Opium, Gospel, and the Conquest of the Babel

Quiz: What is the language of the text on this page?

A) German
B) Latin
C) Chinese
D) Turkish

When Professor Matthew Grenby, a children’s literature scholar from the University of Newcastle, first brought our attention to the above book held in the Rare Books collection of the Princeton University Library, I was stumped by the scripts, which did not immediately spell into anything sounding familiar. The book surfaced when Professor Grenby was conducting a search for primers, catechisms and other kinds of ephemeral, educational texts for children, but we were not sure what we were looking at. The thin volume, printed on frail yellowed paper, carries no title page or publication statement. With the help of fading cursive text inscribed on its brown wrapper, a skeleton bibliographical record, several reference books, and multiple experts knowledgeable in different domain areas, I gained a clearer idea of who published the book when, where, why, and even how, but have just as many questions unanswered. With this post I am inviting more informants who can enrich our understanding of the unusual book.

A mid-nineteenth century primer of the Ningbo dialect

Image source: Wikiwand.com

The answer to the quiz that opens this post is C–Chinese. To be precise, the text is in the dialect of Ningbo, China transcribed in the Roman letterforms. To explain the origin of the book, we may well begin with the First Opium War (1839-42), which broke out between the Qing dynasty and the British Empire, after the former launched a campaign to ban opium trade and the latter dispatched its Royal Navy to protect British opium dealers’ interests in China. Prior to the war, China was nearly entirely closed to foreigners, confining foreign trade within an enclave on the outskirts of Guangzhou (Canton) and outlawing missionary activities due to conflicts–perceived irreconcilable by both Pope Clement IX and the Kangxi 康熙 Emperor–between Christianity and the Chinese tradition of ancestral worship (Pruden 2009, 22). After the war, a defeated and waning Qing government signed a series of treaties first with Britain, then with other Western powers, and granted foreigners enormous freedom in port cities. Ningbo, a long-coveted city sitting at the midpoint of the Chinese coastline, was among the first five “treaty ports” opened by the “Treaty of Nanking” in 1842. By 1845, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) had set up mission stations in Canton and Ningbo (PCUSA 1879, 61).

Missionaries immediately devoted themselves to learning the dialects of local residents. As William Alexander Parsons Martin (丁韙良, 1827-1916), an Indiana-born Presbyterian minister stationed in Ningbo in the 1850s, described in his memoir, “The spoken language of China is divided into a babel of dialects” (1897, 53). Back in the 19th century, the rate of literacy was abysmal except among the elites, and Mandarin was not standardized or universally acquired as it is today. To spread the Gospel, missionaries must first master the tongue of local heathens.

And master it they did. There were no written materials to guide the learning of the spoken language, which cannot be accurately represented by written Chinese characters on a one-to-one basis. Martin (1897) initially relied on a local teacher’s “object-lessons” and “mimicry” (52) to pick up words. To speed up learning, he hired a second tutor, enabling himself to study from morning to evening (53). Soon “the mists began to rise” and learning the Ningbo dialect became “a fascinating pastime” for him (53). By January 1851, Martin came up with a phonetic system based on the “German, or rather Continental, vowels” (54) to record the sound of the Ningbo dialect. He taught the notation system to his teacher Lu, who within a week composed a letter in the dialect written in the Roman letterforms, which Martin easily decoded to be an invitation to his family for lunch (55).

Martin and other missionaries worked on finalizing the notation system over the years, publishing somewhere between 42 and 52 titles of books written in the Romanized Ningbo dialect (Su 2018, 390). A bibliography of publications by Protestant missionaries in China shows that the contents of the works range from sacred scriptures to gospel harmony, theology, catechisms, prayers, hymns, the secular topics of geography and mathematics, as well as materials that teach the Ningbo dialect (Wylie 1867, 328-330). Among them are an eight-leaf spelling book (undated) and a 92-page Primer of the Ningpo Colloquial Dialect 宁波土话初学 (1857). Though credited to the Rev. Robert Henry Cobbold (哥伯播义, 1819-1893) and the Rev. Henry Van Vleck Rankin (兰金, 1825-1863) respectively, both titles were the fruition of collaborative, successive development by multiple missionaries (Wylie 1867, 183 & 194). Princeton’s copy was gifted by John Luther Rankin (1869-1959)–Henry V. Rankin’s nephew–in 1904. A member of the Princeton class of 1892, J.L. Rankin was a regular donor to the Princeton University Library.

