The Union Version of the Bible and the Chinese Church

“Fragmentation” and Church Foundations

Link to Chinese version of this article

Churches in China’s cities were once flourishing, but today’s intense political pressure is causing fragmentation with big churches forced into meeting in small groups. This is not like the ‘small group’ church movements in other parts of the world. It has not come about through the careful decision-making of mature leaders, but purely as a reaction to religious policies. And as if division weren’t enough, these small group churches are under constant threat of being reported by neighbors as “illegal gatherings.” There has never been a shortage of smaller group church meetings in China however, this is something new. The government publicly claims “freedom of religious belief for China’s people” yet, local church groups are being pursued and persecuted.

How can the Chinese church move forward? After decades of progress, is this the future of China’s church?

Before attempting to answer, we must understand the uniqueness of Chinese Christianity. In particular, we must find out why Christianity persevered and even grew from the 1950s to the 1970s, when there were no public religious activities. Many Christians from that period of time could testify that the most important (and sometimes the only) influence for Chinese Christians to continue in faith and experience God’s presence in that era was the Bible; either portions
of the written word, or passages of Scripture that they had memorised.

However, the influence of the bible to the Chinese is not limited to a particular period in time. A survey in 2018 showed that the Bible, especially the traditional paper Bible, was the medium which influenced Chinese Christians most in coming to faith.

Media which influenced Chinese believers in their journey to faith (2018 survey)

We should note that when Chinese believers say that they love reading and holding the Bible, they are not thinking of their favorite Bible translation. For Chinese Christians, there is generally just one Bible translation, the ‘Chinese Union Mandarin Bible,’ which was published in 1919.

When Robert Morrison and the other earliest missionaries arrived in China, one of their first tasks was to translate the Bible so that Chinese people could read it for themselves.

In an era when there was no unified national language or universal education, the Chinese Bible was initially translated into several different Chinese regional dialects. In 1854, nearly 50 years after Morrison arrived in China, several Chinese Bible guilds met with the intention to jointly publish a ‘Delegates version’ that could transcend locality. Although their venture was not ultimately successful, it provided the momentum for the ‘Union Version Mandarin Bible’ to be produced and eventually published in 1919.

The Union Version Mandarin Bible soon replaced the local dialect versions and became the de facto ‘Bible’ for the Chinese today. In recent years, several other versions have been published: Today’s Chinese Version, the Chinese Bible New Version, and the Chinese Contemporary Bible, etc. However, for almost a hundred years, the Union Version’s position among the Chinese (including diaspora Chinese) was unquestioned. For Chinese believers, ‘The Bible’ is synonymous with ‘The Union Version.’

How did this happen? And what does it mean for Chinese believers?

The Union Version was published at a turbulent time in China’s history. The Qing dynasty had just ended, and the Chinese Republic was still forming. The successful translation of the Union Version helped give a sense of cohesion to a Chinese society that had been torn apart by war. It contributed to a sense of progress, and made lasting contributions to cultural and social development, and to ethics. Even though Christians (including Catholics and Orthodox Christians) accounted for less than one percent of the population during the Republican era (1912-1949), the Union Version spread throughout many fields of Chinese society and was a positive force in leading China into the modern era. Today, China’s ‘Amity Press’ is the world’s biggest publisher of the Chinese Bible. From 1980 to 2016, China printed 150 million Bibles, mostly the Union Version. However, the broad circulation of Chinese Bibles began long before 1980. Research has shown that from 1919 to 1949, China distributed a total of 293,422,366 Bibles.

After the publication of the Union Bible in 1919, the Ministry of Education of the Northern Government ordered in 1920 that all primary schools use Mandarin Chinese in schools. At that time, dialects were numerous and the national government was often obstructed by regional factions. Mandarin education was promoted in an effort to achieve national unity in language and culture. The Union Version Bible became a tool for Chinese people to learn and use Mandarin, and also allowed for the unification of spoken and written languages. Chinese Christians love the Union Bible not only because of its beauty, but also because it helped to provide the Chinese nation with a new and complete worldview and language system.

The Union Version of the Bible also shaped the theological consciousness of Chinese Christians. The systematic theology of the Chinese church is not based on the original Bible languages, but from the very beginning it was directly based on the language of the Union Bible. More importantly, in the 30 years after 1949, Chinese Christians survived their most difficult years by reliance on the memorisation and interpretation of the Union Version scriptures. If they were to lose the Union Version, the Chinese Christians would not only lose their theological language, but their confidence in God’s revelation would also be shaken. The Union version has provided a complete system of belief, and the language in which to express it. This cannot easily be replaced. In 1956, the well-respected Chinese pastor, Jia Yuming, declared with Paul, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day” (2 Tim 1:12, NIV). Jia made a public appeal on behalf of the Union Version translation of the Bible, “We must have experience in faith, and faith built on our experiences. Our beliefs are not only doctrines, theories, creeds; and the Union Version is not subjective, presumptive, or based on handed-down traditions. It was translated in a context of practical experience, and of lives lived in a way that truly expressed this faith.”

As we look back on the Chinese church’s journey over the last 60-70 years, we can see the significance of Pastor Jia’s insightful appeal. Even though the Union Version is in need of revision in some areas, the very existence of this translation, and the dependence upon it of China’s Christians is a bulwark in the face of oppression and fragmentation. China’s church will not be destroyed, but with the strength lent to them by the Union Version, will continue to grow in faith and to experience God. This is how God blesses and grows His church in China.

Used with authors permission

(1) Zhong, John, “Translation of the Union Version and the Unity of the Chinese Church”, unpublished paper, 2019.

(2) Amity News, 2016 https://www. amityfoundation.org/hk/?q=content/%E7%8 6%B1%E7%83%88%E6%85%B6%E7%A5%9D% E6%84%9B%E5%BE%B7%E5%AE%8C%E6% 88%90%E5%8D%B0%E5%88%B7%E8%81%96 %E7%B6%93%E4%B8%80%E5%84%84%E4%B- A%94%E5%8D%83%E8%90%AC%E5%86%8A

(3) Zhong, John, “Translation of the Union Version”

(4) Zhao, Dorcas, “A Study of Biblical Thoughts and Interpretation of the True Jesus Church before 1949”, unpublished paper, 2019.

(5) Jia Yuming: His statement at the 2nd Three- self Patriotic committee meeting. See selected articles from Three-self Patriotic Movement (1950-1992), pp 83-85.