James Legge, Missionary and Scholar
Chapter VI. The Term Question
THE discussion on the 'Term
Question' had already arisen, and into this Dr Legge threw himself with the
fervour of a man fighting for what his conscience holds to be the truth. It
was, as one had said,' the longest and the most embittered controversy in
which he was ever engaged, a controversy with certain missionaries who did
not think of the root ideas of the old Chinese religion as he did. Nominally
it related to the question whether they had any word that could be used to
translate the idea of God: really and substantially it concerned whether
they had any idea of God at all. And he maintained they had.'
Briefly, it arose in this
way. In 1843 fifteen Protestant missionaries met together in Hong Kong to
consider the then state of the Chinese versions of the Bible. It was
resolved to 'submit all that had hitherto been done to a committee for the
purpose of being thoroughly revised.'
The work of revising was
divided into parts, and allotted to missionaries at the various stations in
China. When the whole of the New Testament had been revised, each station
selected one or more of its most experienced men to act as Delegates and be
the judges as to the propriety of each version. Difficulty arose as to the
choice of the right term to be used for 'God.' Some proposed the term 'Shin'
while others held that the proper rendering should be 'Shang-Ti'or ' Ti.' Dr
Legge produced in 1852, a volume bearing on the subject entitled The Notions
of the Chinese concerning God and Spirits. He held strongly that 'Shang-Ti'
or'Ti' is the proper equivalent in Chinese for the word God. His arguments
cannot here be more than slightly touched upon. In a letter written in 1852
he writes:— 'My opponent allows me the credit of proving that the Chinese do
possess the knowledge of God, that they ascribe the making of the heavens
and the earth to a personal, independent and intelligent being. But then he
says "this being is called Shin." The fact is, this being is called "a
Shin." There are passages where the subordination of the Shin as a class to
Shang-Ti is clearly taught, and where even their creation is asserted. Jews,
Mohammedans, the Chinese themselves, tell us that as a class the "Shin" are
created beings; what follows, but that to call the Chinese to worship Shin
is to "change the glory of God into a lie."'
Already in 1851 Dr Legge had
written to a friend:—'That argument is a weary work. Never did wight work
harder for money or fame than I do at it, and yet it will bring me neither.
If it serve the cause of the Gospel in China, I shall be abundantly
overpaid. I met yesterday with a sentence—"All spirits (shin) and men are
made by Ti as their Potter." This completes the evidence. The shin have been
called the servants of Ti—here they are his creatures.'
How strongly feeling ran on
the subject, the following letter from a friend, written in 1850, will
'My dear Legge,
'You can be of good service
in revising the sheets of our translation which I will do my utmost to have
forwarded regularly to you. Your labours in this controversy are not ended.
My dear Legge, gird on your armour again. Go to it. The enemy has waxed more
impudent, for I can't use any more fitting expression. If that were all, you
had better treat them as children. But it is not the missionaries of this
generation that you are to work for. It is the future upon which your work
will tell—future missionaries—the future Church in China. May God help and
bless you in it'
Even thirty years later, in
1880, the embers of the controversy flared up again. A letter, addressed to
Professor Max Miiller, and signed 'Inquirer,' appeared in the Chinese
Recorder and Missionary Journal for May-June 1880. Dr Legge replied to it in
a published letter addressed also to Professor Max Miiller. In it he
says—'To show how baseless is "Inquirer's" contention that when the Chinese
speak of Heaven or worship Heaven, whatever else may be in their minds,
there is always the idea of the visible firmament'.
'I will give a few passages
from a series of prayers which the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty addressed to
Hwang Thien Shang Ti in the year 1538. It will be well to give the first
prayer entire. 'Of old, in the beginning, there was the great chaos, without
shape and dark. The five elements had not begun to revolve, nor the two
lights to shine. In the midst thereof there existed neither form nor sound.
Thou, O spiritual Sovereign, earnest forth in Thy presidency and first didst
divide the grosser parts from the purer. Thou madest Heaven, Thou madest
earth, Thou madest man. All things, with their reproducing power, got their
being. Thou hast vouchsafed, O Ti, to hear us, for Thou regardest us as our
Father. As a Potter hast Thou made all living things. Thy sovereign goodness
is infinite. Great and small are curtained round (by Thee from harm).'
