In the previous part of this article, you have read about the situation and status of Catholic Christianity in the 1700s right up to the mid-1800s when the unequal treaties between several Western powers and Qing China were signed. Despite the fact that persecutions, extortions and harassment from the authorities became norms for many Catholics of that era, Catholic Christianity was still able to make much inroads, both in the coastal regions and in the interior provinces. It was under these yokes of hardship that the Catholic faith was able to mature with a more distinctive Chinese identity, its spread being less reliant on Western missionaries and more dependent on native Chinese believers compared to before. Indeed, it was under such circumstances, whereby strict controls were placed over the entry of foreign missionaries, that compelled Chinese Catholics to take up positions of leadership and missionism in their homeland.
From the 1500s right up to the late 1700s, Catholic Christianity dominated the picture of China’s history of Christianity, and it was effectively the sole Christian denomination that was active throughout China. Nonetheless, the 1800s saw the opening of a whole new chapter for Christianity in the Middle Kingdom – with the arrival of Robert Morrison (马礼逊, Mă Lǐxùn) (1782 – 1834) in Macau on the 4th of September 1807.
Robert Morrison (马礼逊, Mă Lǐxùn) (1782 – 1834), the first Protestant Christian missionary to ever step foot in China
Robert Morrison is widely credited until today as being the first ever Protestant Christian missionary to have stepped foot in China. Having experienced a personal spiritual revival in his youth and thereafter actively participating in the Presbyterian Church, he underwent formal training as a missionary and pastor before applying to join the London Missionary Society (LMS). While undergoing further missionary training in Gosport, Morrison had determined in his heart to spend the rest of his life as a missionary abroad, but he was torn between serving in Timbuktu in Africa or China. He fervently sought in his prayer for God to reveal to him the place in which missionaries were more in need and where missionary work would be deemed more difficult.
The answer that Morrison sought soon came to him while he was still in Gosport. At that time, the LMS was looking for a small team of three or four missionaries who would be willing to go to China to learn Chinese and lay the foundations of Protestant Christianity in the vast empire. Morrison responded to this call and he was found to be the only one suitable for this daunting task. He immediately started vigorous preparations for his voyage, which included learning the Chinese language that was and is still deemed one of the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to master.
The London Missionary Society (LMS) carried out missionary outreach activities in various parts of the world, including Africa, as illustrated in the picture above
After months of diligent preparation, Morrison was finally ordained in January 1807 and was determined to begin his journey to China. His first challenge was to find a vessel that would take him to the Middle Kingdom. At that time, all ships bound for China from London were under the control of the East India Company (EIC), and unlike his Catholic counterparts who were freely given the privilege by Spanish and Portuguese merchants to board their ships, no such privilege was extended to Morrison by the EIC, which had a strict policy of denying any missionaries passage on their ships. Morrison thus had no choice but to first make his way to New York, after which he received a warm invitation from a pious merchant to board his ship that was bound for Macau. After 113 days at sea, Morrison finally arrived in Macau on 4 September 1807.
The port of Macau circa 1870
Morrison’s early days on Chinese soil were not very pleasing to him. Although he was warmly received by the British and American authorities in Macau, he was repeatedly discouraged from serving as a missionary in China for several reasons, one of which was because of the Qing government’s strict policies of only allowing foreigners to enter China for purposes of trade. The attitude of the Qing government towards Catholic Christianity at that time was not very favourable, and Morrison’s efforts to introduce Protestant Christianity into China may just stir up increased hostility from the Qing authorities. After several days of discouragement in Macau, Morrison then made his way to Guangzhou (Canton), where he then continued his pursuit of mastering both the spoken and literary forms of the Chinese language, besides immersing himself into the local culture.
