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James Legge, Missionary and Scholar
Chapter III. Life at Malacca


MALACCA, one of the Straits Settlements, is a British possession, ceded by the Dutch to Britain in 1824. Here an Anglo-Chinese College had been erected, the project in the first instance of Dr Robert Morrison (1782-1834), the first missionary to China in 1807, and finally established mainly through his exertions. Of this College James Legge became Principal in 1840. He had first of all to labour strenuously to perfect himself In the Chinese language; he superintended the printing press which was attached to the College; he had under his charge about forty-five Chinese lads and young men whom he taught daily, and he carried on, in the house and by the way, in preaching and in services, the work of a missionary. To the youths under his care he gave special devotion, for it was at Malacca that his convictions as to the best way of carrying on missionary work among the Chinese were formed, as is shown in a letter written from the College in 1843:—

'He will prove the most efficient labourer who shall raise up workers from among Chinese young men—men who are able to teach others also. The more the subject occupies my mind, the more do I feel convinced that the great work must be done by native teachers—men speaking to their countrymen as brother to brother, full of zeal, discretion, and disinterestedness. And how are these to be trained up? That will be a work of great delicacy and difficulty. Such youths must on the one hand be pervaded with the idea that they have a great work to do, and yet must their preparation for it be made so that they shall not be puffed up. Lessons of self-denial, simplicity, entire consecration to one object, and spirituality of mind, must be inculcated upon them at once by precept and. example.

'Without such men the work cannot be done. What were the old Nestorian missionaries to China compared with modern Protestant ones? Not a tithe so civilised, not half so learned, not more devoted in spirit. To what, then, was their greater success owing? To this, I believe: that they were natives of the East, operating on their own countrymen, or upon others, in everything but religion, on a par and of a hue with themselves.'

In a word, it was James Legge's cherished conviction that English missionaries should seek to train up Chinamen themselves to be teachers and evangelists to their countrymen.

The following letter to his brother John, written barely three months after his arrival at Malacca, speaks not only of the strain of study and of his personal anxieties, but exhibits also his natural buoyancy of spirit, and shows, too, that he still retained his childish interest in birds:—

' Malacca, March 31, 1840.

'1 have just had a severe illness, which confined me to my bedroom for nearly a fortnight. In this climate one requires to be more careful than in Scotland. Everything is painfully rapid in its growth. The jungle which is cut down to-day will be flourishing in a month with all the pomp of barbarous luxuriance; the man who rises in health, before evening may be stretched a blackening corpse. I had been studying hard, too hard for the climate— I was obliged to call in the doctor. It was nearly too late. A missionary—and, above all others, a missionary to the Chinese—stands in imminent danger during the first years of his labour of losing fervency and spirituality. The difficulty, intensity, and engrossment of the studies to which he is compelled, fag and exhaust the mind. To all persons illness is an evil, but to the missionary, situated as I am, it is attended with circumstances of peculiar distress. There was my dear Mary, so young; the prospect of death was not half so painful as of leaving her a stranger in a strange land, separated both from her own friends and mine by the intervention of 12,000 miles of ocean. But when the horizon clears, and the danger is past, then comes a joy in the heart, an almost choking swell of gratitude. The hollow rushing of the waves sounds like music, the note of every bird as if it were the voice of an angel, and at morning and night the wind comes repeatedly upon you as if it passed over and bore with it all the perfumes of Paradise.

'The box will probably reach you in the course of five or six months. It contains, besides the birds I spoke of, two nests of the "tailor-bird." One of them, indeed, can hardly be called a nest, but only a watch-tower and defence from the sun and rain in which the male bird sits, while the female is hatching in the other. I got them one day when I walked out several miles into the country. There were trees from which they hung in great numbers.

'My illness has thrown me somewhat back with the language, but I have to commence my active labours next Sabbath. The work is immense and arduous beyond conception, but it is God's work.'

Another letter, to his brother John, gives a more complete picture of his day's work and the many things that crowded upon him. It is strange to hear so calm a worker for God speak of 'fuming and fretting.'

'Malacca, Oct. 3,1842.

'I commence with a large sheet, because I feel that a long letter is due to you. Day treads upon day, and week chases after week, while I am fuming and fretting and labouring amid a press of multifarious business—having, in truth, six muckle Feersdays every week, and can only send regrets instead of epistles across the sea.

