Importance of learning written Chinese

When missionaries in the mission field were required to learn one or more of the local languages, the Rev William Shellabear was fluent in spoken and written Hokkien, in addition to his mastery of the Malay Language. In this letter to the Editor of the Message, he makes a persuasive case for learning not only the spoken, but written Chinese as well – a challenging, but obviously important aspect of learning the language.


I am very interested to see in the November number (issue) of the Message you invite a discussion of the question whether missionaries should learn the Chinese characters. On general principles I should say that they should, and I would give the following reasons.

First, a missionary who does not begin with the character is not likely to take it up later on, as he will be satisfied with his colloquial knowledge of the language, and he will therefore never “go on to perfection”, in other words, to discourage the study of the characters is to encourage slovenliness and discourage scholarliness.

Next, even those who never attain to scholarship in Chinese will find a comparatively slight acquaintance with the character a great help in studying the colloquial because in many cases the character gives the clue to the meaning of a phrase which in the Romanised is quite ambiguous, owing to the fact that a given word in the Romanised may have 10 or a dozen different significations; for instance, how can a man who knows no characters distinguish between the “gi” of “gi-lun” and the “gi” of “kong-gi?” He will probably make no effort to do so, and may even go so far as to say cui bono.

Thirdly, the difficulty of obtaining a useful knowledge of Chinese characters has, in my opinion, been greatly exaggerated. To cut it out of the course of study would be tantamount to saying that it is so difficult that we only recommend it for those who have a genius for languages. Fourth, the missionary who does not learn the characters cuts himself off from nine-tenth of the missionary literature of China, for the Romanised literature yet published is practically nothing as compared with that prepared principally for women and children, which of course is good and useful, but the missionary needs “strong meat” as well as “milk”. The “Romanised” missionary, if he reads at all, will inevitably feed principally on “breakfast food”, and his digestion is sure to suffer. I hope all missionaries will try hard to get a working knowledge of it, even including your busy correspondent, who is afraid of wasting his time upon it.

I have never regretted the three years I spent on the characters, though I have not found time to continue the study of it as I should like to do. I hope to do so some day. I acknowledge, however, that there may be isolated cases where a busy missionary, taking up Chinese as a second or third language, may be indisposed to spend time on the characters. Such a brother ought to receive special consideration, but for new men, we ought not to let down the bars.

Those who persevere and ultimately attain scholarship will be thankful that the characters were made obligatory, for if it had been optional, they would probably never have touched it.– MM, December 1905, p. 33. ’