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The Victorian Translation of China

James Legge's Oriental Pilgrimage

Norman J. Girardot (Author)

Available worldwide

Hardcover, 810 pages
ISBN: 9780520215528
September 2002
$94.95, £70.95
In this magisterial study, Norman J. Girardot focuses on James Legge (1815-1897), one of the most important nineteenth-century figures in the cultural exchange between China and the West. A translator-transformer of Chinese texts, Legge was a pioneering cross-cultural pilgrim within missionary circles in China and within the academic world of Oxford University. By tracing Legge's career and his close association with Max Müller (1823-1900), Girardot elegantly brings a biographically embodied approach to the intellectual history of two important aspects of the emergent "human sciences" at the end of the nineteenth century: sinology and comparative religions.

Girardot weaves a captivating narrative that illuminates the era in which Legge lived as well as the surroundings in which he worked. His encyclopedic knowledge of pertinent figures, documents, peculiar ideologies, and even the personal quirks of principal and minor players brings the world of imperial China and Victorian England very much to life. At the same time, Girardot gets at the roots of much of the twentieth-century discourse about the strange religious or nonreligious otherness of China.
List of Illustrations
Note to the Reader on Transcription and Romanization
Introduction: The Strange Saga of Missionary Tradition, Sinological Orientalism, and the Comparative Science of Religions in the Nineteenth Century
Prologue: Missionary Hyphenations West and East, 1815–1869
1. Pilgrim Legge and the Journey to the West, 1870–1874
2. Professor Legge at Oxford University, 1875–1876
Appendix to Chapter 2: Caricatures of Max Müller and James Legge at Oxford
3. Heretic Legge: Relating Confucianism and Christianity, 1877–1878
4. Decipherer Legge: Finding the Sacred in the Chinese Classics, 1879–1880
5. Comparativist Legge: Describing and Comparing the Religions of China, 1880–1882
6. Translator Legge: Closing the Confucian Canon, 1882–1885
7. Ancestor Legge: Translating Buddhism and Daoism, 1886–1892
8. Teacher Legge: Upholding the Whole Duty of Man, 1893–1897
Conclusion: Darker Labyrinths: Transforming Missionary Tradition, Sinological Orientalism, and the Comparative Science of Religions after the Turn of the Century
Appendix A. Max Müller’s Motto for The Sacred Books of the East
Appendix B. James Legge’s Oxford Lectures and Courses, 1876–1897
Appendix C. Principal Publications of James Legge and Max Müller
Appendix D. Genealogy of the Legge Family
Bibliographical Note
Norman J. Girardot is University Distinguished Professor in the Religious Studies Department at Lehigh University. His previous books include Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism (California, 1983).
“A magnificent book, learned and witty (and specializing in the author’s own brand of self-deprecating humor), with trails leading off into obscure and fascinating corners of Victorian life. . . . This book on Legge’s intellectual career and ethos is magisterial, urbane, very scholarly, and likely to remain definitive for a long time to come.”—Taipei Times
“A vast study... The Victorian Translation of China is several substantial books packed into one.”—Jonathan Mirsky Times Literary Supplement (TLS)
“A rich account of Legge’s life and work...a story well worth telling and reading.”—Eric Bain-Selbo Journal Of Religion & Society
"Norman J. Girardot's The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge's Oriental Pilgrimage is breathtaking in its scope. James Legge was a giant in Sinology; only a monumental volume such as this one could do justice to him. The publication of this biography of Legge is a major event, not just for the history of Sinology, but for the intellectual history of the late 19th century in general. Indeed, in a sense, the book is almost as much about the great Indologist and comparative philologist Max Müller as it is about the Christian missionary from Aberdeen who produced such epochal translations of the Chinese classics in Hong Kong and at Oxford. Partly inspired by Lytton Strachey’s trenchant insights of into the Victorian mind and character, Girardot's masterpiece deserves to be ranked with the finest examples of the craft of writing about influential persons and interesting eras. But it is more than that; quite simply, this is one of the most outstanding academic biographies of all time and in any field."—Victor H. Mair, translator of Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way and Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu.

"Through a densely annotated translation of the entire Confucian canon and two seminal Daoist texts, James Legge is the single most important individual in making the historical classics of Chinese history and philosophy known to English readership, and through it to the entire Western world. Norman Girardot’s study, surpassing all previous efforts in chronicling the person and assessing Legge’s legacy, is itself a monumental achievement in research, interpretation, and writing. The focalized discussion of the subject in terms of the scholar as missionary, the development of Sinological Orientalism, and the rise and growth of the Comparative Science of Religions or Religionswissenschaft provides unrivalled enormity of scope and depth of understanding. The Victorian Translation of China will remain a definitive work for decades to come."—Anthony C. Yu, author most recently of Rereading the Stone: Desire and the Making of Fiction in Dream of the Red Chamber.