'I have lately, however, got rid of one branch of labour—English and Malay printing—having sent the printing-press and its appurtenances to Singapore, where there are three brethren, and two of them endowed with a much larger share of mechanical genius than I possess. Singapore has thirty times the European, and twenty times the Chinese, population of Malacca, so that it is the proper situation for the press, a mighty engine for good where it is properly served and can be brought to bear.

'My principal labour is in my school, where I have about thirty boys from ten to sixteen years of age, and four young men. I am much pleased with the attention and progress of many of them. My maxim is to communicate ideas to them, to call their faculties into exercise, and to make them teach themselves just as they feed themselves, it being my task to furnish them with the appropriate nourishment. But teaching—a hard task anywhere—is much more difficult here than with you. The boys come to me totally unfurnished with ideas on which any knowledge can be built. But they are more tractable than English boys, wanting, indeed, their strength of character. I trust a work of God has begun in three or four, and that He will perfect it in due time.

'I purposely devote myself a great deal to teaching, because it seems to me that that in a higher walk than at present will be a chief business of my life among the Chinese. This institution will probably remain my care, not here, but established in Hong Kong on a noble basis, and if the plans now before the directors—not emanating from me singly, but taken up from my suggestion in adaption to the present circumstances of China by long residents there, and most strongly recommended—are acted upon, I doubt not but that it will become to Jehovah for a name and a praise and a glory. It is proposed to incorporate it with a society now in operation there, and to remove it from Malacca as soon as possible.

'It will be my task more to train them in theology and Biblical science—to make them under God scribes well instructed for the kingdom of heaven.'

An account of part of this work is found in notes relating to one of his pupils. Ho-tsun-sheen entered the Anglo-Chinese College in 1840. His father was a blockcutter and printer at the College Printing Press. He was over twenty years of age and was an advanced Chinese student, familiar with the Classical Books. Owing to his poverty he had accepted employment in a druggist's shop at Calcutta, and while there had learned English and attended classes at Bishop's College. For three years James Legge educated him in western knowledge, especially in history, general and ecclesiastical, read with him the Scriptures and various works on theology, and also taught him both Greek and Hebrew, being astonished at his progress in those languages. Before the end of 1842 he could read fluently both the Old and New Testaments in the original, and he attempted with success composition in Hebrew. His enthusiasm was boundless—he would travel—he would see the world —he would intermeddle with all science. But the ancient Chinese precept of filial obedience obliged him, after much hesitation, to return to China in 1843 and marry the girl to whom he had been betrothed as a child. With her he lived happily in Hong Kong until his death, taking great pains in teaching her. He did not, however, part from James Legge who, as will be hereafter told, also removed to Hong Kong in 1843, but begged to be retained in the service of the mission and employed as a preacher of the Gospel to his countrymen. On account of his remarkable capacity and his knowledge of English, several tempting offers were made to him to take service under Government, or in mercantile houses, but his decision stood firm, although the salary the mission could give him was not a fifth of what invited his acceptance from other quarters.

It was about this time (1841) that Dr Legge began his work in Chinese Christian Literature. Almost from the very first he became a correspondent and valuable adviser of the Religious Tract Society, and for years acted as honorary secretary of the Hong Kong Auxiliary. For the British and Foreign Bible Society he cherished like affection and rendered good aid. His first letter, which appears in the R.T.S. Report, is as follows; and it will be seen that his friend Ho-tsun-sheen was his helper in the very earliest attempts at Christian literature for South China.

'At present the Malacca station is better able to produce tracts that will be both acceptable and useful than at any former period. There is now here a missionary expressly devoted to labour among the Malays, and possessed of an intimate acquaintance with their language and habits. There is likewise residing with me a Chinaman, who for more than three years has maintained a very honourable profession of the gospel, and who is extremely well calculated to be useful among his brethren, whether in the way of direct preaching and personal intercourse, or of writing tracts. There is a danger, on the one hand, that tracts written by European missionaries be not sufficiently correct and idiomatic in their style to command attention, or even fully to convey the meaning. There is danger, on the other hand, that natives, if people of learning, from a foolish veneration for a classical style, will produce tracts unintelligible to the generality; or if they do not err on this point, they are likely to fail in conveying 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.' But into neither of these errors do I conceive that we are likely to fall in Malacca. The Chinaman to whom I refer, Ho-tsun-sheen, has a very exact and extensive knowledge of English; his knowledge of Hebrew also is very remarkable, and of Greek sufficient to enable him to consult the original with advantage. He may be safely depended upon, therefore, fully and faithfully to convey the truth as it is in Jesus. And it is the native mind, purified and expanded by Divine grace, that must act, in order to secure the results we hope and pray for upon the mass of immortal spirits held in the fetters of ignorance, prejudice and sin.'

