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James Legge, Missionary and Scholar
Chapter VII. Incidents of Chinese Life and Work

THE following extracts are from letters and notes written by Dr Legge in Hong Kong in 1849 and onwards:—

'I am groping amid mists of Chinese physics and metaphysics, a shape like the ghost of Aristotle or Plato rising up ever and anon before me. I go to grasp it—and a Chinese folio interposes its knotty pages.'

'I wrote to the Bible Society about printing the Scriptures in Chinese with metal types. Our Society undertook the making of two founts of Chinese types. The work has been long, tedious and expensive, but now when it is drawing to a close it gives us astonishing advantages. We can beat the Chinese in their own market. In no country are books so cheap as in China, but we can make them cheaper than they ever have been. The New Testament can be given to them for threepence or even less, printed more beautifully than the Imperial editions of their own Classics. So small a sum, of course, only covers the expenses of paper and printing and affords the Society no renumeration for its outlay in the preparation of the founts, but that it does not regret' In 1859, at a meeting in England Dr Legge said:— 'In the beginning of last year, the Russian plenipotentiary in China called at our Mission House and made an arrangement that we should supply him with the matrices, struck from our punches, of the Chinese characters. It appeared that the Russian Government wanted to compile a Chinese and Russian dictionary at St Petersburg, and in order to make a commencement of the work they were obliged to come to our Mission House at Hong Kong.

'Then again, since my return to this country I have had more than one interview with a distinguished gentleman of Paris, M. Mohl, who is, I believe, the superintendent of the printing department of the Institute of France, and who wants our assistance in forming for the Institute a complete fount of type embracing every character in the Chinese language.'

*December 27, 1850.

*Tsun-sheen and I are co-pastors of the Chinese Church. He takes most of the Chinese preaching, but I preach once a week. My labours in the Seminary and School and English preaching occupy much of my time—Chinese study and reading still more, and the revision of the new version of the Old Testament a great deal. Then I have correspondence with other missions and many other things, so that my heart does sometimes fail me.'

During his revision of the version of the Old Testament, one of the family relates that Dr Legge wrote out three times the whole of the Old Testament in Chinese.

Trouble and illness among the missionaries and their families necessitated the departure of some of them for England. Extra work was thus thrown upon Dr Legge. In reference to this he received a letter from the London Missionary Society:—

*December 18, 1850.

'We deplore deeply those events which are felt to press with accumulated weight, when we bear in mind the serious obstacles that must prevent us for a considerable time from supplying the vacancies thus unexpectedly and abruptly created. We have reason to fear that with so many occupations on your hands your energies must be considerably overtasked.'

His brother John also writes:—

'Huntly, February 7, 1851.

'In your last letter you said you felt as shut up in a corner and striking quick and short. The expression was too graphic. I confess it inspired me with no little alarm lest you should completely knock yourself up, before help arrived. I fear it will yet be some time before you get assistance. If not too late, my dear James, spare yourself—on principle— that long life may enable you to accomplish much work.'

There are notes in Dr Legge's papers of very many Committee meetings, he himself acting the part of both Chairman and Secretary. Much business was discussed relative to the mission, the printing office and other matters. At a meeting held in February 1851, the question was debated of publishing a Chinese newspaper or magazine in which information should be conveyed to the Chinese on General History, Church History, Natural Philosophy, Geography and kindred topics, interspersed with narratives calculated to instruct and lead the Chinese to a wider conception of religion. There are indications, that owing to lack of funds this undertaking had to be abandoned.

Still, in the press of work, he ever retained his love and interest in whatever reminded him of his old home in Scotland.

'The carnations from William's seeds have several of them flowered, but oh, what a falling off is there. They were seeds, he said, from prize specimens, and here they have unfolded poor, thin, pale, single and miserable. I often go to look at them ; they seem to say: "Give us the tempered sun and wind, which nursed the strength and beauty of our plants." The broom and whin seeds William sent never came up, but I hope he will send me more that I may try again. I long for a few bushes of broom. Could I but rear them, they would constantly maintain—

"The freshness of the heart that falls like dew."

