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Sinologists spread Chinese classic to world through translation and imitation

LI HAIYING | 2018-12-27 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Foreigners dressed in the Han costume chant the Three Character Classic in front of the Hall of Great Achievements at the Confucius Temple in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Photo: FILE


As an important introductory literacy textbook for children, the Three Character Classic, or San Zi Jing in Chinese pinyin and San Tzu Ching in the Wade-Giles romanization system, played an extremely particular role in the knowledge system of the Chinese people after the Song Dynasty.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Western Sinologists showed intense interest in the classic. They actively translated it, drew upon the text and created adapted works, leaving an indelible mark on its history and the development of new versions. Especially in the late Qing Dynasty and afterwards, a great number of translations, imitative writings and editions for the blind and the elderly emerged. The versions undertaken by Westerners not only have high academic value, but also provide a lens for reviewing history.


Numerous translations
According to the documents available, Italian Jesuit Michael Ruggieri was the first European to translate the Three Character Classic. He started to translate it into Latin in 1581 and then sent the translation back to Italy. Thereafter Italian Sinologist and Catholic priest Angelo Zottoli included the classic in the second volume of the five-volume work Chinese Literature Course, or Cursus Litteraturae Sinicae, which he compiled.

Based on the preface of the 1910 English translation by Herbert Giles, the Three Character Classic in the Chinese Literature Course was published in 1879, roughly 300 years after Ruggieri’s translation effort. Since very few people have ever seen Ruggieri’s translation, it is unknown whether the two versions are inherently related.

Russian and English versions appeared afterwards. Russian Sinologist Illarion Kalinovich Rossokhin contributed a Russian version, followed by Aleksei Leontevich Leontev. Among Russian translations, the most influential one was completed by renowned Sinologist Nikita Bichurin. In Russia at that time, Bichurin’s translation of the Three Character Classic became a popular text and handbook for Russians reading translations from Chinese.

There were diverse English translations. Translators’ countries were mostly English-speaking. There were five English-only versions without Chinese cross-reference. The first English-only translation was done by British Protestant missionary Robert Morrison who published the English work Horae Sinicae: Translations from the Popular Literature of the Chinese that included the Three Character Classic in London in 1812.

American Elijah Coleman Bridgman published an English Three Character Classic in the fourth volume of the third issue of the periodical Chinese Repository, which he chaired, in July 1835. Later English-only editions included the 1856 translation by Rev. Solomon Malan published in London, the 1873 translation by Giles and the 1892 work by Ernst Johann Eitel, both published in Shanghai. Of the five English-only translations, Eitel’s was most used for teaching. Some scholars regarded it too simple to be valuable.

Apart from English-only translations, there were Chinese-English bilingual texts. Chronologically, the first was from Jenkins, published in 1860 in London. The second was the Annotation to the Three Character Classic by Chauncey Goodrich published in 1865. Third came the translation by French Sinologist Stanislas Aignan Julien featuring Chinese, Latin and English, published in Paris in 1864 and reprinted in 1872. And fourth was the 1910 translation by Giles. As for the Giles translation, German Sinologist Paul Georg Von Mollendorff documented it as “without Chinese cross-reference,” but it actually had what was likely a revision of the 1873 English-only edition’s.

Of the existing four Chinese-English bilingual versions, Giles’s 1910 work was the most academically significant. In the preface, Giles elaborated on how the translation of the text evolved in Europe, and he listed six translations, including Bridgman’s 1835 translation, Julien’s 1864 work, Giles’s own 1873 and 1910 versions, Zottoli’s 1879 Latin translation and Eitel’s 1892 translation.

In addition, Giles included six Chinese supplements by such scholars as Wang Xiang and He Xingsi. He noted that Zottoli and Eitel failed to translate the content supplemented by Wang Xiang. Giles was quite familiar with the circulation of the primer in China and the West as well as the supplementary content during the Ming and Qing dynasties. He was a “Three Character Classic hand” among Western Sinologists at the time.

In terms of German translation, the one completed by prominent German Sinologist Richard Wilhelm was first published on pages 169–175 of the second issue of the periodical The Far East in 1902. It was republished in the weekly newspaper Deutsch-Asiatische Warte the next year, with the content supplemented.

Generally, most Sinologists’ English translations were made in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Translators came from different countries, such as Britain, France and America. At least four Western languages were adopted, namely Latin, Russian, English and German. There were two Latin translations, two Russian translations, nine English translations and one German translation.


Imitative writings
The concise and lucid Three Character Classic suits both refined and popular tastes, easy to pronounce and memorize. Developed by scholars in the long course of history, it carries unparalleled cultural significance in both form and content. Western Sinologists in the Ming and Qing dynasties were clear about its value.

For example, Morrison of Great Britain held that the Three Character Classic was the best among all children’s primers. American missionary William Milne also spoke highly of the text, stressing that he educated his children at home using the Chinese classic. Because of the wide recognition of the work as an exemplar of children’s primers, British Sinologist Walter Henry Medhurst created a Christian imitative work based on the text. While those foreign-language translations of the Three Character Classic were used to introduce China to the West, the imitative writing by Medhurst represented a deliberate attempt to borrow Chinese primers to supplement his missionary aims.

Following Medhurst’s easy-to-read imitative work, other imitations of the Three Character Classic mushroomed across Western countries and were used to propagate Christian doctrines. For example, the Harvard-Yenching Library housed many varieties of Christian imitations. They have been microfilmed and widely spread. Currently Yale University also has a collection of such works.

The contents of the collection at the Harvard-Yenching Library show that there are at least 12 editions of Christian imitative writing. The Christian imitations of the Three Character Classic first appeared as children’s primers, but later became universal among the general public. They were popular for a period of time yet were gradually considered an inappropriate instrument for spreading Christianity. Prestigious American historian John King Fairbank said that they were after all incomparable to the original.


Braille edition
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the edition of the Three Character Classic for the blind and the elderly completed by William Hill Murray, a missionary of the Scottish Bible Society, distinguished itself from all translations by Western Sinologists. It embodies not only Westerners’ strong identification with the Chinese classic, but also their wish to enlighten the people of the late Qing Dynasty.

Murray came to China in 1870. As he walked around to distribute the Bible, he engaged extensively with Chinese blind people. The experiences of this disadvantaged group touched him so much that the idea of creating a Braille edition for them occurred to him. After trial and error, Chinese Braille was finalized around 1879. It was the first Braille in Chinese history. Murray used the Braille to compile literacy textbooks for Chinese blind people and to create the Braille edition of the Three Character Classic, probably also around 1879.

The translation, imitation and promotion of the Three Character Classic by Western Sinologists in the Ming and Qing dynasties enriched and diversified the traditional Chinese children’s primer, mirroring the spread of the work to the West and the world during the period, especially the late Qing era. These Sinologists at the time also helped popularize the text among vulnerable groups in China.


Li Haiying is a professor from the School of Chinese Language and Literature at Shandong Normal University.

​(edited by CHEN MIRONG)