How did an Early Christian Missionary Mistranslate the Ru (Confucian) Texts?

(This essay contains 1200 words)

The only available English translation for some of the most important philosophical and sociological Ru classics was completed almost one and half centuries ago by James Legge (1815-1897 CE), the deviser of the name “Confucianism” for the Ru tradition, who was a British Congregationalist missionary visiting China in the middle to late 19th century.

It is thus hardly surprising to discover that many of Legge’s translations, or in certain cases we should say “mistranslations,” were heavily influenced by his Christian missiology. He was trying to prove that the ancient Ruist classics contained the seeds of the Christian truth, and thus he believed that the mission of Christianity would be able to fulfill those seeds and enable the Chinese people to realize the religious truth which is ultimately revealed by Christianity. This missiology is called “accommodation,” as it is a way of accommodating the Christian message within indigenous Chinese cultural soil.

I will offer one example of Legge’s translation of the Ruist cosmology in the Appended Texts (Xici) of the Classic of Change (Yijing) to show how his missiology worked. But before presenting this, a preliminary introduction to Xici’s cosmology will be necessary: The Xici is a definitive metaphysical text in pre-Qin classical Ruism (?-221 BCE) whose authorship was traditionally ascribed to Confucius but continues to remain debatable up to the present day. In the Xici, Tian, which for Ruists is what is ultimately real was not conceived of as a supreme deity standing above the heavens and dominating the fate of human society as it once had seemed to do in the Pre-Confucian Ruist classics. Instead, Tian is understood to be an all-encompassing, constantly creative, cosmic power that brings all things in the universe into being, but without any Creator standing behind the scenes. Within this all-inclusive existential field, Xici also investigated layers of “principles” (li) that explained the origin and order of the ever-changing cosmic entities, among which the yin and yang “vital-energies” (qi) stand out distinctively. In other words, for explanatory purposes, the alternation and interaction of yin and yang vital-energies are thought of in the Xici as the most pervasive principles, as Xici’s verse “one yin and one yang is called the Way” nicely encapsulates. However, in another cryptic verse called “Ultimate Polarity (taiji) creates two modes,” the Xici strives to search for a single source principle which can account for the origin of the two vital-energies, yin and yang. What Xici was presenting was a potentially complete cosmology that not only described the generic features of cosmic realities, but also explored the ontological origin of the entire universe; it was not attempting to account for the existence of a Creator God. This Ruist cosmology was later further developed by Song and Ming Neo-Ruist thinkers such as Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073 CE) and Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE) so that it became the dominant metaphysical worldview among Ru literati.

In the face of a sophisticated, potentially complete form of cosmology, Legge mistranslated its mainstream Ruist understanding in order to present his version of what he called “original Ruism,” and which he thought of as containing the seeds of Christian monotheistic truth. This process can be demonstrated as follows: When commenting on the Ruist cosmology in the Xici, Legge noticed that the alternation and interaction between yin and yang vital-energies (which he translated as “subtle matter,” “breath,” or “energy” in varying contexts) are taken as the all-pervasive principles explaining the dynamics and order of Cosmic Change. However, as for the deeper concern about the origin of these vital-energies, at one moment, Legge says: “whether (the subtle matter is) eternal or created is not said” in the Xici [i]. At another point, concerning the same text, Legge said: “Neither creation nor cosmogony was before the mind of the author whose work I am analyzing. His theme is the Yi [Change] -- the ever-changing phenomena of nature and experience. There is nothing but this in the ‘Great Treatise’ [ii] to task our powers; -- nothing deeper or more abstract.”[iii]

