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James Legge, Missionary and Scholar
Chapter V. Life in Hong Kong

TWO letters, written by Dr Legge soon after his arrival in Hong Kong, give a glimpse of struggle and straitening.

'Hong Kong, Nov. 13, 1843.

I have not been able to save a farthing, nor do I see that I shall ever be able to do so. And yet there were months together, in Malacca, when we had only a little rice and some boiled or fried fish for dinner. I can only do what I can—make every effort to make ends meet—give my children a good education and leave them an unstained name. The missionary, who will simply walk within the line of his proper duty, can save money only in very peculiar circumstances.'

iJune 17, 1844.

'Our expenses in removing from Malacca to Hong Kong have been very considerable, and here they have been very heavy, principally on account of so much sickness; and our losses have not been small. I bought a goat in Malacca for 12 dollars, just before I left, to give us milk on the voyage. She and her kid died soon after our arrival here, because we had no proper place to shelter them in. When Mary fell ill and we were about to remove into a house of our own, I bought a Chinese cow and her calf for 30 dollars; the calf died soon after in a small, damp, new-built place, the only place we had for them. The cow as a consequence—they are not like cows trained at home—ran dry immediately, and I changed her for another cow and calf, giving 12 dollars in addition. That calf died in the same way, and now a mutchkin of milk a day would cost nearly six dollars a month, but we do the best we can to drink our tea without any.'

Their early days in Hong Kong were also disturbed owing to the unsettled state of the island.

One night they were awakened by an attack of Chinese burglars. A number of them collected outside and threatened to force their way in and plunder the house unless money were handed out to them. Dr Legge replied, 'If you break in, it will cost at least two of you your lives,' and thrust the barrel of his rifle through the Venetian blinds. For about half an hour the burglars walked round and round the house, trying every door and window. Unable to effect an entrance, they went up the hill a little distance, made a bonfire of every combustible they could collect, danced round it, and went away. A week or two before, a large band of robbers had broken into a house across the street. One of the occupants succeeded in getting to the Police Station and giving the alarm. Half a dozen policemen went up with guns and found the burglars in possession of the plate-chest, several having already run off with booty to the shore where the boat was lying in which they had come from the other side of the harbour. The chief policeman ordered his men to fire. Dr Legge, being awakened by the shots, came across from his own house to find a scene of confusion, with the leader of the burglars bleeding to death on the floor.

Hong Kong, Feb. 25,1844.

*1 am very happy in my work. I opened a new chapel in the heart of the Chinese population in January which is attended in a very encouraging way. A-fat, the first Chinese Protestant convert, is labouring with me. I have plenty of work too in visiting the Chinese. This is a most interesting department of missionary labour and a most difficult one. It requires an easy address which I sadly want, and much tact—much acquaintance with human nature, and consistency of Christian character. By and by, I hope to see a flourishing school and a Theological Seminary, with an Institute for native girls, all flourishing here. My hands will be full.'

Hong Kong, Oct. 25,1844.

'I have been ill with fever and brought very low. For two days it seemed that my work in time was done. I was bid to look more directly in the face of eternity than I had done before. But, oh, how little satisfaction did the contemplation of my past life give. I trust I have received an impulse from this last dealing of God with me that will not cease with my life. A sincere, simple, watchful, humble, devoted missionary's career must and will be my aim. God has brought every member of our mission through the furnace during the first year of our labours in China, and I trust it will be seen that we have all been refined.'

Recovering from this illness he resumed work. The following letter shows the uncertainty of communication with the East at this time.

Hong Kong, April 8, 1845.

'My Dear John,

'Since I last wrote I have received William's letter of October and yours of the 27th of September. The former came to hand nearly a month before the other—the vessel which was bringing the September mail having been wrecked on the coast of Java. As my command of the language increases, so do my engagements. Nearly every day I spend two hours at least visiting, distributing tracts, and talking till my tongue is really tired. I expect ere long there will be a large gathering of the natives round us. Two of my old pupils followed me up last month from Malacca.'

Here is an idyllic picture which falls into the year 1845, just a little before his compulsory visit home on account of health. Those who knew Dr Legge, can so well picture him sitting in the alcove.

