This research examines the changes and characteristics of the literary style of Chinese translated Bible by Western missionaries, and aims to study the missionaries' understanding of the discordance between written and spoken language of the then Chinese society. Bible translation was a crucial duty for missionaries and in order for the Bible to be read and accepted by the Chinese people, comprehending the linguistic situation and background of China of the times was required, in addition to grasping the Chinese language itself. Thus, the translated Bible is valuable not only for understanding missionaries’ awareness toward the Chinese language, but also for realizing the linguistic reality of modern China.
The literary styles of the Chinese translated Bibles have changed dramatically through time. The Morrison version, Marshman version, and Delegate version, which were the first complete translated Chinese versions, were all in classic styles. Since then, the Nanjing, Mandarin, and easy classic style versions appeared, under the intention of translating an easy-to-read Bible. In the case of the Union Version, the shift of such literary styles was planned into three types: classic style, easy classic style, and Mandarin style. Such change in literary styles reflects one aspect of the missionaries' efforts to spread the Bible to both the literati and the commoners in China, during the era of discordance between written and spoken language. Missionaries tend to have subdivided the Chinese literary styles, rather than dichotomizing it into written and colloquial language. Division of written styles was made into several stages, or a specific literary style was established in-between written and colloquial styles. This is closely related to the easy classic style that appeared in Chinese translated Bibles during the late 19th century. The easy classic style received great attention from the missionaries due to its accessibility by the commoners for its easiness compared to the classic style, and since it was regarded as an element that can complement the weakness of dialectal differences and the vulgarity of the colloquial style.
However, standing in the middle of written and colloquial literary styles, the easy classic style failed to distinguish itself from the normal classic style, and thus eventually declined due to its resemblance to the classic style. Meanwhile, missionaries were burdened with translating the Bible into colloquial style, since there existed a phenomenon where Chinese people belittled colloquialism. Nevertheless, as they gradually focused more to the Mandarin Chinese as China’s lingua franca, colloquialism steadily settled in as the main literary style of Chinese translation of Bibles.