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James Legge, Missionary and Scholar
Chapter IV. Hong Kong and the Chinese Classics


THUS it was that in 1843 Dr Legge removed to Hong Kong where he was destined, in the words of one who knew him 'to perform work which entitles him to everlasting remembrance.' A great scheme had already entered his mind, a stupendous scholarly undertaking which, for long years, he carried on at intervals snatched from his already crowded life. For his life was crowded. He continued to direct the studies of Chinese youths, he conducted the mission, went on missionary tours, preached and visited. He became in 1849 pastor to the English congregation of Union Chapel in Hong Kong, and he joined heart and soul in promoting public schemes for the good of the island. He proved himself, in fact, 'no obscure missionary', no mere oriental scholar, but a genuine statesman, who left the impress of his mind on the infant colony and the men who made it. He loved education, laboured for years to adapt it to the people and their needs; was practically the founder of the educational system of the colony; persuaded the Government to adopt his policy. As one who, though associated with him for years, was yet in some fundamental respects his very opposite, has said, 'He was the presiding spirit of the Board and ruled it with the ease and grace of a born Bishop.'

And yet he felt that more was demanded of him. For he found himself in a vast empire, a 'spacious seat of ancient civilisation' whose history reached back three thousand years to the time of the Emperor Yaou (2356 B.C.), and even claimed to extend into mists of antiquity before that. He had set himself to master the strange language of this strange people, and he saw further that they possessed a treasured literature, and were eminently a learned, or rather, a reading nation. In 1858 he went over the Examination Hall of Canton, at which the young men of Canton province assemble to compete for literary degrees. In that one building he counted no fewer than 7242 distinct cells or apartments for the accommodation of the students. To him that appealed as an indication of the educational spirit of the Chinese nation. 'It is true,' he said, 'that their civilisation is very different from ours, but they are far removed from barbarism. When we bear in mind that for four thousand years the people have been living and flourishing there, growing and increasing, that nations with some attributes perhaps of a higher character—the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, the Roman, and more modern empires, have all risen and culminated and decayed, and yet that the Chinese empire is still there with its four hundred millions of inhabitants, why, it is clear that there must be among the people certain moral and social principles of the greatest virtue and power/ He saw that' in no country is the admiration of scholastic excellence so developed as in China, no kingdom in the world where learning is so highly reverenced.'

He saw too that the manners and customs of the people were regulated to an unheard of extent by the precepts of their ancient books. He who would understand the Chinese nation, then, must know its classical literature. In Dr Legge's mind, consequently, there arose the conviction that 'he should not be able to consider himself qualified for the duties of his position until he had mastered the Classical Books of the Chinese, and had investigated for himself the whole field of thought through which the Sages of China had ranged.' Thus he began his life-long task, and studied the doctrines of Confucius and Mencius and the other classical books of China, until the results of his toil were gradually given to the world in his edition of the Chinese Classics, consisting of eight large volumes, each containing the Chinese text, an English translation, critical and exegetical notes, and copious prolegomena; also in six volumes in the series of Sacred Books of the East, edited by Professor Max Miiller, and in other smaller books. Certainly, ranged on a shelf, the noble row of Chinese Classics looks imposing enough; the examination of their contents reveals them as monuments of close scholarship.

The words of his nephew give a true picture of his work:—'In his zeal to do service to humanity he tried to enter into the heart and mind of Asia as far as the Chinese Classics contained it. He opened the door to the mind of China. It was the work of a pioneer; for he was among the first to recognise the place of Chinese Literature, and the need of bringing it to the knowledge of Christendom. And God was in a real and vivid way the sanctity, strength and abidingness of this bond of duty. For Dr Legge believed and was sure that the literature, to know which he lived laborious days and nights, revealed on its pages that the grey fathers of this race "knew God."

'The Empire of China has been famous for its Great Wall, scaling the precipices and topping the craggy hills of the country, and built to be a defence against the incursions of the northern tribes. It has failed of its intended purpose. So, that terribly solid wall of exclusiveness and environment of conservatism began to yield to foreign pressure. For long toilsome years, of which large spaces of time had to be given to studying the living book of the life of the Chinese, Dr Legge laboured at breaking down the circumvallations of language, ignorance and prejudice, which made so hard the approach to the mind of China. He measured himself against the Chinese standard of culture and education, as their self-contained wisdom has made it to be. He knew that the men whom China delighted to honour were the literati—the Confucian scholars, and so he went down into their own arena and wrestled with the ancient traditional and national literature of the Chinese.'

