Robert MORRISON [1782-1834] | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Robert MORRISON [1782-1834]

c.1782-01-01 (Month, Day are approximate)
Birthplace (town, state): 
Buller’s Green, Morpeth, Northumberland
Birthplace (country): 
c.1834-12-31 (Month, Day are approximate)

Dr Robert Morrison was a Protestant missionary, who first visited China in 1807. The following outline of Dr Morrison's life was given as a speech by L T Ride at Hong Kong University's Loke Yew Hall on 4th September, 1957.


It is with very great pleasure that I welcome here today, on behalf of the University, not only members of the Hong Kong public but also the representatives of The London Missionary Society, The American Bible Society, The British and Foreign Bible Society, Morrison Hall and the Ying Wa societies, who are joining with us in celebrating the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the arrival here in China of Robert Morrison.

It is an added pleasure to me that the chair at this lecture should be taken by Miss Silcocks, Chairman of the Hong Kong Committee of The London Missionary Society.  As Headmistress of Ying Wa Girls’ School, she is in the direct line of academic succession to Morrison as I shall explain later, and this makes her presence in the chair today doubly fitting.

The celebrations arranged by the University consist of an exhibition which has just been formally opened by His Excellency, the Governor and Chancellor, and the address which I am about to deliver; the exhibition will be open to the public as from tomorrow for a fortnight, but my address I promise you will not last quite as long as that.

The Hong Kong University Press has published a booklet in celebration of the occasion and in it will be found a detailed catalogue of the exhibition together with an article entitled: “Robert Morrison, The Scholar and the Man”.  As this article is far too long to be given as a lecture, I propose to content myself, and I hope also my audience, by just referring to some of the more important episodes of his life in this short talk on Morrison.

This most remarkable man was first and foremost a missionary, but he was endowed with marked talent in other fields as well, and it was due to his pre-eminence in the many fields that he adorned, that his name became indelibly associated with the history of places far removed in both time and space from his confined spheres of action in Canton and Macao.

Many people well qualified to do so will, during the next few days, be discoursing on Morrison’s missionary work; to me has fallen the pleasant and rewarding task of describing Morrison’s life as a scholar and man, and paying tribute to the part he played in the development of education in this Colony and of Chinese scholarship in the western world.

The University celebrates this sesqui-centenary with thankfulness because it was Morrison who set the pattern that has been followed by all British institutions of higher learning in this part of the world ever since.  We celebrate it with humility, because he was the greatest European scholar of Chinese in his day.  We celebrate it with pride because it is his trail we haltingly tread, the trail he blazed to make possible sinology as we know it today.  We particularly celebrate it on this 4th of September, because it was on that day in 1807 that he landed at Macao and that is the date to which he constantly referred in his letters as marking the beginning of his work in China.

He was born at Buller’s Green, Morpeth, in Northumberland, the youngest son in a family of eight children, which some ardent nationalists in these days would describe I suppose as the result of a mixed marriage, for his father was Scottish and his mother English.

He was brought up in a strict Presbyterian home and at a very early age both in his diligence and his predilections, gave early evidence of the course he was to steer through a life that was to be lived for others.  While working hard at this apprenticeship to his father who was a successful last and boot-tree maker, he found time to study and qualify for entrance to the Hoxton Academy which is described as an “Institution formed by Evangelical Dissenters for the purpose of affording an extended education to candidates for the holy ministry”.  Morrison travelled from Newcastle to London by ship; it turned out to be a very rough trip and when one considers the long, rough and seemingly interminable journeys by sea that he was destined to undertake during his life of service, one realises what a boon it is that we cannot foresee the future; one wonders whether a man of even Morrison’s character would have chosen the path he was destined to travel, had he known what lay ahead.  While at Hoxton he decided to offer his services to the London Missionary Society and these being accepted, it was decided to send him to China on a mission, not primarily to preach and teach, but to acquire the language and to translate the Bible into Chinese.

As soon as this decision was made, Morrison set to work harder than ever in preparation for his special vocation; he determined to become as proficient in Chinese as the meagre facilities of early nineteenth century London could provide for acquiring a knowledge of that language.

A Rev. Moseley had for some time been pressing for the translation of the Bible into Chinese, and when he became aware of the plans of the London Missionary Society, he put Morrison in touch with a Cantonese in London named Yong Sam Tak, who subsequently became Morrison’s tutor; the association of Morrison and Yong was a remarkable one, for the latter had a peculiar disposition - Morrison refers to his ‘proud and domineering temper’, and to his diligence at reading Confucius which acted as a great challenge to Morrison - and yet Morrison persuaded Yong to go and live with him that he might the more easily acquire a working knowledge of the language:  this he readily did, and in an incredibly short time he was proficient enough to work on the Chinese manuscripts in the British Museum.  One of these, the so-called “Harmony of the Gospels” became the centre of his attention because it was the story of the New Testament made up by the weaving together of extracts from the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles; by studying this manuscript, Morrison not only learned Chinese, but he was introduced to valuable biblical terms and phrases and became familiar right from the start with the task of translating the Bible into Chinese. 

Morrison decided the best thing he could do, both as an exercise in the language and as a preparation for his future task of translating the whole Bible, was to transcribe the manuscript; this he did and his transcription is the one we have in the University Library and which is on view in the exhibition just opened in the Fung Ping Shan Library.

As pointed out in Appendix II of the printed article, the real authorship of this manuscript, how much of it is Yong’s and how much Morrison’s, presents a fascinating problem; already we have made enough observations on the manuscript and unearthed enough contradictory references in the literature, to indicate that here is the material on hand for a most interesting investigation; one thing is certain and that is that the comments in English are all in Morrison’s handwriting and they give us an insight into the care and the critical faculty which he brought to bear on his study of Chinese and of the Bible.  Whatever be the answer to this question of authorship we know that the copy we have here was Morrison’s constant companion; he read it, he studied it, he preached from it and he used it as the basis for his ultimate New Testament in Chinese.  Simultaneously with all this work, he pursued intently his studies of Hebrew, Latin and Greek because he knew how essential a first hand knowledge of these languages would be to one engaged in translating the English Bible.