Again in 1843 the R.T.S. Report says:—

'From Malacca information has been received from the Rev. Dr Legge that he had drawn 100, placed at his disposal for the publication of Chinese tracts. He states that "several small works have been prepared by learned and Christian natives, in a style and with an adaptation very superior to anything which has yet been produced in the Chinese Mission."

Ho-tsun-sheen, after he became associated in the charge of the Chinese Church, manifested powers of preaching and exposition which Dr Legge asserted he had never heard surpassed. One evening, preaching to a crowded church, every seat being occupied and many people standing, he took for his subject the story of Job. Very few of his hearers had ever heard of Job, and he dramatised to them the trials of the patriarch with an overmastering spell. When he described Job taking a potsherd to scrape himself, he stooped down as if to pick one up, and Dr Legge, standing in the crowd, was recalled to self-consciousness by finding his own hands in contact with the tiles of the floor. Looking round, he saw that scores of the congregation were also bent double, feeling on the ground, completely carried away by the preacher's words. On another occasion, Ho-tsun-sheen, in preaching from Psalm cxxxix. 14, was setting forth the marvellous construction of the human hand, contrasting it with the corresponding organ in one animal and another, when many of the people could not restrain the expression of their delight. 'Look at him, look at him' cried one man. 'Hear him,' responded another 'there never was anything like this.'

A practice introduced by Dr Legge proved most effectual. Services were held three times a week, the labour being divided between himself and Tsun-sheen. To meet the case of the great majority of the Chinese, ignorant of the facts of Scripture, several hundred copies of the text were printed beforehand with an outline of the sermon. The whole was contained on a single page, and being distributed among the hearers, enabled them to follow the discourse more easily. Thus tens of thousands of these leaves became circulated, not only in Hong Kong, but in the adjacent districts of China itself.

After twenty-one years of intercourse with Ho-tsun-sheen, Dr Legge, in a letter written in 1861, alludes to him thus—'He is indeed a help: through him my ideas and desires are continually passing into multitudes of his countrymen.'

One summer, cholera raged in Malacca. A friend, staying with Dr Legge, hurried away one evening in terror of infection, but had only reached a farmhouse six miles off, when the disease attacked him, and he scribbled a note to Dr Legge 'Send me a doctor.' The native who should have brought it, being afraid of the dark, waited until dawn. When it did arrive, James Legge and a doctor drove over at once, but the man must have died as they entered the house, for when the doctor opened a vein in his arm a few drops flowed. 'Get on to the bed and turn him over' cried the doctor, 'he may not be quite dead'. He obeyed at once but fainted away as he did so. His poor friend had been lying unattended all night When he came to, he found himself on the floor beneath an open window, the doctor standing over him puffing at a large cigar which he thrust between James Legge's lips with the words 'Smoke that, and don't say a word to Mrs Legge about this morning for a fortnight'.

Ho-tsun-sheen again appears in the 1842 Report of the Religious Tract Society, and here it is again in connection with the outbreak of cholera referred to. The Missionary writes: 'My mind was deeply affected by the various devices employed by the Chinese, to secure themselves from the cholera, and drive it from their dwellings. The people must have expended many thousands of dollars, in their various processions, and sacrifices, and schemes, to 'expel the demon.' I addressed them on the subject of this devil, of whom they were ignorantly afraid, and called them to turn to that great and good Being of whose merciful dispensation even judgment forms a part. I sent the letter to all the Chinamen of note in Malacca, besides distributing a large number in the bazaars. I ascertained that it was read by many with good attention.

'This attempt I endeavoured to follow up a few weeks after, on occasion of one of their most celebrated feasts—that of the tombs. At this festival all the householders proceed, with their families, early in the morning, to a hill in the vicinity of Malacca, occupied by the Chinese as a burying ground, and which constitutes, in reality, a magnificent necropolis. They sweep a tomb clean, pluck up all the grass about it, then standing in a semi-circle round the grave, with the head of the family fronting the tomb, pay their adoration.

'I told my faithful friend and assistant, Ho-tsun-sheen, two days before the festival, to prepare an address to his countrymen on the subject. This he did in a very practical and effective style; and having printed it in the form of a sheet tract, I proceeded with him to the hill, between four and five o'clock. The tract was very readily received by the people, and it produced a greater sensation than anything has done in Malacca for a long time.'