'Last month I paid a visit to Canton, and was exceedingly struck with the opportunities for missionary labour which that populous city affords. I am convinced that any amount of work can be carried on in it, with ordinary prudence. I took with me 3000 copies of two-sheet tracts upon the ten commandments, 2500 of which were distributed in six days. A Chinese merchant took a friend and myself one day an excursion, to visit some celebrated flower-gardens, about three miles up the river from the factories. It happened to be the day for visitors, and the walks were crowded. On my suggesting to my native friend, that I should like to distribute some tracts among the people, and speak to them about the doctrines of Jesus, he at once bestirred himself, and circulated the intelligence throughout the gardens. I sat down in a small portico, at a corner of one of the walks, while the people passed along in files in front of it, each individual receiving a tract, and collecting, every now and then, into companies of from thirty to fifty, to hear it explained. In this way 500 tracts were distributed. It was an interesting fact to reflect, that five hundred immortal beings had that morning, for the first time, learned their duty to their Maker, and heard of One who came from heaven to earth to seek and to save them. May the seed that was thus sown be found after many days!'

In 1845, however, Dr Legge was obliged, after long and severe attacks of fever, to return to England with his wife and two daughters. He was also accompanied by three of his Chinese pupils.

Hong Kong, Nov. 18,1845.

'Our luggage is all on board the Duke of Portland and we are likely to sail to-morrow. It is with much reluctance that I quit this post. Just as the machinery requisite to effective operations in our work has been completed through my labours, and a course of action has been commenced which bids fair to be crowned with no ordinary success, I am called to put off my armour and retire. But if the experience of the last six years has taught me anything, it is these two lessons—that God will be all in all, and that there is in the human mind such a tendency to self-exaltation, self-confidence, that we ought to welcome any dispensation of Providence, however afflictive and mysterious, by which it is repressed.

'It is with much pleasure I hail the quiet months of the voyage. Oh, the luxury of unbending the mind after six years of unusual tension. I have had no repose—no rest since I left home. You know I am bringing home three Chinese boys with me. They must just go to school as other boys. The principal object is that they get hold of the English, so as to be able to read it with intelligence and to speak it'

These three lads in due time returned to the East and maintained there a Christian character and reputation. One of them, Song Hoot Kiam, filled for many years the responsible post of chief cashier of the P. and O. Company at their station of Singapore. In 1890, when Dr Legge's second son visited Singapore, he received much hospitality from him. Song Hoot Kiam still spoke English perfectly, and was only too delighted to see and entertain his old friend, Dr Legge's son.

The two years at home restored the missionary to vigour, though then, as ever, idleness was to him unknown. Indeed, the holiday of a missionary meant to him little but hard labour. He travelled here, there and everywhere, preaching and addressing meetings.

Dunfermline, Nov. 6, 1846.

'I preached three times in Stirling on Sabbath and had a public meeting next day. On Tuesday morning a long walk round Stirling Castle, anything more magnificent I have never enjoyed. In the afternoon a beautiful sail down the Forth to Alloa and a meeting there in the evening as good as could be expected on a tempestuous night in Scotland. Yesterday we came on here: a meeting of spirit and productiveness last night. In half an hour we drive to Inverkeithing for a meeting there. All the day I have enjoyed myself exceedingly. My lodging is with Professor MacMichael of the Relief Church. A delightful stroll over all the ruins and antiquities of this place. I have stood on St Margaret's shrine, upon the Bruce's grave, and under the shade of an upshoot from the root of the tree that Wallace planted on his mother's grave. A mavis and half a dozen chaffinches were pluming themselves among the branches; a rich inheritance in nature and in the associations of history.'

From a fainting by H. Room.

Here is another letter in homely vein, to his brother John, which will illustrate the difficulties of travelling.

London, Dec. 26, 1846.

'I must give you some history of my journeying. I started from Huntly determined (D.V.), if my health stood out, to have my Christmas dinner here with Dr John Morison of Brompton. I succeeded, though things seemed more than once, as determined as I was, to baulk the realisation of my purpose.