In 1806 the decision was made that Morrison was ready to go abroad and then the real difficulties began; it will be remembered at that time the Honourable East India Company still had the monopoly of British trade with ‘countries beyond the Cape of Good Hope to the Straights of Magellan’, with the dominions of the Emperor of China and of trading in tea; they would neither let Morrison take passage in one of their ships to India as he planned and hoped to do, nor would they give him a permit to go to China.  Undaunted he set about investigating the possibility of using the only then known method of penetrating the bamboo curtains erected in those days by both the East India Company and by China; that method was to travel in a non-British ship; Morrison decided to try and get a passage in an American ship and this meant going first to New York; he embarked at Gravesend on 31st January 1807 but they only got as far as the downs when storms held up all shipping, and it was not till the end of February that his ship actually left English shores; it was the only one of a large fleet to do so, all the other either being wrecked or rendered unseaworthy.  That was not the end of their trouble; it was but a fore-taste of things to come, for they experienced such storms and continuously bad weather in the Atlantic that it took them 109 days to reach New York; to make matters worse Morrison was not a good sailor and those months of pitching and tossing in a confined space must have been a severe test for his devotion to duty.  Yet he never wavered.  He preached to the crew whenever he could and was a constant source of consolation to all on board and to those whom they rescued from a dismasted and doomed ship, Holland-bound out of New York.

Once on shore again his Atlantic experiences were pushed into the background as his zest for the next stage called for all his time and attention.  His immediate task was a triple one; first he had to find a ship going to China and arrange for a passage; secondly he wanted to meet as many members of the American missionary societies as he possibly could and thirdly, foreseeing the very great probability that the East India Company officials may not be able to allow him to remain in China, he wanted to enlist American aid to meet this emergency should it arise.  He accomplished this triple task admirably.  Personally I always feel that there is concentrated here in his few weeks stay in the States more information about Morrison the man, than in any other equivalent period of his life.  He must have had a very attractive personality because he seemed to be able to win the interest and enlist the help in his cause of nearly every one he met.  Furthermore, these contacts he made were not just friendships of convenience; his letters show how these friendships he made here, were made for all time.

Regarding his problems, he not only secured a passage, but he was given it free, having to pay for the freight of his luggage only; as far as contacts were concerned he made most valuable friendships among both scholars and church people and as far as his future security in China was concerned he was given a letter from Mr. Maddison, the American Secretary of State, to his Consul in Canton.  On 12th May he embarked at New York on the second leg of his long voyage to China and in her “Memoirs”, his widow gives an anecdote which again reveals to us the ready confidence and wit of this well-versed student of the Bible.  Although in those days he did not have to travel armed with passports duly visaed or vaccination and inoculation certificates of numerous kinds, one can imagine how the embarkation officers must have made the most of the one document they had to examine; after thoroughly and slowly reading every word of it, one can visualize this official carefully folding it up, replacing it in its impressive envelope and handing it back to the unimpressed Morrison with these self-satisfied and rather condescending words:  ‘And so, Mr. Morrison, you really expect that you will make an impression on the idolatry of the great Chinese empire?’  ‘No, Sir’ replied the composed, stern and reproving Morrison, ‘I expect God will’.

In those days, the lucrative route round The Horn to California and then across to China had not been called into existence as a regular route, and the ship “Trident” took the easterly one across the south Atlantic and round the Cape of Good Hope; again they were plagued with bad weather, and in addition he had a rather unpleasant period when they were being chased by a French privateer; being an American vessel they were allowed to proceed unmolested but had they boarded the “Trident”, things may have gone ill with the Britisher.  The journey took 113 days, so eight months after leaving England, having spent 222 days on shipboard, Morrison arrived in Macao Roads on Friday 4th September 1807.  Without a moment’s delay he went ashore and started negotiations with Sir George Staunton and Mr. Chalmers.  He soon found that neither the political nor the Church authorities would allow him to stay in Macao, that it was against the regulations of the Honourable Company to allow any Britishers other than traders or their employees to stay in Canton, and that the Chinese had prohibited their people under penalty of death, from teaching their language to foreigners.  That of course was enough to deter any ordinary man, but not Morrison.  He quickly realized that he had absolutely no hope if he stayed on in Macao and that his only chance of success was to get to Canton and live under the protection afforded if possible by Americans.  So on to Canton he went, arriving there on Sunday, September 7th; this turned out to be a very wise move for of course there was no shuttle service in existence then between Macao and Canton; ships had to wait for the season’s tea and other cargo before they could load for their return journey so their turn-round time was some months; this meant that even if either the Company or the Chinese compelled him to leave, he would at least have some months in Canton before his actual departure and this would give him time to get some work done at any rate.

The very next morning he delivered his letter of introduction to Mr. Carrington the American Consul, and as a result, temporary arrangements were made for Morrison to go and live with him; later it was thought wiser and liable to attract less attention if he lived with two other Americans and so he moved to their quarters.  Relations between the British and Americans were rather strained at that time, yet Morrison got on well with both.  When Sir George Staunton came up to Canton he introduced Morrison to Mr. Roberts, the Chief of the English Factory who, amazing to relate, immediately procured for him a Chinese teacher.  This tutor is one of the two depicted with Morrison in the well-known picture by Chinnery, a copy of which is in our exhibition today.

This surprising and contradictory train of events shows how amiable a man Morrison must have been and how he must have had the happy knack of being able to deal with people in a normal, natural manner.  British officialdom was, to say the least, not favourably disposed towards him or his project; the relationship between the British and the Americans was anything but cordial; yet he was able to overcome British antagonism and convert it into sympathy and at the same time to enlist active American help.  The friendship that sprang up between him and Sir George Staunton was a very real one, cemented as it was by a common interest and high standard in Chinese scholarship that each attained; it was a friendship that was to be broken only by death.