The magnitude of the task the author had set himself may be gathered from an extract from an article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in January 1895 on the Li SAo Poem. 'An idea of the size of many of these collections may be gained from the Explanations of the Classics during the CKing {or Pure) Dynasty, which was published in 1892 under x the superintendence, and mainly at the expense, of YUan Yuan, the Governor-General of the two Kwang provinces. It contains, if my examination of the contents be correct, about 180 treatises from 64 different authors, comprehending in all 1412 books or chapters, and forming, when bound in English fashion, 66 thick volumes of large octavo size.'

The author of the Li SAo Poem was Ch'ii P'ing, or Yuan, who ended his life by his own hand. Of this Dr Legge writes:—'Ch'ii's death, though it did not originate, has confirmed the feeling of the Chinese people generally that when a minister or high officer has sustained a defeat, or been disgraced by his sovereign, the proper course for him is to end his life by an act of his own. I was in Hong Kong when the city of Canton was taken, on December 29, 1857, by our troops and their French allies. A Chinese gentleman, with whom I was intimate, called on me next morning to ask whether the city had really been taken, and when told that it had been, and was now in our hands, he said, "And Yeh, the Governor? Has he also been taken?" I replied that there was as yet no news to that effect, and he exclaimed, "And he will not be taken alive, you may depend on it. He must have made away with himself. There can be no doubt about it." When the next day I had to inform him of the capture of Yeh, and that he had been placed on board one of our ships of war, he had not a word to say, and went away evidently disheartened and ashamed. I could see from that time Yeh's character sank in the estimation of the people. He ceased to be the hero whom they had feared and looked up to. Had he not been afraid to put an end by his own hand to his now dishonoured life? That is in their estimation what Burns, with a different meaning, calls "the second glorious part" which a patriot, warrior or statesman can perform.'

Dr Legge had brought out part of his work when the following paragraph appeared in a review:—' In the immense literature of China, nine works hold a lofty pre-eminence. One claims Confucius as its sole author, others bear traces of his hand. Their influence even at the present day is unbounded. A complete comprehension of them forms the sum total of the highest education in China. By a knowledge of them men rise to the highest rank of the State, and no official post, however mean, is open to him who has not studied their pages. They supply the keynote to the conduct of the government of the country, and form the criterion by which every action, whether public or private, is finally judged. To all thoughtful minds, works which have exercised so supreme a control over the intellects of the millions of China for three and twenty centuries cannot but be of very great interest. Of some of them translations of more or less value have from time to time appeared, but at the present day no uniform translations of the nine exist. On the completion of such a series, Dr Legge is now engaged.'

These nine Classics were finally all translated by Dr Legge.

(1) Thi Yi King, or Book of Changes.
(2) The Shoo King, or Book of History.
(3) The She King, or Book of Poetry.
(4) The Li Ki, or Book of Rites.
(5) The Chun Tsiu, Spring and Autumn Record.
(6) The Lun Yu, or Analects of Confucius.
(7) The Ta Hsio, or The Great Learning.
(8) The Chung Yung, or The Doctrine of the Mean.
(9) The Works of Mencius.

The Li Ki, or Book of Rites, is the book which may almost be said to 'possess' the Chinese nation: certain it is that it has with extraordinary force impressed itself upon the people. Consisting of treatises on the rules of propriety and ceremonial usages, it has regulated the actions, customs and regulations, social, ceremonial and domestic, of the Chinese, for over two thousand years, and its rules are minutely carried out at the present day. Indeed, the work of one of the governing boards at Peking, called the Board of Rites, relates solely to the enforcement of its precepts.

The Shoo King is the most ancient of all Chinese Classics, and is a collection of historical documents extending disconnectedly over a space of about 1700 years (2357-627 B.C). Confucius and his disciples quote from it. As Mr Wells Williams says, it contains the seeds of all things that are valuable in the estimation of the Chinese; it is at once the foundation of their political system, their history and their religious rites, the basis of their tactics, music and astronomy.'