John K. Fairbank Prize, American Historical Association

Book Award in the Historical Study of Religion, American Academy of Religion


The Strange Saga of Missionary Tradition, Sinological Orientalism, and the Comparative Science of Religions in the Nineteenth Century

Biography, as Heinrich Simon . . . said, is the best kind of history, and the life of one man, if laid open before us with all he thought and all he did, gives us a better insight into the history of his time than any general account of it can possibly do. Now it is quite true that the life of a quiet scholar has little to do with history, except it may be the history of his own branch of study, which some people consider quite unimportant, while to others it seems all-important. This is as it ought to be, till the universal historian finds the right perspective, and assigns to each branch of study and activity its proper place in the panorama of the progress of mankind towards its ideals. Even a quiet scholar, if he keeps his eyes open, may now and then see something that is of importance to the historian. F. Max Müller, My Autobiography, 1901


Friedrich Max Müller, the most famous comparative philologist and Orientalist of the nineteenth century, once self-servingly quoted a historian's observation that, in many ways, "biography . . . is the best kind of history." The life of a single person, "if laid open before us with all he thought and all he did, gives us a better insight into the history of his time than any general account of it can possibly do." One problem with this methodological principle seems, however, to be the case of the "quiet scholar" who apparently has "little to do with history," except for "the history of his own branch of study, which some people consider quite unimportant, while to others it seems all-important." This judgment is, as Müller says, "as it ought to be" until "the universal historian" finds the right comparative perspective, "and assigns to each branch of study and activity its proper place in the panorama of the progress of mankind towards its ideals." The point is that the life and discipline of "even a quiet scholar"—and Müller was quite typically thinking of himself—may have some general cultural and historical significance, especially if that scholar had the good sense to respond to the changing times and to "keep his eyes open."1

But Müller, a prolific academic entrepreneur and a well-connected counselor to the British nobility, was hardly a "quiet scholar." A much better test of the principle concerns his more unassuming Oxonian colleague, the ex-missionary and professor of Chinese, James Legge. I cannot pretend to be Müller's "universal historian," but I do believe that a fully contextualized life of a seemingly quiet missionary and humble scholar such as Legge gives us a revealing perspective on the larger panorama of Victorian cultural history, if not the nineteenth-century "progress of mankind towards its ideals." In the course of his long life as a transcultural pilgrim in Britain and Asia, Legge was someone who kept his eyes open, his religious outlook broad, his translator's pen active, and his moral sensibilities acute.

The trick of this kind of biographical procedure is always to "lay open"—like a comparative anatomist spilling out the internal organs with a scalpel—all a person "thought and all he did" in relation to the larger cultural carcass of the period. Important social developments, intellectual transformations, institutional changes, and religious upheavals are all part of the panorama associated with Legge's long life. So also do we discover that the various realms of activity and study closely identified with Legge—the Protestant missionary enterprise, the emergence of sinological Orientalism, and the creation of the comparative science of religions—are not so completely trivial in relation to the larger pageant of Victorian history. It is not that these pursuits can be seen as "all-important," but rather that they become interesting precisely because of their relative obscurity and strangeness amidst the other emergent human sciences in the nineteenth century. Meaning and importance both depend, as Müller and Michel Foucault would say on quite different methodological grounds, in "finding the right perspective."


The Western study of Chinese culture and its institutions, that hermetically specialized field within the larger domain of Orientalism known as "sinology," has always been a peculiar discipline. From its beginnings with the Jesuits and French Enlightenment philosophes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, down through its crystallization as a professional academic discipline in the nineteenth century, sinology has reflected and refracted the changing attitudes of the Western encounter with the otherness of Chinese tradition. The checkered history of this intercourse has often been a one-sided intellectual and cultural exchange that, until roughly the end of the nineteenth century, when secularized academic institutions prevailed, was primarily a record of the changing fortunes of the Roman Catholic and Protestant missionary enterprises. But, unlike some other Oriental traditions and, by definition, the illiterate or "savage" cultures, the native Chinese literati class and traditional commentaries were present to guide and adjust Western views on the meaning of the ancient textual tradition, particularly when those views were rooted in the somewhat common classical and commentarial prejudices of European and Chinese scholar-ministers.2

