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Genesis: Historical research

Robert Morrison's Missionary Work in the Qing Empire

Stepanov Igor' Nikolaevich

Postgraduate student, Department of Historical Sciences and Archeology, Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration

119571, Russia, g. Moscow, pr.Vernandskogo, 82

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Abstract: The subject of the study is the activity of Robert Morrison and his role in Protestant missionary activity. The author offers a description of the beginning of this missionary activity in the 19th century in the person of Robert Morrison. The study attempts to determine the characteristics of Morrison in this field and his motivation. When writing the article, the following sources were used: an article by Russian historian Vladimir Grigoryevich Datsyshen about the history of Christianity in China, a biography of Morrison authored by William John Townsend, the head of the Methodist Church, the work of James Alexander, a professor of rhetoric at the College of New Jersey, a contemporary of the missionary, as well as a retrospective by William Milne describing the activities of Protestant missionaries in that time period.   The novelty of the article is to familiarize Russian-speaking readers with the problems of Protestant missionary activity in the 19th century through works that have not been translated into Russian. A small practical result in the spread of Christianity in China is confirmed, despite the accumulated theoretical base. The study confirmed the role of the opium trade as an activity that harmed missionaries, and therefore criticized by Morrison because it became one of the reasons for the rejection of Christianity by the Chinese. It also describes a huge amount of work in the translation of literature carried out by missionaries in order to familiarize the Chinese with the fruits of Western culture.


China, nineteenth century, missionaries, Morrison, opium trade, colonial policy, Anglo-Chinese relations, Protestantism, Christianity, the UK

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.

Protestant missionary activity in China is not a new object of research in historiography, in which it is described in parallel with the expansion of the strongest Western powers into the Qing Empire. However, how did the missionaries see their activities and what did they associate themselves with in an environment in which Christianity was not integrated in any sphere into the culture of such a large state as the Qing Empire? In this article, we will try to answer this question by analyzing the activities of one of these missionaries, studying, among other things, written sources.

In mainland China, the main round of activity of Protestant missionaries falls on the XIX century, while Vladimir Datsyshen, Doctor of Historical Sciences, counts the beginning of this period from September 4, 1807 [1;65] with the arrival in Guanzhou of Robert Morrison, a Presbyterian and a member of the London Missionary Society.

According to a review by James Alexander, professor of rhetoric at the College of New Jersey, the society was founded back in 1795, and its innermost goal was to take on the "monstrous idolatry and atheism" of Southeast Asia [2; 340]. The society proceeded from the fact that syncretism was inherent in the Chinese consciousness, which is why a Chinese person in his youth can "worship in Taoist temples, and at the end of his life revere the Buddha, while performing Confucian rituals throughout his life" [3; 123]. However, in the middle of the XIX century, there was a decline of Buddhism and Taoism in China and the identification of the Confucian cult with the hated Manchurian dynasty in the Chinese consciousness. The Chinese mentality itself, from the point of view of society, in the event of the disappearance of these religions, could continue to exist, because ancestor worship (cult of the deceased) is something that was revered long before the advent of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in China. This mentality was so firmly established in consciousness that it did not need the support of the state and the clergy, but at the same time it was the object of indignation of their contemporaries from English, American, Dutch Protestant missionaries, who were fully convinced that the Chinese did not have as such "true faith in one God", and therefore in their eyes Chinese society was considered atheistic and "requiring immediate salvation" [2; 346].

Morrison's path to the lands of the Qing Empire was not trivial: after becoming a member of the London Missionary Society, he, having a choice between Timbuktu and China, chose the latter, because he believed that "Conducting" led him on this path, since, in his opinion, "The Lord favors those missionaries where "the greatest and most insurmountable difficulties for human nature" [3;60]. Perhaps this choice was due to his young age and thirst to accomplish a great deed, or the very situation in the Qing Empire really left much to be desired for foreigners: Catholic missionaries, of whom there were many in Macau, saw Protestants as natural competitors, besides, with the exception of Macau, contacts between Europeans and Chinese were limited only to the city of Guangzhou and they represented only a commercial relationship.