Lacking access to Rankin’s 1857 edition of the primer, I have tentatively dated Princeton’s copy in between 1851 and 1857, hypothesizing that our leaner volume might be one of the earlier works that enriched the fuller version. On its wrapper is inscribed “A primer, the first Romanized colloquial Chinese book, prepared chiefly by Mr. W. Martin’s teacher. Cut in blocks.” The handwritten account differs noticeably from the Presbyterian bibliography, which neglects to mention the contribution of local Chinese to such dialect books. The aforementioned teacher Lu might well be the said chief author. By Martin’s (1897) account, Lu was converted and later became a preacher (even his mother, once a devout Buddhist, became a zealous Christian) (67-68).

Men and God’s creation

The volume, which I have tentatively entitled A Primer of the Ningbo Dialect, begins with monosyllabic words, then moves on to two-syllable ones, then three- and four-syllable words, followed by eight chapters titled “One Man” “One Tree” “One Ship” and so on. I enlisted the help of two native Ningbo speakers, Fengming Lu and Lidong Xiang, with decoding the chapter “One Man.” With some patience and an English-Ningbo dialect dictionary compiled by the Rev. William T. Morrison (睦礼逊惠理, ca. 1835-1869), “the mists began to rise” like it did for Martin and we were able to comprehend the gist of the chapter (the length of one paragraph).

A primer of the Ningbo dialect, likely printed by the Chinese and American Sacred Classic Book Establishment 华花圣经书房 in Ningbo, between 1851 and 1857. Chapter “One Man,” annotated with close semantic or phonetic equivalents of the Chinese characters, p. 19-20. (Princeton Rare Books 2014-0211Q)

The chapter “One Man” read aloud in the Ningbo dialect by Lidong Xiang.

One Man

This is an educated man in a foreign place, with a book tucked under his arm. People differ by level and type. There are good people, bad people, smart ones, and stupid ones. In some places people’s skin is white; in some places their skin is yellowish; in some places people’s skin is truly inky dark. These differences are caused by water and soil in all kinds of places. Even though people may be black or white, with varying looks, they are all from one ancestor. Where do you think was the very first ancestor from?–was made by the True God. That’s why, regardless of where you are from, we are all of the same family, just like brothers. All these people have a body and a soul. The body will die, and the soul does not. The body is like a house, and the soul is like the people who live in it. When the body dies, it is like the house collapses, but the people in there are still intact and alright. They just change to a different dwelling, like how people move. If a person has done good, their soul will surely go to a very nice place and enjoy the blessing. If a person has done bad, their soul will then go to a most horrible place, where they suffer punishments. These are the definitive rules.

The text introduces the diverse skin colors of human beings, tracing them all to God’s creation but building the idea upon “ancestors,” which were both familiar to and revered by Chinese. Similes further help to get across the concept of the body versus the soul. The idea of heaven and hell is not articulated though alluded to, and one cannot help noticing the semblance between the overly simplified “definitive rules” of Christianity and Buddhist karma. The plain style of the vernacular language differs drastically from earlier translations of Bible texts, which were in classical Chinese (Tam 2020, 45) and accessible to an elite audience at best.

God is referred to as “Tsing-Jing” (真神, or True God) in the passage. The correct Chinese translation for “God” was once a fiercely contested topic among Roman Catholic missions, but Protestants in Ningbo apparently decided not to waste their energy in splitting hairs and instead embraced a range of terms (Martin 1897, 34-35). In W.T. Morrison’s (1876) An Anglo-Chinese Vocabulary of the Ningpo Dialect, the entry “God” lists multiple Chinese translations that include Jing-ming’ 神明 (Deity), T’in-cü’ 天主 (Lord of Heaven), and Zông-ti’ 上帝 (Supreme Ruler) (202).

Who read the primer?

Primers of the Ningbo dialect served two functions. First, they provided missionaries with a much-needed tool to speed up language acquisition. Second, missionaries soon realized that locals could be taught the Romanization system and read religious and secular text written in their own dialect. Martin proudly reported the advantage of his system in instruction for the young and the old, and especially among the lower-class men and women, who were otherwise denied schooling:

The Chinese saw with astonishment their children taught to read in a few days, instead of spending years in painful toil, as they must with the native characters. Old women of three-score and ten, and illiterate servants and laborers, on their conversion, found by this means their eyes opened to read in their own tongue… the wonderful works of God. (Martin 1897, 55-56)

Photo taken in Yuyao 余姚 by an unnamed Chinese photographer. In Old Ningpo: Bulletin of Ningpo Station, Central China Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Ningpo, Chekiang, China, 1919. Courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society.

