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Robert Morrison and the Multicultural Beginning of Chinese Protestantism

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For more content, please see Le Fait Missionnaire.

Robert Morrison (1782-1834), the first Protestant missionary to operate in China, was sent alone to his East Asian post by the London Missionary Society in 1807. He spent more than half his life (he died at his station in Guangzhou) planting a foothold in China for the benefit of evangelical Christianity, and, consequently, he established the foundation upon which all subsequent Protestant missions to China rested. While sinologists are generally familiar with the checklist of Morrison’s accomplishments in the areas of translating and publishing, less has been written about the multicultural nature of Morrison’s mission. His approach to China derived from a strain of British evangelical dissent, and the Protestantism that he planted reflected this cultural background. It follows that his converts absorbed many of these particularly evangelical traits. However, although Morrison was in China to execute this dissenting plan, it cannot go unnoticed that the actual execution of this plan relied on the Chinese. This essay explores the multicultural relationships that led to the beginning of Chinese Protestantism. In the first half of the article I demonstrate how Morrison pro-actively followed his British mission strategy; whilst in the second part I analyze his mission from an alternate viewpoint to show how he was shaped by the Chinese, for example in his speed of language study and in the print opportunities or difficulties he encountered. My aim is to demonstrate not only the degree to which Morrison planted his evangelical version of Protestantism in China, but also that the pioneer responsible for the foundations of Chinese Protestantism and Anglophone sinology only found success through the help of his interactions with the Chinese. Résumé Premier missionnaire à travailler en Chine, Robert Morrison (1782-1834) fut envoyé seul en mission par la London Missionary Society en 1807. Il y passa plus de la moitié de sa vie (il mourut à la station missionnaire de Guangzhou) à poser les jalons d’un christianisme évangélique et, en conséquence, il établit les fondations sur lesquelles reposèrent toutes les missions protestantes en Chine. Si les sinologues connaissent bien les succès de Morrison dans le domaine de la traduction et de la publication, la nature multiculturelle de son travail missionnaire reste peu connue. Son approche dérivait d’un courant évangélique britannique dissident, et le protestantisme qu’il implanta reflétait cette origine culturelle. Les personnes qu’il convertit elles aussi absorbèrent beaucoup de ces caractéristiques très évangéliques. Mais, même si Morrison était en Chine pour réaliser un plan dissident, la mise en œuvre de son projet n’en reposait pas moins sur les Chinois eux-mêmes. Cet article explore les relations multiculturelles qui marquèrent les débuts du Protestantisme en Chine. Dans la première section de l’article, je montre comment Morrison suivit pro-activement la stratégie de sa mission britannique ; dans la deuxième partie, j’analyse son travail missionnaire à partir d’un autre point de vue afin de montrer comment il a été façonné par les Chinois, notamment en relation à la rapidité de son apprentissage de la langue et en relation à ses opportunités de publication ou aux difficultés qu’il rencontra. Mon but est de montrer non seulement jusqu’ à quel point Morrison a réussi à implanter sa version évangélique du Protestantisme en Chine, mais aussi de montrer que le pionnier qui bâtit les fondations du protestantisme chinois et de la sinologie anglophone ne réussit en fait que grâce à son interaction avec les Chinois.

Affiliations: 1: Department of the Study of Religions, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK


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