The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge’s Oriental Pilgrimage


James Legge (1815-1897) is a major figure in Protestant missionary history, both in light of his long service in Hong Kong and because of his monumental achievement as a translator.

After a brief (68 pages) treatment of Legge’s childhood, youth, education, and thirty-year career as a missionary in Hong Kong (1844-1874), this massive intellectual biography focuses on the last twenty-two years of his life, when Legge was Professor of Chinese at Oxford University. Throughout the narrative of Legge’s time at Oxford, the author places him within the context of early Western sinology, the rise of the study of comparative religions, late nineteenth-century academic and intellectual developments, and the controversial career of Orientalist Max Muller.

It would seem that Girardot makes this choice for two reasons: First, Legge’s ministry in Hong Kong had already been minutely described by Lauren Pfister (with whom the author initially collaborated), and, second, Legge’s work as an academic translator and interpreter of the Chinese classics remains his principal legacy today.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, the author believes that he can trace a clear trajectory in Legge’s “pilgrimage” as a missionary and as a sinologist. Through the prism of Legge’s career, Girardot sees also the “Victorian foundations of the modern Western perception of China and religion” (xv). Consequently, he traces the rise and growth of sinological Orientalism and of the comparative science of religions as new academic disciplines. Along the way, he describes “the incremental secularization of public life, the emerging relativistic climate of comparison and pluralism regarding other religions and cultures, the curricular and structural transformation of education . . . the progressive professionalization of academic life, the implicit cultural imperialism of the Orientalist disciplines, the changes in the world-wide missionary movement, the one-sided encounter of a so-called progressive West with a retarded Orient, and so on” (xv).

Clearly, some of these topics are still very much with us today, as are some of the debates in which Legge took part. In other words, this is not just history (if there is such a thing), but a fascinating discussion of the roots of our current situation, both in the academy and among missionaries, for the sharp criticisms directed at Legge concern matters which remain controversial.

In fact, one of Girardot’s goals, in which I believe he largely succeeds, is to challenge both the provincial nature of sinology in the past hundred years, as well as the smug secularism that grips the academy as a whole and makes so-called “scholars” prisoners of their own unexamined agnostic or atheistic presuppositions. Even more provocatively, he writes with the conviction that, though “all forms of human expression are certainly rhetorical (broadly conceived) . . . this does not mean that all written discourse about discourse in the past has to read like a postmodernist manifesto” (xxix). In other words, he takes Legge and his contemporaries seriously on their own terms, and seeks to understand what they meant, and what they have to say to us today.

Legge as “Pilgrim”

The “pilgrimage” theme that structures the narrative includes several aspects: First, Legge’s literal journey from Scotland to Hong Kong; his visit to the homes of Confucius and Mencius in Shandong; his return to Great Britain and final years in Oxford.Girardot also traces Legge’s development as a worker: first, he was a missionary; then a missionary-scholar; at Oxford, he increasingly saw himself more as a scholar and less as a missionary. Finally, he almost repudiated his role as a missionary entirely.

More importantly for the book, however, is Legge’s supposed transition from a stance of traditional evangelical disparagement of Confucius, Confucianism, and Chinese religion in general – especially Buddhism and Daoism – to a place of profound admiration for the Sage of China, belief in the original religious orientation of the ancient Chinese, and even some appreciation for Chinese religions as containing elements of the truth. Legge did, indeed, change his initial evaluation of Confucius as “not a great man,” to “a very great man.” He also expanded his research and translation over the years, beyond a focus upon the dominant Confucian classics to important Buddhist and Daoist “sacred books.”

Girardot makes much of Legge’s friendship with the Chinese Ambassador, Guo Songtao, who challenged his assertion that “Christian” England was more “moral” than Confucian China. As time went on, his disgust at Britain’s imperial policies, odious opium trade, and domestic moral degeneration made him less and less willing to trumpet the supposed superiority of Christianity as a force for good in society; he had to admit that in some respects China was more “moral” than England. Like other missionaries, he realized that the blasts of gunboat cannon, the stench of opium, and the shameful behavior of Western merchants in China were making it hard for many Chinese to hear the gospel or see its intrinsic beauty and social utility.

