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  • The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge's Oriental Pilgrimage
  • James L. Hevia (bio)
Norman Girardot . The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge's Oriental Pilgrimage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 780 pp. Hardcover $75.00, ISBN 0-520-21552-4.

Before the huge expansion of Chinese-language training programs in the second half of the twentieth century, no single individual did more to introduce the English-reading world to Chinese thought than James Legge. His output was staggering by any measure. Between 1861 and 1872 Legge published the Chinese Classics in five volumes, including the Analects, The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Book of Mencius, and the historical annals and poetry. Later he would turn to the central texts of Daoism and the Book of Changes (Yijing). In each case, the volumes that resulted included lengthy notation, reflecting an engagement with the formidable Chinese commentary tradition that stretched back two millennia. Legge also had the distinction of holding the first chair in Chinese [End Page 8] at Oxford University (from 1876), where he contributed his work to the Sacred Books of the East, the monumental translation project launched by his colleague Max Müller.

Yet today, Norman Girardot argues, Legge's formative role at the birth of Western sinology as an academic discipline has been obscured and almost forgotten. In The Victorian Translation of China, Girardot reconstructs Legge's contribution to sinology, and to the cultural world in which both the man and his work circulated, in painstaking detail. He approaches his subject in what is described as a "double hermeneutic," a method that considers personality and intentionality in relation to determinate cultural forms. The latter involves the Protestant missionary enterprise, of which Legge was a prominent member in the first part of his life, the birth of sinological Orientalism as a professional discipline in late nineteenth-century Europe, and the creation of the comparative science of religions, perhaps best exemplified in the work of Max Müller.

James Legge was a product of the great wave of religious revivalism that swept through Scotland and England at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. His own proclivities stemmed from (Scottish) Nonconformism, a congeries of sects with deep roots in Calvinism and British Puritanism that distinguished themselves from the Anglican state church. In this religious universe, human life was viewed as a cumulative moral voyage in which the humble sinner achieved salvation through "patient, perpetual duty."1 Part of that duty could be fulfilled through evangelizing the "heathen" areas of the earth, with the ultimate goal of ushering in the Kingdom of God. Unlike those who saw their duties as limited to the preaching of the gospel and the conduct of a pious life, Legge was something of a maverick. Like the seventeenth-century Jesuit fathers, his idea of conversion involved an extended engagement with the language and literature of the Chinese, which would then, he felt, provide the tools necessary for formulating an effective evangelical strategy (p. 35). For Legge, this meant nothing less than immersing himself in the Chinese classics on the assumption that therein lay the key to understanding China. The massive Leggian translation projects, spanning over four decades, followed from this.

His approach to conversion put Legge at odds with other missionaries for much of his career (p. 134). Girardot explores the struggle in great detail, analyzing key publications that usually came in the form of negative reviews of Legge's translations (see, e.g., A. P. Happer's critique and Legge's response, pp. 276-282 ). At the heart of the conflict was an inflexible Christian fundamentalism that saw Legge's activities as accommodating Confucianism and, hence, heathenism. This is, of course, the same specter that had led to the rites controversy in the Catholic Church in the seventeenth century. A second objection involved Legge's ecumenical view, articulated by Müller as well, that the divine hand of God could be found in the original texts of many traditions (pp. 284-285). Such broadmindedness [End Page 9] , from the point of view of critics, muddied the important distinction between divine revelation and paganism...


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