Blessed are They That Have Been Compelled for Righteousness’s Sake: An Analysis of the Beatitudes in the Union Edition of the Chinese Bible

Published in Princeton Journal of Asian Studies, Spring 2014

 Although Protestants constitute only one percent of the mainland Chinese population, this percentage nevertheless translates to over ten million people (Hunter 278). Several scholars, mostly but not exclusively writing in Chinese, have begun to study the social and political dimensions and context of Chinese Christianity, though fewer studies concentrate on its underlying theology and how it compares to Western Christianity. For a much longer period—almost as long as translations of Christian scripture have existed in China, since the seventh century–much scholarship has been written, in all kinds of languages, examining the nature and methodology of Biblical translation in China (Starr “Introduction” 1). However, few scholars have striven to combine these two fields of study by thinking about the manner in which Chinese translations of the Bible might affect the development of theological thought in China.

In this paper, I propose to study one passage of Chinese Biblical scripture, the Beatitudes (shānshàng bǎoxùn de bāfú 山上宝训的八福) in the Book of Matthew (Mǎtàifúyīn 马太福音).[1] I will examine the terminology used for several key words in the passage that carry implicit assumptions about the way Christians in the West conceive of their faith. These include the words and phrases “God,” “poor in spirit,” “mercy,” “persecute,” and “Kingdom of heaven.” I will utilize dictionaries and several writings on Bible translation theory in China to first construct an idea of how the Chinese translatons of each of these terms might be conceived in Chinese as opposed to in an English-language Bible. I will then look at the interpretations of the Beatitudes of several Chinese scholars, along with one Western analysis for comparative purposes. With the help of these materials, I will examine the ways in which English-reading and Chinese-reading Christians conceive of the values described in the Beatitudes, and to what extent the translation of any of the terms above plays a role in these two reading traditions. The Chinese dictionaries that I will use, the Hànyīngdàcídiǎn 汉英大辞典 and the ABC Comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary, were chosen for their ease of use and comprehensive coverage of the Chinese language. The English dictionary I will use is the Oxford English Dictionary, also for its comprehensive nature.

Chinese Protestants are not one homogenous group of people. Based on their background and experience, they inevitably come to the Bible with different expectations and interpretations. One clear example is that in China, both officially registered churches and unsanctioned, unofficial “house” churches exist within Protestantism. These churches do have certain differences in belief and outlook, though it is difficult to conduct studies on this, as the house churches must remain secretive (Hunter 3; 64-65). The official Protestant churches tend to be composed of educated people and to take a more liberal stance on Biblical interpretation. Members of house churches, on the other hand, tend to consist mostly of uneducated people coming from rural areas where there is no strong tradition of orthodox Protestantism to be found (7). Ironically, this means that house churches are more likely to practice a more folk-belief-inspired, heterodoxical form of Protestantism than the government-approved churches, which one might expect would be less willing to perpetuate a Western religious tradition in its original form, rather than more (254).

Furthermore, there of course exists a socioeconomic and educational distinction between different groups of Protestants. With this paper, I do not mean to suggest that one unified reading for the Beatitudes exists across all of these groups of people, which indeed is not the case anywhere in the world that the Beatitudes are read. My goal is to rather, through an examination of the translation of certain phrases, suggest a framework for how to conceive of the Beatitudes in a Chinese context, based mostly on the viewpoints of Chinese intellectuals from both the orthodox and unorthodox Protestant traditions. This could be of use for comparative purposes in studies of how more specific groups read the Beatitudes.

The Importance of the Beatitudes to Christianity

The paper is interested in the nuances of scriptural interpretaton that exist in two distinct cultures, and the extent to which these nuances are caused by the translations of theologically-significant terms. In order to eliminate confounding variables as much as possible, it was imperative to choose a passage from the New Testament, the only set of scriptures not shared by any religious tradition other than Christianity. The Beatitudes specifically were chosen because they are written in the form of a series of moral and behavioral instructions from Jesus, and thus explicitly detail the values that Christians believe necessary to lead a godly life. Furthermore, the passage is punctuated with many terms whose meanings are vague at first glance and, in fact, have been often discussed and debated in the long history of scriptural scholarship.