On another occasion Dr Legge heard that a Chinaman had been seized with confluent smallpox, and that no one, either Chinese or Malay, would venture near him. At once he went, shut himself up for days alone with the man, carried in the food which was placed outside at a distance, and nursed him back to convalescence.

A curious fact of natural history came under his observation in Malacca. At the request of several families he and Mrs Legge gave a home for some months to a young Dutch girl, a granddaughter of the first Dutch governor of the Straits Settlements. She had several pearls of which the Dutch residents were great collectors, got from oysters found in a river of the Malay Peninsula. When she left them she gave Mrs Legge a small box containing a large pearl the size of a pea, with a blue spot on it, and two others not so large. This box was then put away and locked up. Several weeks later he took it out and on opening it discovered more than a dozen pearls, most of them very small. Astonished at the phenomenon he called his chief servant, a Portuguese, who happened to enter the room and who expressed no surprise but declared it to be a common occurrence. On enquiry he found that many of the Dutch people had jars of pearls, large and small, which had accumulated in this way. Some years later he related the incident at dinner on board ship. The captain was a cautious Highlander and said nothing, but two years after, meeting James Legge in Hong Kong he came up to him with the words, 'It's true, Doctor,' 'What is true?' 'What you told us about the pearls.' He added that he had disbelieved the story at the time, but had investigated the matter on his voyages between China and Calcutta. Nearly forty years after, a letter was published in the Times asserting the same thing, and provoked a good deal of correspondence.

In 1842, when the war between England and China was drawing to a close, James Legge wrote from Malacca: 'Last week the news came that the preliminaries of peace had been agreed upon between the Plenipotentiary and the Commissioners from the Emperor. I had them translated into Chinese and posted upon the walls, to the no small excitement of the people. Most of them seem quite pleased with the idea of free commerce. How important an event is the throwing open of China to European intercourse and enterprise. This treaty is the lifting up the scene for a mighty drama.'

The Directors of the London Missionary Society, on receiving intelligence of the treaty with China, resolved to remove the Anglo-Chinese College with the large Printing Office and Chinese Type Foundry from Malacca to the newly-ceded island of Hong Kong.

He thus writes in reference to the removal, in a letter to the Secretary of the Religious Tract Society, a letter which again breathes the noble spirit which he ever maintained throughout his long life.

'It is with peculiar feelings that I have been engaged in taking the necessary steps to effect the removal of the property belonging to the Tract and other societies. It is true that to move from Malacca to Hong-Kong is a great step in advance—a long march nearer to the seat where Satan has enthroned his power; and so far there is reason for joy in the movement. On the other hand, however, it is a sad reflection, that while a mission has been established here for a quarter of a century, by which hundreds of Testaments and thousands of Tracts, have freely been distributed, the mass of the people should remain as much addicted to their superstitions and idols as if the servants of God had never been among them.

'With sorrow, therefore, as well as gladness, am I preparing to move this mission to another scene. Hong Kong and China itself are certainly more promising fields for missionary labour than the settlements in the Straits; and I trust that ere another quarter of a century elapses, many a little spot will have been walled round by grace in China, and that the seed which has been here and elsewhere so widely scattered, will be found to bear an abundant harvest to the Lord.'

With characteristic energy, James Legge had longed to transport himself to the heart of the Celestial Empire, as we see by a letter from J. R. Morrison, who was in the Civil Service, and who was aiding two Chinese converts, Kew-a-Gong and another, after Dr Robert Morrison's death, in Christian work. Mr J. R. Morrison also helped in the revision of Dr Robert Morrison's Chinese New Testament

'Nanking, Sept. 11, 1843.

'Your scheme for removal to Nanking or rather Peking is, my dear friend, too imaginative. No, we must establish ourselves on British ground, and Hong Kong as I have said before is the place. Make up your mind, then, to Hong Kong; hasten, my dear Legge, to make your arrangements for settling there.

'Your letter reached me at Nanking, a place far greater for its name and its antiquities (the Porcelain Pagoda and the Tomb of the Ming dynasty's founder being the greatest we have seen) than from its present condition and appearance. In size, extent of walls, I mean, it is a wonderful place, from 15 to 20 miles round. A good hope we have now of being able to do good to this people. Come and give us a little of your life, my dear Legge. Come and share our love and affection.'


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