In the nineteenth century, when the common philological and racial "brotherhood" of the Indo-European traditions became an article of intellectual and imperial faith, China's remarkable linguistic and cultural isolation, its "formidable solitude," as Raymond Schwab rightly put it, became even more of a factor in the retarded development of sinological Orientalism as an academic discipline, even more of a unrecognized instance of an imperial Western science unwittingly in collusion with traditional Ruist or Confucian forms of Chinese cultural mythology.3 The discovery of the Aryan equation of Europe and India at the end of the eighteenth century, and its scholarly efflorescence in the field of comparative philology in the next century, meant that the professionalized study of Chinese language and literature in the nineteenth century was not as advanced, or as academically and institutionally privileged, as were either Indological or Semitic Orientalism. In an address to the Royal Asiatic Society in the late nineteenth century, Max Müller, the great Indologist and tireless promoter of Victorian Orientalism, said that the problem was that there were "no intellectual bonds"—no linguistic, spiritual, or social kinship—that united Europe and China. Sinology was therefore in the nineteenth century destined to remain a marginal discipline, a "quite unimportant" branch of study "confined to a very small number of scholars."4 Professional sinology, or sinological Orientalism, was in this way a largely peripheral discourse within the newly emerging academic salons of international Orientalism in the nineteenth century, disciplinary organizations best exemplified by the tradition of regular scholarly congresses that, beginning in Paris in 1873, met in the great imperial capitals of the Western world.

The impoverished situation of sinological Orientalism was unlikely to change in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because the West, as Müller in a flight of quasi-racist rhetoric once declared, "received nothing from the Chinese." "There is," he emphasized, "no electric contact between the white and the yellow race." Despite the monumental productions of James Legge's Chinese Classics and Sacred Books of China (for Müller's own Sacred Books of the East series), the fact was that, according to Müller's authoritative estimate in the 1890s, China had "not been brought near to our hearts." The ever-present and essential difference was that, to use Müller's words again, "China is simply old, very old—that is, remote and strange."5 Unlike the philological principles linking India and Europe, there was no real linguistic or intellectual premise for a sympathetic understanding of China, no real basis for any kind of convincing comparative similitude. As Zhang Longxi has said, China in the nineteenth century became for the West the "image of the ultimate other."6


Along with the obdurate strangeness of the Chinese language, the special cultural singularity of China was shown by the seemingly unreligious and nonmythological nature of its authoritative texts. The ancient Chinese documents appeared very much unlike the richly imaginative, and epically dynamic, religious literature of Hinduism and Hellenic tradition—or, for that matter, the theistic and prophetic drama of the Semitic biblical traditions. This contrast was particularly striking when the lushly mythological Vedic hymns of ancient Aryan India or the dramatic tales of Greek mythology were compared with the "prosy and dosy" literature of the great or high tradition of Chinese Confucianism attributed to the ancient moral philosopher and sagely educator known to the West as Confucius. In the nineteenth century, when the comparative sciences of philology and history became the foundations for the imperious intellectual mission of the human sciences, the unclassifiable Chinese language and the seemingly religionless, mythless, and agnostic Chinese civilization were the primary factors contributing to the special isolation, distortion, and handicapped nature of sinology as one of the newer disciplines of the universal science of Orientalism. During this same period in the mid- and late nineteenth century, the old certitude in the static exclusivity and superiority of the Christian tradition—as well as the general study of religion and religions—were undergoing dramatic changes that would lead both to the emergence of a new science of comparative religions and, after the turn of the century and the First World War, to this fledgling discipline's mostly marginalized and contested status within the more fully secularized academy.

Sinology and comparative religions may well be the two most peculiar, and orphaned, offspring of the human sciences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is for this reason that these two academic disciplines share a certain kind of disciplinary alienation and have often been found, even within institutions of higher learning, to be "quite unimportant branches of study." The very set-apart strangeness of the two disciplines—in relation to their separate histories in the nineteenth century, their mutual involvement in the transformations of the Protestant missionary movement, their controversial appropriation of the comparative method, and in terms of their brief convergence in the so-called sacred books produced by Max Müller and James Legge—makes them ideal vehicles for getting at some important issues of Victorian cultural history. Moreover, the tense relationship of missionary tradition with Orientalistic disciplines such as sinology and the rise of sympathetic, impartial, or comparative approaches to the study of non-Christian religion and civilization is a sorely neglected aspect of this history. An analysis of the interrelated traditions of the Protestant missionary movement, sinological Orientalism, and the comparative science of religions—as mirrored in the life and work of James Legge—is consequently an excellent way to study larger cultural changes at the end of the nineteenth century. These are changes that directly anticipate the emergence of the modern world of the twentieth century and, in diverse and devious ways, continue to distort Western and Chinese perceptions of each other.


A fuller awareness of the history of sinological strangeness is made all the more interesting and relevant by the simple fact that the specialized study of Chinese cultural institutions, especially traditions that can be loosely identified as philosophical and religious, has undergone a quiet revolution in recent decades, especially since the 1960s and 1970s. There are many examples of these often revisionary, and frequently interdisciplinary, developments, but let me only mention the explosion of archaeological information; the application of new interdisciplinary methodologies and the dramatic reevaluation of earlier interpretations of the ancient tradition; the growing realization of the importance of religion throughout Chinese history and for all aspects and levels of Chinese society; the fuller incorporation of Chinese literature into the comparative study of world literature; the advances in the study of the Daoist tradition and in the nature and significance of a sinified Buddhism; the heightened appreciation of popular traditions; sweeping reconsiderations of Confucius, Confucianism, and Neo-Confucianism; reexaminations of the whole meaning of modernization and westernization in relation to Chinese tradition; and so on. As a result of these developments, the very definition, classification, and understanding of Chinese religion, philosophy, and, for that matter, Chinese culture and civilization—as well as the ambiguous meaning of artificial categories such as "Confucianism" and "Daoism"—have been radically transformed by sinological specialists and comparative scholars.7

