The Protestant Term Question – On the Chinese Name for God

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky (1831-1906)

Wie soll man „Gott“ in das Chinesische übersetzen? Diese Frage hat protestantische Missionare seit Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts intensiv bewegt. Für eine Übersicht siehe den englischsprachigen Wikipedia Artikel „Chinese terms for God„, der leider ohne bibliographischen Angaben ist. Empfehlenswert dazu sind Irene Ebers Texte The Interminable Term Question bzw. The Term Question, die im Rahmen ihrer Biographie The Jewish Bishop and the Chinese Bible: S.I.J. Schereschewsky (1831–1906) (Brill, 1999) entstanden sind.

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky war episkopalischer Bischof in Beijing mit einer bewegten Biographie. Als litauischer Jude ist er während seiner Rabbinerausbildung in Deutschland Christ geworden und in die USA emigriert, wo er sich schließlich der episkopalen Kirche angeschlossen hatte, die ihn als Missionar nach China entsandt hat. Irene Eber (1929-2019) wiederum ist emeritierte Professorin für Sinologie, die als deutsche Jüdin der Schoah entkommen ist.

Schereschewsky hat für die römisch-katholische Übersetzung des NAMENS als Tianzhu („Herr des Himmels“) optiert und dies in einem Büchlein The Bible, Prayer book and terms in our China missions in einsichtiger Weise begründet. Dem gegenüber hat der Sinologe James Legge für Shangdi optiert und dies in The Notions of the Chinese concerning God and Spirits (1852) dargelegt.

Wer wissen will, mit welchen harten Bandagen um die vermeintlich richtige Übersetzung von „Gott“ in das Chinesische gekämpft wurde, sei auf den Anhang „On the Chinese Name for God“ in F. Max Müller, Introduction to the Science of Religion, 1893 verwiesen:


The old controversy whether in Chinese should be translated by God, and whether God should be translated by was revived in 1880 by some of the Bishops and Missionaries in China, who addressed the following letter to me.

Shanghai, China, June 25, 1880.

Sir,—We, the undersigned missionaries labouring among the Chinese, have had brought under our notice the volume on the Chinese religion which forma one of the series yon are now editing under the general title of ‚The Sacred Books of the East.‘

We fully agree with your prefatory statement—’that mach of the value and utility of the series must depend on the absence of any colour borrowed from theory or prejudice,‘ and we therefore deplore the fact that in the important volume alluded to there has been, as we conceive, a forgetful­ness of the principle which was laid down at the outset. We refer to the meaning which has in this book throughout been attached to the term ‚Shang-ti,‘ so frequently found in the Chinese classics.

You can be no stranger to the fact that a controversy has long existed among Chinese scholars as to who or what is meant by the term or title ‚Shang-ti.‘ Some hold that it designates the God of the Christian Scriptures, while others feel themselves utterly unable to accept it in such a sense. Whatever the rights of this question are, the controversy is a great fact and ought not to be ignored. It arose, as is [261] well known, among the early Roman Catholic missionaries in China, and a like contention exists at the present day among the different Protestant missionaries. It cannot be said that there has been any lack of scholarship in the discussion of this question. Both views have been well represented from time to time, first among Roman Catholic missionaries, and latterly among Protestant missionaries, by men whose Chinese as well as general scholarship is undoubted. We need but mention the names of the early Jesuit missionaries, Matted Ricci on one side and Longobardi on the other, and the Protestant missionaries, Dr. Medhurst, Dr. Legge, Dr. Edkins, and Dr. Chalmers on one side, and Bishop Boone, Dr. Bridgman, and Dr. Williams on the other. To the last three should be added, though of the Greek Church, the distinguished name of the late Archimandrite Palladius, so well known as one of the most profound Chinese scholars.

Considering, then, that the question has been agitated among all classes of Christian missionaries for nearly goo years, our complaint is, that in a book containing a trans­lation of the Chinese classics intended for English readers, and brought out with your imprimatur, the term ‚Shang-ti‘ has been, not translated, as it might have been, by such a phrase as ‚Supreme Ruler‘ or ‚Supreme Emperor,‘ or ‚Ruler (or Emperor) on high,‘ or transferred, as has been done indeed in some passages of the same book, with the term ‚Ti,‘ in either of which cases no fault could have been found, but interpreted as the God of revelation—the view which the eminent translator, Dr. Legge, so strenuously advocated while in China as a missionary. That is, he sets forth his own private view by substituting ‚God‘ for ‚Shang-ti‘ wherever it occurs in the classics whereas this has been denied by persons as thoroughly qualified as himself to form a judgment on the subject. His reaffirmation of his reasons for this view in the addition to the preface made in the present volume does not make his translation of ‚Shang-ti‘ any the less [262] a serious departure from the principle laid down in your preface.

