Circulating Gospel tracts in long 19th-century China: Proselytism Overturned – Alice Decouvelaere

Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary who reached China, at work, translating the first Bible into Chinese. Printing Industry of Chengdu.
Eliza Morrison, 1830s

Clocks, maps, musical instruments, religious paintings, scientific books and telescopes… Colourful images of princely gifts come to mind when thinking about the presents offered to Emperor Wanli (1563-1620) by the Jesuits when they reached China in the second half of the sixteenth century.[1] Chosen to display the superiority of European countries and the ingenuity of Western thinkers, such presents aimed at drawing the Emperor and his court towards Catholicism, by linking Christianity to progress. They also operated as means of informal (imperial) influence. But what did Protestant missionaries bring when they reached the shores of China two and a half centuries later? The failure of the Macartney Embassy (1793), and the apparent lack of interest of the Chinese court in the presents brought by the first British mission to China seemed to show that the trust of the Chinese Emperors would no longer be gained by gifts.[2] Moreover, with travel being costly, missionaries could only take with them the few belongings which were necessary to upholding their faith and to maintaining a lifestyle somewhat similar to what they had known in their home countries. Rather than attempting to convert the country through its elite — which had forbidden the practice of Christianity in China —, missionaries targeted lower classes, in the hope that Christianity would then spread to the top of the system. Rare and expensive gifts were replaced by the diffusion of tracts throughout the country. The culture of the printing press had always been dear to Protestants, especially in their evangelising enterprise. But the use of tracts and various printed materials, that Protestants regularly used on a massive scale, exceeded common measure in China[3].

            The origin of what became the biggest Protestant printing industry abroad is rooted in the Chinese political context of the early nineteenth century. The Canton System (1757-1842), which controlled trade with the West by confining all exchanges to the southern port of Canton, made it impossible for Protestant missionaries to enter the country. Contrary to Catholic missionaries who already had a network of converts and would disguise themselves to reach remote areas, Protestant missionaries needed another way to spread their beliefs. Hence, they turned to printing and found different ways to smuggle their writings into the country. The Bible, which the first Protestant missionary to China, Robert Morrison (1782-1834) had translated into Chinese, was printed on a large scale. However, missionaries soon turned exclusively to tracts, and sometimes journals, because they were easier to hide and smuggle. Such a method was particularly adapted to the Chinese missionary field. Indeed, contrary to most countries in which Christian missionaries worked in the early nineteenth century, a majority of the population was literate enough to read what was written on the tracts[4]. Moreover, despite the profusion of local idioms and spoken dialects in China, written Chinese remained the same in every part of the country. It was however dangerous to print these tracts in Canton or Macao, where most of the missionaries resided. The latter thus turned to peripheral places such as Singapore or Malacca and set up printing houses there. When missionaries were allowed to enter the country as a result of the Treaty of Nanjing (1842) and of the Beijing Convention (1860), they continued to resort to tracts to spread their message. This led to the creation of a profusion of ecumenical literary societies, set in different parts of China, which provided Protestant missionaries with evangelising material.

            It is difficult to assess the exact number of Christian tracts smuggled into China by Protestant missionaries. However, the vehement reaction of their Catholic rivals testifies to the intensity of their endeavour. Catholic missionaries generally accused them of defaming God’s written words by oversimplifying the Christian message and highlighted what they presented as the useless nature of their enterprise. In 1825, a Lazarist priest, called Jean Pupier went as far as writing to his superior in Paris: ‘I myself have heard of a Chinese express his gratitude at being furnished by the Bible Society with paper for a use I dare not specify’, before adding ‘How many houses are there (…) in which the interior partitions as well as the ceiling are papered with pages from dozens and dozens of Bibles’.[5] Such an assertion might have been caused by the rivalry between Catholic and Protestant missionaries on the mission field. However, it might also remind readers of The Good Earth (1931), a novel written by American writer Pearl Buck, who was herself the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries.[6] In this novel, the main character Wang Lu takes a tract handed out by a missionary. Wang Lu looks at the drawing of the crucifixion and concludes that Jesus Christ was certainly a crook who deserved to be put to death. He then uses the tract to repair his shoes. This questions gift-giving and what may be an appropriate gift selection. Thinking in terms of what the sociologist Marcel Mauss called the social contract of the gift (based on the triadic paradigm giving, receiving, reciprocating), the present situation qualifies as a miscounter. The misunderstanding over the nature of the gift results in what the giver (and expected readers) identifies as a misuse of the gift. The gift is thus immediately adulterated and loses its quality as gift for Wang Lu, who fails to reciprocate. The anecdote is also a way for write Pearl Buck to question the tract-giving strategy not only as one which is inoperative, but as one which is a one-way imperialistic move.