Indeed, for a man who devoted himself so arduously to books, he had a singular delight in outward things. In Malacca he would go out early and bring in 'climbing fish' from the trees. He kept a young crocodile in his bathroom, and as it seized a plank of wood by its teeth, he would swing it round and round his head. He also attempted to keep a young elephant, but the vast quantity of milk it absorbed made it too expensive a pet. A friend said long after to one of his children: *When Dr Legge came to visit me in Japan he rode several miles every morning before breakfast. There were some mines near, and he went to the bottom of each, and seven volcanoes, and he climbed to the top of each.'


The end of 1851 was marked by calamity. In an extensive fire, by which thousands of the Chinese population lost all their property, the Mission Church and the Hospital were reduced to ashes. Energetic measures, however, were taken for the reconstruction of the buildings, cordial help was granted by the London Missionary Society, and, best of all, public confidence remained unshaken.

'We had a very fine meeting in the Chinese Chapel last Sabbath night. There were more than a hundred people there who were going to sail to-day for California, and very attentive they were. I came home cheered by such a close to the Sabbath services of the year. About ten o'clock a servant came and told me that a fire had broken out in the Chinese town; I looked and saw some houses blazing. Going to the spot I saw the flames were rapidly extending, and in a couple of hours five or six hundred houses were in one terrible conflagration. Our chapel and hospital were involved in the ruin. Ten or eleven thousand Chinese were rendered homeless, among them Kim-lin, with his wife and child; A-Sow, with his wife; and half a dozen more Christian families. There occurred one most melancholy event. A party of artillery were blowing up a large house to stop the fire, when somehow the powder exploded before they were prepared for it. The colonel and a lieutenant were killed, and another officer and two men who had been hearing me in the morning were very severely wounded. All this has given me enough to do, and driven me to the very last half hour before I could put my pen to paper.'

It appears to have been in the year 1852 that an incident occurred which had afterwards important consequences. The whole story, too, is only one of many striking experiences in the missionary's life.

Dr Legge, with some friends, crossed over one day to Canton. At that time a rebellion against the Chinese government was prevailing in the south of Canton province. Arrived at Whampoa they heard that the rebels were holding an island not far off, and Dr Legge proposed that they should visit their encampment. The captain called his own boatman to row them to the headquarters of the rebels. On the way Dr Legge entered into conversation with the man, and the captain said: 'You Chinese despise us foreigners because we cannot speak your language, but here, you see, is an Englishman who does speak Chinese.' The boatman replied: 'He speakee Chinese more better I.' That little sentence caught the ear of an Englishman of the party, Mr Joseph Jardine, and the impression it made on him led later to valuable and unexpected issues.

On the island they had a long interview with some of the rebel leaders, who told them they meant to attack Canton on the following Monday. Till Monday Dr Legge and others stayed with a friend, Dr Hobson, at his hospital in Kaum-li-fou. Early on that day the party crossed the river, and on landing near the great Buddhist temple, heard that there had been a fight the day before. The rebels had been defeated, and now the Imperialist soldiers were ranging unchecked from village to village, burning and plundering. The people brought to Dr Legge an old man whose ears had been cut off, and his house burnt down. He was in a miserable plight, and Dr Legge spoke to him of the English hospital at Kaum-li-fou. The poor old man said he would gladly go there, but that no boatman would take him as he had no money. Dr Legge tore down a placard from a wall, and wrote with a pencil in Chinese: 'To any boatman. Please take the bearer in your boat across the river to the hospital at Kaum-li-fou, and show him to the English doctor; he will pay you liberally for your trouble' and he signed it  'On the faith of an Englishman.' At the same time he wrote a note to Dr Hobson.

Continuing their way in the country, they came upon a considerable body of perhaps five hundred Imperialist soldiers, who made no objection to the presence of Englishmen. 'We are patriots,' the soldiers said, 'called out by the landed gentry of this country to act against these rebels.' It was impossible to stop them in their work of devastation. At one place the people turned out to fight, and a battle ensued; the soldiers put Dr Legge and his party to the front, and they were exposed to full fire from both sides. Several of the villagers were made prisoners, others fled, and the Imperialist victors marched to a small hill, where the promoter of their expedition sat majestically in a chair with some retainers round him. Thither came two of the soldiers, each carrying a gory head by its pig-tail, which he laid down on the grass before his master. A little girl, taken captive, was led forward and flung herself in terror upon her knees before the chief.