On the other hand, the author clearly notes certain continuities that seem to diminish the force of this “pilgrimage” motif: From the beginning, Legge worked hard at understanding and translating the Chinese classics, with the conviction that missionaries must know those to whom they intend to preach the gospel of Christ. Much to the dismay of many fellow missionaries, even in his early years as a missionary Legge also believed strongly that the ancient Chinese knew the God of the Bible and worshiped him as Shangdi. Legge’s liberal Nonconformist evangelical esteem for education motivated ongoing and successful efforts to introduce non-sectarian education both in Hong Kong and Oxford, where he also involved himself in other reform projects.

Most importantly, and to Girardot’s chagrin, Legge never wavered in his conviction that Jesus Christ is the final, full, unique, and supreme revelation of God. No amount of reverence for Confucius or growing esteem for the higher elements of Buddhism and Daoism could shake his faith in the unequalled status of Christianity as the most excellent religion and the only one that could confer knowledge of God and renovation of the inner self. Even his most conciliatory and “comparativist” work, The Religions of China: Confucianism and Taoism Described and Compared with Christianity (1880), which Girardot cites as evidence of Legge’s alleged “pilgrimage” to a “broader” and more accommodating view, ends with a ringing affirmation of traditional Christian truths and their abiding unique supremacy.

Legge as Translator and Interpreter of China to the West

Despite this possible tension between a posited inner development and the obvious stability of Legge’s central convictions, Girardot excels in his description of the immensely productive literary career of this missionary-scholar. Legge began by translating the Four Books (Analects of Confucius, Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Mencius) and eventually rendered all the traditional Thirteen Classics into English, plus the Dao De Jing, the writings of Zhuangzi, and several Buddhist texts (including The Travels of Fahien, or Faxian’s Fuguo ji). The Classics included the Book of Poetry and the Book of Changes (I Jing), both notoriously difficult to understand and translate.The book does, therefore, indicate how Legge expanded his understanding of China’s literary and religious tradition by moving beyond the Four Books and even the rest of the Confucian (or, as Girardot prefers to call it, Ruist) canon, which he had initially thought so thoroughly dominated Chinese intellectual life that non-Confucian literature was not that important.

Legge drew upon a wide and precise knowledge of the entire Chinese commentarial tradition in his effort at comprehension and interpretation. Though he was criticized by some for over-reliance upon Zhu Xi, a careful reading of his comments reveals Legge’s independence of judgment and discriminating choices, as Girardot acknowledges. As time passed, he respected Zhu Xi more and more, but never followed him slavishly. Wang Tao’s encomium of Legge makes the same point.

Painful criticisms

He was also chided for accepting the traditional ascriptions of date and authorship, rather than exercising what was becoming a fiercely negative critical approach to ancient texts, a trend which overwhelmed the academy at the end of the nineteenth century and still exercises considerable influence. According to this new and supposedly “scientific” approach, Homer and Moses were severed from the books that they had been thought to compose, and Isaiah, John, and other biblical authors were tossed into the dustbin of naïve credulity. It took much of the twentieth century to recover from this obsessively skeptical prejudice, and recent scholarship has only partially succeeded in showing that our forebears were not as stupid as earlier self-confident critics had assumed. Evangelicals have made a powerful case for traditional authorship and dating of the Pentateuch and the Gospels; classical scholars are more willing to admit that someone like a Homer must stand behind the epics; and some learned men have re-affirmed the historicity of Laozi and even his authorship of the Dao De Jing.

