Joshua Marshman, 1768-1837, was a dedicated missionary to India and prolific translator and linguist, but his contributions to the understanding of the Chinese language were often used for the benefit of those with a very different mission; namely, the opium traders.
A precocious student, Marshman was renowned for having read more than 100 books by the age of twelve. At fifteen he went to work for a London bookseller, but he was soon called home by his father to work the family loom. In 1791 he married the daughter of a pastor, moved to Bristol, and began five years’ study of the classics. He showed particular aptitude for languages, learning Syriac and Hebrew, and some Arabic.
Marshman joined the Baptist Missionary Society and was sent to India, arriving in Bengal in 1799 to team up with his fellow missionaries William Carey and William Ward. The two had established a base in the tiny Danish colony of Serampore up-river from Calcutta, where they were free from the East India Company’s ban on missionary activity.
In the division of labour, Marshman took on responsibility, with his wife, for running the school that would provide much needed funds to finance their missionary work. He also assisted Carey with his Sanskrit translation of the New Testament published in 1808.
Their goal was conversion, not just in India, but throughout Asia. The East India Company, despite banning missionary activity in their own territory in India, encouraged it elsewhere, particularly in China where the opium trade from Calcutta was growing rapidly, Marshman’s linguistic talents were put to use. He began studying Chinese with the Macao born Armenian Joannes Lassar and his Chinese assistants in 1805. He was joined in class by his two young sons, ad eight and thirteen.
Lassar had been engaged to translate the Bible into Chinese, a task Marshman joined with enthusiasm. The pair completed most of the New Testament and had it printed by woodblock in the Chinese style in 1811, but it was to be fifteen years before the Serampore Press completed the first full Chinese translation of the Bible in 1822.
Elements of Chinese Grammar, a guide for others following in his footsteps learning Chinese, was based on the ‘purer’ language of the Confucian classics, rather than colloquial Chinese usage. This Grammar was the first full work to be printed with the new moveable metal types developed at Serampore – the first such Chinese font to be cast in modern times – to replace the wood-block printing technique used by Marshman earlier.
Although his primary aim had been to proselytize, Marshman’s contributions to the understanding of the Chinese language resulted in a dubious synergy between missionaries and opium traders. The opium trade from Calcutta to China had begun in the mid-18th century and grew rapidly towards 1800. Missionaries gained passage to China on opium clipper ships, and often worked as translators for the traders. As a result of their close association, missionaries were viewed negatively by the Chinese, even when they were personally opposed to the opium trade.
Marshman and his fellow missionaries were an integral part of the history of British expansion, the distribution of opium in China against the will of the Chinese rulers, and the Opium Wars that followed. Their heritage was not entirely intended.
Elements of Chinese Grammar, with a preliminary dissertation on the characters and the colloquial medium of the Chinese, and an appendix containing the Ta-Hyoh of Confucius with a Translation. First edition 1814.