Dr Legge walked up to him and begged for her life. 'How can it serve your cause,' he asked, 'to put such a captive to death?' The chief listened: entrenched in immobility he vouchsafed not a syllable in reply, but was so far influenced as, by a gesture, to relegate the girl to the care of a bystander. Before she could rise a ruffian laid his sword upon her neck; the child screamed, and in violent indignation Dr Legge dealt the fellow a blow with his stick across the shoulders. He turned fiercely upon Dr Legge, but slunk back as another Englishman advanced to his friend's side, this latter a very big man, one whom the Chinese spoke of as 'having the strength of 500 men.'

Late that evening the party took boat again to Kaum-li-fou, and made their way to Dr Hobson's hospital. Here they found that the old man sent by Dr Legge had been brought by a boatman and two or three others. Dr Hobson had taken him in and done for him all that he could, but he had sunk to a dying state.

In October 1852, a severe bereavement befel Dr Legge and his three daughters, in the death of Mrs Legge at Hong Kong. The news reached her parents in London at a peculiarly sad time, just after the death in their home of their son Alexander. In Dr Morison's first letter to James Legge after receiving the tidings, he tells his son-in-law a fact, interesting because so well-attested, which is herewith given in his own words.

27 Montpelier Square, Brompton, Dec. 23, 1852.

'We are indeed, fellow-sufferers. Ours was, in a most painful degree, a house of mourning before your brother George arrived from Leicester; what it was I will not attempt to describe. ... It was, indeed, a heavy blow to be informed that our most loving and beloved Mary was no more an inhabitant of this world. . . . Poor Alexander's funeral is to-morrow. Dear fellow, when he was dying he waved his hand significantly, and said to his mother in a perfectly collected tone of voice, pointing to the end of his bed—"Don't you see her?" "What do you mean, dear Alexander?" she said. "Why, it is dear Mary; she is calling me to come to her." Was not this very remarkable? From that moment my dear wife believed she was dead; and nothing could remove the impression. . . .'

In the following year the loss of his youngest little girl, who with her sisters had been sent to Scotland, came as an added sorrow to the father, left solitary in his now desolate home at Hong Kong. Being now sole occupant of the Mission House of the London Missionary Society, it was arranged that the Rev. John and Mrs Chalmers, and Dr and Mrs Hobson, with their children, should share it.

One morning one of the children refused to eat the bread and butter at breakfast. Remonstrances and punishment were of no avail. As the meal progressed, all, with the exception of the obstinate child, were seized with sudden nausea, and a letter was handed in from the Judge with the message—'Do not eat the bread, it has all been poisoned.' The Chinese baker had put arsenic into the bread destined for the foreigners, with intent to poison the whole English community, but fortunately he overshot the mark by putting in too much, so that all who ate became violently sick almost immediately. Two English ladies, however, who had taken but little, suffered permanently in health from the effects of the poison. For many years afterwards no Chinese baker was allowed to serve the English in Hong Kong—the office being entrusted to Parsees.

As time went on, Dr Legge received strong evidences of success in his labours among the Chinese. Many came to him asking for baptism, and he wrote to the London Missionary Society—'Never did missions wear so cheering an aspect. Never was there so much to encourage our hopes and stimulate to increased effort.'

Records of some of these converts are full of interest. One day a Taoist priest arrived at the island from his monastery in the Lo-fow hills, moved with curiosity to see the town foreigners had built in Hong Kong. He had been a priest for over twelve years, having left his wife and children and retired to a monastery into which he had subsequently taken his youngest son in order that he should be brought up as a priest. Wandering in the evening through the streets of Hong Kong, the noise of a gong announcing a meeting attracted him into a building.

