The first translation of the Bible into Chinese was done by Hovhannes Ghazarian. According to some sources, in China, Christianity is professed by almost 7% of the population.
The first Christian missionaries appeared in China during the reign of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) in the 7th century. On the other hand, there is a legend that at one time, China was visited by Thomas the Apostle, one of the disciples of Jesus.
Whichever it was, the first translation of the Bible was only done in the early 19th century, and the authorship of this translation belongs not to Nestorian or Catholic missionaries but to a descendant of a family of Armenian merchants. Yes, the cultural ties between Armenia and China are much stronger than it might seem at first glance.
China and Serampur
Who is the person who translated the Bible into Chinese?
According to historical data, merchants from faraway Armenia were quite successful in trading in China in the 2nd century. In the 14th century, there were already well-formed Armenian communities in the Middle Kingdom.
One of the largest Armenian communities was in the city of Macau. There, Hovhannes Ghazaryan (also known as Joannes Lassar in Western literature) was born into a family of rich Armenian merchants in 1778.
Chinese servants working in Ghazaryans’ house taught the boy to speak quite fluent Chinese. Later, his father hired a special teacher of Chinese from the city of Guangzhou, which was known as Canton back then.
Ghazaryan perfectly mastered the Portuguese language as well because there had been a Portuguese trading post in Macao Since the 16th century. But, of course, his native language was Armenian.
Hovhannes Ghazaryan began his career in the Portuguese office of Canton, where he edited the official letters sent to the Peking Imperial Court. Later, he continued the family business, which led him to Indian Calcutta in 1802.
The business went not too well, but the magnificent linguistic abilities of the young man attracted the attention of British officials. More and more frequently, people started to ask Ghazaryan to translate texts from Chinese.
Acquaintance with Protestant missionaries led Ghazaryan to the town of Serampur near Indian Calcutta. Here at the very beginning of the 19th century, the Governor General of India established the College of Fort William, the educational and scientific center of Oriental studies.
Employees of one of the scientific departments of the college were engaged in translating the Bible into the languages of Southeast Asia, including Chinese.
The search for a specialist who could not only translate the Bible to Chinese but also teach this language to college students led to a not very successful merchant but a talented polyglot Hovhannes Ghazaryan.
Eventually, the directorate of the Fort William College invited Ghazaryan to their college. For 450 English golds a year, Hovhannes Ghazaryan began to teach Chinese and translate the Bible.
Talent and diligence
Taking the English and Armenian editions of the Bible as a basis, Ghazaryan began translating the Gospel of John. Within three years, the translation of this section of the Bible was completed and published along with a translation of the Gospel of Matthew and several other chapters of the Bible.
The rector of the college D. Brown was delighted with the work of the young interpreter. In one of his letters sent to London, he wrote, “Mr. Lassar sent me his Chinese translations of the chapters of the Bible. Those are the embodiment of his mind and diligence. Mr. Lassar is a true Chinaman. He reads Chinese and writes quickly with ease. If God gives him 5-6 more years, he will translate the Bible to Chinese entirely, thus committing a grand act.”
In 1807, a copy of the Gospel of Matthew translated into Chinese executed in a calligraphic handwriting and decorated by Hovhannes Ghazaryan was solemnly presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth book depository. This was the first translation of the Bible by the staff of the Oriental Studies Center in Bengal.
During the period between 1815 to 1822, the translations of the Old and New Testaments into Chinese were completed and published. Those translations were published one year earlier than the Shentian Shengshu, a translation done by Robert Morrison and William Main.
Unfortunately, premature death prevented Hovhannes Ghazaryan from completing his work, but his translations of the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Mark have been considered one of the best translations of the Bible into Chinese.
Just a translator
The history of the first translation of the Bible into Chinese done by a son of the Armenian people Hovhannes Ghazaryan is not too well known not only in the West but also in Armenia itself. Alas, this is the reality, which may be due to the fact that for several hundred years, the Armenian diaspora was scattered around the world.
Historically, translation activity was very popular among Armenians living in different countries. In the calendar of Armenian holidays, there has even been a Day of Translators since the 5th century.
Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity in 301, and the Armenian Apostolic Church has always occupied a special place in the Christian world.
In this context, neither the “true Chinese” Hovhannes Ghazaryan nor his colleagues saw anything extraordinary in their translation activities. As they said, they simply lived on the principle “do what you must and come what may.”
Artsvi Bakhchinyan, a Candidate of Philological Sciences, a researcher at the Department of Armenian Communities and Diaspora of the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia. Bakhchinyan is engaged in research on the contribution of representatives of Armenian ethnos to the world civilization.