He lived in continual dread of a sentence of expulsion being passed on him and of it being put into effect.  He worked feverishly day in day out and rapidly acquired an amazing knowledge of both Cantonese and Mandarin, written and spoken.  Like many another foreigner keen to learn the language he went through the phase of living with Chinese, mixing with Chinese only, dressing like Chinese and eating their food; he even went to the extent of letting his finger nails grow and of wearing a false cue in order to allow his personality to be completely merged into the Chinese atmosphere.  Eventually his health gave way, and he was wise enough to call a halt to these self-imposed disciplines, realizing that if his health was lost, all was lost.

It was not in Morrison’s character to leave anything to chance; he looked ahead and planned ahead for all foreseeable eventualities, and then left matters with God; he planned that if he should ever have to leave he would go to Malacca.  There the authorities were more favourable to his cause and he could not only write his books, but he could publish them and preach their message without restrictions.  By the end of 1808, his Chinese Grammar, and the first part of his New Testament were ready for printing, and his Dictionary was rapidly nearing completion; the safety and freedom of distant Malacca were too great a temptation when viewed from amidst the uncertainty and the disturbed conditions in China, so he decided to move; just as he was about to put his decision into effect, the arrival in Macao of Mr. Morton and his family changed his plans and his destiny.  Within a few months the eldest Morton girl became his wife and this deeply religious woman was just the partner he needed.  It suddenly began to look as though Fate relented of her harsh treatment of Morrison because about the same time, the Select Committee offered him an official position as Chinese Secretary and Translator to the East Indian Company’s Factory at a salary of £500 a year.

Here was a most remarkable situation; a missionary sent out to learn Chinese and to translate the Scriptures into that language and he is offered the equivalent of a Government post; but when Morrison began to weigh the facts up, he found the position to be not quite so odd as it seemed at first. Morrison had always been very conscious of the fact that he was costing the Society much more than any of their other missionaries because the cost of living in Canton and Macao was so very high, and owing to the peculiar circumstances he felt they were getting no real missionary return for their outlay; in addition to that there was always the threat of being expelled; here was an offer carrying with it both security and a big financial reward; he would be able to relieve the Mission of much of their financial burden and simultaneously to ensure their mandate would be carried out; he would be given great opportunities of becoming proficient at the language because all the official dealings with the Chinese would pass through his hands and he would be able to afford to buy all the Chinese books that he was finding were so necessary for his work.  Morrison accepted the offered position and what is more, the Society in London thoroughly approved of his decision.

Morrison the man had been sorely tried in the hard school ever since his early youth, but now Morrison the man had arrived, and superimposed on this firm foundation, Morrison the scholar had begun to develop.  A young colleague named Milne was sent out to join him and his arrival was the signal amongst English and Portuguese alike for a general outburst against missionaries; the Portuguese, in spite of the entreaties of Morrison, would not let him stay in Macao, and in Canton right from the start officialdom made it clear that he could not stay in China, so off he went to Malacca, but not before Morrison had given him a sufficient grounding in Chinese to enable him to apportion to Milne a part of the translation task; Milne was to be responsible for the Book of Job and the Historical Books of the Old Testament.  Before Milne left, Morrison discussed and planned with him his ideas concerning the Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca, and into those plans he put a great deal of time and thought.

During the next few years his scholarship began to bear its fruit and to receive recognition broad; he was made a Doctor of Divinity by the University of Glasgow; the college in Malacca was founded and he was appointed its President; the first 1000 copies of his Acts of the Apostles were printed, proving that his ideas of printing and publishing locally were feasible; the East India Company decided to publish his Chinese dictionary themselves and for the purpose brought out specially from England a press and a mechanic.  The recognition abroad of his accomplishments were not all favourable; his enemies too were active especially in England; but even so it took everybody by surprise when the Select Committee in Canton received orders from the Directors in London to give Morrison notice.  They did so, but in the process used the most praiseworthy blind-eye technique, by saying that they would not implement the orders till they received further instructions; these of course never arrived, but Lord Amherst did and he appointed Morrison as Chinese Secretary to his Embassy to Peking; the rejected stone had become head of the corner with a vengeance, and never again was its value challenged.

The close of the year 1819 saw the culmination of his greatest achievements.  We all I suppose have our own favourite quotations from literature of momentous statements, statements we can never read without a feeling of thrill and pride; to me Harvey’s announcement of his discovery of the circulation of the blood is one (and incidentally the 300th anniversary of his death is being celebrated this year) and the one I am now going to quote from Morrison’s letters is another.  You can all well imagine Morrison sitting in his perhaps cold, certainly unheated room in Canton on November 25th 1819, alone in a foreign world, his family away in far off England; like a searchlight sweeping a distant horizon his mind flashes back with a speed faster than light, and floodlights for a brief moment successive incidents of interest in his busy and adventurous life; his rugged boyhood in Newcastle ; his intense student days in London; his first introduction to those mystical and fascinating art forms, the Chinese characters; the thrill of achieving transcription and then translation; the thousands of miles of perilous sea journey; the labour and sweat of tropical Macao and Canton in Chinese and foreign atmospheres both unsympathetic and antagonistic; the support of a wife and the help of Milne, and the confidence and prayers of people at home and in America; he looks again at a packet of papers he has just received from Milne and then he takes up his pen and in the firm writing, the photostatic copy of which you can see in the exhibition in the Fung Ping Shan Library now, he wrote to the Directors of the Missionary Society these words:

“By the mercy of God, an entire version of the books of the Old and New Testaments, into the Chinese language, was this day brought to a conclusion”.

Thirty nine books, twenty six from the Old Testament and thirteen from the New, were wholly his own work.  What a great achievement! What devotion! What self denial!  Those of you who know what it was like to work in China through long nights without even oil lamps but only fat candles, will appreciate what a wealth of feeling and experience is expressed in the pitiful postscript he added to this letter.  He wrote:

“I require your indulgence as to the manner of writing - for after writing long I become almost blind and have to feel my way”.

