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An Excerpt from “Protestant Missionaries in China” by Jonathan A. Seitz

With a focus on Robert Morrison, Protestant Missionaries in China evaluates the role of nineteenth-century British missionaries in the early development of the cross-cultural relationship between China and the English-speaking world. Author Jonathan A. Seitz proposes that, despite the limitations imposed by the orientalism impulse of the era, Morrison and his fellow missionaries were instrumental in creating a new map of cross-cultural engagement that would evolve, ultimately, into modern sinology.

Robert Morrison’s mythic arrival in China in 1807 is often seen as the birth of English sinology, the start of Protestant China missions, and the beginnings of a Protestant Chinese church. Morrison was sent by the London Missionary Society, one of several new missionary societies. The Baptist Missionary Society, London Missionary Society, and Church Missionary Society were founded in 1792, 1795, and 1799, so the occupation of professional missionary was a relatively new one. Soon joined by William Milne (1785-1822), this dyad saw the completion of a large volume of work. By the time Morrison died in 1834, they had translated the Bible and also produced a huge output of material, including journals, the first English-Chinese dictionary, tracts and religious materials, a children’s book, and sermons. This first generation is a fascinating one, because missionaries went from possessing fairly little knowledge on China, primarily texts inherited from their Catholic predecessors and word-of-mouth shared by immigrants in England, to having created a basic structure that future missionaries and sinologists would follow.

Furthermore, this took place during a uniquely fragile period in Anglo-Chinese relationships. The period discussed here is often seen as a gap period in sinology, after the prohibition on Catholicism surrounding the Rites Controversy and before the start of the Opium Wars. Benjamin Elman, the famous contemporary sinologist speaks of a “gap” between 1780 and 1840. Other scholars have also spoken of this as the cusp of a “great divergence” as China was displaced in the world system, or as an “imperial twilight” when the Chinese empire began a decline against the rising British empire. This period, roughly circa 1800, is a turning point in Sino-Western encounter. This “gap” period is also largely a gap for Chinese Protestantism; there are a handful of converts but no regular worshipping church. Hancock calls this “the birth of Chinese Protestantism,” and this period indeed saw the creation of a small community of Christians, some of whom would play a major role in the years ahead. Still, the infant Protestant church of the early LMS was transitory and unstable and the mission was essentially rebooted in Hong Kong after the Opium Wars. For many Catholics, worship life continued uninterrupted, and yet there was also a real loss in the separation from Rome. This gap period was one of creativity, competition, and rediscovery, buttressed by trade and global exchange.

This chapter introduces the theme of Morrison and missionary sinology in several ways. While not a biography, we first turn to an overview of Morrison and the team that was at the core of his work—his close collaboration with William Milne and a series of notable Chinese coworkers. This section also looks at the role of the LMS, which nurtured most of the major sinological projects of the first generation. This chapter also discusses what it means to speak of sinology in the early missionary movement. How were the Morrison projects similar to or different from those of new contemporaries? Who else in the west was trying to understand China or had fashioned themselves as China experts? What did it mean to know China?

Morrison-Era Sinology

The London Missionary Society was the first society to create a major China mission. This study focuses on the missionary dyad that began the LMS China mission: Robert Morrison, the pioneer, and William Milne, his close follower and collaborator. Together, the two began missions in Canton and Malacca, while also helping to identify future missions in Penang and Hong Kong. Macao was off-limits because of sectarian and national disputes. (Morrison was quickly employed by the British East India Company; Milne initially sought residency in Macao, but the Catholic colony rejected the request of Milne for occupancy there).

Writing on this period follows several lines. Because the missionaries are still read into an ecclesiastical history, they have been the subject of regular if infrequent biographies. Some were written simply out of a love the subject, for instance Robert Philip’s early (1840) biography of Milne or Marshall Broomhall’s Robert Morrison: A Master-Builder (1927). Others have been timed to coincide with commemorations, including Lindsay Ride’s Robert Morrison: The Scholar and the Man on the sesquicentennial (1957), and Su Jing’s Zhongguo Kai Men! (2005) and Christopher Hancock’s Robert Morrison and the Birth of Chinese Protestantism (2008) around the bicentennial. There are also a range of reports, encyclopedia entries, and short biographical articles which have described Morrison. Institutional studies (Harrison, Kitzan, O’Sullivan, Paquette, Rubinstein) have been popular. Another line of study has been the printing press, with a notable early study by Alexander Wylie and recent studies by Su Jing. The earliest source, during Morrison’s own lifetime, was probably Milne’s A Retrospect of the First Ten Years of the Protestant Mission to China.

It may also be helpful to say something about “firsts.” Morrison and Milne are chosen not because they are the only or best of their generation, but because they were the first. Other figures that merit similar attention certainly include near-contemporaries such as Karl Gützlaff, Walter Henry Medhurst, and Elijah Bridgman. These figures all deserve further study, and “early Protestant sinology” might also quite reasonably include the work of others in the British government or writing about China. The Serampore Mission competed for firsts, with Johannes Lassar and Joshua Marshman, the main English contemporary-competitor in the work to create a Protestant Chinese Church. Adding these figures would easily quadruple the material available, stretch the study by another decade or two. Morrison and Milne and their hybrid writing provide a snapshot that gives one body of work. In 2007, bicentennials in England, the US, and China celebrated and discussed Morrison’s arrival in China, and for good and ill the first often present an image against which later portraits are compared.

(excerpted from chapter 1)

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