Most Have Never Heard the Story of China’s First Christian Convert

The following is an account from BTJ’s book BURY ME IN CHINA – Robert Morrison: The Man Who Dared to Bring the Gospel to China


A-fo did not come from a wealthy family, and every indicator in his life put him on the same forgettable trajectory as his forgotten ancestors. The Chinese keep detailed family trees, but not A-fo’s family. They were slaves, vagabonds, and concubines.

His mother was a concubine, one of several. Some of them were known, and some of them were not. The word concubine is the more socially acceptable way of describing a prostitute that lives with her only customer. A better description is not used to save the concubine from shame, but rather to save the one that uses the concubine.

The concubine is too low in the social order to give a name. She is merely known by the number that corresponds to the order in which she was “received.” A-fo’s mother was known as number two. A-fo’s birth wasn’t noticed, other than the inconvenience it caused when his mother was unable to perform her ‘duties’ during the later part of her pregnancy.”

“His father’s first wife hated A-fo and his mother, because she wasn’t able to have any children of her own. A-fo could not inherit anything from his father, because his mother was too low on the social scale. She was not allowed to have any official title in the home, nor her son.

A-fo’s father paid for him to study, but the study time was more to hide him from the wife of the manor than to actually educate him. When he wasn’t hiding by pretending to be studying, he was sitting in the parlor of the forbidden quarters, where the women servants would gather during the day. A-fo would watch as his mother and her friends would do their hair, mend their clothes, and share scuttlebutt about the daily family gossip.

The home where he grew up had a main house where his father lived with his wife. It towered over the north side of the courtyard. To the right was the house for his father’s parents, who had already passed, so it was occupied by his siblings.

To the left was another large home where the first wife’s family resided. At the foot of the courtyard, hidden behind the arched gate, was a line of small structures that made up the servants’ quarters. This is where A-fo lived with his mother.

Since A-fo was a child, he was never allowed to play in the open courtyard. He had to stay in the servants’ quarters or in the fields. He was never to be seen by his father or his wife. If his father or his wife ever saw A-fo, he and his mother would both be banished.

When A-fo turned sixteen, his father died and left very little for his family. He had gathered up considerable wealth as a trader, but lost everything when catastrophe hit at sea. After his father’s death, the wife made them both leave the property, but life was not easy for her either. She was strapped with the responsibility of A-fo’s father’s debt. When she could not pay it, one of A-fo’s brothers was sent to jail as ransom until the family could pay the debtors.

A-fo was told to never return to his father’s home. A-fo traveled using the few resources he was given until they ran out. He was about to do odd jobs together with his brother, but in the end he learned to survive by developing a quick understanding of life on the streets.

He learned that a strong back and a quick mind provided a full belly in Macau. There was so much wealth that circled around the foreign communities that it could easily aid a street beggar like himself to afford a rather comfortable existence.

A-fo got a job running goods in bulk from one business to other businesses. That only took up a few hours of his day in the early morning. In the afternoon he could run a rickshaw and pull foreigners around town from one meeting to another and from one house to another. In the evening he could clean tables at restaurants and scrub floors in factories. Whatever he could do to earn money he did.

Each job seemed to pay crumbs, but collectively, A-fo built up multiple income sources. The streets of Macau, however, was not the easiest place to develop good character, and over time A-fo grew hardened and easily provoked to fits of rage.

After four years of hard work on the streets and building up several income streams, he hit the jackpot when a foreigner wanted to hire him personally. Here is where Robert Morrison, the first Protestant Missionary to China, was introduced to A-fo by Sam Tak. Sam was Robert’s Chinese language teacher. 200 years ago it was illegal to teach the Chinese language to foreigners, but Sam did it anyway with much risk.

A-fo felt an instant connection with the strange foreigner.

Most street hustlers could not be trusted. Robert was constantly being taken advantage of by the locals. They overcharged him for everything, but there was something different about A-fo. From the first day they met, there was a level of honesty in A-fo that was unique. Not only did A-fo not overcharge Robert, but he was able to look out for him and keep him from getting cheated by others.

Of all the times that Robert was cheated, it was never by A-fo and never when they were together. Once Robert could speak Chinese better, he could understand much of what A-fo said to local vendors when they were out shopping together.