Moreover, this is not merely a literary—it is a missionary question. Many who have read or will read the book exercise strong influence from England and other countries, directly or indirectly, on Christian missions in China, and it is exceedingly important that their minds should be kept free from prejudice on one side or the other, seeing they have no means of examining or determining upon the question for themselves. Such a bock as Dr. Legge’s is to them, so long as the controversy is undecided, simply misleading.

We respectfully urge that, in editing it, the balance between the two parties in a difficult and still open contention should have been held with a steady hand, and express our regret that the book referred to, though brought out with the statement of so admirable a principle, of avoidance of all colouring, is, nevertheless, of a distinctly partisan character, inasmuch as by its interpretation of ‚Shang-ti‘ it is the ex­ponent of the view of a very small number even of those who prefer to use ‚Shang-ti‘ to make known the true God to the Chinese; for of those who use the term, very few agree with Dr. Legge in the opinion that ‚Shang-ti‘ of the Chinese classics is the same as ‚Jehovah‘ of the Christian Scriptures.

It is on this account that we venture to address you. Were you less enlightened and liberal than you are, we might conclude by asking you to pardon us for addressing you; but we do not do so, as we are assured that your fearless and uncom­promising love of truth will induce you to hail with satis­faction any suggestion which may remove from a volume with your name on the title-page the faintest trace of one-sidedness.

We have the honour to be, Sir,
Your faithful and obedient servants,

Thos. M’Clatchie, M.A., Canon of St. John’s Cathedral, Hongkong, and of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Shanghai, 1844.[263]

Matthew L. Yates, D.D., 1847.

Edward C. Lord, MA., D.D., 1847.

Frederick F. Gough, MA., 1850.

A. P. Happer, 1844.

R. Nelson, D.D., 1851.

J. S. Burdon, Bishop of Victoria, Hongkong, 1853.

John L. Nevins, D.D., 1854.

T. P. Crawford, D.D., 1852.

H. Blodget, D.D., 1854.

Samuel I. J. Schereschewsky, Missionary Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, Shanghai, 1859.

Elliot H. Thompson, 1859.

Charles Henry Burman, D.D., 1864.

Wm. J. Boone, M.A., 1869.

Hunter Corbett, MA., 1863.

Chas. R. Mills, M.A., 1857.

John Wherry, M.A., 1864.

James Bates, 1867.

L. D. Chapin, 1863.

Chauncey Goodrich, 1865.

C. A. Stanley, 1862.

J. A. Leyenberger, 1866.

Henry V. Noyes, 1866.

To this letter I returned the following answer:—

Gentlemen,—I have taken some time to consider what answer I should return to the letter which you addressed to me as editor of ‚The Sacred Books of the East,‘ and in which you complain that, in the translation of the Shu-king and Shih-king by Professor Legge, the names Ti and Shang-ti should have been rendered by ‚God.‘ You call my attention to the controversy which has been carried on for 300 years, and is still kept up to the present day among the missionaries in China, as to what is the nearest equivalent to be found in the Chinese language for expressing God. You remind me that Ti and Shang-ti were rejected by Papal authority, and have been accepted among Protestant missionaries by one party only, and you remark that, even those who in rendering the Scriptures into Chinese are willing, in the absence of a [264] better name, to accept Ti or Shang-ti for God, would shrink from translating these terms by God when they occur in the writings of Confucius. As Professor Legge, during his long stay in China, has been one of the most strenuous defenders of the name Shang-ti as the best rendering of God in Chinese, you complain that he should have taken advantage of his position, as one of my fellow-workers in the translation of ‚The Sacred Books of the East,‘ und have translated Shang-ti, whenever it occurs in the Shu-king and Shih-king, by God, expressing, at the same time, his conviction that ‚the Ti and Shang-ti of the Chinese classics is God, our God, the true God.‘ You also blame me, as editor of ‚The Sacred Books of the East,‘ for not having held with a steady hand the balance between the two parties in a difficult and still open contention, particularly as I had promised that these translations, offered to the public under the auspices of the University of Oxford, should be complete, trustworthy, and readable; and you call on me to repair the injustice which has been done to those who differ from Dr. Legge in his views on the true meaning of the words Ti and Shang-ti.

