The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge’s Oriental Pilgrimage
by Norman Girardot
University of California Press. 861 pp. $75

Few enterprises have provoked as much ingenious skepticism in modern times as the attempt to translate spiritual truths between cultures. Émile Durkheim, noting that beliefs “vary infinitely” among Australian tribes, thought it followed that the tribes craft the beliefs. Richard Rorty questions whether we can “rise above all human communities” to know even mundane realities. Edward Said describes “Orientalism” as an exercise in imperial hegemony: “Knowledge of subject races . . . makes their management easy and profitable.” East is East, and West is West, to paraphrase Kipling, and whenever the two appear to meet, something is fishy.

In The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge’s Oriental Pilgrimage , China scholar Norman Girardot offers a thoughtful, polemically charged, and richly documented introduction to the life and times of the great nineteenth-century sinologist. Industrious, kindly, and as honest as rain is wet (“woe to the biographer saddled with someone too blandly virtuous,” Girardot moans in mock horror), Legge was a missionary and the first professor of Chinese at Oxford. Legge carefully translated the entire body of Confucian classics into English (“the most prodigious single-handed contribution of British scholarship to sinology,” as Girardot accurately describes it), and was friend to such cross-cultural pioneers as Max Müller, Hong Rengan, and Sun Yat-sen.

For the most part, Girardot agrees with the currently fashionable assumption among postmodern literary critics that “conquering, ruling, and understanding” are “quite the same thing.” Yet Girardot’s subject is hardly a raving imperialist. Legge claimed, for example, that “the more a man possesses the Christian spirit, and is governed by Christian principle, the more anxious will he be to do justice to every other system of religion.” The gentleness and humility with which Legge approached China seems to belie Edward Said’s claim that every Orientalist was “a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” In the end, Girardot offers a more nuanced and self-reflexive observation: “One can understand the Orient as a judge or a guest, as an aggressive transformer or a careful translator, as a bold general or a cautious pilgrim.”

One could go further, however. Despite the sometimes militant tone of their metaphors (which Girardot deplores), missionaries empowered “natives” in a vast variety of ways. Legge, for instance, was an active member of the Anglo-Oriental Society for the Suppression of the Opium trade. Christian “social crusaders” thus saw no conflict between honoring the best of a nation’s culture and trying to liberate it from its own worst impulses.

If it is fair to criticize an author for succeeding in what he sets out to do, then the chief weakness of this otherwise meticulously researched study is Girardot’s preference for placing Legge horizontally, in the sociology of his times, rather than vertically, within Christian tradition. Legge is “Victorian,” “liberal,” “non-Conformist,” “Orientalist.” His subtitles”“A movement of mind,” “There are other worlds besides our own,” “Less Doctrine, more Love””suggest Girardot might nudge “Pilgrim Legge” not toward the Celestial City he actually has in sight, but the feel-good Vanity Fair of modern relativism.

Nowhere do the two men seem more at cross-purposes than in Girardot’s comments on how Legge reached a liberal “accommodationist” position because he came to believe that “certain ancient Chinese sages were prophets raised up by God.” But by finding God in China, Legge “accommodated” himself to Paul and Augustine”both of whom predicted that awareness of God would be found universally”rather than to Müller or Confucius. Still less did he anticipate Rorty or Said.

The Temple of Heaven in Beijing, where Legge believed Chinese emperors worshiped God, looks more like a space ship (built by aesthetically gifted aliens) than a traditional Chinese temple. By the time Legge came to worship, emperors had been sacrificing to Huang Tian Shang Di here for over four hundred years. Twelve red pillars, like sons of Jacob or apostles of Jesus sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifice, stand sentinel around four red and gold pillars in the center. Feeling that he was “standing on holy ground,” Legge took off his shoes and sang with his mission friends: “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.”

The debate over whether primitive peoples were aware of the “Judeo-Christian” God has had a dramatic history. Victorian theories of religion placed God at the end of a long chain of social evolution. Edward Tylor, founder of Cultural Anthropology, thought Legge mistaken in concluding that Shang dynasty Chinese were theists. A year after Legge’s death, however, Tylor’s former student, Andrew Lang, published The Making of Religion , in which he pointed to belief in a “high God” among aboriginal peoples around the world. Though ignorant of China, Lang boldly suggested that Legge (not to mention St. Paul) was probably right, and Tylor wrong. Then, in 1899, Shang oracle bones extensively inscribed with the name of the High God, Di , were unearthed. Thirteen years later, Durkheim noted that belief in God (under many aliases) was “everywhere the same” among diverse Australian tribes. Over the following decades, Jesuit anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt described the theistic beliefs of primitive cultures around the world in encyclopedic detail. Schmidt’s argument has been ignored, patronized, and semantically deconstructed, but never, I think, disconfirmed, except in minor detail.

One source of difficulty in settling such issues is Western ignorance of Eastern languages. For this reason, Girardot’s informed discussion of the debate over the correct Chinese name for God, from the Jesuits to the modern academy, is quite helpful. As the Tai Zong emperor said when he encountered Nestorian Christianity: “The true Tao does not have a single invariable name.” The Zhou accepted the Shang term for God and combined it with their own to create imperial rituals that lasted (at the Temple of Heaven) until the twentieth century. Chinese Nestorians wrote of the “Mysterious Three in One,” “True Lord without Origin,” and “One Sacred Spirit.” Ming scientist Xu Guangqi, seeing himself as heir to theistic ancestors, referred to God by a variety of Chinese titles. The Kang Xi emperor used the Catholic term “Lord of Heaven” as a valid name for the God he worshiped in the Temple of Heaven.

Towards the end of his career, Legge sought the divine Logos in the writings of Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, and even Buddha. Girardot again expresses surprise. But here, too, Legge echoed the insight of such early Christian thinkers as Clement, who said that “Truth is one,” though torn in pieces by the sects. Christ thus not only joins cultures and eras, but schools. I suspect Legge understood this, though he often expressed the relationship between Christianity and Chinese religions in clumsy Victorian terms of “superiority” and “inferiority,” rather than fulfillment, integration, or even truth and error.

Several decades after Legge’s death, another cross-cultural anthologist, the great scholar Lin Yutang, wrote of his love of Confucius, Lao Zi, Buddha, and Zhuang Zi. Telling how he came back to Jesus through their teaching, he quoted a messianic epigram from the ascension of the legendary Emperor Xun: “Blow out the candles, the sun is risen.” By that he did not mean that Christ rendered the kindness, humility, and insight of Chinese sages superfluous, but that in Christ, the Tao found heavenly consummation. With that, James Legge would have heartily concurred.

David Marshall is founder of the Kuai Mu Institute for Christianity and World Cultures. He taught most recently at Siebold University in Nagasaki, has worked as a missionary in China, and is author of True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture .