How the word of God turned into an epic war of words

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am

It has taken 27 years of intensive work by 30 international scholars, and involved getting officials on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to agree - no mean feat. Now a revised version of the Bible used by most of the world's 70 million Chinese Christians is complete - with a little help from Hong Kong.

The official launch was attended by representatives of major Bible societies and, quite conspicuously, two officials from Beijing.

No one doubted that a revision was overdue. The Chinese Union Version Bible was launched in 1919 by the British, American and Scottish Bible societies. Since then, attitudes and language have changed much. But when it came to the translation of words and phrases that carry different meanings in the mainland and Taiwan, debate became heated and Hong Kong had to play the role of peacemaker.

Dr Mary Leung, general secretary of the Hong Kong Bible Society, recalled times when parties were so divided that she had to 'blow the whistle and call a time out'.

'One example is the term jiao-xun, or teaching, as in 2 Timothy 3:16, 'all scripture being God-inspired and useful in teaching'. The Taiwan scholars were adamant that jiao-xun ... is gangster's language for beating people up. Similar sentiment was generated among mainland scholars over the term you-xing, or parade.

'At those heated moments, what we did was to take a break, cool it off for a day or two, and it worked.'

Leung, a former social worker who joined the society in 2006, said Hong Kong played a strategic role. 'You may say it's 'one country, two systems' at work. But there's also Hong Kong's strategic geographical position - and we didn't fight with anyone in the past.'

At the official launch of the Revised CUV at St John's Cathedral in Hong Kong on September 27, the United Bible Societies' Nora Lucero told the gathering that it had the potential to be the 'one and only version used by the Chinese-reading Christians all over the world'. There were warm words, too, from Ma Yuhong, in charge of Christian affairs under the State Administration for Religious Affairs. 'The Protestant Church in mainland China has attached great importance to the work of the Bible,' she said.

Despite the official blessing, however, resistance to a revised version had been strong. The original, translated in Chinese literary style, accounts for the bulk of the 400 million copies of the Chinese Bible that have been sold in the past 90 years. It holds a special place in the hearts of Chinese Christians, especially the 23 million on the mainland.

'Mainland Christians regard the CUV as more than just a version of the Bible. It is to them the only Holy Scriptures, literally the Word of God, every word in it,' said Liu Meichun, chief librarian and teacher at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary.

The Reverend Paul Kan Kei-pui, chairman of the board of the Hong Kong Bible Society, said that had much to do with history. 'For a long time, Christians in the mainland went without churches and without the Bible. So their understanding of the scriptures tends to be conservative and they are very reluctant to change.'

For Christians in Taiwan, too, the CUV reigned supreme. 'Many attach a lot of sentimental value to their Bible and refer to it as 'my grandma's Bible'. It is therefore untouchable,' said the Reverend Chow Lien-hwa, the respectable 91-year-old church leader in Taiwan, who once served as the family pastor of the late Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek.

But for the scholars tasked with the revision, there was no choice. 'Many Chinese words have changed and taken on new meanings and usage over time,' said Chow, one of the initiators. 'Take the term yi-chuan. In the early 1900s it meant 'tradition' or 'traditional'. But as the Chinese language took in new scientific terms, such as those in genetics, it came to mean 'hereditary'. So a revision is a must.'

New technology has also played its part, according to Dr J. Hong, translation consultant for the United Bible Societies, who was the project's editor-in-chief.

'[The revised CUV] benefits from powerful multifunctional translation software ... and takes into account the latest advances in biblical textual criticism. [It] incorporates new data thanks to the discovery of ancient manuscripts, namely the Dead Sea Scrolls unearthed in the 1940s and 1950s that shed new light on other ancient manuscripts.'

Hong said he wanted to focus on the future readership, especially the potential 1.3 billion Chinese - Christians and non-Christians - on the mainland.

'Conservatism is a common feature of many Christians, especially those who have experienced long years of hardship, such as those in mainland China. It is important to stress that today's young readers and those of future generations are the ultimate target audience. Its language is clearer and easier to understand than the old CUV, and makes better sense to non-Christians who read the Bible for the first time.'

The huge Chinese population was the reason the United Bible Societies wanted to involve the mainland in the revision 'at all costs'. Official backing was slow to come, but mutual trust started with the Amity Printing Company in Nanjing . Built and funded by the United Bible Societies, it was donated to the Chinese in 1988, along with expertise on how to run it.

Amity has since printed more than 80 million Bibles. Expansion will increase its capacity to 20 million copies per year.

In September 2000, the United Bible Societies entrusted the Hong Kong Bible Society with full responsibility for the revision. By April 2003, both China's official Christian authorities - the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of Protestant Churches and China Christian Council - stated their support in an official letter to Hong Kong. The deal was sealed.

'There is a mood of collaboration and co-operation right now for the mainland Christian authority and we'll leave the change, and the rate of change, to God,' said Dr Philip Towner, dean of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Society, who was at the dedication ceremony.

It is rare for mainland officials to be present on such a religious occasion, let alone for one to make a speech at an official dedication at Hong Kong's oldest Anglican Church. Ma told the congregation that the State Administration for Religious Affairs would 'continue to support the printing and distribution of the Bible by Chinese Church and to encourage and support the external contacts of Chinese Church on the basis of independence, friendship, and mutual respect'.

After the ceremony, she said: 'There are many church denominations in the world, and there are only two in China. Some hold different opinions towards such a state of affairs in China. I think that is very normal.'

On the more sensitive subject of underground churches, she said they did exist but 'it is not what is being reported in the foreign media'.

'China is a big country, the pace of growth of believers is very fast and the number of churches is limited. Also people have different understanding of the Bible, and they may want to get together only with like-minded people. Some may choose not to go to the church because the reverend's sermon may not meet their needs. These situations do exist. We urge the two [Chinese church] authorities to communicate with them,' Ma said.

'All we are asking is, don't do anything that endangers the society. We certainly hope the Chinese church will grow. It would be best for the church to have harmony from within, and to have harmony with society as well.'

The Reverend Xu Xiaohong, secretary general of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, who also attended the ceremony, said the government's support was more a natural course than an act of blessing. 'With China opening up more and more, a unilateral society doesn't work any more. It has to be multilateral. The ruling Communist Party will no doubt hold on to its Marxist and Leninist tenets. But that doesn't mean it would take hundreds of millions of Christians and other religious followers as its adversaries. It would only do it good to, as a common saying goes, work together to build a socialist society.'

The 46-year-old said the church could do more to alleviate the social problems that come with rapid economic growth, and pointed to the recent series of suicides at the Shenzhen factories of electronics manufacturer Foxconn as an example.

'Pressure on common people is enormous. This is where the church can help by offering spiritual consolation.'

Xu said that as long as Christians acted within state laws and regulations, the church would enjoy a free hand. The revised CUV in simplified Chinese characters, for example, will have a first print run of only 5,000 copies and will comprise only the New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs.

But Ding Yanxin, an underground church member in Guangzhou, does not agree. 'We are not allowed to share the gospels from door to door like Jesus' disciples. We can only hold services at private homes or rented venues. I would say there are more than one thousand such meeting points in Guangzhou.'

Ding said the Asian Games in Guangzhou had led to most, if not all, non-official church activities being suspended.

Xu admitted public evangelising was not practised in China. But there is a reason for it. 'Preaching the gospel in public is one way to do it. But if it's done in China, people would think you are nuts. So it is not an effective way here. I think the case of Philip taking his brother Nathanael to Jesus, as in the Book of John 1:43-51, applies to what we do in China. You take people, including the most obstinate ones, to the Lord. We give away copies of the Bible to friends and relatives and introduce it to them one by one. That's Philip's way.'

Towner, the American Bible Society scholar, said the situation in China 'is what it is', and they hoped the revised version of the Bible would help to spread the word.

Christianity was developing on the mainland in 'an authentically Chinese way', he said. 'There will be growth and change. It will be the kind of change that God himself is orchestrating. God has found the way to be very present in the Chinese context and I have no doubt that God will bring change as God desires.'

The optimism is shared by Chow of Taiwan, who has witnessed the development of Christianity on the island.

'The mainland government has been very clever in its economic policy. I just hope its policy on religion will somewhat follow suit,' he said.