Allow me to state, in reply to your letter, that, so far as the so-called ‚Term Question‘ is concerned, I had, nearly thirty years ago (Edinburgh Review, October, 1852), expressed my conviction that it would be impossible to find in Chinese a more adequate rendering of God than Shang-ti. On that point, therefore, I could hardly claim now to be an impartial judge.

But this, as you yourselves admit, is not really the question which concerns the translator or the editor of ‚The Sacred Books of the East.‘ The question on which, with the assistance of my learned friend, Dr. Legge, I was called upon to form an opinion when examining his translation of the Shu-king and Shih-king, forming the third volume of my series, was whether Ti and Shang-ti, when they occur in Chinese, should be rendered in English by God. On this [265] point, I readily admit, it is by no means easy to give a decisive answer. In fact, I can well understand why many missionaries in China should have hesitated to identify the Shang-ti of the Confucians with the God they come to preach, and all I can do is to try to explain to you why, in spite of all objections, I myself agree with Dr. Legge in accepting Shang-ti, when it occurs in the ancient Scriptures of the Chinese, as a name intended for the true God.

There are, perhaps, passages in the sacred texts of the Chinese in which Shang-ti is spoken of in what we should call mythological language, language, in our opinion, inapplicable to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe. But does it follow, therefore, that the Chinese, when they formed the name of Shang-ti, did not mean the true God, or that the best among them had never had any idea of the true God You know far better than I do that there must be in the prayers and creeds of all religions a compromise between the language of the wise and the foolish, the old and the young, and that the sacred texts of no nation, not even those of Jews and Christians, are entirely free from childlike, helpless, poetical, and what are called mythological expressions. There is, perhaps, no better name for God than Father, and there are few religions in which that name has not been used; yet, in order to render that name applicable to God, we must take out of it almost everything it implies in ordinary usage. Our own word God was borrowed by our ancestors from heathen temples, and the names for God used by the Romanic nations come from deus, Sanskrit deva, which deva is a mere deriva­tion of div, the sky.

And, if we are not to translate Shang-ti by God, what are we to do? You would not say that the Chinese, alone of all nations on earth, had never any word for God at all, for you yourselves say that they deified the sky, and how could people deify the sky or anything else without possessing an idea and a word for deity? [266]

You suggest that either the name Shang-ti should have been left untranslated, or that it should have been rendered by Supreme Ruler. If the first expedient had been adopted, all readers unacquainted with Chinese would have taken Shang-ti for a proper name, such as Jupiter, while Dr. Legge, whose Chinese scholarship you do not call in question, states that it ’never became with the people a proper name like the Zeus of the Greeks‘ (Preface, p. xxv.). If, on the con­trary, Shang-ti had been rendered by Supreme Ruler, as was done by Medhurst, or by le Seigneur and le Souverain Maître, as was done by Gaubil, would these expressions have evoked in the minds of European readers any conception different from that of God, the true God?

How could missionaries in China, if they are willing to translate Shang-ti by Supreme Ruler, continue to represent Him as a false God, or, at all events, as not quite true? Are there any who still believe in the actual existence of false gods, or of gods not quite true? Do they believe that Bel, or Jupiter, or Varuna, or Shang-ti were so many individual beings existing by the side of Jehovah? They were, if you like, false, or, at least, imperfect names of God; but never the names of false or imperfect gods.

I have tried to show in all my writings on language, mythology, or religion, und more especially in my Hibbert lecture ‚On the origin und growth of religion, as illustrated by the religions of India,‘ how we ought to read in the manifold names of the Deity, preserved to us in the ancient languages of the world, the gradual growth of human thought and human language in their endeavour to find better and better names for what after all admits of no name. What an ancient Christian martyr said, ho theos onoma ouk echei, ‚God has no name,‘ is true, in one sense; but from an historical point of view, we should, I think, be equally right if we called God pollōn onomatōn morphē mia, ‚of many names the one person.‘ [267]

Some of these names may seem to us very objectionable, but not all; and I confess I could never help admiring the bold language of an ancient Sanskrit poet who introduces Bhagavat, his own supreme God, saying, ‚Even those who worship idols, worship me.‘

If we are so hard on the Chinese, and tell them that their word Shang-ti cannot be used as the name of the true God, because it is used synonymously with Lien, which means the sky, what shall we say when they point to such verses in the New Testament as Luke xv. 21, ‚I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son‘? And if we are offended by every anthro­pomorphic expression in the sacred writings of non-Christian races, how is it that we can bear so well with the language of the Old Testament, in reading of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day‘? Do the words of Dante

