"Studientage" - Missionary Linguistics: To Make Oneself Understandable in the Faith

Zbigniew Wesołowski SVD (Wei Siqi 魏思齊) :

Emergence of Christian-Chinese Terminology and the Role of Translations of the Bible in China in this Development Process
(Entstehung der christlich-chinesischen Terminologie und die Rolle der Übersetzungen der Bibel in China in diesem Entwicklungsprozess)

Paper presented at the Studientage (“Study Days” of the Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule SVD, Sankt Augustin): “Missionarslinguistik – Missionarische Linguistik: Sich im Glauben verständlich machen / Missionary Linguistics: To Make Oneself Understandable in the Faith”), 15-16 October 2019.

Organizers of Conference: Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule SVD, Sankt Augustin, Germany


Bible translations were an important task of Christians in their missionary work from the beginning. However, in the practice of their faith other basic texts were translated first than the Bible, e.g. Christian creeds (called credo or symbolum) that had existed since the birth of the Church. In addition, there were always liturgical texts that encompassed the entire worship process: prayer, reading and preaching, singing, and sacramental service. Above all, the tradition of catechisms in the Church has become very deeply rooted. Such a development process seems to have been in China. In the lecture it was stated that the problem of the correct translation of the name of the Christian God runs like a thread through the history of mission in China. With regard to the Chinese Nestorianism – Jingjiao 景教 (7th-9th century), we can already discover the three main ways of developing the Christian-Chinese terminology as translation strategies: 1) borrowing the concepts from the existing terminology of other spiritual traditions (especially Buddhism and Daoism, Jingjiao, e.g., the four names of God; the problem of syncretism); 2) transcription as a phonetic rendition of the original – not only in terms of proper names (for example, personal and geographical names, Jingjiao for example Moyan as Mary and the Catholics - Maliya), but also generic terms – in the sense of religious concepts – dousi for Latin “dues”; the problem of intelligibility); and 3) neologisms: Jingjiao called Holy Spirit “Refreshing Breeze / Cool Wind”; the Jesuits made a word for substance – zili zhe 自立者 (literally: the self-reliant”; the problem of intelligibility).

There are good reasons to believe that the Nestorians in China did also some Bible translations. However, we have not yet found any of their direct Bible translations. In the Catholic missionary work of the late 16th century through the 17th and 18th centuries, the translation of the Bible played no major role in the process of the emergence of Christian-Chinese terminology in contrast to the Protestant China mission in the 19th century until 1949. However, the most formidable task is still to come: the multiple terminological problems – let alone the desirable emergence of a necessary harmonized phonetic transcription of Bible place names and those of persons – in the Chinese Bible translation complicate the fundamental, yet to-come, challenge of creating and publishing a common ecumenical Bible edition for all Christians in China. Despite the above challenging problems, Christianity and the Bible seem to have new perspectives for the future, also in defiance of many obstacles in the present-day People’s Republic of China.