Prevailing scholarly assumptions about Chinese tradition, ancient and modern, are being questioned and often overturned, even to the extent that hoary methodological debates dating back to the nineteenth century are being resurrected and fought once again—often with little awareness of their historical precedents. One instance of these revisionary turns that directly harks back to positions staked out during the last part of the nineteenth century concerns the reassertion of comparativistic and diffusionist theories arguing for multicultural, especially Western Asiatic and perhaps even Indo-European, sources for the Chinese language and civilization.8 China's wholly unique linguistic and cultural tradition was a basic article of polygenetic faith for both secularized Western and chauvinistic native Chinese scholars ever since the old comparativistic approach was definitively quashed after the turn of the century. Now, however, it is becoming increasing probable that traditional Chinese civilization, which was never purely monolithic in its origins or cultural development, will only be fully and fairly known comparatively in relation to its complex interaction with other ancient traditions.9


This shifting situation in the overall study of Chinese affairs, coupled with theoretical perspectives emphasizing the constructed nature of all cultural representations and the complex interconnections of Western imperialism, the missionary movement, academic Orientalism, and the creation of the human sciences, dramatizes the need for a careful reevaluation of the history of Western forms of knowledge concerning China. Considerable work along these lines has been done on the Jesuit and Enlightenment fabulations of China during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.10 After years of studied neglect, there have also been some, albeit only partially successful and modestly influential, efforts in recent decades to rethink the historical and intracultural significance of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Protestant missionary experience in China.11 Surprisingly, however, little serious attention has been given to the formative significance of the nineteenth century for the emergence of the Western humanistic discipline of sinology in relation to missionary tradition and the rise of other human sciences such as comparative philology, comparative religions, folklore studies, and anthropology.

This oversight is particularly unfortunate because it is in the nineteenth century, more than in either the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, that the definitive constellation of factors responsible for the institutionalization of sinology as one of the various European disciplinary traditions of Orientalism is witnessed. These developments were first and most powerfully in evidence in France, but as a result of the growing Anglo-American confrontation with China throughout the century, there was after midcentury an increasingly important British contribution to sinology in particular and to Orientalism in general. The general importance of British tradition in the latter half of the century is most obviously related to the worldwide sway of British imperialism. But several other factors contributed directly to the British role in the gradual professionalization of sinology as one of the fledgling disciplines of Orientalism. These factors include, among other considerations, the changing forms of the Anglo-American Protestant missionary enterprise and the influence of liberal Evangelical theology (exemplified by Legge's brother, George, and his father-in-law, John Morison); the often contradictory, but always entrepreneurial and sometimes philanthropic, evolution of British commercial and political interests in China; the ever-branching development of the Royal Asiatic Society (mainly, in China, the North China Branch in Shanghai, which was periodically under the tutelage of exceptional figures such as Alexander Wylie, Henri Cordier, and Joseph Edkins) and the appearance of various English language treaty-port journals in China devoted to the study and comparative analysis of Chinese tradition (e.g., Chinese Repository, China Review, Chinese Recorder, and the Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society); a greater experiential (or "field experience") familiarity with China that came from living in the country and having to contend practically with the Chinese language; and the more concerted development of the pragmatic tools of transcultural intercourse such as dialectical dictionaries, grammars, systems of linguistic transcription or romanization, primers, and texts. Finally, we must take into account—and Legge is an exemplary embodiment of these factors—a kind of Scottish Enlightenment, Nonconformist Protestant, Germanically Romantic, and broadly pietistic intellectual spirit that, coupled with the religious and commercial outreach of the British empire, was related to the emergence (roughly after midcentury) of the new historiographic and comparative sciences of human civilization. What is observed at the end of the century is the belated academic maturation and professionalization of the British (principally Scottish and English) and American style of amateur scholarship that, as promoted by the spectacular advances of British imperialism and its academic embodiment in London, Oxford, and Cambridge, selectively drew upon other nationalistic modes of intellectual production and secular proclamation—particularly the French-Jesuitical Enlightenment tradition of rational analysis and the newly conceived Germanic institutions of academic research (i.e., the Ph.D. traditions of Wissenschaft that have influenced all Western institutions of higher learning down to the present day).

