Catholic Bible Translation in Twentieth-Century China: An Overview

  • Daniel K. T. Choi
  • George K. W. Mak


Although Catholic missionaries in China during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties penned more than 200 writings in Chinese, there was not a single complete translation of the Bible among them. Yet the Jesuit missionaries as early as 1615 sought and received permission from Rome to translate the Catholic Bible into literary Chinese.1 The oldest extant Chinese version of the Catholic Bible dates back to the early eighteenth century. Jean Basset, a French priest of the Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) in Sichuan, with the help of John Xu Ruohan, translated a portion of the New Testament—from the Gospel of Matthew to the first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews—from Latin into literary Chinese. Nevertheless, Basset’s work was not published.2 It was not until the twentieth century that Chinese Catholics witnessed the publication of the first complete translation of the Catholic Bible in Chinese, the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum Version (the Franciscan Biblical Institute version; in Chinese, Sigao Shengjing, 1968).


Textual Basis Chinese Translation Greek Text Early Qing Dynasty Complete Translation 
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  1. 1.
    Piet Rijks, “The History of the Bible in China,” in Servant of the Word (Hong Kong: Studium Biblicum OFM, 1996), pp. 3–4. In 1757, the Catholic Church permitted the reading and printing of vernacular Bibles under certain conditions.Google Scholar
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    For details of the translation work of Basset and Su, see François Barriquand, “First Comprehensive Translation of the New Testament in Chinese: Fr. Jean Basset (1662–1707) and the Scholar John Xu,” Societas Verbi Divini: Verbum SVD vol. 49 (2008), pp. 91–119; Cai Jintu (Daniel K.T. Choi), “Bai Risheng de Zhongwen Shengjing yiben ji qi dui zaoqi Xinjiao yijing de yingxiang,” Huashen qikan (China Evangelical Seminary Journal) no. 1 (2008), pp. 50–77.Google Scholar
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    Xinjing quanshu (Tianjin: Tianjin Chongdetang, 1949). Indeed, Xiao Shunhua had translated the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Prison Epistles into Mandarin. They were published separately in the early 1940s. For information about Xiao’s portions of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, see Giovanni Rizzi, CRSP, Edizioni della Bibbia nel contesto di Propaganda Fide: Uno studio sulle edizioni della Bibbia presso la Biblioteca della Pontificia Università Urbaoniana, vol. III (Rome: Urbaniana University Press, 2006), p. 1132. While the list of Chinese Catholic Bible versions compiled by Piet Rijks does not include Xiao’s Gospel of John, the copy of this portion deposited at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Hong Kong attests to its publication. Rijks, “The History of the Bible in China,” p. 33. Also, Daniel K. T. Choi has seen copies of Xiao’s Acts of the Apostles and Prison Epistles, which are not included in Rijk’s list too: Zongtu dashi lu (Tianjin: Chongdetang, 1941); Sheng Baolu shuxinji: Fulu shiqi shuxinji (Tianjin: Chongdetang, 1943). Moreover, Édouard Petit edited a Bible reader called Jianyi Shengjing duben (Hong Kong: Kwangchi Press, 1955). Petit’s Bible reader includes excerpts of his translation of biblical passages in both the Old and New Testaments.Google Scholar
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    Ma Xiangbo joined the Society of Jesus (SJ) in 1862. He was ordained in 1870 and later became the first Chinese principal of Collège Saint Ignace (Xuhui Gongxue). After leaving the priesthood in 1876, Ma started a career in business and government while actively engaged in educational work. He spent his late years in Tushanwan and translated Catholic works into Chinese. For details of Ma Xiangbo’s Bible translation activities, see Fang Hao, “Ma Xiangbo xiansheng yu Shengjing,” Dongfang zazhi vol. 9, no. 7 (1976), pp. 35–40. A renowned Chinese jurist and ambassador to the Holy See, Wu Jingxiong was originally a Methodist Protestant but converted to Catholicism in 1937. For Wu’s own description of his Bible translation work, see chapter 18,Google Scholar
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    Shengyong yi yi chugao, p. 119. Although Wu did not know biblical languages and Latin, Luo Guang and Fang Hao helped Wu check his translations against the Greek New Testament and the Latin Vulgate. Fang Hao, “Wu Desheng xian-sheng fanyi Shengjing de jingguo” in Fang Hao liushi ziding gao, vol. 2 (Taipei [Taibei]: Taiwan Xuesheng Shuju, 1969), pp. 1977–1978;Google Scholar
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    Ibid. For an introduction to the works of Greek textual critics, see Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th edn. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).Google Scholar
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    According to Nida and Taber, a translation “dynamically equivalent” to the original means “a translation in which the message of the original text has been transposed into the receptor language in such a way that the RESPONSE of the RECEPTOR is essentially like that of the original receptors. Frequently, the form of the original text is changed; but as long as the change follows the rules of back transformation in the source language, of contextual consistency in the transfer, and of transformation in the receptor language, the message is preserved and the translation is faithful.” Eugene A. Nida and Charles R. Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1969), p. 200.Google Scholar

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© Cindy Yik-yi Chu 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel K. T. Choi
  • George K. W. Mak

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