The usage of such dialect books was documented in a rare photo taken in Yuyao, Zhejiang (a town neighboring Ningbo) in the 1910s. A class of Chinese women students, ranging from youthful-looking ones to elderly ones, were learning the Bible and hymns from Romanized Ningbo dialect books in a courtyard. Both Martin’s bragging and the photo reflect how missionaries vigorously reached out to the poor and the marginalized population to propagate the gospel, bringing, in tandem, educational opportunities to girls and poor women (see, for example, Nimick 2020).

The teacher, dressed in a dark full-length gown and standing in front of the class, appeared to be a Westerner, most likely a missionary’s wife. She probably had two assistants, one standing next to a large pictorial chart, and the other seated by a pump organ, no doubt ready to play the next hymn melody. The students had brought along babies and toddlers, who were held in the women’s arms, or sleeping in cribs, or simply hanging out by the desks. Though it is hard to imagine how the class managed on rainy days, not to mention the burden of moving heavy furniture in and out frequently, the family-friendliness of the setting deserves serious respect from 21st-century institutions.

How was the book printed?

It so happened that Princeton University Library has a hymn book in the Ningbo dialect, one of five other titles in Romanized scripts compiled by the Rev. Henry V. Rankin and donated by his son, Henry William Rankin (1851-1937). Born in China, the son graduated from Princeton University with a degree in literature in 1873 (Princeton University 1914, 26), and gifted his father’s works to the library in 1921. A comparison between the hymn book, dated 1860, and the previous primer, helps us imagine how missionaries explored ways to print Roman letterforms in China.

Tsaen-me S. = 赞美诗 [A hymn book], compiled by Henry Van Vleck Rankin. Nying-Po, 1860. (Princeton Rare Books N-003610)

The Ningbo Mission set up a printing press, the Chinese and American Sacred Classic Book Establishment, the same year the station was established in 1845 and published books in both Chinese characters and Roman letterforms (Su 2018, 328). Both traditional Chinese woodblock printing and moveable type printing had been utilized to publish Ningbo dialect books. Martin (1897) described how the first primer was printed:

Causing a set of letters to be engraved on separate pieces of horn, I taught a young man to use them in stamping the pages of a primer. This was roughly engraved on wood, in the Chinese manner, called “block-printing”… (55)

The Book Establishment published three Romanized books in 1851, apparently with movable type, because in its annual report, the Ningbo Station reported that the hired Chinese typesetters were slow due to unfamiliarity with alphabets (Su 2018, 381). By 1853 the press had produced 25 titles in Romanized scripts, and over half of them were printed from woodblocks, because there were not enough printing presses (389).

The mixed use of printing technology explains why the primer and the hymn book appear different. Both were printed on folded leaves, and the hymn book in particular was stitched in thread in the elegant pre-modern Chinese style, but their semblance stops there. The text of the primer is in such a fat, bold font size that one short paragraph takes up four full pages of an oversized book! Noticeably, it follows the convention of woodblock-printed books, outlining a text box on each side of the folded leaves. (Illustrations placed at the top of the chapter titles occasionally bleed over the edge of the text box or overlap with the letters, suggesting that the illustrated pages were printed in a two-step process.) In contrast, the hymn book, with text in a small, neat moveable type font and without boxes, can well blend in with any Western Roman-language book.

Conquerors of the Babel

W.A.P. Martin (1827-1916)

W.A.P. Martin (Image source: Wikimedia.org)

W.A.P. Martin served in Ningbo for ten years from 1850 to 1860 and went on to have an exciting life and an illustrious career in China. Guangxu 光绪, the penultimate emperor of the Qing dynasty, appointed Martin as the inaugural president of the Imperial University of Peking in 1898 as part of his reform to revive the dying empire. The short-lived reform failed, but China’s first modern national university survived and became the predecessor of the renowned Peking University. Martin was the translator-adapter of the first English version of the “Ballad of Mulan” (Dong 2011, 93), publishing it under the title “Mulan, The Maiden Chief” as an appendix to The Chinese: Their Education Philosophy (1881), a collection of his observations of formal and informal education in China.

The earliest English translation of the “Ballad of Mulan,” by W.A.P. Martin, published in a bilingual form in The Chinese: Their Education Philosophy (p. 316-319). London: Trübner, 1881. Page image from Google Books. (See also Princeton University Library DS709 .M384 1881)

The Rankin Family

Henry Van Vleck Rankin (Image source: Wikimedia.org)

Henry V. Rankin (1825-1863) came from a New Jersey family intimately involved with the Presbyterian Church or Princeton University. He was born to William Rankin, Sr. (1785-1869), who ran a prosperous hat-manufacturing business in Newark, New Jersey (Wheeler 1907, 267). He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and, in 1848, was appointed by the Board of Foreign Missions as a missionary to China, where he compiled no fewer than eight titles of Romanized Ningbo dialect books. Rankin’s health deteriorated in the early 1860s, but, partly due to the ongoing American Civil War, he chose not to go home (Rankin 1895, 296). He visited Teng-chow 登州, Shandong Province for rehabilitation and died there on July 2, 1863 (297). Susan Rankin Janvier (1858-1943), one of his daughters, married into another big missionary family–to Caesar Augustus Rodney Janvier (1861-1928) of the Princeton Class of 1880–and with her husband served mission in India (Presbyterian 2015; Ingram 1929, 513).

Henry’s eldest brother, William Rankin, Jr. (1810-1912) lived to be a centenarian, who served as the treasurer of the Board of Foreign Missions of the PCUSA for 37 years. In that role he wrote an account, preserved in the University Archives, of the arrival of the first three Japanese students who enrolled at Princeton circa. 1871 (“Meet” 2014). One of the sons of William Rankin, Jr. was Dr. Walter Mead Rankin (1858-1947), who received his Master of Science degree from Princeton in 1884 and later taught biology at Princeton from 1889 until his retirement in 1923. He founded the YMCA Town Club in Princeton in 1908, the predecessor of the still-thriving Princeton Family YMCA in town (“Dr. Walter” 1947; Princeton YMCA 2017).

Another of Henry’s brothers was the Rev. Edward Erastus Rankin (1820-1889), whose son presented the primer to Princeton. Edward served in Presbyterian churches in New Jersey and New York for decades. He contributed a 12-page narrative detailing Henry’s life in Memorials of Foreign Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church U. S. A. (1895)–edited by the Treasurer of the Board, i.e., their elder brother William.

Unintended Fruit

Foreign mission’s endeavor in China lasted over a century after the Opium War, yet it failed to convert the “Middle Kingdom” into a Christian country. The work it put into spreading the gospel, however, had a profound impact on the education, culture, medicine, and science communication of the Chinese society. Thanks to the inspiration of the Romanization systems built by Martin and his fellow missionaries for spoken dialects, Chinese standardized the pinyin scheme that represents the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese, greatly easing the learning of written characters since the second half of the 20th century. The fact that people can bang on the same QWERTY keyboard to make Chinese characters pop up on a computer screen can be traced all the way back to the conquerors of the Babel hacking Chinese dialects with the Latin alphabet.

Children’s Epoch 儿童时代, October 1958, page 14-15. (Cotsen 35519) A double spread in the popular children’s magazine Children’s Epoch uses visuals to teach A-Z alphabets. Each animal is “contorted” into the shape of the initial letter of its pinyin pronunciation. (Only two of the animals would share the same initial letter in pinyin and in English.) Both pinyin and “Bopomofo,” an alternative system of phonetic symbols introduced during Republican China, are printed, but pinyin would prevail in mainland China, and Bopomofo remains in use in Taiwan.

Henry V. Rankin’ books form part of Princeton’s collection of late-Qing-dynasty dialect books from various regions, scriptures in ethnic minority languages of Southwest China (Heijdra 1998), as well as global mission publications in indigenous languages (such as this bilingual Luther’s Small Catechism in Munsee and Swedish prepared in Pennsylvania during the mid-17th century), preserving clues to the pronunciation and vocabulary of spoken languages before the advent of audio-recording technology.


[A Primer of the Ningbo Dialect]. 1851-1857. Edited by W. A. P. Martin, Henry Van Vleck Rankin. [Ningpo: Chinese and American Sacred Classic Book Establishment]

Dong, Lan. 2011. Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

“Dr. Walter Mead Rankin, Princeton Ex-Professor.” 1947. New York Herald Tribune, May 26, 1947, 18.

Heijdra, Martin. 1998. “Who were the Laka? A Survey of Scriptures in the Minority Languages of Southwest China .” The East Asian Library Journal 8 (1): 150-198.

Ingram, George H. 1929. “Princeton in the Nation’s Service, VII: A Man Who made a Distinct Impress in His Every Work.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, February 1, 513-514.

Lowrie, Walter M. 1854. Memoirs of the Rev. Walter M. Lowrie, Missionary to China. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication.

Martin, W. A. P. 1881. The Chinese: Their Education, Philosophy, and Letters. London: Trübner.

Martin, W. A. P. 1897. A Cycle of Cathay, or China, South and North. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier.

“Meet Mudd’s Jarrett M. Drake.” 2014. Mudd Manuscript Library Blog. Last modified June 18, 2014. https://blogs.princeton.edu/mudd/tag/digital-archivist/

Morrison, William T. 1876. An Anglo-Chinese Vocabulary of the Ningpo Dialect. Revised and enlarged ed. Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press.

Nimick, Thomas G. 2020. “Missionary Women’s Outreach to Poor Women in China; Origins of the Industrial Class Strategy.” The Journal of Presbyterian History 98 (1): 4-17.

PCUSA. 1879. The Forty-Second Annual Report of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. New York: Mission House. https://books.google.com/books?id=KAggoYGMiooC

Presbyterian Historical Society. 2015. “Guide to the Janvier Family Papers.” Last modified [November 18, 2015] https://www.history.pcusa.org/collections/research-tools/guides-archival-collections/rg-190

Princeton University. 1914. Directory of Living Alumni of Princeton University. Princeton, New Jersey: The University. https://books.google.com/books?id=UaJBAAAAYAAJ

Princeton YMCA. 2017. “History.” Last modified [December 2017]. https://princetonymca.org/about/history/

Pruden, George B. 2009. “American Protestant Missions in Nineteenth-Century China.” Education about Asia 14 (2): 22-29.

Rankin, Edward Erastus. 1895. “Rev. Henry V. Rankin.” In Memorials of Foreign Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church U. S. A., edited by William Rankin, 288-299. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-Schoolwork.

Su, Jing 苏精. 2018. 铸以代刻: 十九世纪中文印刷变局. 北京: 中华书局.

Tam, Gina Anne. 2020. “A Chinese Language: Fangyan before the Twentieth Century.” In Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860–1960, 35-71. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wheeler, W. O. 1907. The Ogden Family in America, Elizabethtown Branch, and their English Ancestry: John Ogden, the Pilgrim, and His Descendants, 1640-1906.

Wylie, Alexander. 1867. Memorials of Protestant Missionaries to the Chinese. Shanghae: American Presbyterian Mission Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=jRQQAAAAIAAJ

Appendix: Bibliography of Ningbo dialect books compiled by Henry V. Rankin

Ah-lah Kyiu-cu Yiae-su-go Sing-yi Tsiao shu. S-du pao-lo-go Shü-sing = 阿拉救主耶稣的新遗诏书: 使徒保罗的书信 [New Testament: Epistles of Paul]. Nying-Po, 1859. 61 pages. (Rare Books N-003608)

C’ih Yiai gyih = 出埃及记 [Exodus]. Ningpo. 72 pages.

Foh-ing tsaen di = 福音赞帝 [Synopsis gospel harmony]. Ningpo. 6 pages.

Gyiu-yi tsiao-shü. Tsʻông-shü kyi = 旧遗诏书: 创世记 [Old Testament: The Book of Genesis]. Nying-po, 1859. 72 pages. (Rare Books N-003594)

Meh-z Loh = 默示录 [Book of Revelation]. Nying-Po? 1859? 34 pages. (Rare Books N-003609)

Nying-po t’u-wô ts’u-‘ôh = 宁波土话初学 [A primer of the Ningbo colloquial dialect]. Ningpo, 1857. 92 pages.

S-du Pao-lo sia-peh Lo-mo Nying-go Shü-sing = 使徒保罗写给罗马人的书信 [The Epistle to the Romans]. Nying-Po? 1859? 30 pages. (Rare Books N-003607)

Sing jah djün shü = 新约传书 [New Testament] by William Armstrong Russell and H. V. Rankin. Revised edition. Ningpo. 260 leaves.

Tsaen-me S. = 赞美诗 [Hymn book]. Nying-Po, 1860. 156 pages. (Rare Books N-003610)

Tsʻông-shü kyi = 创世记 [The Book of Genesis]. Ningpo. 86 pages.


Professor Fengming Lu of the Australian National University and Lidong Xiang, PhD candidate at Rutgers University–both natives of Ningbo, China–worked on puzzling out the 160-year-old Romanized Ningbo dialect. Thank Lidong Xiang for reading aloud a chapter of the primer in her native tongue for us.

Professor Thomas G. Nimick, Ph.D. *93, of the United States Military Academy, West Point generously shared his research on women missionaries’ work in Ningbo and brought my attention to the photo of women’s class using Romanized Ningbo dialect books in the 1910s. Natalie Shilstut, Director of Programs and Services at the Presbyterian Historical Society, kindly made the photo available for this blog post.

Professor Ling Yiming of the Academy of Rare Book Preservation, Tianjin Normal University, and Dr. Eric White, the Scheide Librarian, helped with discerning the printing technology of the primer.

Stephen Ferguson, a rare books expert, deftly traced down the provenance of the primer after I hit more dead ends than I care to admit.

Last but not the least, thank Professor Matthew Grenby of the University of Newcastle for discovering the mysterious scripts in Princeton’s collection!

(Edited by Stephen Ferguson)