The Chun Tsiu is the only classic Confucius is said to have actually composed. Dr Legge discusses at length the question of the Confucian authorship. As claiming to be the work of the sage it is singularly disappointing.

The Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean, written by disciples and followers of Confucius, are occupied much with his sayings; while the classic called the Works of Mencius is said to be by Mencius himself and some of his disciples.

The She King is a collection of ancient poems, some dating from 606 B.C., others being assigned to a period as far back as the eighteenth century B.C. 'The merit attaching to them is' Dr Legge writes, 'that they give us faithful pictures of what was good and what was bad in the political state of the country, and in the social, moral and religious habits of the people.'

The remaining classic must also be briefly alluded to, the Yi-King or Book of Changes, the most incomprehensible of them all. Even Confucius is reported to have said after reading his copy of it so diligently that the leathern thongs which bound its tablets together were thrice worn out, 'Give me several years (more), and I should be master of the Yi! From the time of Confucius onwards Chinese scholars have 'tried to interpret the remarkable book, and solve the many problems to which it gives rise.' Even a glance at the mysterious hexagrams, and their still more bewildering arrangement, shows how useless it is for anyone but a scholar to attempt to give an account of the book.

One reviewer wrote:—

'Scarcely anything more could be desired to place within the reach of an English reader, who does not know a word of Chinese, as full and correct a knowledge of the Book of Changes as he could get by many years' study of the original, and intercourse with native scholars. The mystic figures which adorn the volume stand at the head of each chapter of the text, and the sixty-four hexagrams appear in various tables and plates. These hexagrams are undoubtedly very old. The evidences of their antiquity are patent and convincing to anyone who chooses to look at them, but how old they are is beyond the power of men to determine.' Another reviewer speaks of the 'conjectural value of the calculations of astrology and magic in the Yi-King, and adds, 'so great is the veneration of the utility of the Yi-King\ that the trigrams and hexagrams in arithmetical or geometrical progression of this work were considered to be connected with interpretations that my Chinese informant considered to be absolutely beyond the comprehension of any European sinologist.'

In the paper already alluded to, Confucianism in Relation to Christianity, Dr Legge thus summed up the subject in regard to the relative value of the truths contained in the Classics, and those set forth in the Sacred Scriptures.

'In writing about Mencius in 1861, I said:—"Man, heathen man, a Gentile without the law, is still a law to himself. So the apostle Paul affirms; and to no moral teacher of Greece or Rome can we appeal for so grand an illustration of the averment as we find in Mencius." For Mencius let me here substitute Confucianism. All the members of the Conference know how Confucius failed to appreciate the sentiment, that we ought to return good for evil. What he did say about it indeed indicated no mean sentiment. That the highest point of Christian morality was, as it were, pushing its feelers backwards into Chinese society in the fifth and sixth century before our era was indeed wonderful, and we are sorry that the sage did not give it a welcome into his breast, and a place in his teachings. Most of the members also will probably sympathise with the judgment which I have expressed in the fifth volume of my Chinese Classics, about the passionless character of Confucius' notices of the events that he is chronicling, and the way in which he fails to discharge the duty of a truthful historian.

'How best to awaken in the Chinese a sense of sin, which is all-important to their acceptance of the doctrine of the Cross, it is not easy to determine. There is the saying in the Analects:—"He who offends against Heaven has none to whom he can pray," but is it not our common experience, that to the people in the mass, and perhaps still more to the scholars of the nation, there belongs a cold and unspiritual type of character? The prevailing secularism of Confucianism has made them very much of the earth, earthy. What can we do but unfold to them, with prayers and pains, what truth there is in Confucianism about God and His moral government, and about themselves, leading them on to the deeper, richer truth, about the same subjects in Christianity? Above all, we must set before them the testimony of Scripture about Christ and His redeeming work, knowing that it is by taking of the things of Christ and showing them to men, that the Holy Spirit convinces them of sin and righteousness and judgment'.