A Note on the Chinese Bible Edition Chosen and the Historical Trajectory of Bible Translation in China

There have been many translations of the Bible into Chinese. Evidence exists that some books or even the whole Bible may have been translated as early as the Tang Dynasty, though none of these specimens survive to the present (Zetzsche “Bible” 25). The first so-called “modern” translation of the entire Protestant Bible was completed by Robert Morrison and William Milne in 1823 (43). Many more translations followed in the wake of this one.

The makings of the Union Bible (Héhéběn 和合本), the edition referenced in this paper, began in the late nineteenth century (193). It is the most recent major Protestant Bible translation effort using Mandarin, undertaken by foreign missionaries and first published in its entirety in 1919 (328). Although some revisions have been made to the text in the years since it was published, mostly of an editorial nature, the most widely-available version of the Union remains the original translation. This is the primary edition of the Bible used by Protestants in contemporary China (Zetzsche “Work” 77).[2]

The Union was translated primarily from the New Revised version of the Bible, with cross-referencing to the original texts in Biblical Hebrew and Ancient Greek (Zetzsche “Work” 81). However, in its New Testament translation, this edition of the Bible preserves the Greek meaning to a greater extent than the New Revised version does (Strandenaes 98). Therefore, in addition to using the New Revised text to compare the Chinese translation, I will also compare the original Ancient Greek terms.

Analysis of the Beatitudes

General Comments on the Translation Style of the Beatitudes

Before I begin analysis of specific terms in the Beatitudes, I will provide several general comments on the nature of the Union translation that stem from Thor Strandenaes’s study on translation characteristics of various Chinese-language editions of the Bible. Strandenaes points out that whenever a theological or dogmatic issue was at stake in the translation of a phrase, the formal correspondance method of translation from the ancient Greek was employed. Overall, the text was a conservative, fairly literal translation of the Ancient Greek, with heavy reliance on the New Revised version (98). The translation attempted to stress the internal conviction of faith that is so important to Protestantism (98-99). It also specifically emphasized the Beatitudes as a series of entrance requirements to God’s kingdom, rather than “eschatological blessings” (93). Both of these effects of the translation may contribute to the fact that the Beatitudes are subtly secularized in the Union Bible,  as will be explored in the analyses of specific terms below. With these general comments in mind, I will now move on to analyses of the translations of some of the key terms of the passage.

“shén ” v. “shàngdì 上帝” v. “God” v. “Theos”

The word “God” is used twice in the Beatitudes, in the sentences “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt. 5: 8-9).  The translation of this word has been a matter of intense contention since the first attempts to translate the Bible into Chinese, justifiably—centrally important to Christianity, the translation of this word alone has the potential to direct the course of how the faith as a whole is interpreted and practiced by Chinese Christians. Because so much has been written about the translation of this word into Chinese, I will give a condensed history of the discussion here, based mostly on Irene Eber’s convenient summary of the affair, and then move on to less-vehemently disputed terminology in the Beatitudes.

In the early days of Bible translation, there was no consensus on what term for God to use. A number of variations existed in various translations, including “shàngdì 上帝”,”shén 神”, and “tiānzhǔ 天主”, among others. Over time, as missionaries began to develop arguments for the use of one term or another, “tiānzhǔ” came to be employed more often by Catholics, while Protestants continued to debate over the advantages and disadvantages of “shàngdì” and “shén” (Eber 138). While the arguments between the missionaries were complex, they can be divided into two broad categories. Those who were in favor of the term “shàngdì”, such as missionary Walter Henry Medhurst, believed that the term “shén”, which connoted a group of spirits or ancestors as opposed to one God, was too close to the polytheistic beliefs of the Chinese to be used to refer to the one and only God of the Christian faith (140). After conducting a thorough examination of the use of both of these terms in many Chinese classics, Medhurst observed that “shàngdì” seemed to always be used in the context of a supernatural being who had never been created, but had always existed, and from whom all creation had been born. He therefore argued that “shàngdì” was the obvious choice for the translation of “God,” or “Theos” in the Greek (139). In response to arguments that the Chinese had never known a monotheistic God and therefore could not understand the concept of a single God as founder of all creation, James Legge, who supported the use of “shàngdì,” argued that the Chinese classics contained evidence that the Chinese had practiced monotheism at an earlier time in their history (142).