However, as mentioned above, there is indeed one verse about Ultimate Polarity in the Xici which clearly addresses the ontological origin of yin and yang vital energies: “Ultimate Polarity (taiji) creates two modes.” So how did Legge deal with this verse? In spite of his reasonable translations of several major interpretations of Ultimate Polarity in the Ruist tradition provided by distinguished commentators such as Wang Bi (226-249 CE), Kong Yingda (574-648 CE) and Zhu Xi, neither of whom followed a theistic hermeneutics which would have perceived Ultimate Polarity as a Supreme Deity, Legge left very ambiguous sentences such as, “the name of Taiji [Ultimate Polarity] gives us hardly any clue as to its meaning.” [iv] But, in the preface of the same book, Legge states that the Ruist cosmology which developed after Confucius and flourished in the minds of Neo-Ruist thinkers was impacted by Daoist philosophy, and thus is “more Taoistic than Confucian.” [v] In other words, the reason that Legge discarded the rich Ruist metaphysical tradition which actually interprets Ultimate Polarity as the singular non-theistic [vi] ontological origin of the yin and yang vital energies is that he thinks that this is only a corrupted form of “original Ruism.”[vii]

In Legge’s mind, then, what is an accurate definition of “original Ruism” concerning the origin of the yin and yang vital energies? Regarding another related verse in the Xici, Legge translates, “What is unfathomable through yin and yang is mysterious and wonderful (神),” [viii] as “That which is unfathomable in (the movement of) the inactive and active operations is (the presence of a) spiritual (power).” [ix] In a further comment of this verse, Legge said: “Confucius felt that all which appeared in the Yi did not account for all that took place in the world of fact...Confucius felt, I believe, that in all phenomena there was the presence and doing of God, the potency that ‘spreads undivided and operates unspent,’ [x] an immanent spirit, and yet not to be confounded with the matter which He moulds and changes.” [xi] Clearly, Legge imputes to Confucius the notion that what has created yin and yang vital-energies is the spiritual power of the Christian God, termed Shang-di in Chinese, which is immanent in the functioning of these two vital-energies while simultaneously transcending them. This claim implies that Legge’s conception of Ultimate Polarity refers to Shang-di, that is, to the Christian God.

In a word, Legge’s struggle to dovetail ancient Ruist cosmology in the Xici with his Christian missiology can be unpacked in the following ways: (1) sometimes Legge claims that whether “creation” is a concern for this cosmology is unclear; (2) sometimes he claims that “creation” is not at all a concern for this cosmology; (3) he claims that every Ruist commentator or thinker who continued to ponder the origin of the cosmos based on the non-theistic basis of the Xici were corrupted Ru who were already deviant from “original Ruism”; (4) by translating a key Ruist term, 神 (shen), to mean “the spiritual power (of Shang-di),” which translation cannot be substantiated by any other verse in the Xici, Legge concludes that in Confucius’ mind the spiritual power of a supreme deity created the entire world, and for Legge this supreme deity is, surprisingly enough, the Christian God.


[i] Legge, James. The Religions of China: Confucianism and Taoism Described and Compared with Christianity (New York: Scribner, 1881) 38.

[ii] “Great Treatise” is another name for the Xici.

[iii] James Legge, the I Ching (New York, Dover Publications, 1963, the original version is published in 1899), 44.

[iv] ibid., 375

[v] Ibid., xvi. “Taoism” is an old name for “Daoism”, due to a previous romanization system of Chinese.

[vi] The Ruist cosmology in the Xici is non-theistic, because the creativity of Ultimate Polarity is thought of as transcending human knowledge. Therefore, neither theism nor atheism can contain the unfathomable creative power of Ultimate Polarity. Further, anything we can know about Ultimate Polarity can only derive from the human empirical knowledge about the de facto conditions of existing cosmic realities. Please refer to my essay “Where, How, and What is Ru Metaphysics?” to see more details about Ru metaphysics.

[vii] Compared with Ruism, Legge had a very negative view towards Daoist philosophy and religion because he thought the philosophy was too naturalistic and the religion too full of superstition.

[viii] This is my translation of “陰陽不測之謂神.”

[ix] Ibid., 373.

[x] This quotation is supposed to be a Christian poem written by Alexander Pope (1688-1744).

[xi] Legge, The Religions of China, 42.

Editor: David Schiller

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