And then Professor Legge referred to a conversation he had recently with one of the ablest and most learned broad Churchmen in England, who complained that, though he approved of what the missionaries were doing, said that they might find a more excellent way than to 'dash too much into collision with the existing heathen religions, and speak too bitterly of their great teachers.'

He replied that his experience of missionaries compelled him to the conclusion that this was not the method generally pursued. But thinking much and long over the words of protest, he subsequently wrote:—

'Christianity cannot be tacked on to any heathen religion as its complement, nor can it absorb any into itself without great changes in it and additions to it Missionaries have not merely to reform, though it will be well for them to reform where and what they can ; they have to revolutionise; and as no revolution of a political kind can be effected without disturbance of existing conditions, so neither can a revolution of a people's religion be brought about without heat and excitement Confucianism is not antagonistic to Christianity, as Buddhism and Brahmanism are. It is not atheistic like the former, nor pantheistic like the latter. It is, however, a system whose issues are bounded by the East and by time; and though missionaries try to acknowledge what is good in it, and to use it as not abusing it, they cannot avoid sometimes seeming to pull down Confucius from his elevation. They cannot set forth the Gospel as the wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation, and proclaim the supreme love of God and of Christ, without deploring the want of any deep sense of sin, and of any glow of piety in the followers of the Chinese sage. Let them seek to go about their work everywhere— and I believe they can do so more easily in China than in other mission fields—in the Spirit of Christ, without striving or crying, with meekness and lowliness of heart Let no one think any labour too great to make himself familiar with the Confucian books. So shall missionaries in China come fully to understand the work they have to do; and the more they avoid driving their carriages rudely over the Master's grave, the more likely are they soon to see Jesus enthroned in His room in the hearts of the people.'

It is interesting to turn to the opinion of the learned Dr Edkins of Shanghai, who, in his sermon at the Union Church after Dr Legge's death, thus described the value of his monumental work.

'His object was to unfold the Chinese field of thought and reveal the foundation of the moral, social, and political life of the people. Such a great work is undertaken but rarely, perhaps not more than once in a century. In doing this he felt he was performing a real service to missionaries and other students of the Chinese language and literature. He thought, too, of the Western reader and thinker. China is a most important nation on account of the compactness of the national territory, the uniform rate of advance in population, and the industry which is a race-characteristic. To know what the book contains is to be in an advantageous position to judge of the people. Here the European statesman can see the nature of the people's standard of morals. The histories they read, their models of style, the ground of their conservatism can here be estimated.

'Even now, when James Legge is no longer among us, these volumes, the outcome of his long-continued toil, contain a rich store of facts by which the foreign observer in Europe and America can judge of China so correctly, because here are the maxims which are popular, here are the ideas that rule in the minds of the scholars and all the people. Here are the principles that sway every native coterie, through all the provinces. What the Bible is to the Christian; what Shakespeare is to the student of English poetry; what the Koran is to the Mohammedan, these books are to the universal Chinese mind. To place these books in the hands of all who look with despair on a page of Mencius or the Book of History is a service of the most solid kind, and an achievement of a most useful character. While he was engaged in this work he made it a point, from which he would not deviate, to regard direct missionary labours as demanding and receiving his chief attention.'

Though it is forestalling the chronology of the subject, it will be better here to give some consecutive account of the preparation of this great work.

As time allowed, Dr Legge had pushed on with his literary labours, until, as part of it neared completion, he asked himself, 'How can the expense of publication be met?' A British merchant in Hong Kong, Mr Joseph Jardine, came forward with an open-hearted offer of help. 'If you are prepared for the toil of the publication,' he said, 'I will bear the expense of it. We make our money in China, and we should be glad to assist in whatever promises to be of benefit to it' With gratitude Dr Legge accepted his help, and thus the first edition of Vol. I. of the Classics was brought out in Hong Kong in 1861. Mr Jardine had never forgotten the Chinese boatman's testimony to Dr Legge's knowledge of the language—'He speakee Chinese more better I.' Unfortunately Mr Joseph Jardine died before the publication of the first volume, but his brother, Sir Robert Jardine, liberally continued the assistance given by him until the second and third volumes had been published, and also during the preparation of the fourth and fifth volumes.