As already mentioned, those who supported the use of “shén,” such as missionary William Boone, argued that this term would be easier for the Chinese to relate to, since they believed the Chinese could only conceptualize of deities in the context of a polytheistic framework (141). Boone did not agree with Medhurst’s interpretation of the “shàngdì” term, writing that “shàngdì” was simply the proper name of a high-ranking Chinese deity (142). In any case, he argued that as a generic term, rather than a proper one, “shén” was more appropriate than “shàngdì” because it implied that God is unnameable, and that only generic terms can be used to refer to him. The original Greek word “theos,” he pointed out, was a generic term, not a proper one (141).

Eventually, missionaries began to perceive that they needed to ask Chinese people how they interpreted the terms, since it was their perspective as the intended audience that mattered the most, not that of the missionaries (152). When queried on the subject, however, the Chinese only added fuel to both arguments. It was concluded from the queries that generally, literate Chinese associated “shàngdì” with Heaven, while both literate and illiterate Chinese associated “shén” with ancestral spirits, both malevolent and benevolent (153). This would seem to support the argument that “shàngdì” should be used to translated “theos” or “God.” However, the Chinese people queried also generally agreed that “shén” connoted the idea of an unnameable God better than “shàngdì,” which added weight to the opposing argument (160).

Ultimately, the Union edition did not attempt to solve this problem, but skirted the issue, simply publishing two editions of its translation, one with “shén” as the translation of “God” or “theos” and one with “shàngdì” as the translation of choice. To this day, both Bibles are available in mainland China, and individual Christians can choose which translation they prefer to use. The fact that Chinese Christians are presented with a choice regarding how to refer to God is quite remarkable. This presumably opens up dialogue between Christians in China concerning how best to refer to God, which means that the Christian God’s very representation in language is less definitive than it is in English or ancient Greek. This has several effects. On the one hand, it emphasizes the impossibility of perfectly representing the concept of God through the human construct of language, as Western Christians also believe. On the other hand, though, the choice also allows Chinese Christians to become divided in how they principally conceive of God, in one or the other of the manners described above. This allows them greater flexibility in how to  conceive of God than Western Christians using the English or ancient Greek texts have.[3]

“Xūxīn 虚心” v. “poor in spirit” v. “ptochos tō pneumati”

The sentence in which this expression appears is, in English, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt.5:3). At first glance, this passage seems strange to a native-level English speaker. The phrase “poor in spirit” conveys a sense of someone whose spirits are low—a description which could potentially refer to those who are miserly, those who are selfish, and those who remain in a state of perpetual depression, among other negative connotations. Yet, given Christian values of selflessness, compassion towards others, and joy in the holy spirit, it seems unlikely that Jesus would claim that people with such negative mindsets could be blessed by God. In light of these tenets, it  makes more sense to interpret this phrase as meaning “humble” or “modest.”

In Rector Robert Eyton’s nineteenth-century book-length analysis of the Beatitudes, he explains that the phrase “poor in spirit” refers to those who are humble because they have been so faith-filled as to have “known God,” and therefore are more aware of their own inferiority in comparison. He further comments tha the reason this phrase is often misunderstood by English speakers is most likely because of the translation “poor” of the original Greek “ptochos” (16-19). However, the original Greek word “ptochos,” according to Barclay Newman’s Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, is equivalent to the English words “poor; miserable; begging; pitiful or inferior.” “Inferior,” the most similar to “humble” or “modest” of this group of words, has nevertheless a more negative connotation. There is no avoiding the fact, then, that even the original Greek maintains the ambiguity of the phrase.