'After writing to William for Mr Leslie, I walked down to the office of the Newcastle steamer, and there outside was a notice: "Will sail on Thursday at 4 p.m." In fact, I found she had not got back from her trip of the week previous, and the Thursday's sailing was a mere contingency. Off I went to the coach office, and found the mail started at three, but demurring to the expense, I proceeded to the packet office and took my place in a Leith schooner. She was to sail at three o'clock, and there I was quietly and comfortably waiting for the lifting of the anchor, when I heard a whisper that the bar was very rough. The master, when questioned, said he was prepared to sail, but did not know whether the tug could tow them out. To the tug I went and got the master of it to take his vessel out and have a look at the bar. Back he came, and the word was: "No towing across the bar to-day." I ran with all my speed to the hotel, and was just in time to catch the mail on the start. I thought I could ride outside to Edinburgh, but by the time we reached Montrose I had no more life in me than a huge icicle. So then I got ensconced inside, and we reached Edinburgh in time to be an hour too late for the 5 a.m. train. There was no help for it but to make a comfortable breakfast, and be in readiness to start a quarter past 8. The snow was lying prodigiously deep between Stonehaven and Montrose. We reached Berwick at half-past 10, and I got upon the coach expecting to be in Newcastle by 6, and was luxuriating in the anticipation of a good dinner and a warm bath. But down came the snow and nearly blocked our way. Eleven hours we sat upon the coach, and reached Newcastle 40 minutes too late for the train. A special one was started about eleven. A cold and dreary night it was, but all was forgotten in the light of the radiant countenances that beamed upon me here between one and two o'clock.'

London, March 5,1847.

'I have more than enough upon my hands. My engagements for this month are just twenty-five. On Tuesday evening we had a magnificent meeting. Every hole and corner was crammed, stairs, passages and all. There could not be fewer than 2500 people present, and another thousand went away. I was the chief speaker of the evening.'

Falmouth, 27, 1847.

'Several friends down here set up a roaring, as if they had been so many bulls of Bashan, at my not coming to fulfil my engagements, that I was obliged to start for Exeter by the express. Thence I came by coach to this town—a ride of 105 miles. We were twelve mortal hours upon the road. I got to Falmouth about four o'clock in the morning; not like "patience on a monument smiling at grief," but impatience impersonate on the top of a coach, wan and weary, with head half sunk between the shoulders, hands pushed to the very extremity of greatcoat pockets, knees crunched together, and teeth firmly compressed to prevent their chattering. All's well, however, that ends well. I have slept and breakfasted, and am ready for action.

'God knows my supreme desire is to return and serve Him among the Chinese. I desire to feel that His will concerning us is not a series of arbitrary resolutions, but determinations for the wisest and the best, to which our ignorance and wilfulness must bow with praise and adoration.'

Leicester,. 24,1848.

'I preached here (where his brother, the Rev. Dr George Legge, was minister), twice on Sabbath, and lectured on Monday evening upon China. Tuesday morning took me and the Chinese lads to Manchester, where I preached in the evening at an ordination, and next night was the best public meeting, many people said, that they had ever had in Manchester. The same evening we went on to Rochdale, and thence on Thursday to Hull. There we had an overflowing meeting. On Saturday we came on here, and I addressed about a thousand children in the afternoon and preached in the evening. A meeting to-night, for which I have retained the lads, but to-morrow I shall send them on to London, following myself on Thursday. The fatigue and excitement have been too much for them, and for myself also.'

He had already written to his father—'I have had a sufficiency, I am sure, of travelling and journeying through England. It will be something to call to mind on the other side of the earth the various public meetings which I have attended and all the men of eminence and goodness whom I have heard, and with whom I have associated. My services, too, I trust, have not been unuseful to the great cause in which they have been put forth. But I am tired of this life, and long to be back again among the Chinese. My health is thoroughly re-established, and every Chinese book on which I happen to cast my eye seems to put forth characters of reproach and to tell me that I am not where I ought to be.'

London, Feb. 9, 1848.

'The principal engagement of to-day was a private audience, first of Prince Albert, and secondly of the Queen, along with the Chinese lads. I knew nothing of it till a letter came from Lord Morpeth, saying that if I would be at the Palace at three o'clock to-day he would be there to conduct me to the presence. Our audience was very pleasant and courteous on the part of the Queen, and His Royal Highness. He is a fine, handsome, gentlemanly-looking man, and she is a sweet, quiet little body. She was dressed simply and unpretendingly. Her eye is fine and rolling, and a frequent smile, showing her two front teeth, makes you half forget you are before Majesty, though there is a very powerful dignity about all her bearing. Our conversation was all about China and the lads. The boys were much taken by surprise, having been expecting to see a person gorgeously dressed, with a crown and all the other paraphernalia of royalty. The interview will give the injunction of Peter a heartiness to my mind; and for the words "Honour the King " I shall be inclined to substitute "Love the Queen."'