Things did not go too smoothly for the strong-willed English missionary after setting up his residence in Guangzhou. He lived in isolation most of the time to avoid being spotted by the authorities who would raise their alarms at the slightest inkling of a foreign missionary being present on Chinese soil. The Chinese servants and assistants whom he employed also cheated him frequently, robbing him of large sums of money even from the smallest of errands or transactions that he requested them to carry out. Adapting to Chinese food also made him sick very often, and his attempts to dress in Chinese clothing only served to raise more suspicion towards him whenever he appeared in public. As a result, his health gradually deteriorated, but his resolve as a missionary did not. Nonetheless, his poor health compelled him to return to Macau temporarily, only to find that political troubles were brewing between the British and the French in Macau as a result of the war against Napoleon in Europe.
The Thirteen Factories (十三行, Shísān Háng) district in Guangzhou circa 1820, where the first Western trade companies were allowed to set up their operations in the port-city
Much to the pioneering missionary’s fortune, a position as translator to the EIC with a good salary was offered to Morrison while still in Macau. It was exactly what he needed the most: a job that would not only provide him with a means of subsistence independent of the LMS, but also a legitimate reason to stay in Guangzhou without raising undue suspicion from the Chinese authorities. He knew that he could finally put his mastery of the Chinese language and Cantonese dialect to good use, and he took up the offer with immediate haste. Morrison returned to Guangzhou soon after in 1809, refreshed with a renewed hope for his missionary plans.
Subsequent years spent by Morrison in China bore much fruit, as well as despairing tribulations. Unlike his Catholic predecessors, Morrison did not make lengthy travels from town to town or village to village to proclaim the Word of God. Instead, he focused his work mainly in the vicinity of Guangzhou, a city that had a flourishing population as a direct result of its vital status as one of China’s main trading ports. Alongside his official job in the EIC, Morrison channeled much of his time and effort into translating and producing many Christian works in the Chinese language. He translated segments of the Bible into Chinese, had them printed and subsequently distributed to the masses.
Robert Morrison and his Chinese assistants translating the Bible into the Chinese language
No doubt, in distributing those translated works amongst the masses, some of them inevitably fell into the hands of the local authorities, who were not too pleased with him. Although the imperial decree of 1811 against Christianity (covered in Part 1a) was initially ratified to specifically target Catholic Christianity, the Qing authorities soon extended it to include Protestant Christianity as well, thus Morrison and his assistants were indeed in danger of prosecution and capital punishment for attempting to spread the gospel. Nonetheless, his position in the EIC offered him sufficient protection, but this also meant that the Qing authorities would thereafter make it all the more difficult for any new missionaries to enter and settle in China.
The appointment of William Milne (1785 – 1822) by the LMS in 1812 and his subsequent arrival in Macau the following year was received with great joy by Morrison, who was until then the only Protestant missionary in the whole of China. He knew that getting Milne and his family to settle in China would be near to impossible in the wake of the Qing authorities’ heightened alertness to any possibility of a foreign missionary entering China. Morrison tried his best to convince the British authorities in Macau to at least grant Milne permission to settle there, but to no avail. Milne had no choice but to make his way to Guangzhou, where he stayed for 6 months without any harassment from the authorities, assisting Morrison in his work and learning the Chinese language in the process. With Milne’s assistance over the next few years, the two missionaries were finally able to complete a Chinese translation of the entire Bible in 1819.
William Milne (1785 - 1822)
Even before Milne’s arrival in China, Morrison had mooted the idea of establishing a missionary college to train new missionaries. Continued hostility from the Qing government towards Christianity at that time made it impossible for such a college to be constructed anywhere in China, so Morrison proposed that another location outside China be chosen for that purpose. Being a British Straits Settlement that enjoyed political stability and having a sizeable overseas Chinese population, Malacca of present-day Malaysia was chosen. Morrison thus sent Milne to Malacca in 1814 to set up the Anglo-Chinese College, which aimed not only to train missionaries for the missionary field, but to also “introduce the East to the West, and the West to the East, or in other words, to mediate between the two civilizations.”
The Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca, present-day Malaysia, established in 1814
As a missionary and the first principal of the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca, Milne spent most of his missionary life training new missionaries, producing numerous Chinese Christian literary works and propagating the gospel to the Chinese communities in Malacca. He was a prolific writer, and many of his works were widely used by Protestant missionaries to China in the 19th century. His most prominent work was perhaps The Two Friends (两友相论, Liăngyŏu Xiānglùn), which was the most widely used Chinese Christian tract until the early 1900s.
Under Milne’s tutelage, one of his assistants, Liang Fa (梁发, Liáng Fā) (1789 – 1855) soon became the first Chinese Protestant missionary. A native of Guangdong Province, Liang was an active missionary and writer who not only did much to propagate the gospel in Guangdong, Malacca and Singapore, but who also penned several prominent books and pamphlets that he used to introduce people to Christianity. His most well-known work, entitled Good Words to Exhort the World (劝世良言, Quànshì Liángyán), was also widely used for missionary activities amongst the Chinese.
Liang Fa (梁发, Liáng Fā) (1789 – 1855), the first Chinese Protestant Christian missionary
No doubt, as time passed, Morrison was no longer the lone Protestant missionary who had to constantly toil in solitude and tribulation for the gospel. With the help of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), many Protestant missionaries from America were sent to assist Morrison in his efforts and to expand the Christian mission in Guangzhou and beyond. American missionary pioneers such as Elijah Bridgman (1801 – 1861) and David Abeel (1804 – 1846), for instance, contributed much to the establishment and expansion of Protestant Christian missions in Whampoa (黄埔, Huángpŭ) and Xiamen (Amoy) respectively. With continual support for the China missions from both the LMS and ABCFM in terms of finances and missionaries, the work that Morrison initially struggled to pioneer in Guangzhou and Macau soon grew to cover Hong Kong, Fuzhou, Beijing and Shanxi, with many smaller missions branching out from them as well.
Morrison’s contributions to the spread of the gospel did not just stop in China. While still in Guangzhou, Morrison was well-aware of the fact that there were thousands of Chinese who had left their ancestral homeland and were scattered all over Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore, Malaya (present-day Malaysia) and Indonesia. The founding of the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca in 1814 thus provided him with a means of establishing a larger mission that would extend its work to these overseas Chinese populations. Known loosely as the Ultra-Ganges Mission, it received many missionaries from the LMS and subsequently the ABCFM, and extended its work to include areas such as Malacca and Penang in present-day Malaysia, Ambon and Batavia (Jakarta) in Indonesia, and Singapore.
Port of Penang in present-day Malaysia, during the British colonial era
Although Morrison baptized no more than 20 new believers during his lifetime, his greatest contribution was pioneering the translation of the entire Bible into the Chinese language and promoting its distribution to the masses as widely as possible. He believed that every believer should be entitled access to the Scripture in his or her own language. Throughout his lifetime as a missionary, he was always open to learning more and broadening his knowledge of Chinese culture and philosophy, and his accumulated knowledge throughout his years made him one of the most important sinologists of his time. In all of his missionary efforts, Morrison never coerced anyone to believe in Christianity, and neither did he criticize those who chose not to accept the gospel. He always held firm to the principle that if the gospel was indeed true and good, people would naturally see its light and come to it.
A copy of Morrison's translation of the New Testament into Chinese, printed by William Milne
Morrison’s passing in Guangzhou in August 1834 was a great loss to the growing Protestant Christian mission in China. Indeed, when he first arrived in China as an insignificant missionary that even many of his countrymen did not sympathize with, he was asked if he expected his work to have any significant spiritual impact on the Chinese, to which he famously answered, “No sir, but I expect God will!” Doubtless to say, Morrison left behind arogreat legacy that impacted upon the spiritual lives of many new believers directly and indirectly, both in China and Southeast Asia. His contributions, which were unparalleled to any of his contemporaries, paved a way for the spread of the gospel during a time when hostility towards Christianity was still abound.
Let us now move on to the next part of this article, where we shall view the story of one more “giant” in the history of Christianity in China.