The first volume was published in 1861, and VoL II. came out in less than a year after. These were followed by Vol. III. (Parts I. and II.) in 1865. After an interval were published, in 1871, Vol. IV. (Parts I. and II.), and in 1872 Vol. V. (Parts I. and II.). Each 'Part' is a bound book, the whole set consisting of eight volumes.

There are several allusions to the work in Dr Legge's letters of later years in China:—

'I have brought to the work on the Classics a competent Chinese scholarship, the result of more than five-and-twenty years' toilsome study. Such a work was necessary in order that the rest of the world should really know this great Empire, and also that especially our missionary labours among the people should be conducted with sufficient intelligence, and so as to secure permanent results. I consider that it will greatly facilitate the labours of future missionaries that the entire books of Confucius should be published with a translation and notes.

'I have arranged, through the generosity of Mr Dent, that missionaries, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, can obtain my volumes at half price. (This was done till the amount of Mr Denf's gift was more than exhausted.)

'Julien has written me a fine letter about my volumes on the Shoo—very complimentary.' John Legge writes thus:—"I am not surprised that Julien pronounces your work on the Shoo 'magnifique.' It is so in deed and in truth, and I am truly proud of it. I am quite charmed with your conclusions on Yao, Shun, and Yii. They harmonise exactly with certain indistinct notions which have been floating in my mind for the past nine years."

'I will not have one idle day: not one day of health here in Hong Kong save Saturdays, perhaps, and Sundays, in which I shall not have made some appreciable progress in the preparation or publication of the She!

(To his wife) 'I have just finished re-writing my translation of the first part of the She King. There are four parts in all, but the first is much the longest —fully two-fifths of the whole. By the end of June I hope to have all the translation completed, and will write to England for the paper and ink wherewith to go to press. By the end of the year the Annotations will be ready, and I shall only have the Prolegomena to write. Having got on with the She King since nine o'clock this evening, I am in better spirits than I was all day. Notes, business, Chinese callers, took up all the time and I was thoroughly jaded and out of sorts. I went to the Tai-ping shan Chapel—Ho-Yuk-ts'un preached. I came home—down, down, down. Now it is different A good tale of work on the She always exhilarates me, and why? Simply because it seems to bring the period of our re-union nearer. ... I have a letter from Julien with a grand glorification.

'i have just finished a long ode in the She. My heart often shrinks within me when I think of all the labour to be done on this one work in hand. But page gets trotted off after page—it is just like ascending the Peak. If you stand at the bottom and dwell on the distance and the steepness of the ascent, the feet almost refuse to move. But gird up your loins and go at it: you pant and groan, but ere long the summit is attained. So if life and health be spared, I shall stand on top of the She, and by and by bring forth the headstone of the Yi with shoutings.

'I have just translated a Chinese ode in the She King—"Don't think of all your sorrows: Your mind will thereby be kept in an imperfect light"

'I have just succeeded in drawing blood from the body of the She King, and have written since breakfast the first two notes—on the Title of the Whole Work, and the Title of the Part. There is in existence a preface to the She, written about 2000 years ago. The writer gives his own view of the subject matter of every ode in the collection —307 in all. This I thought I had better translate and I find my equipment for my own labour on the book much increased by having done so. Certainly I am not doing my work in a superficial or perfunctory way.

'I want to do full justice to my work on the Chinese Classics. Probably out of 100 readers 99 will not care a bit for the long critical notes; but then the hundredth man will come, who will not find them to be a bit too long. For that hundredth man I ought to write.

'The Japanese Government have ordered ten copies of my Classics. Sir Harry Parkes writes this, and goes on to sound me about going to Japan and becoming Principal of a college which the Government would start if I would undertake it. The time is past, however, for that!

