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  • Timothy Richard's Buddhist-Christian Studies
  • Lai Pan-chiu

Timothy Richard (1845–1919), one of the most well-known nineteenth-century British missionaries who worked in China, is still remembered today for his efforts to disseminate "Western learning" and to promote social welfare and political reform in China.2 Interestingly, although Richard's missionary, educational, and political activities undoubtedly dominated his life in China, he also found the time to translate a number of Buddhist texts from Chinese into English.3 Unlike many of his fellow Christian missionaries, who either despised or ignored Chinese Buddhism, Richard endeavored to promote a dialogue between Christianity and other religions, especially Chinese Buddhism. In fact, his translations inspired several other European missionaries and Sinologists to take a greater interest in Chinese Buddhism, particularly Richard's biographer William E. Soothill (1861–1935) and Karl Ludvig Reichelt (1877–1952),4 the founder of Tao Fong Shan, which continues to promote Buddhist-Christian dialogue several decades after its foundation.5 However, Richard's translations of Chinese Buddhist texts, particular his translation of The Awakening of Faith, have been largely neglected by both Buddhists and Sinologists. As a result, the significance of Richard's dialogue with Chinese Buddhism has not yet been properly evaluated.

Two recent studies of Richard have focused on his translation of the Buddhist texts and his dialogue with Chinese Buddhism.6 Unlike previous studies, which have viewed Richard as a missionary and analyzed his interpretation of Buddhism from the perspective of interreligious dialogue, the present study attempts to treat him as a Sinologist and review his Buddhist studies from the perspective of Oriental studies. This paper attempts to evaluate critically Richard's interpretation of Chinese Buddhism in the light of the recent debate over Orientalism triggered by the influential critique of the Orientalist enterprise by Edward Said (1935–2003).7 Richard King has examined European studies of Eastern religions in light of this debate and has tried to determine whether these "Orientalist" studies displayed the characteristics of the Orientalist approach criticized by Said. Such characteristics included "textualism" (which identifies a religion with a set of "sacred" texts), "essentialism" (which tends to assume a dualistic demarcation between the East and the West), and the colonial ideology (which legitimated Europeans' pride in their cultural superiority and colonial power).8 Whereas King's study was concerned principally with India, the present study focuses on the [End Page 23] case of Timothy Richard in China but will adopt a similar perspective. I will consider whether Richard's representation of Chinese Buddhism is infected by the textualism, essentialism, and dualistic demarcation between the East and the West that Said identified as the hallmarks of Orientalism, and whether it tended to reflect or legitimize Western colonial ideologies.

My exposition of Richard's position will be based mainly on two of his most important works, The New Testament of Higher Buddhism (1910) and An Epistle to All Buddhists (1916). These texts will help us to understand why Richard translated Buddhist texts into English and how he saw the relationship between his studies of Chinese Buddhism and his missionary work. I will try to show that Richard's attempts to promote Buddhist-Christian dialogue were underlain and motivated by his concern for a kingdom—not the Earthly United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, of which he was a citizen, nor a Heavenly Kingdom unrelated to the present world, but an imminent "Kingdom of World Peace," whose blessings would be enjoyed by all the peoples of the Earth.

Richard's Studies of Chinese Buddhism in Their Historical Contexts

In order to understand the historical significance of Timothy Richard's study of Chinese Buddhism, it is necessary to place him in the historical context of the missionary attitudes toward Chinese religions and of the studies of Buddhism in the West.

Catholic missionaries had been active in China since the sixteenth century, long before the arrival of the Protestant missionaries in the early nineteenth century. Although some of the Catholic missionaries, especially the Jesuits, initially dressed like Buddhist monks, they soon changed into the robes of Confucian scholars, having discovered that most Chinese respected Confucian scholars more than Buddhist monks. Besides changing their outward...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9472
Print ISSN
0882-0945
Pages
pp. 23-38
Launched on MUSE
2009-10-17
Open Access
No
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