The China syndrome

International | SPECIAL REPORT: Two centuries after the first Protestant missionary arrived on the mainland, China still covets foreign trade but shuns foreign influence and entanglements

Issue: "As the West burns," Sept. 6, 2003

IN A COURTYARD CEMETERY OFF a narrow street lie the earthly remains of Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China. He arrived at Macau Roads in 1807. A delegate sent out from the London Missionary Society, he would soon also find employment in the British East India Company.

Those were the days of the great clipper ships, and at tea season they were loaded at Macau or Canton before racing one another to market in the United States and Great Britain. Morrison took the 113-day journey aboard a vessel from New York because the East India merchants refused missionaries a berth.

China restricted not only missionaries but all foreigners. They were prohibited from living on the mainland and kept to confined areas in port cities. Morrison's choices were grim: accommodation among British and American sailors and traders who lived on a muddy stretch of Pearl River bank in Canton, 1,000 feet long by 300 feet deep; or the staunchly Catholic Portuguese settlement at Macau. Canton's crowded living proved too difficult for the Scottish Presbyterian's health, and he eventually decided to make a go of it in Macau.

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Morrison was not easily undone by hostile surroundings. He spent two years preparing for this calling before stepping on the boat. He quickly found tutors for both Cantonese and Mandarin dialects of Chinese, adopted traditional dress, donned a false pigtail, and let his fingernails grow long.

A ship's captain once asked him if he expected to make any impact on China. "No," he said, "but I expect that God will."

One year after his arrival he had translated a 1,000-page Latin-Chinese dictionary. By 1810 he had translated the book of Acts into Chinese. It was published locally that year in a wood-block edition. In 1811 he translated the Gospel of Luke and published in Chinese a summary of the doctrine of divine redemption. His talents earned him a day job with the British East India Company. He earned 500 pounds a year as Chinese Secretary and translator-a job he held until his death in 1834. He published the first English-Chinese dictionary, translated all books of the Bible into Chinese, and founded a college in Macau.

Mr. Morrison inhabited a China of junk boats, opium traders, and imperial protocol. But in many ways his life is strangely emblematic for modern-day encounters between East and West.

His work was scholarly but day-to-day life was never monastic. He translated for British envoys to Beijing, and for the first native pastors of inland China. He straddled the chasm between Western gunboat diplomacy and the Qing dynasty's fidelity to medieval life. He made headway with greedy traders of the port-city settlements as well as rice farmers plowing behind water buffalo.

He endured long separations from his family and buried two wives on the mission field. His grave is wedged into a glade of old Macau alongside sailors (like John P. Griffen of New York, who died of "a fall from aloft" in 1849 aboard the U.S. ship Plymouth) and statesmen (like Lord H.I. Spencer Churchill, senior officer of the China Seas).

The leafy cemetery where these and more are memorialized abuts a park where elderly Chinese men come with their birds on Sunday afternoons. Just around the corner young Chinese mothers push French fries on toddlers at McDonald's. It's an easy walk past antique shops crammed with porcelain and silk to a square full of the latest from Western merchants: The Body Shop, Gap, Banana Republic, and more.

Two centuries away from Morrison's arrival, a wary China still welcomes Western trade and still shuns foreign entanglements.

Language training is a Chinese preoccupation, and most Christian workers who land jobs in the mainland do so as English teachers. They may teach but not preach.

State churches in many ways are more open than ever before; yet Public Security Bureau minions often examine ID cards as Sunday worshippers file in.

Government halls off Tiananmen Square keep their doors open to traders from multinationals, while the square itself is a graveyard of liberty. Democracy advocates who dare to show up there-most recently Falun Gong activists-are regularly arrested.

Examining one day's headlines from China is also a study in passive-aggressive governance. On Aug. 20, for example, China signed a multibillion-dollar deal with Royal Dutch Petroleum and Unocal to probe oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea; captured its fifth world championship in gymnastics; announced it will compile an online database of all marriages; and allowed prisoner Zheng Enchong to see his wife. The prominent Shanghai lawyer, jailed since June for trying to represent city residents who've lost their homes to high-rises, is not likely to receive a fair trial.


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