The choice of the missionaries to translate “poor in spirit” as “xūxīn” therefore reflects their bias that this term be interpreted as “humble” or “modest,” even though other interpretations are possible. According to the Hànyīngdàcídiǎn the term “xūxīn” means “open-minded; modest; with an open mind.”  Nowhere does the entry suggest that “xūxīn” conveys any of the negative connotations that “poor in spirit” does to a native-level English speaker. Thus, in one sense, it may appear that the interpretive bias of the missionaries that resulted in them translating “poor in spirit” as “xūxīn”  means that this phrase is less vague to Chinese readers of the Bible. Certainly, this is how it is unambiguously interpreted by many Christian Chinese Protestants, such as Wàng Míngdào 王明道 (1900-1991) and Lín Xiàngāo 林献羔, also known as Samuel Lamb in English (1924-2013) (Yieh 153; Lín 14).

Furthermore, the translation omits any specific mention of the word “spirit,” present in both the English and Ancient Greek renditions. This may have been done intentionally to avoid the complexity of translating the theologically-significant word “spirit” (Eber 135). In mentioning the “spirit,” the English term references that part of human beings that Christians believe to be supernatural, linked to God. Eyton’s interpretation of the phrase as referring to those who “know God” further highlights the suggestion in the English phrase “poor in spirit” of a link between this world and the world beyond. By eliminating that word altogether, the Chinese expression remains grounded in the reality of the everyday, and the link between this tangible world and the immaterial world of God fades significantly.

“Xūxīn” was also one of the traits that was valued in ancient Chinese philosophies such as Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism (Strandenaes 93). This connotation allows an entryway for other philosophies to meld with the message of the Beatitudes, which are considered distinctly Christian in the West. This characteristic encourages the intersection of different ideologies in a way that the Beatitudes as they are read in the West do not, at least not idealogies outside of the Christian framework. In fact, one of the striking features of Chinese Christians is the way in which many of them seem to seamlessly meld Christian and pre-Christian tradition and belief, without apparently thinking it problematic (Hunter 163). The fact that the translation of the Beatitudes into Chinese subtly encourages this combining of philosophies may help to explain why more Chinese Christians do not view mixing folk belief and Protestantism as problematic.[4]

The ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary’s entry “xūxīn” adds another layer of complexity to the word. The second listing of its entry reads “timid; fearful.” This definition is noticeably absent from Eyton’s interpretation of the phrase “poor in spirit,” and also differs from the senses of “poor in spirit” in English, according to the Oxford definition of “poor,”  and “ptochos” in Greek of “miserable; begging; pitiful.” Thus, the use of “xūxīn” also implies that Jesus approves the possession of a certain kind of fear or timidity, presumably of the Lord. Palpable fear of the world beyond this one is certainly evidenced in Chinese Protestantism. In general, non-orthodox sects believe in the possibility of possession by evil spirits and the necessity of exorcism, ideas which have fallen out of favor with many Western Christians (7). Many of them also continue to practice ancient funeral rites alongside Christian ones, fearing that the Christian ones alone will not be enough to ward off evil spirits from attackig them (163). This kind of mixing of traditional and Christian faiths is not uncommon, and marks one of the major differences between Protestantism in China and in the West. The second meaning of “xūxīn” could serve to validate this continued reliance on traditional rites out of fear.

Lín Xiàngāo’s perspective on the Beatitudes is unique of those examined in this paper. He was a pastor of one of the unorthodox house churches, and is famous for speaking out in his life against the orthodox church, which he saw as moving away from the spirit of Christianity, becoming a more bland, government-controlled organization (“Chinese”). He sees “xūxīn” as referring to the spirit, thus re-centering the word on the more abstract, theological meaning it conveys in its English rendition (12). In his analysis, he suggests a more literal translation for the phrase, “línglǐ pínqióng灵里贫穷” [rough translation: poverty within the soul], which he interprets as “zài línglǐ pòchǎn 在灵里破产” [rough translation: bankrupt within the soul] (14).[5] He further argues that, though this instruction does not literally entail that good Christians must necessarily be financially poor, poverty in Ancient Greece may have had something of a correlation to the first Christians who were “xūxīn,” the ones who paved the way for others to follow their lead. He speculates that, having no material wealth to obsess over, they instead turned their entire minds, hearts, and spirits to the consideration of God (14-15). Thus, he re-centers the meaning of “xūxīn” on the spirit, but he still connects the trait’s origin to the material world.