More stinging, however, were the rebukes of colleagues in the missionary enterprise, including, in his early decades, the leaders of the London Missionary Society. Until he had acquired fame as the leading sinologist of the day, the LMS directors believed that Legge was spending too much time on translation, to the detriment of traditional missionary work. This was despite his constant defense that he stole time from sleep, not from his normal duties as a missionary, by rising early in the morning for scholarly labors. Later, however, he admitted that in his last years in Hong Kong, his scholarly work “came to engross my time more and more, and interfere with the prosecution of direct missionary work both in preaching and teaching” (180). The root problem, nevertheless seems to have been that the LMS could not see the value of Legge’s producing translations that enabled missionaries to understand those to whom they were speaking. Then as now, fundamental research does not seem valuable to practitioners and funders.

Even more difficult to bear were the charges from fellow missionaries that he was compromising fundamental tenets of Christianity by daring to insist that the ancient Chinese somehow knew God as Shangdi, by taking off his shoes at the Temple of Heaven, and then by including translations of Chinese texts in Max Muller’s Sacred Books of the East series. The notion that non-biblical texts could somehow be considered “sacred” seemed to demote the Bible from its unique position as God’s special revelation. Even the effort to “compare” Chinese religions with Christianity, or Confucius and Buddha to Jesus, smacked of compromise, since it appeared to place Christ and Christianity in the same category as mere mortals and man-made religions.

His paper comparing Confucianism and Christianity, which was read for him by fellow-“liberal” William Muirhead at the 1877 General Missionary Conference in Shanghai, evoked a firestorm of protest, not on the day of its presentation, but later, when a resolution to omit the paper from the conference proceedings volume was overwhelmingly passed. Girardot rejects the official reason for this, which was that the pre-conference arrangements committee had agreed not to allow discussion of highly explosive “Term Question,” lest missionary unity be destroyed. He adduces evidence for his claim that the missionaries favoring “Shen” as a translation for “God” had manipulated the whole proceeding, and that “Leggism” was silenced, but only for a while. By 1910, the “Shangdi” party, represented by Legge, had triumphed, as “the liberal theology of ‘fulfillment’ theory, the ‘social gospel,’ and ‘indigenization’ was in ascendency” (217).

Girardot believes that Legge’s paper was “a turning point in the history of the Protestant missionary movement” (218), because it built “a case for a broad attitudinal shift in the overall terms of the missionary movement” (219). From then on, missionaries would increasingly be willing to find “various ‘parallels’ with Christian tradition” in classical Chinese literature; a “two-way conversation” would be opened, with “the potential danger of a reciprocity that could lead to the conversion of Christians as much as it could win over heathens” (219).

The truth may be a bit more complicated. Legge did argue that Confucianism, like the Pentateuch, was “‘defective’ but not ‘antagonistic’ to Christianity” (223); he averred that Confucius and Mencius and others like them had been “raised up” by God to keep some knowledge of himself among the Chinese; and that some of their sayings were not only equal to the Law of Moses, but parallel to the teachings of Christ. He also insisted, however, that missionaries must try to inculcate in the Chinese a sense of sin, which Confucianism lacked. Still, his belief that Christianity would “supplement,” rather than “contradict” Confucianism provoked strong rebuttals, along with charges the Legge was moving too far in the direction of “assimilation” of the faith to Confucianism, de-valuing the Old Testament by ascribing similar status to the Confucian classics, and enlisting rationalistic Chinese views as “allies” to the gospel. More than one missionary virtually accused him of heresy.In that sense, Girardot is correct to see Legge’s Shanghai paper as a watershed in missions history, since his relatively moderate comparativism was later developed into a full-blown theological liberalism that split the missionary movement in China into two bitterly opposed parties. Girardot also notes the sad fact that both denominational (what he calls “sectarian”) and nationalistic factors further complicated the debates, as Legge’s critics were mostly Americans, while the British generally came to support the “Shangdi” position.

This debate continues to the present. Though I personally believe that Shen is the better translation for the Greek word Theos, and that the idea that Christianity “fulfills” or “supplements” other religions must be carefully examined, I think also that both Legge’s contemporaries and perhaps even Girardot may have exaggerated his “liberalism.” He was still, as even Girardot admits, an evangelical.