'Mr Chalmers writes to me:—"I am getting more and more convinced of the immense importance to us missionaries of the work you are engaged in. We must use the Chinese Classics as a fulcrum to the Christian level, and to most of us they are not sufficiently available in their native state. I would have a clause introduced into the Regulations of all Missionary Societies that a missionary is not to stand up to preach on any subject without first endeavouring to find out what certain Chinese poets or philosophers may have said about it or bearing on it"

*By the end of next year the She King ought to be out. We have printed 380 pages, but the expense is heavy, about 105 dollars a month—including 20 dollars to Dr Wong, my native assistant. Sometimes I grudge keeping him on, as a whole week may pass without my needing to refer to him. But then again, an occasion occurs when he is worth a great deal to me, and when I have got the Prolegomena fairly in hand, he will be of much use. None but a first-rate native scholar would be of any value to me, and here I could not get anyone comparable to him. But for this expenditure I should have had money in hand at the year's end, instead of having to sell shares.'

'Six hundred and forty-eight pages of the She are now printed, and this work must lie by till I get the index and prolegomena ready. In the meantime the printers have got the Spring and Autumn, or Confucius' Annals of Loo, in hand, which cost me fifteen months' hard work. Very few people, however, have an idea of the immense amount of labour which it takes to bring out one of these Classics. A Chinese lad once sent me a letter beginning—"I know the assiduity of your nature." And assiduity certainly has an important place in my mental constitution.'

Scholars at home, working in Oxford, Cambridge or London, might have congratulated themselves sometimes on their own freedom from certain exasperating checks and annoyances attendant on Dr Legge's literary labours. The printing office being under his control, he had to superintend the publication and binding of his works, and to send to England for paper, printing ink, etc. Among his minor worries was the fact that the volumes of the Classics had to come out in different bindings. Uniformity of binding could not be secured because materials were scanty in Hong Kong. Also, owing to the lack of English booksellers, he had to get the storekeepers to sell the Classics on commission among their other wares.

On one occasion the ship containing all his printing paper and ink struck upon a rock and went down within sight of her anchorage in Hong Kong harbour. Her masts, sticking up above the sea, were visible from his verandah.

'It gave me quite a turn. My first thought was that the fates were fighting against my getting on with the publication of my volumes. I have since been able to look the event in the face. There must be some delay in the commencement of printing, but I shall be so much more advanced with my manuscripts that we can start with five men instead of three. I had engaged Sow-lung and two other men to begin printing on the first of June. If he begins now in November or December with four other men we shall be in six months nearly as far as we should have been. In the meantime I telegraph by the mail "Replace invoice immediately, sending one half by Suez Canal and one half round Cape." This will divide the risk.'

After printing the books in Hong Kong he had to write to England for cases to be sent out in which to pack them and send them to England to his bookseller. 'Four hundred cases for one volume ought to be here any day, and four hundred for the other volume next month. Those cases will cost me about fifty pounds.'

Another time certain cases of books, necessary to him in his work, arrived after having been for a long time under water in the hold. 'I insured them for 250—I shall claim for at least 80. Meantime the ruin of many books and the spoiling of others is a great vexation.' He sent several of his books to a friend to sell in Amoy, and received the following letter.—'Alas for your Classics. Macgregor delivered them in the condition he got them out of the wreck. I had them put in the sun and thoroughly dried, but I could not offer them to subscribers. The mould has got into the inside, and even if rebound they will never be sightly. It is a sad loss.'

Among Dr Legge's papers were found several bundles of letters from Professor Stanislas Julien, all beautifully written, full of Chinese quotations and often with delicate slips of Chinese printing gummed in. They bore out Dr Legge's remark to his wife. Julien is a most voluminous correspondent. His letters to me bristle with compliments.' On his last journey home and out again, Dr Legge stopped in Paris and saw him. He writes of the first visit:— 'I have seen Julien and MohL The former is a stoutish, nervous old man—a Frenchman of the French, with a large head, long hair, and a short neck, lion-like. He received me with much empressementy and we exchanged ideas on various Chinese subjects. Yet I fancied we acted like a couple of prize-fighters, who come together in the ring for the first time and take the measure of each other's strength and prowess. Mohl is another of the literary celebrities of Paris. He came to London to see me nine years ago. I found him much older-looking.'

Of the second visit he says :—'I called on Julien. The old man was very gracious.' Is not he a fine specimen of a French gentleman and a scholar?' remarked Mr Hart. 'He is indeed, physically and mentally, a noble specimen of the genus homo. I was ready to smile when in French fashion he kissed me first on one cheek and then on the other.'


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