“Liánxù v. 怜恤”  v. “mercy” v. “eleēmones”

This word appears in the line, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt. 5:7). The main way in which this translation differs from the English and Ancient Greek is that the latter two terms connote the idea of “forgiveness,” while the Chinese translation does not. The Greek word “eleēmones” is defined as “pitiful; merciful; compassionate.” According to the Oxford, “pity” denotes the feeling of having sympathy or compassion for another.  “Mercy” encompasses both of these ideas, and further carries the meaning of “forgiveness toward those whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” In the English translation, the choice of “mercy” over “compassion” or “pity” indicates that the translators wanted to emphasize the dimension of “forgiveness” in this word, the feature that separates “mercy” from “pity” or “compassion.” This emphasis is seconded by Eyton’s analysis, in which he explicitly points out that the meaning of this passage is to forgive one’s fellows (73).

The Chinese word “liánxù,” however, does not convey this nuance of meaning. Its entry in Hànyīngdàcídiǎn reads “pity; take pity on; have compassion for.” The ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary seconds this meaning exactly. Any connotation of “forgiveness” is absent from both. Forgiveness is an important trait of Christianity; therefore, its absence in the dimensions of the meaning of “liánxù” is striking. To have compassion and pity for others in the broadest sense is quite different from cultivating the ability to have compassion and pity for those who have personally harmed one, physically or psychologically. Because the connotation of forgiving others disappears in the translation of this passage, the importance of forgiveness is de-emphasized.

While forgiveness may not be as significant in the Chinese rendition of this phrase, it seems generally that Chinese Christians do at least take the dictum to act compassionately toward others seriously. It appears that the Chinese Christian population is generally harmonious (Hunter 158). Furthermore, the writings of several Chinese religious figures stress compassion as potentially the most important aspect of Christianity. Wàng Míngdào wrote that he believed the most important teaching of the Bible was the promotion of good will and good behavior toward others. He wrote that nobody would notice whatever particular theological views Christians hold, but that they would observe, and hopefully be persuaded by, their model behavior (Yieh 152).  Dīng Guāngxùn 丁光训, known in English as K.H. Ting (1915-2012), was the former President of the China Christian Council. He framed his understanding of the Beatitudes, and the Bible in general, around the significance of compassion toward others (156). Thus, one’s treatment of others seems to take on central importance for several writers on Christian scripture in China, though any discussion of forgiving others is conspicuously absent from their work.

This is also another word that, like “xūxīn,” was heralded by ancient Chinese philosophies as an honorable moral attribute (Strandenaes 93). Therefore, it has the same effect on the text.[6]

“Bīpò de rén 逼迫 的人” v “they that have been persecuted” v. “dediōgmenoi”

This phrase appears in the English sentence, “Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5: 10). The Greek word means “persecute; seek after, strive for; force out or away; practice (hospitality); follow, run after.” According to Oxford, “persecute” means “to subject someone to hostility or ill-treatment.” The Chinese word “bīpò,” on the contrary, according to the Hànyīngdàcídiǎn, means “force; compel; coerce; restrain.” The ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary’s entry for this word is essentially the same. The English word thus emphasizes suffering for one’s belief, but the Chinese word adds the additional meaning of being forced or compelled to behave or believe in a certain way. While the difference in the meaning between these terms is nuanced, it is nevertheless significant. The word “persecute”  often carries with it the implication of coersion—an underlying reason that persecution occurs is to discourage people from agreeing with the philosophy that is under attack. Thus, in a sense, persecution acts as a force in society that “compels” people to choose a certain path as opposed to another. Nevertheless, this sense is not an explicit part of the definition of the term. The Chinese word is actually closer in meaning to the original Greek, in the sense of “to force out or away,” than the English word is. This makes sense, since a pattern emerges throughout the Union of its translations more accurately reflecting the ancient Greek reading, in the sense of “to force out or away,” than those in the New Revised version (Strandenaes 82). One consequence of this alteration in meaning is that not just persecution, but more specifically complete ostracision and banishment, is emphasized as a desirable situation for Christians to be in, in the sense that their reward will be great in heaven.