‚Per questo la Scrittura condescende
A vostra facultste, e piedi e mano
Attribuisce a Dio, et altro intende,‘

apply to our Scriptures only? Should we not apply them even in a far more generous spirit to the scriptures of the Chinese, the Hindus, the Persians, the Mohammedans? It was, I need hardly tell you, one of the chief objects for which I undertook the publication of ‚The Sacred Books of the East,‘ to show, as St. Augustine said, that there is no re­ligion without some truth in it, and particularly to make missionaries see that, hidden beneath a fearful amount of rubbish, and worse than rubbish, there are grains of gold to be found in every book that has once been called sacred by human lips. Nothing, I confess, has rejoiced me so much as when I heard the other day an excellent missionary tell me, ‚You have shown us that the heathen religions are not the work of the devil; and you have taught us to look first of all for what the heathen religions share with us in common, and to make that the foundation of our labour.‘ Surely the [268] name for God in Chinese, or in any other language, unless it is simply intolerable, should be treated by missionaries with the greatest reverence. Let them slowly and gently cut down the rank growth of mythology that has choked so many of the names of God; but let them be careful lest, in tearing up the roots, they kill the stem on which alone their new grafts can live and thrive. Let them follow, in fact, in the footsteps of the boldest and greatest missionary the world has ever seen, who at Athens did not break the alter of the unknown God, but said, ‚Whom ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you.‘

These are, in a few words, the reasons which made me not only approve of Professor Legge’s translation of ‚ Shang-ti,‘ when it occurs in the Shu-king and Shih-king, by ‚God,‘ but sincerely rejoice at it. Nor do I think that, in adopting the course we thought right to adopt, either he or I took an unfair advantage of those who, on conscientious grounds, differ from us. If this translation of ‚ Shang-ti‘ by ‚God‘ had been inserted in ‚The Sacred Books of the East‘ without any warning to the realer, I should plead guilty for myself, and I could well understand in that case the remonstrances of those who all their lives have been opposing Dr. Legge in his views on Chinese religion. But when there is in the preface, from page xxiii. to xxix., a clear explanation of the reasons which induced Dr. Legge to render ‚Shang-ti‘ by ‚God,‘ when the translations of that name proposed by other Chinese scholars are clearly set forth and examined, and when the translator is prepared to take upon himself the fall responsibility of that rendering which he personally con­siders the only true one, surely there is no solid foundation for the charge of mala fides, either against Dr. Legge or against myself. I need hardly say, therefore, in conclusion, that it would be a great satisfaction to myself, and, I have no doubt, to Dr. Legge also, if after having read my explanations, and the pamphlet which Dr. Legge has addressed to me [269] (‚Letter to Professor F. Max Müller, chiefly on the trans­lation into English of the Chinese terms Ti and Shang-ti, by James Legge, Professor of the Chinese Language in the University of Oxford ; Trübner, 1880), and which by this time has, no doubt, reached you, you should think it right to withdraw the charges which you have brought against us.

I have the honour to be, Gentlemen,
Your obedient servant,


Oxford, Dec. 19.

A more elaborate answer was written by Dr. Legge himself, and published as ‚A Letter to Professor Max Müller, chiefly on the translation into English of the Chinese terms Ti and Shang-Ti,‘ London, Trübner, 1880.

I here subjoin an article from the pen of the great Chinese scholar, John Chalmers, published in a Hong-Kong paper, 28 Dec. 1880, and not easily accessible to European scholars.


The Interminable Question is about a word for the Deity in Chinese. There are three views held by powerful sections of the Missionary army, whom, for brevity, we will designate the Romanists, the Reformers, and the Rumpers. 1. The view of the first is negative. ‚There is,‘ they say, ’no word for God in Chinese, we must make one. We make the expression Heaven-Lord (Tien Chu) to stand for God.‘ This is the Catholic faith as decreed by the Pope some two hundred years ago. 2. The Reformers hold that the Chinese word for God is Ti, or Shang-ti, and that the word which the people use for their objects of worship generally means ghosts. This party includes all Germans, all English and Scotch Presbyterians, all Wes-[270]leyans, and all London Missionaries. 3. The third party, an the contrary, say that Ti or Shang-ti means the Firmament deified, and that the word which the Romanists and Reformers generally agree in translating ghosts or spirits, means gods and God. Therefore they use the latter word, which is shan. I call these last Rumpers because they are a diminished body, now mach in need of a Cromwell. A few follow them from various unsettled sections. And the most unsettled section of all is the Church of England. Taken collectively ‚the Church‘ may be said to hold out her arms lovingly to embrace us all; but taken individually her members are at war one with another.