From the other end of the ideological spectrum came accusations, or at least insinuations, that Legge, as a former missionary, could never free himself from theological bias enough to form an accurate understanding of the Chinese classics. “How could a mere missionary be a real scholar?” they wondered. The growing professionalism and specialization of academics meant that only those who devoted themselves fully to their specialty, and who did so from a strictly neutral and “scientific” perspective, could really count as scholars.

Thus Legge “would forever be identified as a hopelessly liberal comparativist by conservative missionaries and as a heroically diligent, but vaguely old-fashioned and excessively pious, ex-missionary scholar by critical academics and secular Orientalists” (414).

Girardot responds to these allegations by showing how Legge never denied the unique supremacy of Christ or of God’s revelation in the Scriptures and in Christ, and how his theory and practice of translation, not to mention his diligence in mastering the Chinese scholarly tradition, place him among the highest rank as a careful scholar.

Even his comparativist method evinced only respect for the “other,” not any lessening of reverence for God. Legge merely believed that the Golden Rule obligates us to describe and evaluate other faiths as fairly as possible. Indeed, Girardot rather laments that Legge, though admitting a number of points of similarity, consistently pointed out where the Chinese religions were, in his word, “defective,” and where Christianity contained precious doctrines not found elsewhere. It is thus “superior” to all rivals. Confucius and Laozi were never “more than men,” but Jesus is both God and man. Nor is there anything in Chinese texts like the Incarnation, the propitiatory death and bodily resurrection of Christ, and therefore the hope of future blessedness for his followers.

The new sinologists also questioned whether translation itself should qualify as true scholarship. Girardot rightly maintains that there is no such thing as “mere” translation, for each translation, to be faithful, must involve detailed study of the original text and its meaning before a proper rendering into another language can be made. Legge’s massive volumes contained not only careful (though not word-for-word) translation, but also extensive commentary, reflecting the highest scholarly standards.

Misunderstood, unfairly criticized, and thus inadequately respected, Legge may seem to be something of a pathetic figure, and Girardot does paint a portrait of a man increasingly intellectually lonely. He pressed on, nevertheless, with his daily study and writing and with his schedule of teaching (though his students were few), and of public lectures. Firm in his conviction of God’s leading in his life, and steadfast in his commitment to his calling, Legge worked indefatigably to fulfill what he regarded as “the whole duty of man.”

His first few years at Oxford were a “period of special domestic happiness shared with his wife, children, and grandchildren” (193), but his wife Hannah’s developing “despondency and religious scrupulosity” could not help but affect the rest of the household (195). When she died, Legge’s status as a Non-conformist prevented her from being buried in the Anglican cemetery, to Legge’s profound sorrow and disappointment. Until the end, he was always something of an outsider at Oxford. Then, finally, both he and his first wife Hannah were buried together in the Anglican cemetery. The pilgrim had reached his destination(s).


Though I found the book immensely informative and stimulating, in addition to the question about the cogency of the “pilgrim” thesis, there remains the fact that the author obviously does not share Legge’s evangelical faith. He thus cannot restrain himself from snide and supercilious remarks about evangelicals in general and evangelical missionaries in particular, frequently mocking their zeal for seeing lost souls saved through faith in Christ and their concern for correct doctrine. By failing to appreciate Legge’s core convictions, Girardot inevitably falls short in understanding the central subject of this otherwise brilliant biography.

Despite this deficiency, however, Girardot’s monumental study has succeeded in giving us a sympathetic, even moving, narrative of a great man, missionary, and scholar. Repeatedly, he praises what he calls Legge’s “epic doggedness of intellectual labor,” especially by contrast with other professors at Oxford (192). He also vividly describes Legge’s intellectual and academic environment, though I have largely neglected this aspect of the book in my review. We are indebted to the author for his own labors in libraries and archives to bestow on this man the honor to which he is due. With its depth, breadth, and copious notes (filling 200 pages), the volume is a treasure-trove for scholars, but anyone interested in late Victorian intellectual and academic history will find it fascinating.

For more on Legge’s dual career, see the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity. For some lessons to be learned from his life and work, see Reaching Chinese Worldwide.

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle