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The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge's Oriental Pilgrimage.

The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge's Oriental Pilgrimage.

By Norman J. Girardot. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2002. Pp. xxx, 780. $75.

A short review cannot do justice to this dazzling contextualized intellectual biography by Professor Girardot, who is university distinguished professor in the Department of Religion Studies, Lehigh University, specializing in Chinese and comparative religions.

Missionary-scholar James Legge (1815-97) is fairly well known, but for most of the twentieth century he was not highly esteemed, despite his prodigious work as the first English-language translator of the Chinese classics and (from 1876) as the first professor of Chinese at Oxford. Girardot, whose focus is not just Legge but also the emergence of the late Victorian intellectual and academic constructs of "sinological Orientalism" and the secularized "science" of comparative religions, gives us a rich and sympathetic view of Legge, a Scottish Nonconformist workaholic who joined the London Missionary Society's China Mission in 1840 and remained in Hong Kong until 1873. By this time, somewhat estranged from the mission community and the LMS because of his high view of the classical Chinese religions, he retired as a missionary and went to Oxford.

Those early three decades of Legge's life are compressed into a prologue of 52 pages, though they are treated with great insight by the author. The rest of the book deals with such subjects as the huge shifts in the place of religion, the nature of academic life, and the rise of the "Orientalist disciplines" in late Victorian England, focusing on Legge and Max Muller (The Sacred Books of the East) at Oxford. Girardot's discussion is stimulatingly erudite, within a nuanced postmodernist framework.

Individual authors today rarely publish works of this size: almost 200 pages of endnotes alone, 1,499 of them. One tradeoff is the exclusion of a comprehensive biography; ball citations are given in their first appearance in each chapter. Overall, a magnificent job.

Daniel H. Bays, a contributing editor, is Professor of History and Director of the Asian Studies Program at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is coeditor of The Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home: Explorations in North American Cultural History (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2003)
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Author:Bays, Daniel H.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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