Milne, as we have seen, was responsible for certain Old Testament books; Morrison made adequate and generous acknowledgement for the help he derived from the Jesuit translation he used for the other New Testament books, edited and altered:

“as, in my conscience, and with the degree of knowledge of the Chinese              language, which I then possessed, I thought necessary.”

Some parts of the rest of his letter are so important historically and so indicative of the man that I should like to read them to you.  This is not self-praise; it is just a tired man at the end of a great achievement speaking his thoughts to ensure that his fellow men should know the truth about what had occurred.

‘If Morrison and Milne’s Bible shall, in China, at some subsequent period, hold such a place in reference to a better translation, as Wickliffe’s or Tyndale’s now hold in reference to our present English version, many will for ever bless God for the attempt; and neither the Missionary Society, nor the Bible Society, will ever regret the funds they have, or shall yet expend, in aid of the object.’

‘It is not yet 500 years since Wickliffe’s bones were dug up and burnt, chiefly because he translated the Scriptures; and it is not yet 300 years since Tyndale was strangled by the hands of the common hangman, and then burnt, for the same cause.  The alleged inaccuracy of Wickliff’e and Tyndale’s translations was the ground of cavil with all those who were adverse to any translation of the Sacred Scriptures; and it is but 277 years since the English Parliament decreed, that “all manner of books of the Old and New Testaments, of the crafty, false, and untrue translation of Tyndale, be forthwith abolished and forbidden to be used and kept.”  If such things occurred so recently, more modern translators need not be surprised if their works are censured or condemned.’

‘Granting that many had the talent to do better than we have done, yet few appear to have had the will; and I will be bold to say, there are many who could not have done so well at a first attempt; however, for what is actually well done, to God be all the praise.  This boasting is extorted by past occurrences and not by a present anticipation of censures yet to come.’

‘King James’s translators were fifty-four in number, and rendered into their mother tongue, in their native country, under the patronage of their prince.  Our version is the work of two persons, or at most of three (including the author of the MS), performed in a remote country, and into a foreign and newly acquired language, one of the most difficult in the world, and the least cultivated in Europe.  The candid judge of men’s work will not forget these circumstances, when he decides on the character of the present translation …’

‘To the task I have brought patient endurance of long labour and seclusion from society, a calm and unprejudiced judgment; not enamoured of novelty and eccentricity, nor yet tenacious of an opinion merely because it was old; and, I hope, somewhat of an accurate mode of thinking, with a reverential sense of the awful responsibility of misinterpreting God’s word.  Such qualifications are, perhaps, as indispensable as grammatical learning in translating such a book as the Bible.’

The friendship between these two collaborators, Morrison and Milne, was a remarkable and valuable one in many respects.  They worked well together when together; they worked well together when apart and most of the time during which they were associated, they were apart.  Milne we have seen was an apt student, Morrison a brilliant teacher; that each could thus accept the other’s work was a tribute to the scholastic integrity of both; at no time did Morrison ever wield the master’s rod in his letters to his former pupil.  The success of the Anglo-Chinese College with its President separated from the College and its Principal by a month’s sea voyage was amazing yet it was real, for when the Penang government found they had to discontinue their financial support, four members of the East India Company in Canton offered unsolicited financial support of a like amount because of their firm conviction of the value of the College to British trade.  These four far-sighted business men wrote on January 7th 1831 to Dr. Morrison saying:

‘By the means of liberal education so readily afforded to the natives of England as well as China, in the learning and languages of either country, we consider the intercourse between the subjects of the two empires will be materially facilitated.’

Would that we had more of their kind in Hong Kong circles today in place of those who do not regard the support of institutions of higher learning to be a community obligation and who are content to see the occasional crumb grudgingly flicked from the table of plenty towards the rice bowls of waiting charities.

This by no means brought his writing to an end for he was still engaged on the third part of his Dictionary and many other publications both in English and in Chinese, but we are coming now to the productive phase of his educational period; his Anglo-Chinese College was the forerunner of all British colleges and universities that exist in the Far East today.  He was an educational idealist. Sitting alone on the verge of a population of over 300 million people whom he had pledged his life to help, he was confident that through a small college in far away Malacca he could accomplish this academically.  He was over a century ahead of his time; scholastically that mattered not, for scholarship is scholarship in any age or clime, and its value will establish itself only as long as, and not until, it is afforded its scholarly contacts and continuity.

Morrison’s long residence in the Far East of over fourteen years and his heavy programme of constant hard work began to have its effect on his health; added to that, death dealt him two severe blows; in 1821 he lost his wife and a year later Milne died; after the loss of his wife he decided to return to England but Milne’s death changed his plans and to Malacca he went instead.  With a change of scene, Morrison’s spirit seemed to revive; he re-vitalised his College, he met Raffles and planned with him their “Singapore Institution”; he and Raffles got on well together and Raffles consulted him on many of his problems, especially those involving dealings with Chinese.  Morrison’s ideas on educational institutions were clearly stated in a public meeting held in Singapore to inaugurate the “Institution”; he started by disposing of the common argument that it was a waste of time and money to try and educate Malayans and Chinese; he drew attention to the fact that our British ancestors eighteen hundred years ago were no more advanced and no one would dare to argue that it has been a waste of energy in educating the British.  He admitted that health being uncertain and life short, the efforts of one individual produced but little effect; but that only proved how essential it was for people to unite their efforts.  ‘Some men will not plant a tree because it cannot attain its proper size in their lifetime; but the tree of knowledge which we would plant, is not for our individual use alone, it is for the healing of the nations around us.  Knowledge is not virtue; but knowledge is power, and should always be possessed by the virtuous to enable them to do good to others.’