This stance is reflected in Wàng Míngdào’s interpretation of this passage. He writes that true Christians are always persecuted; if a so-called Christian is not at the moment undergoing persecution, then she is not a true Christian but rather a hypocrite. She calls herself a follower of Christ, but her God is the world of secular materialism, not the Christian God (Yieh 153). Lín’s study also highlights the centrality of this Beatitude—he argues that fulfilling this is a prerequisite before any of the other values in the Beatitudes can be achieved (19-20). Both Wàng Míngdào and Lín, then, place crucial importance on the one Beatitude that does not have to do with moral character, but rather with how Christians are treated by people of the world. Their standpoint contrasts sharply with Eyton’s teaching on the subject. While Eyton admires those who have been persecuted historically for their faith, he admonishes those who would unnecessarily seek out persecution (182). While a Christian should endure persecution in good faith if it does come his way, it is not a responsibility or requirement that he go searching for it, and that his life be one unending stream of persecution. Thus, Wàng and Lín’s stances emphasize the greatness of social persecution more than Eyton’s interpretation does. Persecution is still important in Eyton’s conception, but it is not the most important among the values that the Beatitudes espouses.

“Tiānshàng 天上” v. “heaven” v. “ouranois”

Thus far, I have argued that many of the terms in this passage have been subtly secularized in their Chinese translations. One major argument that might be made in opposition to this is to point out that, regardless of the way these words are translated, the passage is still framed as a list of traits one needs to possess in order to enter heaven, which is quintessentially abstract and otherworldly.

The word “heaven” is used multiple times in the Beatitudes, always translated the same way in English. The original Greek word, which is also the same in each instance it is used, means both “heaven” and “sky.” The Chinese translation uses “tiānguó” for the first mention of “heaven” or “ouranois” and “tiānshàng” for the other, rather than remaining consistent with the same word as the Ancient Greek and English texts do. In both Chinese dictionaries, “tiānshàng” is listed as meaning “sky.” It thus denotes the non-religious sense of “heaven” (or “heavens,” more commonly in English), as opposed to “tiānguó,” the usual translation of the word “heaven” when it refers to the abode of God. Using “tiānshàng”in the second instance creates an image of a “heaven” which is somehow entwined with and part of the physical sky, as opposed to being beyond it, as western Christians typically imagine heaven, and as the Oxford confirms.

This melding of spaces is reflected in one of the large difficulties missionaries experienced in trying to convey Protestantism to the Chinese. They noted that the distinction between sacred and secular space was more blurred in China than it was in the West. This made it difficult to convey to the Chinese one of the integral tenets of Protestantism, a conception of one’s relation to God and journey through life as individualistic, private, and cordoned off from one’s experiences in the secular world (Hunter 145). The use of the word “tiānshàng” for “heaven” in this passage reinforces this indistinction between secular and religious space.

The conception of heaven as both an abstract entity and a component of the familiar world is present in theologian Wú Léichuān’s (1870-1944) analysis of the Beatitudes. He understands the “Kingdom of heaven” as referring to a society of economic equality—in essence, heaven is for him Communist (Yieh 148). It is clear in his theological writings that he conceptualizes of all of Jesus’ teachings as centering around one key message, much as the writings of Chinese sages do. He interprets the central message of Jesus’ teachings to be the glory of the “Kingdom of heaven” and the salvation it provides. Therefore, having concluded that the entire sermon is a description of the ideals of heaven, argues that the text can also be read as instructions for how to create a heaven on earth. Reading in the context of the May Fourth Movement, embraced an interpretation of the Beatitudes that would largely support the social and political aims of that movement, calling for an end to economic inequality, social injustice, and intolerance (149). In making this explicit connection between the current political and social situation of China and the Biblical text, changes the focal point of the passage from a consideration of what will get people into heaven to a tract for social change in the here and now. His actions therefore clearly indicate that he conceives of the secular and the spiritual not as separate realms, but as inextricably intertwined.