This was a mission chapel, and a preacher— probably Ho-Tsun-sheen— delivered a sermon on the incompleteness of Chinese morality and religion, pointing out that though it professed to describe men's relations, it did not treat of his relation to God. The priest listened, was convinced that the system which he had followed for twelve years was truly judged, and determined, while hearing that sermon, never to worship idols again. He stayed, making enquiries and receiving instruction, for several weeks; then returned to the Lo-fow hills and came back to Hong Kong with two sons and a son-in-law.

The elder ones were obliged to return to their work, but the youngest boy, who wore the priestly garb, was put into the school, and the father himself continued to attend every religious service. He supported himself by selling medicines. He studied the New Testament much, and his applications for baptism were repeated and earnest. On the evening on which he was baptised he related to the assembled company the reasons which made him abandon Taoism and become a Christian. He handed to Dr Legge the yellow crowns—the distinguishing badges of the Taoist priesthood—two hollow hemispheres of polished wood into which the hair is gathered in a knot, and he also stated that he would henceforth bring up his children in the doctrines of Jesus.

Another convert, named Wong Shing, was employed in connection with the mission, as superintendent of the printing office, at a salary of thirty dollars a month. In 1858 he was appointed a juryman, that being the first time the name of a Chinese had been seen on the jury list in connection with the names of Englishmen. Sir John Bowring told Dr Legge that when the Sheriffs list was submitted for approval, some members of the Council expressed astonishment that a Chinaman should be put on a jury, but the man's character being known to His Excellency, his name was retained.

A few weeks after, the Registrar of the Supreme Court in Hong Kong, called on Dr Legge and asked him to lay before Wong Shing a proposition from the Chief Justice. His Lordship wanted to obtain a competent, trustworthy interpreter for the Supreme Court, and so sensible was he of the fitness of Wong Shing for the post that he offered it to him at a salary of 120 dollars a month. The Registrar added, 'If ten dollars more will make the scale go down in favour of the Government, I am prepared to offer that amount'. Dr Legge called upon Wong Shing and laid the offer fully before him, with its promise of 130 dollars a month in lieu of his present allowance of thirty dollars. Wong Shing was not a minute in making up his mind. He knew that the literature put out from the printing office was meant to be a power for good to his countrymen, and that its production needed intelligent native supervision. '1 hope,' he answered, 'that the Government will get a good interpreter, but I don't mean to leave my present situation.' This he said, although he was a married man with a family.

Writing to the Religious Tract Society in 1855, Dr Legge gives the following incident as showing the reality of the work among Chinese converts.

'There is a small item of one dollar entered as received from a Chinese Christian for tracts. The purchaser was formerly a Taoist priest, with whom I became acquainted first in the latter part of 1853. He was baptised here about eight months ago, and has been supporting himself by selling a few drugs and other small wares. Between two and three months ago, he had saved the sum of a dollar and a rupee, and brought them to the mission house, saying, "I want tracts for them." It was represented to him that if he wished to distribute tracts among his countrymen, we would gladly supply him from the depository. "I know that," he said, "but I want to give away something that is my own." It was well to encourage such a purpose, so I made him up an assortment to the value of a dollar. Thus furnished, he made up a pack of a peculiar kind of tea in parcels worth about 4d. each, and started with that and the tracts into the interior. The tea he sold, living upon the proceeds, and after an absence of nearly a month, he returned, having given away all his tracts. "I did not give them away," he reported, "at random. When any man came to buy tea of me, or I got into conversation with him, I said to him 'Here is a book. Let me tell you what it contains, and if you then want to read it, I will give it to you.' Then I told him the substance of the tract, and if he said he would like to have it, I gave it to him. Nearly everybody I spoke to was glad to hear me, and to receive the books.'

A word must be said here as to Dr Legge's views on the best way of reaching the Chinese mind. His views were both clear and wise. He felt strongly that as far as possible the ancient customs of the country should be respected, the old ideas engrained in the national character should be understood and reckoned with: it was for that reason that he did not approve of unmarried Englishwomen going into the interior of China—but he cordially approved of the system of colportage instituted by the Bible Society. Native colporteurs were sent from place to place, distributing the Scriptures in Chinese. In these there was of course no word of English people or English customs; when a Chinaman read and was impressed, it was not because an Englishman came and gave him English ideas—as certain people seem to imagine— but it was because eternal truth found him and touched him, and naturally he asked, 'From whom can I learn more?' Only then did he hear, 'From the missionaries.'