In the rest of his speech, Morrison cast an amazingly prophetic eye on the future; he predicted the scope for study of physical sciences and natural history that east Asia would provide; he envisaged medical science, botany, mineralogy and other sciences being enriched by work done in the Singapore institution where man would be regarded

‘as he really is - as a compound being, as neither all body nor all mind, but as made up of both, and as related both to time and to eternity.’

At this meeting the Institution in Singapore was founded, decisions were made concerning the division of labour between it and the College in Malacca, they were

‘to be associated like twin brothers, having no other strife or rivalry, but the very pardonable one of trying which can be most useful.’

Morrison was appointed a Vice-President and Trustee of the new Institution.

Soon after his return to Canton he definitely decided to revisit his homeland and so in December 1823, after 16 years in China, he embarked at Whampoa for England.  This time his voyage was uneventful, but two things are worth noticing, the first is that he spent most of his time writing a history of China and the second that an entry in his dairy during the voyage when his ship crossed the Tropic of Cancer in the Atlantic reads:

‘in the latitude of macho - thither my heart returns.  I have spent in China the most interesting period of my life.’

Morrison certainly intended to return and carry on his work, and the whole of his activities while in England were planned with that end in view.  He had taken back with him much of the library he had acquired while in China, about 10,000 volumes; these he intended to give to whichever University would agree to found a chair of Chinese.  Unfortunately there arose a little misunderstanding between him and the Lords of the Treasury, or as we would say in these days, he had trouble with the Customs.  The fact that he left the ship at Start Point, travelling on a smuggler from there to Salcombe in Devon where he landed, did not make matters any easier; books brought into the country by a society could be duty free, but not if brought in by an individual.  The matter reached Cabinet level before it was eventually settled in favour of Morrison; the ventilation of his trouble at this high level had this additional outcome that Morrison was honoured by having an audience with the King to whom he gave a copy of his Bible in Chinese.  He eventually donated his library to University College London, but he was unable to persuade any University to found a chair in Chinese.

During his stay in England he worked indefatigably for his educational as well as his missionary projects in the east; he worked hard as, so to speak, a missionary in reverse; he believed that his mission in England was to reveal Chinese culture and philosophy to the scholars of the west. With this in view he founded an international language institute and he himself gave his services free for over three months, teaching Chinese.  Morrison must have been the dynamic personality behind this move, because in spite of the large number of influential people on the board of the Institute, it ceased to function altogether a year or two after Morrison returned to China.

In his diary is one interesting and informative entry which shows how much he was able to accomplish in a day in London on foot; it is amazing especially when one compares it with what one can accomplish in these days of modern transport and traffic jams!  His diary reads:

‘After sending off a letter to you this morning (having walked to town), I travelled to Paternoster Row, to the booksellers; from thence to the Language Institution, where a draftsman is making some sketches for the “Dialogues”.  From thence, by a long round, I proceeded towards Sir Stamford’s - called on Mrs. W-, who is ill; next went to the Royal Asiatic Society, and conversed with Sir Alex.  Johnstone - to Sir Stamford’s house, and found that he does not return till February.  - I was now hungry and wearied, and went into an eating-house near Berners-street, where I got boiled beef, one plate; three potatoes; a piece of bread; a pint of porter; pepper, salt, mustard, and a penny for the waiter, all for one shilling!.  I then hied to Mrs. A.’s to pay a visit by proxy for you - here all “charmingly” so glad to see me, etc. From there to York-street - all much as usual.  Then down by a Paddington stage, got all the magazines, and hied home to Hackney, being tired, and very solitary: have been looking them over till now, half-past eleven’.

Three events that happened during his stay in England are worth our notice here; the first is that he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and a photographic copy of the relevant entry in the Society’s records is on view in our exhibition today; the second was that his missionary society, contrary to their usual practice, appointed him a member of their Board of Directors during his stay in England, a stay which they specially requested him to prolong in order to establish and consolidate his Language Institution.  The third was the second marriage, and in his second wife he found a helpmate who gladly shared his difficulties and his disappointments, and to whom we are greatly indebted for his valuable biography.

Morrison’s tour in England was one of hard and incessant labour but it was also one of triumph; Morrison the scholar, Morrison the educationalist as well as Morrison the missionary was more than a national figure; he was international; yet the moment he set his course for the east again, troubles began.  First the East India Company refused to allow him to take his family with him and then they offered him a three year contract only.

Again the difficulties of the situation highlight the character of the man; urged on all sides to fight this unjust decision and urged to go even further and to ask for a pension and other privileges enjoyed by al the other employees of the company, he replied:

‘I do not feel inclined to plead my own cause with the Directors; I would rather retire back on my ministerial and missionary character, than importune them even to do me justice.’

He felt that he had used the company in order to secure residence in China for his own purposes however laudable they may have been, and now that his main objective had been gained and the Bible and Dictionary printed, he did not think he was justified in pressing for a continuation of the arrangement merely because it was to his advantage; as a matter of fact he also believed it was to their advantage as well and to the advantage of the church and the world, but he was not prepared to spend time persuading them; his time was better spent in placing the matter before God in prayer and there he left his burden.

In the end of course the company relented and he and his wife and two children eventually sailed in the H.C.S.  ”Orwell” from Gravesend on 1st May 1826 for China via the Cape.  This time he had a beautiful run down the channel and as far as Madeira, but from there on it was rather a rough voyage, made more frightening by a mutiny which occurred on the 24th of July; during the course of the mutiny Morrison acted as an intermediary, going alone and unarmed to the fore part of the ship where the mutineers, armed to the teeth and seething with rage and discontent, were assembled.  His brave behaviour had a great deal to do with persuading the men to be more reasonable and to return to duty, but the normal treatment of the sailors, let alone the punishment meted out to those who fell under the displeasure of their officers, worried and upset him tremendously.