This relatively brief British era of sinological Orientalism during the last part of the nineteenth century depends primarily on the emergence of a remarkable group of hyphenated missionary- and consul-scholars who, after starting out in the grand tradition of the British and American amateur scholar, went on to become professional or semiprofessional sinologists. Of all those who can be included in this diverse and truly impressive (but largely neglected) group (Sir John Francis Davis, Robert Morrison, Elijah Bridgman, Samuel Wells Williams, Alexander Wylie, John Chalmers, Ernst Eitel, Joseph Edkins, Edward Parker, Thomas Wade, Ernst Faber, W.A.P. Martin, and Herbert Giles), James Legge was by far the most important and paradigmatic.12 By the 1870s, English language scholarship concerning China, which was initially grounded in the often "listless" dilettantish speculations of missionaries and civil servants operating within Chinese coastal enclaves, had temporarily surpassed the armchair scholarship of the early French academicians in Paris. Legge epitomizes these developments and more than any other single scholar contributes to the late nineteenth-century canonization of a specialized body of translated knowledge about the classical or Confucian nature of traditional Chinese civilization.

For all of these reasons, the last quarter of the nineteenth century was the pivotal period for the explicit establishment of sinological Orientalism as a new academic discipline throughout Europe and America. It was at this time that a reluctant British ascendancy in the newly professionalized circles of sinological scholarship and comparativistic Orientalism is apparent, a brief intellectual hegemony resting largely on the sturdy shoulders of James Legge and Max Müller and their monumental outpouring of translations, books, and articles. It is possible, therefore, to speak of a Leggian epoch of sinology—from 1873 (when Stanislas Julien died in Paris and James Legge arrived back in England) to 1897 (when Legge died in Oxford and Édouard Chavannes reestablished the grandeur of the French tradition)—that shaped significant aspects of the later disciplinary tradition.13


Biographies that privilege individual intentionality, whether of quiet scholars or loud politicians, have in recent decades been seen as deceptive sources for cultural history. Much caution is called for when dealing with the so-called authoritative implications of persons or authors in relation to cultural productions, but at the same time I do not totally renounce the semi-Carlylian significance of "great" individuals in the history of discursive fabulation. It could be argued that I cannot have it both ways, but a close reading of the life and work of figures such as James Legge and Max Müller convinces me that an honest and full interpretation of either individual lives or of cultural history requires a dual hermeneutic that respects the ambiguous interaction of human identity and intentionality with culture while, at the same time, taking into account the variously constructed and transformative cultural incarnations of personality. Furthermore, in James Legge, the quiet missionary and scholar, I am dealing with someone who—in the Evangelical Christian sense of "pilgrim's progress" and in the classical Confucian sense of the constant ritual cultivation of character—kept his eyes open to the otherness of Chinese texts and persons and his moral antennae sensitive to the changing times. Consciously and unconsciously, he clearly participated in many events "of importance to the historian."

The problem is that Legge's wide-eyed, open-minded, and morally sensitive involvement in the changing shapes of Victorian history has been mostly overlooked and ignored. Arguably the greatest of the nineteenth-century sinologists, he is today vaguely, if at all, remembered only as the heroically industrious missionary-scholar who earnestly, but turgidly, translated the Confucian classics. The simple biographical facts of his long life (1815-1897)—a Nonconforming Scottish Congregationalist of the "middling classes" stationed in Malacca and Hong Kong for the London Missionary Society (1839-1870) and later the first professor of Chinese at Oxford (1876-1897)—seem to reveal not so much a historically significant figure but rather another tedious Victorian patriarch with an uncompromising dedication to a jealous God and to a "too-industrious scholarship." Even worse is that Legge's claim to fame as a quiet sinological scholar was often seen as the work of a mere translator lacking, as the French Durkheimian sinologue Marcel Granet said quite incorrectly, any "rules to guide it."14

There is a massive literature devoted to the Christian missionary movement in China, but most of the early studies concerned with the nineteenth century were either conventional overviews of Protestant missionary history from an apologetic perspective or biographical accounts with a narrow denominational orientation. For various reasons that will become manifest in this study, Legge was often overlooked or slighted by orthodox missionary historians; more secular historians tended to see Legge as only another, somewhat more liberal, example of the typical missionary insensitivity to Chinese culture. Never enough of a conventional missionary for missionary historians, Legge was at the same time too closely identified with the missionary enterprise to be taken seriously by later secular scholars. A careful examination of Legge's career shows, however, that both missionary commentators and academic historians have been guilty of perpetuating an overly stereotypical understanding of the nineteenth-century missionary experience in China.

