The Victorian Translation of China

Submitted by Komjathy on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:35
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THE VICTORIAN TRANSLATION OF CHINA: JAMES LEGGE'S ORIENTAL PILGRIMAGE. By Norman J. Girardot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Pp. xxx + 780; illustrations; appendixes; index. Cloth, $75.00, ISBN 0-520-21552-4

The culmination of some twenty years of research, Girardot's book is a historically nuanced and, at times, a dauntingly detailed study of the Victorian missionary James Legge and the related "Victorian translation of China."

James Legge (1815-1897) was a Scottish Congregationalist, representative of the London Missionary Society in Malacca and Hong Kong (1840-1873), and first professor of Chinese at Oxford University (1876-1897). Girardot dedicates the lion's share of his study to the period of Legge's life relating to his association with Oxford University, Max Müller (1823-1900) and the Sacred Books of the East series (published in 50 volumes between 1879 and 1891), and Victorian tradition at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Girardot, "I wanted as much as possible to use the prism of Legge's life and works to get at the Victorian foundations of the modern Western perception of China and religion….Legge becomes in this way a pivotal figure for examining some of the most portentous intellectual and religious developments at the end of the nineteenth centuries" (xv-xvi). In addition to an 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), and conclusion (Darker Labyrinths: Transforming Missionary Tradition, Sinological Orientalism, and the Comparative Science of Religions after the Turn of the Century), the book consists of eight chapters: (1) Pilgrim Legge and the Journey to the West, 1870-1874; (2) Professor Legge at Oxford University, 1875-1876; (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; and (8) Teacher Legge: Upholding the Whole Duty of Man, 1893-1897. There are also four appendixes covering Max Müller's motto for the Sacred Books of the East, James Legge's Oxford lectures and courses, the principal publications of James Legge and Max Müller, and a genealogy of the Legge family

Girardot's study is much more than a critical biography; it also reveals the various ways in which Leggian constructions, rooted in and manifesting contemporaneous Victorian prejudices and missionary sensibilities, set many of the foundations and enduring interpretative tendencies in Sinology ("sinological Orientalism") and the comparative study of religion. In terms of Daoist Studies, Legge established many of the most influential and still predominant ways of understanding Daoism (see especially 419-45). "Legge was truly one of the inventors of the Daoist tradition in the West. In the late-Victorian period in the Leggian understanding of the tradition, Daoism was primarily a reified entity located classically, essentially, and philosophically within two ancient ‘sacred books' associated with the shadowy religious founders known as Laozi and Zhuangzi….[The] full-blown crystallization of Daoism as a Victorian cultural artifact is more accurately dated to the appearance of Legge's translations of the Texts of Taoism that made up volumes 39 and 40 of the Sacred Books of the East" (420). Such insights deserve critical reflection by anyone conducting research on Chinese traditions. (Girardot provides a parallel discussion of Legge's construction of Confucianism.

However, Girardot's nuanced and sympathetic study suggests that it is as much a mistake to dismiss James Legge as simply a "Christian missionary" or "Western imperialist" as it is to believe that "Victorian constructions" concerning China are merely artifacts of intellectual history. During his scholarly life, James Legge not only translated (and thus transformed) Chinese cultural traditions but also was transformed through his scholarship

The Victorian Translation of China will be of interest to researchers in seemingly unrelated fields of study: Chinese history, Chinese religion, intellectual history, comparative religion, missionary history, post-colonial studies, and the history of English higher education. As the detailed nature of Girardot's study (with its 200 pages of notes!) may prove off-putting to some readers, one can image an abridged version that draws particular attention to the still lingering legacy of Victorian interpretations of China. This might ensure the larger readership that The Victorian Translation of China deserves. 


Louis Komjathy

Boston University

June 25, 2003