            At another level, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth also raises another question, that of the translation of Christian concepts into Chinese. Indeed, as Protestant missionaries from different societies began ordering tracts, they found it very difficult to agree on the translation of central concepts such as ‘God’. Protestants lacked a unifying centralised source of authority, like the Pope for the Catholics. The problem remained unsolved and each denomination went on using a different translation. Printers from the main printing houses thus left blank the spaces where God was mentioned in the tracts and Bibles which they pre-printed. They would then fill the blank spaces with the translation asked by the society placing the order.

            However, one could argue that it was not so much the translation of theological concepts but the way they were presented in tracts which could lead to the distortion of the Christian message. The emergence of the so-called Taiping movement in 1850 is a case in point. Their emblematic leader, Hong Xiuquan (1813-1863) was first acquainted with Christian theology through a series of Christian tracts. Although he then studied for a few weeks with Issachar Roberts, a Baptist missionary working in Canton, most of his understanding of Christianity came from the tracts he gathered throughout the country. The deistic system he created for the Taipings was deeply anchored in the Christian tradition. Hong Xiuquan used a series of Christian concepts such as the Golden Rule, the Trinity and a series of biblical passages, but he rewrote them in order to legitimise his rule.[7] He thus presented himself as Jesus’s younger brother and the fourth person of the Trinity and one of his lieutenants was cast as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, Hong Xiuquan chose the use of tracts to spread his message throughout the country, thus demonstrating his belief in the efficiency of tracts, which had contributed to his own ‘conversion’. The use of tracts inspired other sects such as the Vegetarians or the White Lotus sects, which in their turn resorted to tracts. This contributed to the spread of the anti-Christian feeling in China, which would eventually reach its climax with the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901).

            By no means, did missionaries technically bring the invention of the printing technology to China — it is generally seen as one of the four great inventions of Ancient China. They did however greatly contribute to the rise of Chinese modern printing, without this being their main aim. While it is difficult to assess the real impact of such a development on the diffusion of the Christian message, it could be argued that the advent of the printing industry by Protestant missionaries led to the emergence of a new episteme. Indeed, one could argue that, with the development of modern printing in China, ideas started being spread in a non-vertical way, which contravened the traditional Confucian top-down social order and went along the structural transformations underwent by late nineteenth-century Chinese society. Paradoxically, this side-impact of the Protestant missionary tract-giving enterprise served a different cause than originally envisaged (as no less that the gift of Christianity). Indeed, the reappropriation and resignifying of Protestant missionary tract-giving probably had its main impact after Protestant missionaries were expelled from China, that is when the modern printing industry became one of the preferred weapons of the Chinese Communist Party, thus serving a very different cause than European proselytism.

[1] David E. Mungello, The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

[2] ‘The Macartney embassy: gifts exchanged between George III and the Qianlong Emperor. An eighteenth century diplomatic mission yielded exquisite gifts’”, Royal Collection Trust, Accessed on 26/10/2021.

[3] José M. Braga, The Beginning of Printing at Macao. Lisbonne: STVDIA, 1963, pp. 59-60.

[4] John H. Ritson, ‘Christian Literature in the Mission Field’, International Review of Mission, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1915, 204.

[5] Jean Pupier to J. A. Dubois, Annales de la propagation de la foi, III (1830-1831), June 16, 1825, p. 47, in Peter W. FAY, ‘The Protestant Mission and the Opium War’, Pacific Historical Review, May, Vol. 40, No. 2, 1971, 151.

[6] Pearl Buck, The Good Earth. New York: John Day, 1931, p. 102.

[7] Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan.  New York : W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, 12-13.