It has, then, been James Legge's fate to be yet another "forgotten Victorian sage" memorable only as an anachronistic monument of steadfast evangelical piety and quaintly wholesome dutifulness—or, in Legge's own characteristically humble self-appraisal, a "moderate Calvinist" with a "habit of working."15 There have even been misgivings about Legge's abilities as a translator. He is usually praised as a meticulous textual scholar who carefully weighed native exegesis, but he has also been severely criticized for what has been perceived as his blatantly intrusive missionary bias, his totally uncritical philological and historical methods, his overly slavish devotion to the Song dynasty commentarial tradition of the great Ruist philosopher-statesman, Zhu Xi, and his obvious reliance on native informants such as Wang Tao who did all the hard textual work. His English renderings have furthermore been disparaged for their stiffly formal style and the antiquated use of mock archaic language and syntax to convey a classical remoteness of time and place.16 Given Legge's primary identification as a translator (and commentarial exegete), I have paid close attention to the way in which the whole neglected issue of translation as a primary mode of transcultural representation and interpretation is embedded within a nested set of historical contexts, ideological presuppositions, and rhetorical strategies.

Depicted as an overly "sane and sober" translator-transmitter of the Confucian Five Classics (Wu jing) and Four Books (Si shu), Legge has not ordinarily been seen as a creative participant in what the Anglican theologian Charles Hardwick called in 1855 the "portentous agitation" of the new forms of critical humanistic discourse and the overall disinterested, sympathetic, or comparative spirit that were beginning to emerge in Britain during the mid-Victorian period.17 Legge was, it seems, someone who partially identified with Kongzi (Confucius), who simply and modestly "believed in and loved the ancients." Like the ancient Chinese master, he was just "a transmitter, not a transformer"—not, to use Legge's own translation of this famous line from the Analects, a "maker or originator."18


To correct this legacy of amnesia and distortion, it is necessary to approach the circumstances of Legge's life from the broadest possible framework relating to the history of Evangelical and Dissenter religiosity, Victorian missionary tradition, British imperialism and Hong Kong colonialism, the liberal transformation of British higher education, the emergent scholarly traditions of Orientalism and sinology, and the rise of the academic sciences of comparison. On the Chinese side of things, the curiously synergistic factors of Qing dynasty imperialism, Manchu racism, and the self-propagated valorization and sometimes strident Occidentalism of the Ruist scholarly class should not be forgotten. The documentary record of Legge's long odyssey in Asia and Europe, spanning almost all of the nineteenth century, reveals a richly complex and liminal portrait of a cultural pilgrim whose life—somewhat like those of Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Jowett, or Max Müller—reflected much of the intellectual and religious controversy, and many of the significant institutional transformations, of the Victorian era. My concern will be to find, borrowing again from Müller, the right kind of comparative perspective on these matters—a perspective that, if no longer demonstrative of the progress of human knowledge, is nevertheless successful in assigning "each branch of study" to "its proper place" in the complicated rhetorical panorama of cultural discourse.

Legge's unique position within the nineteenth-century history of missions in China is related to several factors. First, it may be noted that Legge's Scottish background gave him a kind of special freedom and flexibility for rethinking the character of Chinese culture. This involved such factors as his earnest Sabbath culture upbringing; his early study of the Latin and Greek classics; his exposure to the Aristotelian common sense tradition of Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart at King's College, Aberdeen; his unusual openness to interpersonal relations with native Chinese of all classes; his Nonconformist liberality and Evangelical sense of moral duty; his appreciation of Jesuit scholarship; and his awareness of new developments in Protestant biblical criticism and Germanic historical criticism. Secondly, Legge developed approaches to Chinese religion and philosophy that initiated new authoritative standards for the translation, interpretation, and evaluation of these traditions. It was primarily because of these efforts (building, of course, on the earlier Jesuit enterprise) that the authoritative Chinese literary tradition of the Ruist scholar-bureaucrats came to be known as "Confucianism" in the West. Legge's achievements as a translator have been acknowledged, but the historical scope and intellectual depth of his Chinese scholarship are still not adequately appreciated. Legge not only mastered the ancient canonical texts of both the Ruists and Daoists, but also worked through available commentarial traditions in a way that undermines the charges that he was mostly dependent on the philological expertise of his Chinese assistants and that he was only a blind follower of Zhu Xi's twelfth-century opinions.

Legge's enduring historical significance, both as a textual transmitter and cultural transformer during his own era and with regard to his impact on subsequent missionary and academic discourse concerning Chinese tradition, is most importantly linked with the two greatest textual productions of nineteenth-century sinological Orientalism: Legge's monumental English-language edition of the Chinese Classics (the eight-volume first edition published in Hong Kong in 1861-1872 and the five-volume second and partially revised edition published in Oxford in 1893-1895) and his rendition, while at Oxford, of the Sacred Books of Confucianism and Daoism (in six volumes published between 1879 and 1891) for Müller's celebrated Sacred Books of the East series, which was published in fifty volumes between 1879 and 1902. Though now dated in style and deficient from various technical perspectives, these massive translations of and extensive interpretive commentary on the Confucian and Daoist classics are still being reprinted as the standard Western-language versions of these ancient texts.19

