“Wonderful Nonsense”: Confucianism in the British Romantic Period

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The first complete English versions of Confucian texts appeared between 1809
and 1814 in separate endeavors by Joshua Marshman and Robert Morrison.
In 1814, the London Quarterly Review assessed Marshman’s translations as
“nonsense.” In 1816, the same journal declared that the achievements of the
Anglophone missionaries who translated Chinese were “wonderful.” Modern
and contemporary commentators have recognized that the translations were
primitive. Nonetheless the works stimulated interest in Romantic Britain. This
article argues that the missionary versions of Confucian philosophy are significant within several political contexts of British Romanticism. The translations
arose amid the diplomatic complications of British Asia. Marshman
and Morrison produced their Confucian texts in attempts to appease local
administration that suspected their religious activities might cause unrest. Yet
the translations also stimulated enough interest to secure funds for the missionaries’ religious efforts. In Britain, responses to Confucianism occurred in
three prominent debates: the rivalry between Catholicism and Protestantism;
China as an emerging site of Anglo-French rivalry; and liberal commentary
on principles of leadership with allusion to Britain’s ruler, the Prince Regent.
The missionary translations have been neglected as poor Confucianism but
are significant within the political contexts of the Romantic period and the
problematic concept of Sinology.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)593-616
Number of pages24
JournalInterdisciplinary Literary Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Joshua Marshman
  • Robert Morrison
  • Baptist Missionary Society
  • Confucius
  • Romantic Sinology

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