From the portrait by George Richmond.

Later in the spring Dr Legge and his family sailed again for Hong Kong. One day, shortly after leaving Singapore, the cry of 'fire' rang through the ship. Smoke poured from the hold; instantly the pumps were manned, the men passengers put under Dr Legge's direction. He marshalled them in a line to convey buckets to and fro. The steward had gone down into the spirit hold with a candle, which had upset and set fire to a quantity of straw. In trying to stamp it out he forgot to turn off the tap of the spirit cask, and thus the flames spread rapidly.

After hard work, the combined efforts of crew and passengers succeeded in getting the fire under, and they reached Hong Kong without further mishap.

The prospect of war at this time drew forth the following sentence in a letter.

'We ask our friends' writes Dr Legge, 'to join with us in prayer to the Governor among the nations, that he will avert the catastrophe of war. Wonderfully did he overrule the events of the last war, to present a great and effectual door for the preaching of his glorious gospel. Let its "still small voice" but continue to be heard by the Chinese for a few years, and it will open all their country more effectually to the rest of the world, than could be done by the thunder of all the cannon in the British armies.'

A little daughter Annie, born in England the year before, died a few months later, to the great grief of her parents. Towards the end of September Dr Legge writes:—'This mail will carry tidings of sorrow and death into fifty families, I suppose, in Britain. There has been raging one of the most furious typhoons by which this coast has been visited for many years. Houses were blown down and unroofed, and many vessels dismasted or sunk. Not fewer than a thousand Chinese must have perished in the Canton river alone, and one boat which was cruising about this island with a company of invalid policemen, went down, only six out of twenty-eight escaping. Among these drowned was a very respectable man, a police inspector, converted, I hope, through my instrumentality. He had his only son with him, a fine lad of eighteen. How desolate is his widow. You will imagine what were my wife's feelings during all this storm when I tell you that she was alone, with reason to believe that I was exposed in a frail barque to its fury. On Wednesday evening I embarked on a passage boat for Canton, and had got only about twenty-five miles when we saw the typhoon coming. Providentially there was a small harbour near, into which we put, and there we remained for thirty hours. It was Monday evening before my wife heard of our safety. Had not the wind failed us soon after our setting out, we must have been carried far beyond our shelter. The fury of the tempest was inconceivable.

'Our hearts have been cheered by tokens of God's blessing on our mission. Last Saturday fifteen individuals made application to me for baptism. Five of them were boys in the school, three of them evidently most deeply impressed by the truth. They have been long revolving the step they have taken, for more indeed than three years. Their decision opens a wide prospect of usefulness to me in the Seminary. I shall now have a succession of faithful disciples under my care to train for the ministry.

'Thus amid our desolation in the loss of Annie we have been cheered.'

Some months later he writes:—'I anticipate baptising two more of our boys next Sabbath, and with them a man of thirty-six, a scholar from a considerable distance, who has been residing here for between two and three months to be instructed in Christianity. His case is one of much interest. The two boys are from the first class and of very good abilities. In a year or two they will be quite fit for enrolment as theological students. Thus I am more and more encouraged to prosecute my plans to rear up a native ministry. Two other boys have made a formal application for baptism. We are in no hurry to baptise our candidates. They are well instructed and they give us all the evidence we can expect of their sincerity. Kim-Lin and A-Sow are going on very well. They are both labouring away at Euclid.'