Almost no attention has been given to the convergence of Legge's evolving intellectual concerns with the perspectives of the comparative science of religions promulgated by Legge's Oxonian mentor, Max Müller. During his Oxford years, Legge's views gained a new degree of tolerance, comprehensiveness, and synthetic consistency—developments that were anticipated by his early terminological investigations in the 1850s concerning the Chinese names for God, but are most prominently traced in his 1877 paper on the relation of Confucianism and Christianity and in his full-scale comparative treatment of the Religions of China in 1880. During his tenure as the professor of Chinese at Oxford, Legge's sinological evaluations of Chinese tradition changed significantly, more explicitly revealing his concern for an "impartial but not neutral" approach to Confucianism and his growing respect for the moral and "religious" nature of Master Kong and the tradition associated with him. As a full-time sinological scholar with comparative interests, Legge's assessments of important figures such as the Ruists Master Meng, Zhu Xi, and Han Yu, and the Daoists Laozi and Zhuangzi—as well as of Buddhist materials and other important historical and literary texts—became more precise and interconnected with his overall grasp of the Chinese language and literature. Moreover, by virtue of Legge's authoritative comparative identification of certain traditional Chinese texts as "sacred books," traditions such as "Confucianism" and "Taoism" were for the first time included in the newly conceived, and hierarchically ordered, history of "world religions."20 These two Chinese traditions became what Legge's colleague and editor, Max Müller, classified as the "higher" traditions making up what were called the six Oriental "book religions" (i.e., Hinduism or Vedic-Brahmanism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism or Parsiism, Confucianism, and Taoism).

There is an important interpretive twist in Legge's formulation of the classical and sacred texts associated with Confucianism and Daoism. Unlike some academicians and missionaries who simply read out of these traditions only what they (and their communities) sought, Legge located a Chinese fundamentalist who had already set out a similar comparativist discourse concerning "higher" and "lower" Chinese traditions. His cultural model was the famous scholar-poet Han Yu of the Tang dynasty, the initiator of an orthodox line in Ruist intellectual criticism and the master of an intolerant sarcasm meant to dislodge powerful Chinese attractions to "superstitious" traditions such as Buddhism and Daoism.21 Legge clearly felt that his own "impartial but not neutral" comparativism was justified by Han Yu's Confucian precedent, yet he was selectively transmitting translated visions of Confucianism and Daoism (as well as some limited profiles of Buddhism) that were both Chinese and Western in rhetorical formulation and intellectual conceptualization. In this sense, for example, the standard emphasis on the early, pure, philosophical, or classical Daoism associated with Laozi and Zhuangzi was in part a Ruist or Confucianized way of distinguishing the later ritualistic, corrupt, and heterodox Daoist religion, and in part a recasting of the overall Daoist tradition in the Müllerian, comparativist, Protestant, and Orientalist developmental pattern of world religions.

Legge should also be remembered for his distinctive, and generally enlightened and liberally transgressive, contributions to the early colonial history of Hong Kong. He was not only actively and creatively involved in various religious issues (e.g., the rancorous term question debates, which concerned the best way to translate the biblical God into Chinese, and the gradual emergence in Protestant circles of more comparativistic, accommodationist, and social-gospel missionary methods), but was also directly engaged in various controversial aspects of social practice (e.g., the creation of a new system of nonsectarian general education for the Chinese of the colony) and political policy (e.g., his public criticism of government policies on opium, gambling, and the Taiping rebellion). In addition to these activities in Hong Kong, he played a noteworthy, though almost totally forgotten, role in the liberalization of Oxford University during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He was, for example, actively involved in the religious and intellectual emergence of Nonconformity in Oxford, the establishment of the professorial system, the promotion of a new multicultural curriculum and examination system, and the establishment of women's education at Somerville College.


From the very start of his career in Malacca in 1840, Legge was already a missionary-educator-scholar who sometimes went against the grain of traditional missionary methods and theories. As a professor of Chinese at Oxford, he was someone who was never satisfied with a conventional academic life either in the Müllerian mode of Orientalist entrepreneur or in the Benjamin Jowett style of University baron. Legge characteristically preferred the quiet life of the scholarly translator, transcultural transmitter, and educational transformer to the noisy machinations of the missionary or academic politician. In both vocations as missionary and professor, he was especially the consummate translator of Chinese texts into classical and sacred books of interest to the West—an educational enterprise that contested ordinary missionary standards of religious sympathy, social propriety, textual decipherment, and cultural representation. From the very beginning, his new version of, and commentary on, the Confucian classics was intended both for native Chinese students and the overall cultivation of a cross-cultural discourse with the West. Legge's Chinese Classics not only challenged many European presuppositions about the nature of Chinese civilization (albeit using Western terms and categories), but also challenged the status quo of conventional native Chinese scholarly opinion and the endemic Occidentalism of the Qing-period Confucian bureaucrats.