'Still more express is the
language of another prayer which I will also give entire. "When Ti, the
Lord, had so decreed, He called into existence the Three Powers. Between
(Heaven and Earth) He separately disposed men and things, all overspread by
the heavens. I, His unworthy servant, beg His (favouring) decree to
enlighten me His minister; so may I for ever appear before Him in the
'The Chinese word for w
Heaven is "Thien." Inquirer says, "I maintain that they worship the visible
heaven, regarding it as a god pervaded by a powerful intelligent spirit
which exercises supreme control or rule in China. Heaven is supposed to be
pervaded by an intelligent and powerful spirit. This is the Divinity of the
Chinese. The visible object is as much a part of it as the body is a part of
the compound being man, or the image is a part of an idol god. Thien,
Heaven, is the proper name of the chief god of the Chinese."'
Dr Legge's view, in
opposition to Inquirer, is that 'Thien' is the name by which they speak of
the one Supreme Being over all, and that when they use the name in this way,
they do not think of the material heavens at all. He quotes the words of
Yang Fu, one of the great scholars of the Sung period: 'Heaven and Ti
indicate one Being. The stars and constellations are not Heaven (in this
sense). Heaven must by no means be sought for in what is visible. In what
does he who seeks for Heaven in material appearances differ from a person
who knows that a man has a body, colour, and form, but does not recognise
the honourable sovereign mind?' Dr Legge goes on to say: 'When I read how
Confucius, deploring that he was not appreciated and understood by men,
added, "But there is Heaven, it knows me"; am I to receive with patience the
assertion that he did not in the same way mean God?'
Further, in reference to
Inquirer's assertion, 'The visible heaven deified, is the chief god of the
Chinese,' Dr Legge asks, 'How is this deification of heaven declared? Before
it took place there must have been the idea of deity in the minds of the
worshippers? What was their name for that idea? By what process of speech
was the ceremony (so to speak) of deification carried through? I do not find
in his letter that Inquirer put such questions to himself. My answers to
them are: The name for the idea of deity was "Ti," the process of
deification was by styling Heaven "Ti," and intensifying the title by the
addition of "Shang" into "Shang Ti." He substantiates his answer by the
authority of Khang I, the most renowned Chinese scholar of our eleventh
century, whom even Chu Hsi in the century after, called his master.
Commenting on the remarkable lines in a poem of the eighth century B.C.:
There is the great God (Hwang
Does He hate anyone?
Chu Hsi says: "Shang Ti is
the Spirit of Heaven. As Khang I says: 'With reference to its form, we speak
of Heaven ; with reference to its lordship and rule, we speak of Ti"'
Dr Legge continues: 'How does
the idea of God first arise in the human mind? How did it become the
practise, universal perhaps, certainly not confined to China, to use the
name of the visible sky in the sense of God? The Chinese fathers used it so,
having the conviction that above and beyond the sky, there was a lord and
ruler to whose government they and all beings and things were subject, and
as a personal appellation for him they used the name Ti. Ti does not mean
"lord and ruler." It is the honourable designation of one who is such. These
names are but the expansion of the idea in it. Ti means God.' In a note to
this passage, he says: 'While writing these pages I was interrupted by a
visit from two of the gentlemen belonging to the Chinese Legation in London,
the Charge D'Affaires in the absence of the Marquis Tsang on the continent,
and one of the interpreters. I asked them their opinion about the meaning of
"Thien" and "Shang Ti." The Charge quoted Chu Hsi's account of Shang Ti as
the Spirit of Heaven. The interpreter said, "If I may express my humble
opinion, you in England say 'God,' we in China say 'Shang Ti' There is no
difference. God is Shang Ti, Shang Ti is God."'
But Dr Legge hated
disputation: towards the end of this pamphlet he says that the recollection
of that controversy in China comes to him as if it had been a long-enduring
nightmare. It may be added that Professor Max Miiller expressed his
agreement with Dr Legge's view. A letter to Dr Legge from a friend, written
in the latter part of 1880, contains this passage:—'I am delighted to see
Max Mullens verdict, though I fully expected it. As your paper answers the
arguments of the only champion worth speaking of which the "Shinites" now
possess, I trust it will put an end to all further serious controversy.'
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