16 July 2007
The 200th anniversary of the arrival in China of the first Protestant missionary, Robert Morrison, who contributed much to western knowledge of Chinese, is being marked by a display in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Robert Morrison (1782–1834, right in photo), from Northumbria in northern England, arrived in the port of Canton on 7 September 1807, commissioned by the new London Missionary Society first to learn Chinese, and then to make a Chinese translation of the Bible.
Despite Qing law preventing foreigners from learning Chinese, the East India Company policy excluding missionaries, and opposition from Portuguese Catholics who were already working in the country, Morrison mastered the language with help from faithful Chinese assistants. In 1809 he became official interpreter for the East India Company alongside his mentor, Sir George Staunton (1781–1859), the only other Englishman who knew Chinese at the time. Though often critical of the Company and of British government policy (especially its attitude towards the opium trade), Morrison was for 25 years central to Sino-British relations.
Morrison saw few results from his missionary endeavours. However, he completed a Chinese Bible (with William Milne) in November 1819, founded the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca, Java, in 1818 (the basis of the later University of Hong Kong), and published the first Chinese–English dictionary in 1823. Morrison died in Canton on 1 August 1834 and was buried in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Macao.
The display in the Bodleian Library Exhibition Room includes Morrison’s Chinese New Testament (published in separate parts), his Chinese-English Dictionary, and one of the many tracts (on theological or social topics) which he printed and distributed.
A conference on Morrison was held in March in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC (www.loc.gov/today/pr/2007/07-042.html); sponsors included the Centre for the Study of Christianity in China, Oxford (www.cscic.com/A-bridge-between-cultures-commemorating-the-two-hundreth-anniversary-of-Robert-Morrison-s-arrival-in-China-Report-on-the-Conference-in-Washington-March-2007).
Robert Morrison: pioneer of Chinese Protestantism and British sinology, a display in the Bodleian Library, continues until 11 August 2007. Open Monday to Friday 9 am to 5 pm, Saturday 9 am-4.30 pm. Admission free. The display occupies one case in a larger exhibition, Italy’s Three Crowns: Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch; see www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/2007_june_27/2007_june_19.
Picture: The Rev Robert Morrison, DD [right], and his assistants in the translation of the Bible into Chinese: engraving by W. Holl from a painting by G.G. Chinnery, 1888.