Legge was therefore not just a heroic exemplar of an earlier and mostly moribund age. He was more of a hyphenated and transitional agent who facilitated the passage from the earlier amateur tradition of Chinese studies to the later era of professionalized academic sinological Orientalism. He productively straddled the divide between the ardently antagonistic evangelism of the traditional Protestant mission and the more sympathetic and accommodationist approach associated with the new academic science of religion. As someone with a foot firmly planted in both conservative and liberal camps, Legge was old-fashioned, but it is more accurate to say that his emotional and intellectual evolution anticipates, parallels, and, to some degree, promotes a broader cascading set of interrelated changes that set the stage for a modern discourse within the academy and the missionary movement at the turn of the century. These changes are directly connected with important transformations in the sympathetic comprehensiveness of Protestant missionary policy and in the relentlessly textual, culturally insulated, and largely Confucian, classical, or "great tradition" bias of later mainstream sinology in Europe and America.

More than anyone else in the Victorian period, it is Legge who, by selectively borrowing from Müller's comparative science of religion and native Chinese commentarial traditions, effectively translated the religious mission of Protestantism in China into the idealized hermeneutical mission of academic sinological Orientalism. Nor must it be forgotten that the touchstone for Legge's own hyphenated missiological and sinological labors relied on his intensely reciprocal face-to-face encounters with Oriental texts and heathen persons. These were dutiful moral transactions that often challenged the popular presuppositions of conventional missionary theology and the fashionable excesses of comparative academic scholarship.


Bringing Legge out from behind the clouds of neglect and distortion shows that his pilgrim's passage from an early evangelical missionary career to the new, more secular, academic sciences of sinology and comparative religions participates in, and contributes to, some of the most significant religious and intellectual changes during the Victorian era. Thus a deeper appreciation of Legge's transcultural and transformative career in relation to both the peculiar nature of sinological Orientalism and comparative religions constitutes a critical test of some of Edward Said's more sweeping generalizations and aggressive formulations about the intellectual colonialism of Orientalism in the nineteenth century. This issue concerns the degree to which it is not only possible, but also crucial, to distinguish among different types of Orientalism (e.g., sinological, Indological, Islamic, Semitic, and so on, as well as important national variations) and the extent to which the process of cross-cultural intercourse can be reduced to some monolithic scheme of Western domination.22 Furthermore, the specific example of sinological Orientalism raises the important question of how certain Asian elite traditions influenced and transgressively appropriated various Western forms of Orientalism.

A prismatic analysis of Legge as a hyphenated missionary-scholar and as a sinological comparativist is of special interest for the way in which it is an embodied instance of the canonization and objectification of native texts that is not just a heavy-handed Western imposition of Orientalistic categories of knowing in the Saidian sense. We will want to examine the possibility that an overly cynical and one-sided emphasis on the intrusion of the Western imperialistic mission in the Orient (whether religious, commercial, political, or scholarly) may, in fact, prevent us from taking into account the revisionary reception and transformation of that mission in specific Asian traditions. Most of all, a balanced approach to the whole issue of Orientalism and the little-appreciated matters of Manchu Sino-Imperialism and Ruist/Confucian Occidentalism will lead to a more fully ambiguated understanding of Chinese and Western transcultural interaction and translation.


More than one hundred years have passed since the end of the Leggian era of sinology, and the time is ripe for a detailed examination of Legge's influence on the ways, and intertextual byways, by which the West has made sense and nonsense of Chinese tradition. That the appropriate time has arrived for such a substantial retrospective evaluation of the cultural significance of Legge's career and monumental textual productions in sinology and comparative religions is strongly suggested by recent attempts at producing more definitive and accurate versions of the "basic texts" of ancient China.23 These new translations will definitely be more stylistically in tune with current academic fashion. Such works will also, no doubt, be more technically sound and textually sophisticated, for it is indeed possible to make some real progress in establishing philologically, or recovering archaeologically, the best critical (and/or earliest) versions of an ancient text. But the insinuation that new modern or postmodern editions will necessarily overcome the deficiencies of the early nineteenth-century sinologists is certainly naive.

New scholarly translations of ancient Chinese literature should be welcomed as there is much to be gained from such efforts. The issue, however, is not so much one of simple philological accuracy or historical truthfulness, but the more convoluted hermeneutical issue of a translator's interpretive fidelity and transgressive challenge to the prevailing cultural discourse. After all, each age gets pretty much the classics, sacred books, or basic texts it most fervently wants and secretly desires. The salvific qualification here is "pretty much," but the overall point is still not insignificant. Translation is typically a visceral "sense by sense" operation where the meaning discovered is largely a confabulation of current ways of knowing. There is all the more reason and rhetorical compulsion, therefore, to try to locate and understand our own disciplinary progenitors and traditions, along with their submerged desires and hidden intertextual connections. One way to begin this task is to come to a fuller understanding of important nineteenth-century textual translators, cultural transformers, and "quiet scholars" such as James Legge.

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