The First Chinese Bible Translated from Armenian

The first translation of the Bible into Chinese was done by Hovhannes Ghazarian. (Photo: Wikipedia) In modern China, Christianity is professed by nearly 7% of the population, which is not insignificant.

The first Christian missionaries appeared in China in the 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). However, there is a legend that China was once visited by the Apostle Thomas, one of Christ’s disciples.

Regardless, the first translation of the Bible, the sacred book for all Christians, was only completed in the early 19th century. This translation was not done by Nestorian or Catholic missionaries, but by a descendant of a family of Armenian merchants. Yes, the cultural ties between Armenia and China are much closer than they might initially appear.

China and Serampore

So who is the man who translated the Bible into Chinese?

According to historical data, as early as the 2nd century, merchants from distant Armenia were successfully trading in China. By the 14th century, there were already well-established Armenian communities in China.

One of the largest communities was in the city of Macau. It was there, in 1778, in the family of a wealthy Armenian merchant, that Hovhannes Ghazarian was born (he is also known as Johannes Lassar in Western literature).

Chinese servants working in the Ghazarian house taught the boy to speak Chinese quite fluently. Later, his father brought in a special Chinese language teacher from Guangzhou, known then as Canton, for his talented son.

Since a Portuguese trading post had been operating in Macau since the 16th century, Hovhannes also spoke Portuguese fluently. Of course, his native language was Armenian.

Hovhannes Ghazarian began his career in the Portuguese office in Canton, where he edited official letters that the Portuguese sent to the Beijing Imperial Court. Later, he continued the family trade business, which led him to Kolkata, India, in 1802.

Business there was not going so well, but the young man’s excellent linguistic skills attracted the attention of English officials. Hovhannes was increasingly called upon as a Chinese translator.

Meeting with Protestant missionaries brought Ghazarian to the small town of Serampore near Kolkata, India. Here, at the beginning of the 19th century, the College of Fort William was opened by the Governor-General of India, serving as an educational and scientific center for Oriental studies.

Staff from one of the college’s scientific departments were working on translations of the Holy Scriptures into the languages of Southeast Asia, including Chinese.

The search for a specialist who could not only translate the Bible into Chinese but also teach this language to college students led to the not-so-successful merchant but talented polyglot, Hovhannes Ghazarian.

The management of the College of Fort William invited Hovhannes to work, stating that China itself had come to Serampore. For 450 English gold pieces a year, Hovhannes Ghazarian began teaching Chinese at the college and translating the Bible into Chinese.

Talent and Hard Work

Using the English and Armenian editions of the Bible as a basis, Hovhannes began translating the Gospel of John. Just three years later, the translations of this part of the Holy Book, as well as the Gospel of Matthew and several other chapters of the Bible, were ready and published.

The rector of the college, D. Brown, was impressed by the young translator’s work. In one of his letters sent to London, he wrote, “Mr. Lassar has sent me his translations of three chapters of the Bible into Chinese.

This is a product of his mind and diligence. Mr. Lassar is a true Chinese, he reads in Chinese as easily as you do in English, and writes as quickly. By translating the Bible into Chinese, he will do a great deed if God gives him five or six more years of life.”

In 1807, a copy of the Gospel of Matthew translated into Chinese and calligraphically decorated by Hovhannes Ghazarian, was ceremoniously presented as a gift to the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Lambeth repository. This was the first translation of the Holy Scriptures carried out by the staff of the Oriental Studies Center in Bengal.

Between 1815 and 1822, the translations of the Old and New Testaments into Chinese were completed and published. This was a year before the appearance of the translation by Robert Morrison and William Milne, known as the “Shentian Shengshu.”

Unfortunately, premature death prevented Hovhannes Ghazarian from completing the work he had begun. However, his translations of the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Mark are considered some of the best translations of the books of the Holy Scriptures into Chinese.

Merely a Translator

The story of the truly first translation of the Bible into Chinese, made by the son of the Armenian people, Hovhannes Ghazarian, is not widely known, not only in the West but also in Armenia itself. Alas, this is a fact, the reason for which may lie in the fact that for many centuries, the Armenian diaspora has been scattered all over the world.

Historically, translation activities were quite popular among Armenians living in various countries. In the Armenian holiday calendar, there has been Translator’s Day since the 5th century.

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as the official religion in 301, and the Armenian Apostolic Church has always held a special place in the Christian world.

In this context, neither the “true Chinese” Hovhannes Ghazarian nor his colleagues saw anything extraordinary in their translation work. As they say, they simply lived by the principle: “Do what is right, and let come what may.”

by Artsvi Bakhchinyan is a candidate of philological sciences, a research associate in the Department of Armenian Communities and Diaspora of the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia. He studies the contribution of representatives of the Armenian people to world civilization.

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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