In this place comes in a letter addressed to his friends of the Committee of the Religious Tract Society. Dr Legge writes:—

'In the early part of this month I paid a visit, with some friends, to Tae-Pang, a walled town upon the coast, about thirty miles to the north from Hong Kong. Walking through one of the streets, I met an old man, between seventy and eighty, with whom I entered into conversation, presenting him with a copy of the "Ten Commandments," in the form of a sheet tract "These," said he, "I know; they are the Commandments of Jesus. Two years ago I met with a book about the doctrines of Jesus, and now I worship Him." You will conceive how my heart was lifted up on finding that your silent messengers had thus prepared the way of the missionary. "Who was Jesus?" and "Why do you worship Him?" were questions put to the old man. "Jesus," he replied, "was the Son of God, and He came into the world to be the Saviour. His work was to save men from their sins; and I know that I am a great sinner. In the night-time, at the first and third watch, I get up and pray to Jesus to have mercy upon me." I endeavoured to improve my brief interview with him to the best advantage, and when I am able to revisit the town will seek the old man out. His appointed time upon earth must be drawing near its close, but may we not hope that he will have cause to be thankful for the Tract Society throughout eternity?'

The Doctor writes again to the Society :—

'There came a man of education to Hong Kong, about the middle of March, from a distance of a hundred and fifty miles, and introducing himself to our colporteur. A-Sum, requested to be instructed in the Christian doctrine. The way in which he states he was brought here was this. An acquaintance came from his town last year to Hong Kong, with a cargo of mats to sell, and while he was here received a tract from A-Sum, which he handed to our friend on his return home. This produced a considerable impression on his mind, which was much increased by conversations in the beginning of this year with another acquaintance, the manager of a rope-walk in this settlement, whom A-Sum and myself have often visited. This man having gone home in January to see his family, talked often among his friends of the gospel of Jesus, which had been pressed on his acceptance. Our friend was prepared to be interested by such a topic, and when the ropemaker returned to Hong Kong last month, he came with him. Since he has been here he has read and heard much of the Scriptures, and has recently formally applied for baptism. Being a scholar, his progress in knowledge has been rapid. When told that by embracing Christianity he would be brought to poverty, and that we could not do anything for him in a worldly point of view, he replied that the Bible told him that God is supreme, the Creator and the Sustainer of all men; and he is ready, without fear, to cast himself on God.'

Another example of the gracious influences that are at work in places where no missionary has ever lifted up the voice of mercy came under the notice of Dr Legge whilst on a journey of some distance into the interior. In the crowded street of a small town he was accosted by a venerable-looking old man, whose snowy head bespoke respect for him, in these terms:—'Pray, sir, are you a worshipper of Jesus'? Being answered in the affirmative, he rejoined, with evident pleasure, 'So am I; I pray to Him every morning and evening.' Dr Legge was surprised to hear such a declaration in a place where, as far as he knew, no missionary had ever been before, and questioned the man further as to who Jesus was, and how he had come to know Him. He found that the old man understood the outline of Gospel truth, which he had learned from a copy of the Gospel of Luke, that by some means had come into his hands. We suppose that he had overheard the doctor speaking to passers-by of the Gospel, and had recognised this stranger's doctrine as that which he had found, in some measure at least, precious to his soul.

In a letter of this period to the London Missionary Society occurs another reference to A-Sow which is of interest:—

'I am quite as frequently cheered by evidences that the truth is among us, working both powerfully and beautifully. As an instance of this I may refer to a simple but affecting occurrence at a Bible class of the men members about three months ago. I had been speaking on Matt, xviii. 19, "If two of you shall agree on earth," etc., when A-Sum, one of our oldest members rose up and said that he had something which he wished to say to myself and his brethren.

"You all know my son-in-law, A-Sow. Formerly he was one of us, but we had to expel him from the church. Of the life which he has been living for several years I need not now speak. He has been very bad, and he was as hardened as he was dissipated, and repulsed me when I tried to advise him. Lately he was taken ill, and thinking his heart might be softened, I ventured to speak to him about his soul. He heard me quietly, and to-day he rose and came to this place of worship. It is the first time he has been in God's house for years. Far as he has gone astray, and deeply as he has sinned, perhaps God will have mercy upon him yet. I feel it is in my heart to ask you all to pray with me that he may be brought back to the fold. What you said, sir, about the verse 'If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven' has so moved me that I could not but give expression to my feelings."

'The tearful eyes and quivering voice with which this was spoken by my old friend, and the way in which it was responded to by the others, made me feel that indeed I was among Christian brethren, and that the Gospel operates upon the Chinese to soften the soul and to intensify and sanctify the relative afflictions just as it does upon Englishmen. May it be done for the backslider as we asked.'