There are of course limitations in a study of this sort, the scope of which is necessarily limited by space constraints. One feature that would need further investigation is to explore more Western analyses of the Beatitudes, in order to obtain a more representative sample of how they tend to be interpreted in that context. While the writings of four Chinese theologians have been examined, it could only be beneficial to read more of these as well. It is also important to reflect that the Bible interpretations I have utilized represent, in the case of both the West and the East, the viewpoints of learned scholars and intellectuals. The interpretations of the majority of Chinese people go unvoiced. In some ways, this is unavoidable in critical analysis of a text—people outside of the formal study of Biblical scripture or intellectual inquiry infrequently record their thoughts on such matters. More research into this dimension of the Bible’s audience in China needs to be conducted. Perhaps such a study would be more well-suited to the realms of anthropology or sociology than to literary or scriptural studies, as it would likely involve interviewing vast numbers of Chinese Christians. Clearly, it would also be a worthwhile endeavor to examine other key terms of the Beatitudes, as well as of the Union Bible in general.

Throughout the course of this paper, it has become clear that there is no neat way to label the alterations in the fabric of Protestantism that the translation of the Beatitudes in the Union Bible creates. If any one pattern emerges, it is the de-emphasis of the more abstract, cerebral aspect of Protestant belief, such as one’s relationship to God, the idea of heaven, and the presence of sin, and the greater focus on improving one’s everyday reality. Many admirers and studiers of the Bible in China, such as Wú Léichuān, professed to be Christian but nevertheless did not hold Jesus’ teachings to be worthwhile because of his divinity as the son of God, but rather because his teachings were of high moral value, due to their similarity to the teachings of ancient Chinese sages. wrote that the divinity of Jesus was “too mystical to fathom and too controversial to be helpful” (Yieh 149). Scholar Tang Yi, in his list of possibilities for what will become of Protestantism in China, includes one which describes a world in which Protestantism is integrated into Chinese culture, like Buddhism before it, and made both human-centered and sinless (qtd. in Hunter 265-266). Hunter and Chan go on to predict that, in a similar vein, Protestantism in China may grow to be more concerned with social and political involvement than its predecessor in the West (269). This certainly seems to describe the picture of orthodox Protestant Biblical interpretation in China that has emerged from this examination of the Beatitudes.

The emphasis in the Chinese translation of the Beatitudes on the more concrete, moralistic aspects of the text, rather than on the theological ideology underlying it, is reflected in Yieh’s essay, where he speculates that interest in the Beatitudes has actually fallen in recent years as scholars of Christianity in China move away from an interest in “humanity” to one in “divinity” (159). Yieh points out that one feature that all the Chinese writers examined in his essay share is their tendency to think of the Beatitudes in the context of some kind of tract for how to harmonize with others (156).

One notable exception to this rule is the interpretation of the Beatitudes given by Lín Xiàngāo. His interpretation is, overall, more spiritual in focus than that of the other Chinese writers examined, and more in line with traditional Western interpretation. He announces at the beginning of his study of the Beatitudes that one of its primary goals is to “convey the good fortune of the spirit,” which automatically casts the passage into a more abstract framework (11). Because he was a pastor in an unorthodox church, as opposed to the other thinkers critiqued in this paper, it is possible that unorthodox churches in China tend to maintain a greater focus on the more abstract, otherworldly, spiritual aspects of Protestantism than the orthodox church, with its emphasis on using religion as a tool to further political and social causes. This is contrary to what one would expect, based on Hunter and Kim’s statement that orthodox Chinese churches are more in line with traditional Protestant belief (254). Their statement surely stems from the observation that many unorthodox churches combine Protestant and traditional Chinese religious and spiritual tenets, which is certainly heterodoxical in the strict sense of Western Protestantism. However, it is important to recognize that in absorbing traditional ceremonies concerning the afterworld into their Protestant beliefs, these supposedly heterodoxical churches place a greater emphasis on the spiritual dimension of the religion than the orthodox churches do, which in fact seem rather secularized. It may be necessary, therefore, to reconceive of how to define what constitutes “being more faithful to orthodox, Western Protestantism” in the study of these two branches of faith.

