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James Legge


James Legge, born in 1815 near Huntly, Scotland, served as a missionary to China in the mid nineteenth century and later became a world-renowned sinologist. He excelled in academics during his formative years; with noteworthy skill in Latin and quick memorization, he quickly advanced past his peers. Legge developed a tendency to wake early, often using the extra time to study. He later graduated from King’s College in Aberdeen with High Honors and in 1835 earned a Master of Divinity from the same college, along with several prestigious awards. Legge joined the London Missionary Society in 1838.

After several miscommunications, a few failed-but-retracted doctor recommendations, and a marriage, the Society sent Legge to its Malacca outpost in 1840. The Anglo-Chinese College, of which Legge became Principal, had a unique strategy to handle the language barrier. Rather than learn each Chinese language to preach themselves, Legge’s predecessors thought it more sustainable to teach native Chinese preachers English. Eventually these preachers could access English language resources and return to their region to preach with native fluency.

The mission relocated to Hong Kong in 1842 following the Treaty of Nanking and the accompanying transfer of the island to Britain. Legge began translating the Chinese Classics into English almost immediately upon arrival, such that missionaries could better understand the culture they wished to reach. He taught students and directly discipled some, with one later being significant.   

The Taiping Connection

Western missionaries greatly influenced Hong Xiuquan, a peasant tutor who began an uprising called the Taiping Rebellion. Xiuquan claimed divine authority; he saw in a dream his brother, Jesus Christ, and his father, the Christian God. He traveled and built a resistance to the Qing dynasty, and among his followers was his cousin, Hong Regnan. He led a small force in battle, but ended in failure; his flight ended with safety in Hong Kong at the mission. Regnan grew in his English language ability and later assisted Legge with translation of several Chinese classics. Regnan spent these years isolated from his cousin, Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping regime. During this time Legge found that Regnan’s “literary attainments were respectable; his temper amiable and genial; his mind was characterized by a versatility unusual in a Chinaman,” and that eventually his “knowledge of Christian doctrine was largely increased,” such that ”the sincerity of his attachment to it there could be no doubt,” leading ultimately that “over young men his influence was peculiarly beneficial.”

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Xiuquan began publishing pamphlets and declaratory statements in Chinese, which the Mission quickly translated into English. They were dismayed at what they read: Xiuquan claimed continuing revelation from God, equivalence with Christ, and a variety of other heterodox teachings. Legge strongly discouraged Regnan from joining the rebel forces, preferring that he continue with Legge in the various translation projects yet undertaken. In 1859 Regnan managed to return to his cousin Xiuquan, who promoted him to (essentially) Prime Minister of the Taiping regime.

Attitudes and Criticism

Beginning in 1858, Legge encountered criticism from fellow missionaries along the Chinese coast who felt his views too sympathetic to Confucism. The missions board instructed Legge to include in his translations footnotes condemning eastern ideas, but Legge decided to only include footnotes that compared and contrasted viewpoints. He wrote that he “must say that it was unnecessary thus to school me” in the customs of translation, given his past experience in the field. The controversy centered around Legge’s lack of harsh categories for the Chinese – i.e., pagan and inferior – leading later into his most shocking claim yet: Christians and Chinese each worshipped a supreme God from ancient times. Legge never claimed these deities as one, and his statements belong in comparative religion, not declarative truth; nevertheless, his peers did not understand.

legge image book

Western missionaries to China have a reputation for thinking themselves superior to the Chinese. Educated westerners saw the Chinese as materialistic; the Chinese saw western missionaries as just another aspect of foreign intervention. Justified or not, this reputation fed into wider anti-foreigner views among the Chinese, especially following the First Opium War.