On the 20th August they anchored inn the roads at Singapore and there he found conditions both in the settlement and in the Institution very unsatisfactory; gambling houses had been reopened in the town, and in the Institution there had been an almost complete disregard of pecuniary affairs, while scholastic activity was at a standstill.  He revitalised the trustees, becoming one of their number himself; he bought some land and donated it to the Institution which, when he came to leave, was well on the way to being on its feet again.  He landed at Macao on Tuesday the 19th September and wrote in his diary ‘God be praised’.  He was met by his Chinese teacher and his old servants but again disappointment was awaiting him; his house and furniture were in such a bad state that they had to be completely renewed and all the books he had left behind had been practically destroyed by white ants and insects.  Many of his old friends both Chinese and English had left or had died, and the distasteful smuggling of opium was on the increase.  He had however his family, and he had a small band of official friends whose kindness and sympathy were in marked contrast to that of the Court of Directors in London; he also had his work and so back to his desk he went and started his “Commentary of Holy Scriptures”, not knowing or caring what there would be for him at the end of the three years extended service he had been granted.

Within a fortnight of landing he was back at Canton, taking John with him so that the young lad could more readily learn Cantonese, and he immediately became immersed in official work as much as ever.  With the founding of an English paper, the “Canton Register”, came a new activity because he was asked to write regularly for it; to this proposal he consented provided he were given full liberty to express his view on moral and religious subjects, and for that the papers was to pay $300 per year to any benevolent institution of Morrison’s choosing.

1828 brought the news of the failure of two of his educational projects, the Language Institution in London and the Singapore Institution, the former because it was considered useless, the latter because of mismanagement and disinterestedness.  His Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca alone flourished and this afforded Morrison the greatest comfort and pride; the failure of the Singapore Institution absolved the Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca from all its contractual obligations concerning Singapore, which had been arranged during Morrison’s visit with Raffles in 1823.  Undismayed by these failures he supported very strongly the establishment in Macao in 1829 of a “British Museum in China”; its purpose was to collect and house items of natural history as well as art.  Morrison, in addition to making substantial financial contributions, was particularly interested in making the museum known to the Chinese public and its facilities for learning Chinese known to the Europeans.

Although his literary output remained unabated - 1829 saw the completion of the “Third Part of the Vocabulary of the Canton Dialect” - his interest in teaching and spreading the Gospel was too as keen as ever, and his official duties became more arduous that ever; but here he was conscious of a change.  Times were changing, new people both inside and outside the Factory were assuming control over affairs and much that was new was uncongenial.  He therefore made the momentous decision to relinquish his official position and devote the whole of his time to the work nearest his heart.  Residence he felt to be secure, but even if he should be sent away he felt now that there were other missionaries who could carry on.  These others were Americans whom he had been instrumental in having appointed to China.

For some years he had been impressing on the various British Protestant missionary bodies that it was high time that they sent reinforcements out to China for he felt it was now possible for them to get permission to stay.  He could get no satisfaction in this direction, so he turned to America and in November 1827 he made the proposition to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions that they should send out an American Mission to China.  It so happened that his appeal arrived just at the time that the Board was considering that very project, and for its implementation they had already collected quite a large sum of money.  The invitation and encouragement from Morrison and the knowledge that the new Mission would have the privilege and incalculable benefit of the advice and help of such an experienced man on the spot, settled the question and the Mission was founded.

The first two members arrived in Canton in March 1830.  And this was a source of great satisfaction to Morrison; he felt his powers waning, he realized he was getting more and more out of tune with new authority and so he wrote:

‘But as I am going off the stage I rejoice that it has pleased the Lord to send others to continue the work’.

We have already remarked that even though Morrison occupied such an eminent position amongst the world’s sinologists, his reputation did not make him immune from attack in literary and academic circles.  Certain French journals for example repeatedly carried articles attacking him unmercifully but for many reasons he took no active part in the arguments; in the first place he feared that trouble was fanned by Jesuit-Protestant disagreements, and he had no intention of being embroiled in that type of trouble; secondly he was so far away that it would be at least 18 months, perhaps two years by the time his answers appeared in the European journals, and thirdly and principally, he was confident in his knowledge, and he was just as honest in his belief, that there were higher objectives in life than earthly fame.  This confidence in himself was supported by the fact that the Japanese thought so highly of Morrison’s scholarship and thoroughness that they were already translating his dictionary into Japanese.

On September 4th 1832 he wrote from Canton together with Elijah Coleman Bridgman, a report on the first 25 years of Protestant Missionary work in China.  Short and modest, it yet underlines the results consequent on the great work of the man who had spent more than half of his life achieving it.  All his work now began to exhibit evidence of the finishing touch as well as the master touch and the difficulties he encountered now, instead of acting as a vital stimulus to his fighting nature, brought forth this significant comment:

‘Clouds gather, as we approach the evening of life’,

He laboriously tried to disperse those clouds, hoping that the clear, mellow light of an unobstructed yet tempered sun illuminating and clothing with softening rays his labours at eventide, would be his lot.

‘Yes, love, tired in my work, but not of it, I delight in the work’,

he would say to his wife.

Prohibited from using his press in Macao because some of his published works expressed views contrary to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church; his ill health becoming more and more of a worry to him; the deterioration of relations with the authorities in Canton necessitating his return there just on the eve of his wife’s departure to England; his increasing distaste for the atmosphere pervading the Select Committee and the opium smuggling activities of all the other nationals, all these added an unbearable as well as a distasteful strain on a tired and sick man.

His wife’s sailing was fixed for 10th December in the “Inglis” (Captain Dudman) and on the 10th November Morrison, cruelly separated from his family by being detained officially at Canton, almost relented his decision and was tempted to write ‘don’t go’.  As his wife’s departure date drew near the returned to Macao and there spent a happy last 10 days or so with his family.  They were to embark at Lintin so thither went Morrison and his family on the 10th December to await the “Inglis”.  They had a terrible trip across in a small Portuguese boat from Macao to Lintin; there they were guests of William Jardine on his ship “Hercules” until the arrival of the “Inglis”.  These must have been trying days, each hour of inactivity ticking inevitably, relentlessly, yet monotonously towards that terrible moment of separation which Morrison must have felt to be the final one on this earth.