The translation of the Beatitudes into Chinese resulted in several nuances of translation that in general de-emphasized the otherworldly, theological aspects of the text and focused on its worldly value, as a set of instructions for living a morally superior life in the here and now. These findings reflect the missionaries’ desire to emphasize the moral and character-building qualities of the passage, rather than its implications about how to conceive of the cosmos and one’s relationship to God and heaven (Strandenaes 93; 98-99). Most Chinese people who have written about the Bible, both proclaimed Christians and those outside of the faith, have interpreted it more as a guide for social change and character-building than as a revelation of the world beyond ours (Starr “Modern” 13-31). The subtly different translation of the Beatitudes in the Union edition fuels this response to the Bible, encouraging a more secularist, humanist approach to its teachings.

Nevertheless, at least one theologian, Lín Xiàngāo, reads the text mostly as a reflection and promise of the world to come, in spite of its translation. His departure from the interpretations of others in the orthodox church suggests that further inquiry into how unorthodox churches read scripture, as opposed to the orthodox church, may reveal much about the way these two groups conceive of their faith. Hunter and Chan argue that unorthodox churches read the Bible more literally than the orthodox one does (254). However, while the Beatitudes in Chinese emphasize a more secularized approach to Christianity, with an emphasis on improving the here and now, Lín Xiàngāo continues on reading spiritual meaning into the text.  It is thus necessary to consider that, in some contexts, the scriptural reading practices of the orthodox and unorthodox churches in China may be the opposite of what Hunter and Chan suggest.













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Eber, Irene. “The Interminable Term Question.” Bible in Modern China: The Literary and
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Eyton, Robert. The Beatitudes. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd, 1895. Print.

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Hunter, Alan and Kim-Kwong Chan. Protestantism in Contemporary China. Cambridge:
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Lín Xiàngāo 林献羔. “Shānshàng Bǎoxùn 山上宝训.”, n.d.  Web. 11/21/2013

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[1] Note that after the first mention of a Chinese term, only pinyin will be used to refer to it. Also note that by “Chinese,” I mean “Mandarin” or Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 in the context of this paper. This is the language of most editions of the Bible in contemporary China, although there do exist earlier translations written in Classical Chinese, as well as several translations into minority languages. See the collection of essays edited by Irene Eber called Bible in Modern China: The Literary and Intellectual Impact, for more information on the translation of the Bible into Chinese languages other than Mandarin. The website also contains publication information and a brief history for Bibles published in twenty-six Chinese topolects.

[2] Upset that this translation of the Bible was done by foreigners, several Chinese scholars published new versions of the New Testament of the Union in the years immediately following its release, although these versions make such minor changes that it is more appropriate to call them “revisions” than new translations. They are  not as popular as the original translation (Zetzsche “Bible” 360-361). In 1979, The Chinese government organized a committee that would have, for the first time, significantly altered some of the theologically-important terminology of the Union version, though these revisions were never published because the government, in its own words, became pre-occupied with the sudden resurgence of activity in the Protestant Church after the end of the Cultural Revolution (336-361).

[3] While different terms for God do exist in English and Ancient Greek as well, this is not really the same phenomenon. In English and Ancient Greek, an awareness exists that all terms for “God” are simply synonyms for that word, whereas the distinction between “shàngdì” and “shén” represents a disagreement about the fundamental way in which to conceive of  God. It is somewhat akin to being undecided between whether to use “Zeus” or “God” to refer to the Christian entity in English, since “Zeus,” like “Shàngdì,” is the proper name of a supreme mythological deity (Eber 142).

[4] Note, though, that given the vast array of different Protestant groups in China, this is an oversimplification. Most likely, orthodox churches would not approve of this behavior, given their qualities outlined above, on p. 2.

[5] Lín Xiàngāo may or may not have known that the missionaries who translated the Union, recognizing that “xūxīn” differed rather significantly from “poor in spirit,” added a footnote to the first edition of the Union that read, “Xūxīn,yuánwén zuò xīnlǐ  pínqióng de 虚心,原文作心裡貧窮的” [rough translation: “xūxīn” in the original text is written “poor in the heart”].  However, this note was dropped in subsequent editions (Strandenaes 85).

[6] See my analysis of the role of “xūxīn” in this capacity above, on p. 9-10