A Scotsman in China

Dr Legge and his three Chinese students

On Sept. 28, at Simon Fraser University, Professor Marilyn Bowman will share the story of James Legge, a 19th century Scotsman who set off to China as a missionary and not only ended up living there for nearly thirty years, but also translated the Chinese classics into English, allowing millions more people to learn and enjoy the rich culture of the region.

Born in the small town of Huntly, Scotland, James Legge was raised about as far away from China as possible. It would seem unlikely that a young boy in the western reaches of Europe would become enamoured with the culture and language of the Far East, but that is what happened when he received a gift from a friend.

“A friend of his family had been a missionary to China,” says Bowman, a professor of psychology. “He sent back a couple of Chinese books, and young James was fascinated by the very different paper and the strange markings that he couldn’t understand.”

Legge grew up to become a talented scholar, and after college he realized that he was fascinated with the Chinese language and culture. Wanting to learn more, he set out as a missionary, but for three years he had to stay in Melaka, Malaysia, as China at the time was closed to foreigners. This, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Legge decided to use that time to begin an extremely ambitious project. He recognized that if the Europeans who were arriving in the area had a grasp of the local stories, morals and philosophies, it would make communication easier.

“He decided to translate all of the Chinese classics so that the missionaries who came out there could learn the local stories, traditions and culture,” says Bowman

Exotic exploits

Marilyn Bowman, Professor Emerita, Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University. | Photo courtesy of Marilyn Bowman

Three years after he arrived in Asia, the Treaty of Nanking was signed, which ended the First Opium War between Britain and China and gave Hong Kong to Britain. Legge moved to the now-British controlled island, still working on his translations and much more.

“He founded schools, congregations, started a seminary,” says Bowman. “He helped create the modern public school system in Hong Kong and founded and was headmaster of a local college.”

After the Treaty of Nanking, Hong Kong soon became a thriving business centre, so many Chinese citizens poured onto the island from Canton to set up shop. This gave Legge the opportunity to both work as a missionary but also to continue learning everything that he could from the local population.

“He understood that it was a two-way street,” says Bowman. “Both sides were finding things out and learning from each other.”

Legge’s first volume of translations was finally published nearly 20 years after he began working on it, to great interest from both missionaries and local officials. He later returned to the UK, where he became the first professor of Chinese at Oxford.

A happy coincidence

When asked how she became interested in Legge’s story, Bowman says that it was actually a happy accident.

“I was researching Chinese history, trying to find out when the very first mental ability [IQ] test occurred, when I found a book that had a series of translations with Chinese on the top of the pages, English in the middle third and detailed notes in a multitude of languages at the bottom,” says Bowman.

She became curious and discovered that there were a total of eight volumes of the translations, and the more she learned about Legge, the more fascinated she became.

“He lived quite an amazing life,” says Bowman. “He went to a strange country with a minimal grasp of the language and did so much. And though the translations are fabulous, there were also all types of events happening around him. The Taiping rebellions, opium wars. He took in a Qing scholar fleeing from the government. He survived a mass poisoning, foiled a bank robbery. He lived quite an amazing life.”

Through all of those dangerous and exciting events, Legge managed to translate and share so many of China’s stories for the first time, giving people all over the world the chance to learn about China’s vibrant culture.

“The world is so interconnected,” says Bowman. “And I think that we all need to appreciate that cultures have different ways of thinking about things. The more we know about different cultures, the better chance we have of living peacefully together.”

For more information, please visit www.sfu.ca/davidlamcentre