However, Morrison saw himself as a person who should give the locals the teachings of Christ and give the Chinese "spiritual weapons to win back their promised land (Canaan), given to them by the Lord" [2; 341]. To achieve this goal, he studied Chinese and translated the Gospel in full, taking into account the experience of representatives of his predecessors, such as the French Catholic missionary Jean Basse and the Armenian Hovhannes Ghazaryan, a native of Macau. Morrison's translation was called "Shentian shengshu" and was published in 1819. It is also noteworthy that his missionary activity, according to the letter of the law, was secret and illegal against the background of his main job as an interpreter at one of the English productions of the East India Company in Canton with a salary of 500 pounds a year. Milne, one of his colleagues, noted that "he wore Chinese clothes and thick Chinese shoes" [4;65] Over time, he came to the conclusion that this was a mistaken policy. Because of the unusual food, he did not feel comfortable; and because of such clothes, he became extremely unusual and attracted unnecessary attention to himself where he sought to avoid publicity. A foreigner dressed in Chinese clothes aroused suspicion as a man trying to secretly infiltrate Chinese society in order to secretly spread his forbidden religion. Under these circumstances, Morrison was forced to return to the European style.

In the course of his work, Morrison was faced with the fact that the population of the Qing Empire was mostly illiterate and could not even write in their native language, and this, in turn, limited his potential flock only to wealthy Chinese. He also noted that Chinese is not easy for an Englishman to master, and requires a lot of local help to translate

Morrison published his most famous work together with his colleague and follower, the American William Milne, the author of the first Protestant doctrinal pamphlet "The Dialogue of Two Friends". However, on July 4, 1813, Morrison was expelled from Macau in the name of the governor because of his missionary activities, unwittingly provoking a conflict with China, which was not needed at that time.

In 1818, Morrison founded the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca, which was to become a base for introducing local Chinese students to Christianity and Western culture.

Morrison returned to China in 1826. Changes in the East India Company allowed him to contact new officials, although some of them did not have the slightest respect for the missionary's vocation and were inclined to assume high powers until Morrison's threat to resign prompted them to behave more respectfully. Nevertheless, relations between British merchants and Chinese officials were becoming more strained by the day. Morrison strongly disapproved of most of the correspondence he had with Chinese officials, noting the "officiousness and tyranny" of Chinese Mandarins, which was difficult to tolerate, Morrison also criticized the behavior of British merchants, which threatened the activities of Christian missionaries in China. He noted that "the activities of foreign traders seemed to take precedence over the activities of missionaries."

During his visit to England, Morrison was able to leave teacher Liang Fa, one of Milne's converts, in China to continue his feasible work among the population. This man has already suffered a lot for his faith and has proved to be completely consistent and sincere during the long period of Morrison's absence. Liang Fa returned to China several times, was persecuted and even imprisoned there, and in 1823 became a preacher of the London Missionary Society. Another result of Liang Fa's missionary work was a work entitled "Kind Words for Exhorting the World" ("Quanshi liangyan"), with a volume of 10 thousand hieroglyphs (235 sheets), published in 1832 in Guangzhou.

Other local Christians were baptized and the small church grew, although at the same time it was well known that many believed in secret, not daring to defy persecution and ostracism for public confessions. American missionaries were sent to help Morrison, and more Christian publications were published. Morrison welcomed the arrival of the Americans because they could hold services for the English residents, and freed him up to preach and talk to the Chinese, who could be gathered together to listen to the Gospel. In 1832, Morrison wrote: "There is a completely different social situation in Canton with regard to the Chinese than in 1807. Chinese scientists, missionary students, the English press and Chinese Scriptures, public worship of God - all this has grown since that time. I have served my generation, and may the Lord know it when I fall asleep."

Summing up, we can draw the following conclusions:

1)    Morrison's missionary work was carried out along a thorny path, which only gave him the perseverance and desire to realize this goal of his life.

2)    Despite the modest results, he unwittingly paved this route: learning the language, translating Scripture into Chinese, creating educational institutions, and involving the Chinese themselves in preaching. Although his immediate efforts were modest, he was one of those who began to familiarize Chinese society with Western culture and faith. And his legacy has been able to radically influence China, even if not in the way he hoped.

