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.
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
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.
Archimandrite Gury headed the 14th Mission in Beijing (1858-1864) and beginning from 1859 he started to
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”.
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.
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”?
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
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.
As a matter of fact, even in our time the translation work of Fr Gury did
not arouse much attention from the researchers.
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
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
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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.
Chinese Evangelist, Beijing 1916. № 9-12. Pg. 167.
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.
On the activities of the Orthodox Mission //
Irkutsk Diocesan News. Irkutsk, 1864. № 11. Pg. 185.
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.
Letter of Archimandrite Gury to I. G. Gersinski on the translation of the New
Testament into Chinese // Russian Archive.
SPb., 1894. № 1. С.
新遺聖經. (The Holy Scripture of
the New Testament). Beijing,
Korostovec I. Russian Spiritual Mission in Beijing. Historical review.
// Russian Archive. SPb., 1893. № 9. Pg. 80.
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.
Gospel with Explanations. Beijing, 1884.
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.
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
Presently we only have the translation of the Holy Gospel according to Matthew published in
Chinese Evangelist: 1907. № 7-8. С. 9; 1908, № 9-10. С. 2.