The convert Kan-Man-Puk was a fruit of the system of colportage. He wrote out a document giving, as he said, a sketch of his past life, 'as in the sight of God.'

'From my ninth year to my seventeenth I went to school, but only learned the art of writing, and committed to memory many pages of our books without understanding their meaning. For three years, from my 18th to my 21st I passed as an actor, but that profession being commonly regarded as offensive to the men of former generations, I left it and took to divination. This proving unprofitable, I added to it the writing of charms, and repeating of spells along with the art of medicine, expecting thereby to make great gain. I prayed to demons and pretended to exorcise evil spirits. I surrounded myself with the images and pictures of former masters and worshipped them. On the first and fifteenth of every month I repeated my King and prayed to the various spirits, expecting them to give efficacy to my charms and spells—this throughout a period of more than twenty years. In the fourth month of the present year the brethren Yu and Mok came to the city of Siu near me, distributing the Sacred Scriptures and announcing the holy doctrine. Before I met with them myself, the wife of a neighbour gave me a volume which had been received from them to look at, but I laid it indifferently upon a shelf. There my daughter took it up and beginning to read it, was delighted. My wife was also interested by it, and they united in urging me to go to the strangers and get a copy for myself. I went accordingly to them thinking the book was an ordinary composition for the admonition of the age, but from them I learned that it was the book of God the Creator and preserver of the universe, who had sent His beloved Son to die for the sins of men, making atonement. This was what in all my life I had never heard of. The information was as if thunder rolled in my ears and startled me from sleeping. I consulted with my wife and daughter, and procuring the necessary means followed the two brethren here to Hong Kong that I might be instructed in all the worship of God. Now while I have been here, I have felt something of the happiness of heaven.'

When the question was put to him at his baptism whether he was resolved to abandon all worship of idols, his reply was 'have burned them all.' Soon after his baptism he returned to his own village, having made arrangements to bring his family to a village across the bay from Hong Kong upon the mainland, where they could cross over occasionally and attend the religious services of the mission.

One day, shortly after Canton had been taken by the French and English, Dr Legge went with a friend to the island of Ho-nan to see the great Buddhist temple there. It was the Chinese New Year, and multitudes were playing and gambling in the temple court. They looked so hostile to the foreigners that a Buddhist priest came up and said 'You had better be off. The people talk of stoning you; they are enraged owing to Canton being taken by foreigners.' 'We will go away,' said Dr Legge, ' but we cannot run away. Let us into the temple to consider our course.' The priest did so and locked the door after them. The crowd, thinking they meant to emerge by the back door, ran round to receive them. Knowing this, Dr Legge said, ' Now unlock the door again and let us out.' But they had not gone many steps before the mob in two streams came pouring round the temple and surrounded them by hundreds crying 'Strike, strike.' Stones flew about them, and one man took up a little boy and flung him with all his force at Dr Legge who kept urging his friend not to strike but to press on to the water. Step by step they drew near the shore, jumped into their boat, and made off, followed by the yells of the populace and a shower of stones.

It is interesting to turn back and see how this gifted missionary viewed the influx of Chinese into California and Australia, and the possibilities that might arise therefrom. He writes thus in 1853 :—

'Many tracts have been distributed among the emigrants to California and Australia. I cannot but think that the discovery of the gold fields will produce a beneficial influence upon China. Nothing ever stirred the masses of the people in this province so much. Recently an emigration to the West Indies, of a different nature, has commenced, and a young man, who was a student with me for the ministry, has been engaged to go to Demerara or Trinidad, for three years, in the capacity of interpreter. This opening, presented in Providence, may introduce him to a very important field of labour, which I pray that he may have grace to improve. Placed among his countrymen, in a position of influence, and where they are free from many of the hindrances which oppose the profession of Christianity in China, I hope he will be able to accomplish much good among them.'

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