China’s first complete Bible was translated by Robert Morrison, but there were many efforts before him.
Few people have ever heard of a Reverend Mosely who, in the early 1800s, was led by the Holy Spirit to the British History Museum. The Holy Spirit prompted him to look for something, but he didn’t know what it was. While at the Museum, in the back of the library, covered in dust, he found several scrolls of the Bible translated into the Chinese language by a missionary in the 1700s.
Those scrolls changed the history of China, but few people know about the man who wrote those scrolls or the impact that they had – until now.
Below is the an extract from the book BURY ME IN CHINA describing how, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, Reverend Mosely re-discovered the Bible scrolls translated into the Chinese language. He handed them over to Robert Morrison to become the basis of the entire Bible translation efforts that changed Chinese history. BURY ME IN CHINA is available NOW by CLICKING HERE:
Jean sat alone with a crooked bamboo ink stick in his hand, trying to calm the trembling of his fingers by resting the sides of his knuckles on top of the solid wood table. A decree had just been issued by the Emperor of China to remove all foreign missionaries from the country. He stared at the pen with envy, wanting, in that moment, to be a tool rather than a translator.
“Holy Spirit, make me but a tool in your hand. From you, may these following strokes be made. From you, may the ink flow.”
Looming shadows haunted him with the inconvenient reminder that the evening sun was going down prematurely behind the mountains that towered over his little cottage just outside of the ancient Chinese city of Chengdu. The light needed for writing would soon vanish, giving way to the most unproductive dark hours of night.
Jean Basset was waiting on an answer to an urgent request sent out, begging for his mission leaders to allow him to translate the Bible into Chinese. It was a deadly proposal. Translating the Bible into a ‘vulgar’ tongue had been taboo for so long that most of the Christian world was still against it. It hadn’t been that long since William Tyndale was strangled and burned to the stake for daring to translate the Bible into the English language. He was taking the same treacherous road so many before him had taken.
An answer giving permission to translate never came, but he couldn’t wait any longer.
A few years before, in 1702, Jean desperately tried to communicate the need for the Gospel in China when he sent a message to the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris entitled, “Avis Sur La Mission de Chine.”
It was a ‘China Mission Review’ showing how his city of Chengdu had radically grown in the 1600s from two million people to fifteen million!
“The foreign missionary can no longer be the solution,” Jean said to himself as he pined over the unreached people of China, knowing that every foreign missionary would soon be kicked out by the emperor’s new decree. “I see only one remedy to bring the Gospel message to so many people: translate the Holy Scriptures into Chinese. This is the gateway to revelation!”
Jean never wanted to translate the Bible himself. He was only one person. King James of England had just taken a team of three panels and forty-seven scholars to provide a translation in the English language, and they spoke English as their mother tongue. Jean’s mother tongue was French, and he felt entirely unqualified to translate Scripture from his second language of Latin to his third language of Chinese. This was a task he preferred to leave to the Jesuits or other holy orders, but time was running out, and it looked unlikely that anyone else would be sent.
Jean lived in a time of bold men with explorer faith. In 1689, when so many Europeans sailed west to explore the New World for the first time, Jean set his sights eastward towards the mystical Middle Kingdom. He traveled the perilous bandit-ridden routes between the ancient fiefdoms of the modern-day provinces Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Jiangxi, finally settling in the mountainous region of Sichuan province where one single city, Chengdu, had almost as many people as the entire nation of his home country.
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets . . . ” Jean read from the weathered Bible on the table beside him. This was the first sentence in the book of Hebrews, and it leapt out at him. “In the past God spoke . . . ” he repeated, clinching the loose skin on his sun-leathered forehead in anguish. “God . . . ” he said, staring at the word.
This was the crux of the problem. How does one even begin to attempt to translate the word God to the Chinese and explain it in the Chinese language? On the one hand, the Chinese have as many gods as there are words to label them, and the Hebrews, for which the biblical
letter was addressed, did not even dare utter the word. For hundreds of years, Catholic missionaries had translated the word God as “Heaven” or “Heavenly God” (“Tian” or “Tianzhu”). The word had been used for so long, that to this day, Catholics are still called “Heavenly God Church” or ”Tianzhujiao.”
The Emperor of China, Kangxi, did not need the word translated, because Jesus had been personally translated to him. It was clear when he wrote the following poem of confession:
The Treasure of Life
Heaven’s treasures are the sun, moon, and stars
Earth’s treasures are grain, gold, and silver
A kingdom’s treasures are righteous officials,
A family’s treasures are their off-spring
Gold and jade are not real treasures,
Only a life of tranquility is to live to a hundred is only 36,000 days
Without purpose life is abject misery
We come confused, and we leave dying
An empty life is meaningless as a dream
I have tasted the best of a hundred flavours
I have worn only the finest court clothes
The most esteemed in all the world are my guests
How is it that I am born as an emperor?