“This is not a person you should cheat,” he would say, chastising the local Chinese. “He has come to help our fellow countrymen.”

A-fo was only twenty years old when he came to work for Robert after being introduced by his brother. The education he received on the streets made him one of the most productive individuals in Robert’s employ, but he was not always the easiest to get along with. There were several instances where A-fo would lash out at the other staff members in heated rage.

No matter how angry A-fo got, though, there was no question in his value. There was no one as resourceful. Whatever Robert needed for his projects, no matter how strange, foreign, or rare, if Robert tasked A-fo with finding it, A-fo would return in a couple of days with the item, simply saying, “I know a guy. . . .”

Not only was A-fo capable of locating the scarcest items, but he had a way of obtaining them for the lowest prices around. As a result, A-fo was put in charge of Robert’s shopping and provisions. Robert wrote of him, “There is one boy, a fatherless lad, the brother of Low-heen. He possesses tolerable parts. I wish to pay attention to him.”

Soon after Robert had printed his first Chinese Christian booklets for an exorbitant price, he worked with A-fo to acquire the entire printing press so that he could do his own printing in the future. Of all the Chinese that worked with Robert, A-fo was the one Chinese who was most adept at running it. Few people had the ability to learn a new skill as quickly or as efficiently as A-fo.

A-fo quickly learned how to carve out the wooden blocks needed for the early printing. In this way, not only was A-fo the first recorded Protestant Chinese Christian converted in China, but he was also the first Chinese to use modern printing equipment and the first to print the Chinese Bible. Robert Morrison is remembered by historians as the first person to translate the Bible into the Chinese language, but it was A-fo who printed it.

Robert wrote about A-fo in his journal, saying:

Three years after, when I could speak better, and could write, A-fo understood better and being employed by his brother in superintending the New Testament for the press, he says that he began to see the merits of Jesus were able to save all men in all ages and nations, and hence he listened to and believed in Him.

A-fo’s natural temper is not good. He often disagrees with his brother and other domestics, and I thought it better that he should retire from my service. He, however, continued, whenever he was within a few miles, to come to worship on the Sabbath-day.

He prayed earnestly morning and evening, and read the Decalogue as contained in the Catechism. He says that from the Decalogue and instruction of friends he saw his great and manifold errors, that his nature was wrong, that he had been unjust, and that he had not fulfilled his duty to his friends or brothers or other men.

His knowledge, of course, is very limited and his views perhaps obscure, but I hope that his faith in Jesus is sincere. I took for my guide what Philip said to the Eunuch, If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest be baptized. O that at the great day he may prove to have been a brand plucked out of the burning.

May God be glorified in his eternal salvation!

He writes in a tolerably good hand. His father was a man of some property, which he lost by the wreck of a junk in the China Seas returning from Batavia. Tsae A-ko, when at school, was often unwell, and did not make so much progress as his brother A-Heen, who is with me. A-Heen is mild and judicious, but is, I fear, in his heart opposed to the Gospel. His attendance to preaching on the Lord’s day is also constant.

But insincerity and want of truth are vices which cling to the Chinese character.

On the night of A-fo’s secret baptism, Robert wrote:

At a spring of water issuing from the foot of a lofty hill by the sea side, away from human observation, I baptized, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the person whose character and profession has been given above. O that the Lord may cleanse him from all sin in the blood of Jesus and purify his heart by the influences of the Holy Spirit. May he be the first fruits of a great harvest, one of millions who shall believe and be saved from the wrath to come.

With the illegal printing of materials that A-fo was running, the “wrath to come” would come sooner than thought.

To learn more about the first converts in China, read BTJ’s latest book – Bury me in China – Robert Morrison: The Man Who Dared to Bring the Gospel to China

Dr. Eugene Bach is a known trouble-maker with an active imagination and sinful past. He has a PhD, but is not a real doctor, so please do not call for him during a medical emergency on an airplane when someone is having a heart attack. Eugene started working for Back to Jerusalem in the year 2000 after a backroom deal involving Chinese spies, the NRA, Swiss bankers, and a small group of Apostolic Christians that only baptize in Jesus’ name. He spends most of his time in closed countries attempting to topple governments by proclaiming the name of Jesus and not taking showers. From time-to-time he pretends to be a writer. He is not good at it, but everyone around him tries to humor him.

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