Testament and Exemplified by Mt 5:1-12 and Col 1). Coniectanea Biblica. New Testament Series 19. Stockholm, 1987.

[12] Сf.: I. N. A. Ukase. soch. C. 382. S Sherevshesky, a Polish Jew, native of the Russian Empire. He had obtained a Jewish religious education; he then emigrated to the USA where he became Christian and finished a seminary. In 1859 he went to Shanghai as a preacher for the American Episcopal Church and later he became a bishop. Making use of his knowledge of Hebrew, he in 1875 completed the translation of the Old Testament into Beijing dialect. In 1881 he got paralyzed for the following ten years. He could only use two fingers. In 1902 he prepared his translation of the Bible into simplified literary language. This text was most widely used in China till 1919, when the Hehe (和合) translation appeared.

[13] Presently we only have the translation of the Holy Gospel according to Matthew published in Beijing, 1911

[14] Chinese Evangelist: 1907. № 7-8. С. 9; 1908, № 9-10. С. 2.