The greatest event in the world is life and death
Gold and jade are meaningless then
Even plain rice and porridge can satisfy
But the finest clothes can’t last a thousand years
Long has heaven’s doors been shut by the first man
The blessed way is opened by the sacred Son
I am willing to receive the Sacred Son of God
To have the birthright of a son to eternal life
But China’s favorite emperor, the first Christian emperor in history to make a confession to follow Christ, ran into problems with the Catholic church over the proper translation of God. When the Pope demanded that the emperor of China obey his religious order, instead of the emperor’s own understanding of Christ alone, an order was issued to remove all missionaries from China.
Jean moved to write, but his hand would not stir. He reached into his thoughts, but his mind would not think. The frustration grew.
Jean was not the first to vigorously contend with himself to translate the word for deity. The earliest Nestorian missionaries from a thousand years earlier used the word Fo, which later served for Buddhism. The word Tian or “sky,” as often used in China, does not necessarily indicate a personal God. The Muslims long found their word, Allah, not to be changed from the holy Arabic Koran.
The expression Tianzhu, or ” master of the sky,” was adopted by Catholics, but it didn’t fit the needs of Biblical language.
Suddenly, Jean was inspired by the memory of teachings he had read long ago from the famous Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, who served in China in the 1500s. Ricci did what no other missionary had ever done before: he reached the highest echelons of Chinese royalty by discovering a connection between the ancient God of China, Shangdi, and the Holy God of the Bible.
Specifically, Ricci concluded that the God whom Christians worship was the same God, Shangdi, that the ancient Chinese ancestors worshiped!
Suddenly Jean’s hands began to move, his mind filled with excitement.
“Andre!” Jean yelled from his chair without looking. “Andre!” He yelled again. Andre Li was one of the young men that Jean had been discipling and training for ministry. He and Jean Xu had been learning Latin from Jean Basset to prepare them for this day.
Li and Xu were among a group of local believers that Jean had brought to Christ. When Jean first arrived, there were only five believers in a city of fifteen million. In only a short time, Jean baptized seventeen adults, eighteen infants, saw sixty-two confessions, and performed fifty-seven communions. It was a thriving fellowship that Jean feared he would soon be forced to abandon, and they would need the Word of God to sustain them for future growth.
Andre wasn’t close enough to hear Jean yell for him. He was out, most likely, shopping for vegetables that would soon be thrown into a large pot of spicy broth over an open flame and filling the room with aromatic sichuan peppercorns.
Jean erratically scanned the room, hoping that someone would respond to his bark, but not annoyed enough to get up and go fetch anyone himself.
“Shen!” Jean uttered to himself. It was a sublime revelation that thundered into his mind with a crack and jammered back and forth like a rocking piston as he envisioned the great Apostle Paul and his famous sermon at the Areopagus in Athens. He wasn’t just an orator. “No!” Jean thought to himself. “Paul translated history, gave meaning to myth, and introduced the men of Athens to God—their own God—TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. And that is precisely what I aim to do. Introduce the Chinese to their ancient God!”
As Jean attempted to swipe the first dark black stroke of ink across the pages, he watched the heavy lacquer of the thin black liquid tar quickly absorb into the spongy yellow paper. Focusing heavy on the Chinese character, he grasped to the heels of many missionaries that had gone before him.
“Translating this one single word in the Bible into Chinese will no doubt benefit generations being instructed and multiplied,” he said as he wrote the word Shen. He knew that the Chinese could be instructed to learn Latin, as the foreign missionaries wanted, but how many would know Latin as a living language? How could it be multiplied? Teaching Latin in China was bound to be doomed.
If the Bible was not in a living language that they could understand with their heart, how would their hearts ever be turned from sin? They needed the simplicity of the Gospel message in a language that they could read, understand, and share with others.
In that moment, without knowing it, as Jean was meticulously painting each stroke of the Chinese character, he was fulfilling the desires of all those who had gone before him. In 1662, the year that Jean was born, Francois Pallu, one of the three founders of the Foreign Missions in Paris that sent Jean to China, left for Asia. He would never be the same after that journey and would prepare the way for Jean to one day be in Chengdu, hunched over a wobbly wooden table, translating the four Gospels into Chinese.
Jean would never finish translating the book of Hebrews. He would soon die before it was completed. But almost exactly 100 years later, a young man from Scotland would make his way to China with Jean’s partial translation in his hand.
Jean’s translation would be the bedrock of the first Christian Bible printed in the Chinese language and his use of the word Shen would echo in Chinese Christian prayer for hundreds of years after his death.