'I have entered this month (May 1849) into a new and important relation. I was asked to undertake the duties of a pastor to the English congregation of Union Church. I replied that I would do so, but could only preach once on Sunday, as I had to preach in the evening in Chinese, and besides, could not accomplish two sermons a week with all my other duties. The step is an important one. It places me in a new position which will have its difficulties and advantages.'

A correspondent writes:—

'One of the most romantic incidents which associates itself with Dr Legge's life is connected with the career of a young Scotsman who came up to London as a journeyman printer. He was from the same county of Aberdeen.

'Mr Alexander Wylie had connected himself with Albany Congregational Church, near Regent's Park, where a Scotsman was pastor.

'Something had put into the heart of the young printer that he was called to be a missionary. He was already a Sunday-school teacher. One day he was, according to custom, poring over the treasures of an old book-stall, and came upon one of the Jesuit Latin-Chinese grammars. Here was his opportunity. With dogged Scots perseverance he mastered Latin that he might learn Chinese. He had made some progress, and China seems always to have been in his mind as his final destination.

'About this time Dr Legge visited England, and Wylie, hearing this, entered into communication with him. Dr Legge saw there was true grit in the man, and encouraged him, giving him such aid as was in his power to give.

'In due time he offered himself to the London Missionary Society, and for many years superintended the Society's printing press at Shanghai. When this was given up he offered himself to the British and Foreign Bible Society, and was accepted as that Society's agent for China. All the time, however, he was applying himself with more and more zeal to the acquirement of the language in its higher departments. His influence as agent of the Bible Society, and as a helper in the work of the Religious Tract Society became more and more apparent. He was a very distinguished Chinese scholar, and had a world-wide fame among Orientalists.


'Dr Legge's estimate of the man and scholar may be judged from the fact that he remarked to the writer, that in some branches of Chinese scholarship he regarded Mr Wylie as his superior. As an old man, he returned to England nearly blind from the excessive study of a language whose characters are so trying to all but the best of eyes.

'After the Philadelphia Exhibition, Mr Wylie called on me and stated that he desired to place, where it would be valued, the remarkable collection of Chinese Christian literature which he had collected and sent to Philadelphia. He asked my opinion as to whether it should go to the British Museum, or to Oxford for the Bodleian. The fact that Dr Legge was at Oxford decided the matter, and two large cases of literature are now safely placed in the famous library. Dr Legge engaged to make a classified catalogue of the whole, and he rejoiced to have this collection where he hoped it might prove to be very valuable as the years went on.'

A friend who had known Dr Legge at Hong Kong, writes:—

'As to the dear Professor. What can I say? As often as I think of him, and it is not seldom, so often does my heart go out towards him in ever increasing love and gratitude. I sometimes think that I should never have been in my present condition of useful work, but for his fatherly love to me 42 years ago. I was then a young man in Hong Kong, surrounded by gay companions, and beset by unlimited temptations, specially peculiar to youth. This the Doctor knew, and no father could have been more kind to his own son than he was to me.

"Think of my house as your home in any time of trouble or temptation," said he. Yes, his was a loyal spirit, which must have been "greatly beloved " by the All-Father. It is men like him who make England strong, able to govern and guide the weaker nations, rather than army or navy. The one trains the physical to overcome the physical foe, but the sweet Professor ever sought to train the spiritual, the real man, that he might overcome spiritual foes, and so reign and govern for ever, and I have yet to learn that a man so helped, makes, if need be, a less better soldier against his nation's enemies.

'Dr Legge preached from personal experience, the ever present power of Christ to help in time of temptation. My faith was much strengthened by such teaching, and often before leaving the private house to go down to the day's work and besetments, I would stand on the top of the stone steps and go no further until I had realised the Divine presence. Then I sang on my way, ready for whatever might be awaiting me.

'The evening tea-meetings, specially for the army and navy, were of such delight to the doctor, and under the blessed influence of his words, and the singing of some simple hymn, I have seen great bearded men weeping as women weep, none the less better soldiers and sailors for that.

'I need scarcely say, that such a man was loved and trusted by all who knew him. More than once in the evening time, when feeling lonely and sad, or under the stress of temptation, I have turned towards the missionary's house as a storm-tossed ship is turned towards a safe harbour. But I am deeply conscious that I do not possess power of language to speak sufficiently of all the good I received from that sweet, pure life.'

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