3) Despite the sincere belief that his activities carried the development of education and familiarization of Chinese society with the Western world and vice versa, opium activities (of which he was an opponent) led to confrontation and the perception of Christianity as one of the consequences of this harmful activity.

1. Datsyshen, V. G. (2007). Христианство в Китае: история и современность. [Christianity in China: History and history and modernity].
2. Missionary operations in China by the rev. (1833). James. W. Alexander Professor of the Rhetoric in the College of New Jersey.
3. Townsend, W. J. (1890). Robert Morrison: the pioneer of Chinese missions, London: S.W. Partridge.
4. Milne, William. (1820). A retrospect of the first ten years of the Protestant mission to China. Malacca: Anglo-Chinese Press.

Peer Review

Peer reviewers' evaluations remain confidential and are not disclosed to the public. Only external reviews, authorized for publication by the article's author(s), are made public. Typically, these final reviews are conducted after the manuscript's revision. Adhering to our double-blind review policy, the reviewer's identity is kept confidential.
The list of publisher reviewers can be found here.

The lines of R. Kipling are known: "The East is the East, and the West is the West." But at the same time, it should be noted that the interpenetration of the two cultures, including religious ones, which lasted for thousands of years and then faded, but intensified with renewed vigor. At the same time, the spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa and America is much more well known than in China, which, however, at various times attracted numerous missionaries from European countries. After all, China attracted the attention of not only Catholic, but also Protestant preachers in the 19th century. These circumstances determine the relevance of the article submitted for review, the subject of which is the missionary activity of Robert Morrison in the Qing Empire. The author aims to analyze the views of the missionaries on their activities in this region, as well as to show how they represented their position in an environment where Christians were in a clear minority. The work is based on the principles of analysis and synthesis, reliability, objectivity, the methodological basis of the research is a systematic approach, which is based on the consideration of the object as an integral complex of interrelated elements. The scientific novelty of the article lies in the very formulation of the topic: the author seeks to characterize the work of Christian missions in China using the example of R. Morrison's activities. Considering the bibliographic list of the article, its inconsistency should be noted. On the one hand, its brevity immediately draws attention: The list of references includes only 4 sources and studies. On the other hand, the list of references includes several English-language works that are poorly known to the domestic audience. In addition to the general work of V.G. Datsyshen, which examines Christianity in China, let us pay attention in the list of references to books devoted to the activities of R. Morrison. In general, in our opinion, the use of various sources and research contributed to the solution of the tasks facing the author. The style of writing the article can be attributed to scientific, at the same time understandable not only to specialists, but also to a wide readership, to anyone interested in both the confessional history of China in general and Christianity in China in particular. The appeal to the opponents is presented at the level of the collected information received by the author during the work on the topic of the article. The structure of the work is characterized by a certain logic and consistency, it can be distinguished by an introduction, the main part, and conclusion. At the beginning, the author defines the relevance of the topic, shows that "in the middle of the XIX century, there was a decline of Buddhism and Taoism in China and the identification in the Chinese consciousness of the Confucian cult with the hated Manchurian dynasty." It is noteworthy that R. Morrison chooses China for missionary work precisely because of the difficult work in this country. As noted in the article, "the population of the Qing Empire was mostly illiterate and could not even write in their native language, and this, in turn, limited their potential flock only to wealthy Chinese." At the same time, there were certain successes in R. Morrison's missionary activity, which the author shows. The main conclusion of the article is that although R. Morrison's successes "were modest, he was one of those who began to familiarize Chinese society with Western culture and faith." The article submitted for review is devoted to an urgent topic, will arouse readers' interest, and its materials can be used both in lecture courses on the history of Asia and Africa, and in various special courses. There are separate comments to the article: for example, the list of references is too short, individual proposals are not coordinated, it would be possible to elaborate on the biography of R. Morrison. However, in general, in our opinion, the article can be recommended for publication in the journal Genesis: Historical Research.
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