Finding Words for Christianity in the Far East

by on Tuesday, 20 January 2009 Comments


The encounter between Christianity and East Asian languages, cultures and nations took place, for the main part, in the larger context of the confrontation between Western expansionism and societies meeting with a number of crises. The original conditions of the encounter still partly determine the relationship between Christianity and East Asian languages. However, this relationship was shaped not by historical factors only but also by the intrinsic difficulties encountered in translating the Christian worldview as elaborated in Europe throughout centuries with words, concepts and linguistic structures proper to East Asia.

Christianity as shaped by European tradition encountered the civilizations of Japan, China and Korea from 1550 on. Till the beginning of the nineteenth century, East Asian nations witnessed the arrival of mostly Catholic missionaries, whose lingua franca was Latin, though Portuguese (due to the patronage consented by the Pope to the King of Portugal) and other European languages were also used as communication and translation tools. Protestant missionaries arrived in the region around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Their linguistic policies had much to do with efforts developed for translating the Bible into vernacular languages and will therefore be sketched in Part II.

Jesuit missionaries in particular dealt directly with a variety of linguistic problems. Matteo Ricci (in China from 1583 till his death in 1610) took pains to write his apologetic works in elegant literary Chinese. In 1615, the Jesuits received from the Pope the permission to use vernacular language in the liturgy and to translate the Bible in classical Chinese. However, the development of the Rites Controversy prevented them from making use of this permission. Attempts made in Japan during the same period were also aborted. More generally, if apologetic and catechetical treaties in East Asian languages were numerous, the authoritative sources of Catholicism were still controlled by the use of Latin till the middle of the twentieth century. In the Catholic world, it is only with the foundation of the Fu Jen Faculty of Theology, in Taipei, that teaching and research were conducted in Chinese, starting in 1968. From that time on, the shift has been swift and complete.

In Korea, Christian use of the Hangul script enabled the spreading of the faith. As early as the end of the eigtheenth century, portions of the Gospels, doctrinal books and a hymnary appeared in this script. This was a challenge to the perceived cultural superiority of Chinese and a factor in the rise of literacy. In Taiwan, the influence of the Presbyterian Church is strongly linked to its early advocacy of the Taiwanese (minnan) language and romanization.

Protestant missionaries in the Far East saw the encounter between Christianity and Eastern languages mainly through the prism of Bible translation. An exploratory stage took place from 1820 to 1890, a time where full translations in Japanese and Chinese of both Testaments were completed. In 1919, the publication of the Mandarin Union Version, coinciding with the May Fourth Movement, was a lasting cultural and literary event. In Japan, authoritative Catholic and Protestant versions of the New Testament were published around 1910-1917. After 1960, new publications appeared, based on renewed scholarship. The first complete Chinese Catholic Bible was published in 1967 in Taiwan. In Korea, the Bible was newly translated for common use by both the Catholic and Protestant churches--the New Testament in 1971 and the Old Testament in 1977. Questions as to the reliability of these two translations have been raised; a Catholic Bible was been completed only in 2002.

Over the last thirty years of the twentieth century, Korean minjung theology has provided East Asia with an example of the importance of language issues in the crafting of a new Christian way of being. Though minjung roughly means “people”, the word is usually not translated in order to preserve the specificity of the historical experience it represents. Korean minjung theology pioneered extra-textual hermeneutics, insisting on popular rituals and expressions of feeling as a source of inspiration. Of special importance has been the stress put on kut, a shaman-like rite that makes the community as a whole gathering, resurrecting and offering sacrifice. Similarly, much writing has been devoted to han, the dominant popular feeling arising from “the suppressed, amassed and condensed experience of oppression.”(Suh Nan-dong) Such journey allowed for instance the Korean feminist Chung Hyun Kyung to write: ”I discovered my bowels are shamanistic bowels, my heart is a Buddhist heart and my head is a Christian head.” Though not as vibrant as was the case in the 1980s, minjung theology still provides a set of questions for East Asian Christianity as a whole:

From the middle of the sixteenth century on, the encounter between Christianity and East Asian languages and cultures was partly shaped by European expansionism, partly by the interaction between cultural-linguistic matrices proper to worldviews that had developed apart from each other. Biblical translation was a battleground on which religious inculturation slowly occurred. The determination of theological terminology also allowed for creative linguistic and cultural accommodation. Today, biblical, literary and extra-textual hermeneutics contribute to the reshaping of East Asian Christianity. The appropriation of Christianity by East Asian languages and cultures is ultimately an ongoing narrative told in many tongues.


Photo : Taipei Ricci Institute Archives

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