The next few months were characterised by a marked deterioration in his health and by much speculation and much hard work due to the passing of the East India Company and the institution of Lord Napier’s commission.  Lord Napier landed at Macao on the 15th July at 3 p.m.  and the next day at noon the King’s commission was read to all the Factory assembled.  Morrison, if he accepted it, was to be appointed “Chinese Secretary and Interpreter” at a salary of £1,300 a year.

‘I am to wear a Vice-consul’s coat with King’s buttons, when I can get one!’ he wrote, ‘A Vice-consul’s uniform instead of the preaching gown!’

He accepted the commission at once and as Lord Napier decided that all negotiations were to be carried out at Canton, to Canton they repaired forthwith and Canton became their permanent home.  They arrived there on the morning of July 25th but Morrison was already very ill; after two heavy days of committee work and translating, he was too ill to be moved and on Friday 1st August at 10 p.m.  in his son John’s arms, he passed peacefully away.  His remains were brought to Macao by his son and Sir George Robinson, Bart., one of H.M.’s Superintendents, and was accompanied to the point of embarkation in Canton by Lord Napier and all the Europeans and Americans then in Canton.  He was buried in the cemetery which, out of respect for him, was originally bought to receive the remains of his first wife, alongside whom he was now laid to rest, in the presence of a group of sorrowing friends.

That of course was not the end of either Morrison or his work.  The Protestant community in Macao soon realized what a loss to them and to China, to scholarship and to the world, was the passing of Robert Morrison.  This intense man of piety and prayer, a fearless preacher and prophet, must have been an outstanding and arresting public figure in the Canton-Macao community of his day, he shunned the effervescence of the social life of the time as a total-abstainer would shun champagne; when his family were with him he could often be seen enjoying his daily romp with the children during their evening relaxation in front of his house; but when they were home in England, he led the life of a recluse, cloistered with his books and his teachers, his disciples and his God.

He must have been missed as well as mourned by every one of his acquaintances in every walk of life for soon after his death people began to think of setting up permanent memorials to commemorate his life of service.  First came the “Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in China”.  It was established on 3rd December 1834 and although there is no direct evidence that Morrison was associated with its founding or that it was founded in his memory, the similarity between its pattern and Morrison’s character are too marked to be purely fortuitous; his friend Rev. Elijah Bridgman was one of the Chinese Secretaries and his son John the English Secretary.  More directly associated with him and destined to be one of the links between him and education in Hong Kong were the “Morrison Education Society in China” - founded 24th February 1838, and the school which was opened in Macao under the temporary control of an American teacher.  This school was subsequently transferred to the young colony of Hong Kong and was established on a hill to the east of Queen-town, a hill which for the last fifty years had been continually contributing its substance to the various lucrative reclamation schemes that characterize the Wanchai and Causeway Bay areas of modern Hong Kong.  Today Morrison Hill has practically ceased to exist as such and to those who do not know the story of the reclamations the only indication of its former existence is the present Morrison Hill Road.

It is only natural that, with the setting up of a British colony with its systems of law and order and its way of academic and religious freedom, the threads spun by Morrison in Canton and Macao should gradually be taken up by hands in Hong Kong and there be woven into those patterns which were formed first in the mind of the master-craftsman.  The agents who have taken up his task, and the agencies through which they have been able to carry on Morrison’s work, are many and it is fitting that a review such as this should end with a mention of at least some of them.  The most important name is that of Legge, and the institutions are The London Missionary Society, the Ying Wah Societies, and latterly the University of Hong Kong.

In this part of the Far East, the Rev. James Legge, D.D.  played the part of Elisha to Morrison’s Elijah; it was he who made it possible for Morrison’s educational ideas to be linked up with the school system of the Colony of his day, but an even greater part than that did Legge play.  It was on him that the real mantle of Morrison’s scholarship fell, and western sinology today owes its position and its stature to the ability and the learning with which Legge was able to approach the situation and which enabled him to shoulder this academic and scholastic responsibility of continuing Morrison’s work with such success and such distinction.

It will be remembered that Morrison wrote that the object of his college was:

‘The reciprocal cultivation of Chinese and European Literature.  On the one hand the Chinese language and literature will be made accessible to Europeans; and on the other hand, the English language, with European literature and science will be made accessible to the Ultra-Ganges nations who read Chinese.’

The College was founded at Malacca so far away from China itself purely for security reasons, for in his life-time there was no security in Canton or Macao; but with the setting up of the British colony at Hong Kong, there was no longer any point in the College being separated from its target - China.  Dr. Legge, mindful that Morrison’s prior preferences to Malacca were that the College should have

‘a free and unshackled residence in the heart of China’ and ‘next to that a residence in the suburbs of Canton or Macao’

had the college moved to Hong Kong, but the transplant not being a success, it was closed down about 1856.  The school aspect of Morrison’s college scheme however was revived some time later and still flourishes here in the Ying Wah foundations which have graciously contributed to the exhibition here today.  Of course the complete history of the continuation of Morrison’s work would involve telling the full story of the London Missionary Society here in Hong Kong; that must be for another’s pen at some other time, but one aspect of it must be touched upon in fairness to the subject of this address.

In China Morrison had seen how the medical man was able to practice his profession without any interference to speak of and in so doing gained an easy access to the people, while his own civil occupation gave him no such scope; by this bitter experience he became convinced that only through the professions of medicine and teaching could a mission in China prosper.  He envied the missionaries in Malaya, Java and other places who were allowed to preach freely and who could sow the seed through the medium of their own professions.  He therefore supported financially and encouraged and helped personally for years a clinic in Canton; to run this clinic he was dependent completely and absolutely on the medical help available and this varied from year to year until in 1832, it petered out altogether.  In the year of Morrison’s death Dr. Parker, a famous American medical missionary arrived in Canton and the medical service started by Morrison was revived.  In October 1836 the foreign community formed a Medical Missionary Society which operated in February 1838 two hospitals, one the Ophthalmic Hospital in Canton and the other a general hospital in Macao.  Ultimately the London Missionary Society made itself responsible for supplying the medical personnel for this venture and this staff was one of the origins of the multi-sourced Nethersole and Alice Memorial system of hospitals with which this Missionary Society in Hong Kong is so closely associated even to this day.  It was here through the agency of this Society, that Manson was able to start his College of Medicine which later developed in to the Medical Faculty of this University, where medical training and research is carried on up to standards recognised by Universities and Medical Schools the whole world over.