The doctrine of Shan, held by the Rumpers, has been refuted again and again. But they never seem to know that they are beaten. So long ago as 1876, I published, in a Pamphlet on the subject, twenty-five sentences from good native authors to show that the ‚shan‚ of a man means his spirit or ghost, and not his god. In consequence of that publi­cation, a certain person calling himself ‚Inquirer‘ sent an article to the Chinese Recorder, in which he said his teacher had ‚quite providentially‘ found one passage in which ‚my shan‚ did not mean ‚my ghost‘ but ‚my god.‘ It turned out, however, that the phrase meant only the ghosts of my ancestors; as one might speak of ‚Hamlet’s ghost,‘ meaning the ghost of his father which he saw. When Inquirer’s first article appeared I thought I could discover in it the style of a well-known Doctor, and sent a note congratulating him on having said some true things, but the Doctor replied that he did ’not claim the honor.‘ Who Inquirer is, therefore, remains to me a profound mystery, and if I say anything hard about him he must not suppose that I am personally acquainted with him at all. He has for some time past been writing to the Chinese Recorder rambling, irrelevant, and unreadable articles, which have done little or no harm [271] and less good. The last, which appeared in the number for May and June 1880, in the form of a letter to Professor Max Müller, is to my mind the feeblest of all. It was with some surprise therefore that I learnt a few mails ago that Professor Müller, to whom it was addressed, and Professor Legge, against whom it was directed, were preparing to do battle with Inquirer, as if he were a foeman worthy of their steel. This nobody calling himself Inquirer, who has shown himself utterly incapable of dealing with any philo­logical subject, and who does not know the difference be­tween the subject and the predicate of a sentence, now undertakes to be the instructor of Professor Max Müller, and to charge Professor Legge with ‚a crime as well as a blunder,‘ because forsooth he had grieved the narrow souls of Inquirer and his friends by thinking and saying in plain English that, when Confucius spoke of sinning against Heaven,‘ and said Heaven knows me,‘ Confucius meant God.‘ Inquirer thinks Confucius‘ words should be ex­plained to mean ’sinning against the Firmament deified,‘ and ‚the Firmament deified knows me.‘ Heaven in Chinese, he thinks, has always this peculiar meaning, and any one who honestly believes otherwise, or supposes it possible that the heathen Chinese might have meant the Supreme Being, is guilty of a crime. Therefore he urges upon Professor Max Müller the stern and solemn duty of suppressing Dr. Legge. Dr. Legge has now answered for himself in a printed letter, which will soon be in the hands of all whom it concerns. But my reason for referring to this subject at all now is another fact which has come to my knowledge within the last few days, that certain persons of the Rump party and certain adherents of the Romanists have taken to imitating Inquirer’s example of writing letters to Professor Max Müller and others, in a less open way, seeking to convey the im­pression that Dr. Legge is all but singular in his views about the Chinese Heaven and Shang-ti ; in order I believe [272] to prejudice the minds of men of influence at home against the uniform usage and opinion of the Reformers, and give them the impression that we are hors de combat. Two or three known men, and a score of unknown, have conspired together to do this thing, without consulting the largo and respectable body of their brethren who not only honour and esteem the good and great man who holds the Chair of Chinese at Oxford, but feel wider an everlasting obligation to him for leading them so wisely and heroically in the slippery paths of Chinese philology. I appeal to an impartial public whether such tactics are fair either to us and to him, or to the cause of truth. Why was not an opportunity given to the other side to state their views? Why was it said, as I understand it was said, in communications sent home, that we are but one or two, that we can be counted, in the words of Inquirer, ‚on the fingers of one hand,‘ or in fast that we are not worth counting? Why, above all, could not these men let the Interminable Question rest, when it seemed, on the surface at least, to be at rest; or, if they must move, why trouble the waters from beneath in this clandestine manner? I wish this bit of information to meet the eyes of the Reforming Community, without delay, that they may be prepared to act promptly if need be. At the same time, I am fully persuaded that an appeal to Max Müller and men of his stamp will in the end lead to a result which the ap­pellants do not anticipate; and while sorry for them, I rejoice in Spirit.

John Chalmers.

Hongkong, Dec. 28, 1880.

Source: F. Max Müller, Introduction to the Science of Religion. Four Lectures Delivered at the Royal Institution in February and May, 1870, New Edition, London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1893, 260-272.

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