Legge marks a deviation from the stereotype. A colleague of Legge wrote that, although “[Europeans in general] all conveyed Western culture to China,” Legge chose to “make known to the West the essence and nicety of the Chinese Classics.” More so, while the Bible had not been fully translated into even one full Chinese dialectical language, Legge, the most highly respected and skilled translator in the field, chose instead to translate Confucius into English, to the ire of his colleagues. Legge, unlike any of his colleagues, took caution in accepting applications for baptism; he did not pressure his academic students to become Christian. He thought the route to true belief was difficult and that quick conversions and baptisms would cheapen the process. “We are in no hurry to baptise our candidates”, and instead boasted that two good students were “labouring away at Euclid.” He implies that a study of geometry, rather than theology, many benefit his students the most.

For an example of Legge’s respect for the Chinese, note that he said, while settling a case of persecution:

“If news comes that I have been murdered, go at once to the English consul and tell him that it is my wish that no English gunboat should be sent up the river to punish the people for my death.”

Further, he criticized his government’s [Britain’s] policies on opium, expressing respect for China’s policy positions to improve public health. His concern for public health probably came from direct contact with Chinese opium addicts, whom he tried to reform according to his Christian faith.

Oxford and Death

By 1865 his own health began to decrease. While still living in Hong Kong, a peer wrote that

“The immensity of his programme is shown by the fact that while taking his full share of the teaching and administration of the College, Legge filled the pulpit at the Union Chapel and discharged the pastor’s duties amongst all the families, he visited jails and military hospitals regularly in the role of Chaplain, he was an indefatigable worker in almost every aspect of the social services so badly needed in the busy port of expanding Hong Kong; in addition to all that, he took a leading part in developing the policy of the Government regarding the education of the local Chinese.”

The decline in health was gradual, as Legge still remained in China until 1873, when he returned to Scotland in an attempt to retire. However, upon arrival in the West, he discovered that an international scholarly reputation had preceded him home.

Oxford University took note of Legge and quickly developed a position for him, the Chair of Chinese Literature and Language. At the time, Oxford only hired Oxford-educated faculty, so after some academic trickery involving an honorary diploma, illegitimate matriculation and string-pulling from the Vice-Chancellor, Legge gained the position. He continued to teach and translate until his death in 1897.

Unlike some other specific faculty members, he took his teaching duties seriously, though the number of students was pitifully small (sometimes no more than three or four). On many occasions he lectured on Chinese literature to the wider student body, several such lectures later being published and included in the wider sinological corpus for the time.

His health quickly deteriorated in November of 1897, and he passed on the 29th of a stroke. His body was entombed in the cemetery at Oxford.

legge image tombston

At the funeral service the Principal of Oxford make remarks that echoed Legge’s sentiments largely, if not entirely:

“he was sent Eastwards, to the oldest of living civilizations, and he studied it with an eye made luminous by love. For if ever man love a people, James Legge loved the Chinese, and he could not bear to see them do wrong or suffer it. He saw that English ignorance was as invincible and as mischievous as Chinese exclusiveness.”

In all

Legge published dozens of works, most notably the English translations of the Chinese Classics and his lectures on Chinese culture and language. History remembers him, if sometimes not enough, for his scholarly accomplishments, his intermediate temperament and his lifelong persistence while on mission.

Conferred With and Works Cited

[Because of this medium, I cannot include in-essay citations. Nonetheless, here are works to consult for documentation.]

Adrian A. Bennett, “Encyclopedia of Asian History, Volume 2,” Reed Business Information
Center, 1988.

Marilyn Laura Bowman, “James Legge and the Confucian Classics: Brilliant Scot in the turmoil of colonial Hong Kong,” Simon Fraser University Press, 2015.

Thomas P. Dolan, “Berkshire Encyclopedia of China,” Berkshire Publishing, 2009.

Kenneth Scott Latourette, “A history of Christian missions in China,” Macmillan Press, 1929.

John Rapp, “Clashing Dilemmas: Hong Rengan, Issachar Roberts, and a Taiping “Murder”
Mystery,” Journal of Historical Biography, 2008.

Lindsay Ride, “Biographical Note,” from the introduction to James Legge’s “The Chinese Classics,” SMC Publishing, Inc.,1949.

Alexander Wylie, “Memorials of Protestant missionaries to the Chinese,” American Presbyterian Missions Press, 1867.