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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 show:—

'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 empyrean."'

'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 Shang Ti),
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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