There are four other ways that should be mentioned in order to complete this story of how the continuation of Morrison’s work is being achieved through the agency of the University; one is through the University Library.  Morrison was so imbued with the importance of books that he not only wrote them and printed them, he gave them, he collected them, he used them, he appropriated them, he loved them.  In 1818 he stipulated in the “General Plan” that his Anglo-Chinese College

‘will be furnished with an extensive Chinese library, and a collection of all such European books as bear upon its object, viz. books of general literature and science, with such as treat of the language, history, manners, &c., of the nations above specified..’

When the Morrison Education Society was founded after his death, it was done so in the hope that, by carrying on the work he had started, the Society would be a lasting and fitting memorial to him and his work and right from the start the Society plans embodied a library.  To start it off many residents donated books, and one of the most valuable and significant donations was the collection of Robert Morrison donated by his son.  In 1842 when the society moved to Hong Kong the library was moved as well and was housed at the Society headquarters at Morrison Hill.

Financial difficulties in the late forties led to dissolution of the Society and the closure of the Library, the books not seeing the light of day again until they formed the nucleus of the new library in the City Hall when it was opened in Queen’s Road in November 1869.

For its better preservation and its better use it was decided to hand the library over to the newly founded University in 1913, and the gift was made permanent in 1925.  With the donation of the Fung Ping Shan Library building adequate accommodation was provided for our Chinese books and with the acquisition of the Hankow Library in 1933 the University was implementing another of Morrison’s plans -

‘and a collection of all such European books as bear upon its object.’

Believing as we do, and as Morrison did, that the preservation of culture and the spreading of its benefits demand good library facilities as well as adequate and up to date collections, the University has recently decided to build a new library to house the books it requires and thus in the near future we hope that we shall be able to live up more nearly to the precepts of him whose own books form the valuable nucleus of our collection.

The second point to emphasise is that Morrison’s College was to be residential.  Remembering that, soon after the University of Hong Kong was founded in 1911, the London Missionary Society decided to establish a hall of residence for men undergraduates in the new University and what better choice could they have made for a name than that of the far-sighted missionary who a century before had decided that there shall be

‘accommodation in the College for a limited number of students.’

Thus this University through its affiliated Morrison Hall, plays in a small way its part along with the Missionary Society in perpetuating the memory and giving fulfilment to some of the plans of Robert Morrison, and takes pride in being able to do even this small amount towards implementing his plans.

The third way which I wish to bring to your notice is that Morrison hoped that his college would not only be a means of making the knowledge of the Scriptures and the learning of the west available to the Chinese, but it was to be an archway through which scholars of the Occident could be given access to the linguistic and artistic treasures of Oriental culture.  This is being achieved in the University through the energies of the Department of Chinese and the post-war development of the Institute of Oriental Studies.  In the former, Chinese undergraduates are given the opportunity of studying to the highest standard possible their own culture, language, literature and philosophy with the added advantage of being able to bring the latest of western methods and of comparative studies to bear on their ancient learning.  Our Institute I sincerely believe would have met with Morrison’s full approval because, in the face of doubt expressed by British experts, we have succeeded in combining a school which keeps alive the flame of Chinese traditional learning with a language school where Europeans may become proficient in any of the Asian, particularly the Chinese, languages.  On the research side, through the help of Harvard-Yenching funds we have been able to afford a band of China’s own scholars the opportunity of furthering their researches in their own field, unfettered by the hampering confines of nationalistic or political control, supervision or persuasion, call it what you will.

Of the fourth and our latest development with a Morrisonian flavour, the Hong Kong University Press, I shall content myself with but the one observation, that although our publications are not as strictly religious as Morrison’s were, they conform to his loftiest tradition, the reciprocal cultivation of the culture found in both Chinese and European literature.

Thus did Morrison in full faith in his Master, cast his bread upon the waters of the Pacific; some loaves have been swept away by personal or political currents, and left stranded on inhospitable and unproductive shores; but some, one hundred and fifty years later here in Hong Kong, are nourishing and sustaining an increasing number of those whom Morrison pledged his life to serve and save.  It now but needs some benefactor so come forward and enable us to combine and co-ordinate all these University activities under one foundation named after the man whose cultural hopes they are attempting to fulfil.

During the last few years I have spent many hours in Morrison’s cemetery in Macao, and I have watched many hundreds of sightseers visit this historic and delightful spot; as each batch comes and goes I always find myself asking the same question, what have they come forth to see? 

Morrison’s mortal remains, as were those of his first wife and their son and those of many of their friends, were certainly laid to rest there, but they are long since indistinguishable from that other dust which forms this sacred oasis.  He is not there, but lives on in the spirit of every missionary movement, of every hospital, of every school or college in the Far East today, which works for the Brother of Man.


As usual the consumate wordsmith - with indepth research, astute observation - and always straight to the listener's heart. Let's share more of Sir Ride's words with friends out there. Felix

Thank you so much for posting this long and very interesting Life of Robert Morrison, by Ride.

I published a book about James Legge in 2016  (James Legge and the Chinese Classics A Brilliant Scot in the Turmoil of Colonial Hong Kong. by Marilyn Laura Bowman,  Victoria: Friesen Press, 2016. $37.99.  /  978-1-4602-8883-2) - also available for free on Scribd  at https;//    (without the index) , which Gwulo readers might enjoy. The early years in HK were full of amazing events and people and it is wonderful to be reminded.