Michael LAZICH

Photograph of E. C. Bridgman.

China’s first history of the United States was written by an American missionary named E. C. Bridgman who believed that if he could impress his Chinese audience with American accomplishments, the Chinese would be more amenable to Western ideas and diplomatic practices.

Elijah Coleman (E. C.) Bridgman was a man of firsts. He was the first Evangelical Protestant missionary to China; the first Chinese expert in America; first editor of the first major journal on sinology, the Chinese Repository; author of the first book on the Chinese language; one of the first credible Chinese translators in the United States; and author of the first history of the United States written in Chinese, an important work that helped build Sino-Western relations.

Bridgman was born 22 April 1801 in Belchertown, Massachusetts. He received his education at Amherst College and Andover Theological Seminary. After he was ordained in 1829, he was appointed to China by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first American Christian foreign missionary organization.

Chinese Mission

Bridgman arrived in Guangzhou (Canton) in 1830 and began his mission at a time of unrest in China, particularly in Guangzhou.

In the years preceding the First Opium War (1839–1842), relations between Westerners and Chinese had deteriorated as tensions escalated over the opium trade and as Westerners grew increasingly frustrated with China’s restrictive trade system, which required all foreign trade to be conducted exclusively in the southeastern port of Guangzhou through a small group of officially designated Chinese merchants.

Worried about the possibility of military confrontation, Bridgman and his fellow missionaries worked to break down the cultural barriers that they believed were obstructing direct communication with Chinese authorities. They thought that by transmitting Western scientific, technological, and cultural information to the Chinese, the Chinese would be sufficiently impressed with the achievements of the West and embrace more positive and productive exchanges with the foreign “barbarians.” These missionaries, along with several British and American merchants in China who offered financial support, established the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in China (SDUKC) in November 1834. Bridgman was the first joint secretary. The society began publishing inexpensive, easy-to-read material in Chinese.

America for the Chinese

Among the works published by the SDUKC was Bridgman’s short book A Brief Account of the United States of America (Meilige heshengguo zhilue), written in Chinese. Bridgman’s work demonstrated his grasp of the Chinese language and his skill at appealing to the cultural sensibilities of the Chinese. In the preface, he wrote that he had always regarded the world as one family and China as one person within that family. The book addressed nearly every aspect of U.S. history, culture, and politics, with chapters devoted to such diverse subjects as Native Americans, agriculture, trade, government, literature, the arts, and humanitarian organizations.

Bridgman began with the Christian concept of the origins of civilization, which he conveyed through typical Chinese phraseology and narrative style. In his account of the American Revolution (“Commoner Overthrow of English Rule”), Bridgman explained how the colonies grew, prospered, and expanded their trade and commerce. He described how the King of England imposed unfair taxes on the people, including the tax on China’s most important export, tea, which was brought to America aboard British ships. After explaining the causes and outcome of the American Revolution, Bridgman described the important personal contributions of George Washington and how he refused to make himself king. Bridgman knew that this story would remind his Chinese readers of Yao and Shun, two venerated sage-kings of ancient China who sought the most qualified of their subjects to succeed them instead of creating a ruling dynasty.

Bridgman’s discussion of the laws and Constitution of the United States emphasized those ideas that he felt were most pertinent and useful as models for the Chinese. Bridgman apparently hoped that the Chinese emphasis on family and the integral relation between family and state would prompt his readers to reevaluate China’s place in the international community. Listing the various nations of Europe and Asia that maintained relations with one another, Bridgman described how they frequently exchanged diplomats, noting that only after establishing protocols for foreign relations could a nation increase its strength and be at peace with the other nations of the world.

In five chapters devoted to political administration, Bridgman outlined the general structure and interrelationship of America’s local, state, and federal governments. He pointed out that state governors must be residents of the state in which they hold office, a regulation that Chinese readers would have found interesting because of the Chinese rule of avoidance, which prohibited officials from serving in their native communities.

Other sections on government described the American criminal justice system. Bridgman highlighted practices that he believed could provide a useful model for reform in China. In Bridgman’s idealized portrait of crime and punishment in the United States, there was no beheading, beating, or torture, and most criminals were reformed by being provided with good books and subjected to a strict regimen of hard work and daily worship.

Intent on informing his Chinese readers of the high state of culture and the arts in the United States, Bridgman included chapters on educational institutions, books, and arts and crafts. He focused on subjects that he felt would be of greatest interest or that might suggest improvements or reforms in the Chinese way of doing things. In his discussion of education, for example, Bridgman noted how both girls and boys received an education, beginning their schooling together at a very early age. This was in stark contrast to the Chinese practice of formally educating only males, a practice that Bridgman had denounced in earlier essays and articles written for Western readers.

In a chapter titled “Origins of the National Language,” Bridgman presented a detailed explanation of the Latin alphabet and how words are formed in English. He attempted to provide his readers with an approximate pronunciation for the twenty-six letters by pairing each with a similar-sounding Chinese character or two. Bridgman pointed out the advantage of the phonetic alphabet over the mode of writing used by the Chinese, noting that it could be mastered even by a small child.

Bridgman devoted considerable attention to religion and morality. In a chapter titled “Distinguishing Heresy and Orthodoxy,” he hoped to attract the interest of his readers by convincing them of the simple truths and morally transforming influence of Christianity. And although much of his discussion of Christian doctrines and beliefs must have seemed bizarre or superstitious to Chinese readers, the important point implied in the title of this chapter would have been familiar to educated Chinese because it pertained to the broader context of their own religious and philosophical traditions.

Bridgman’s Legacy

Bridgman’s history was a major source of information for the first generation of Chinese scholars and officia
ls who, because of the challenging circumstances of their times, felt compelled to learn more about the lands, customs, and ideas of their powerful Western adversaries. The 1862 version was even translated into Japanese, and for many years afterward also served as that country’s major source of information about the United States.

But Bridgman’s contributions did not end with one book. He helped to translate the bible into Chinese. He founded he Morrison Education Society, an organization that promoted Western-style education in China. In 1841 he completed a set of textbooks/teaching aids for Chinese-language learning. He helped organize the Medical Missionary Society in China. In the early 1840s, he served as an adviser and translator in American-Sino trade negotiations.

On 28 June 1845, Bridgman married Eliza Jane Gillett (1805–1871), an American Episcopalian missionary. She went on to found the Bridgman Academy in Beijing, a school for girls. They lived in Guangzhou and adopted two Chinese girls. E. C. Bridgman died in Shanghai on 2 November 1861. Both he and Eliza are buried there.

Further Reading

Bays, D. H. (1996). Christianity in China, from the eighteenth century to the present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bridgman, E. C., & Wells Williams, S., (Eds.). (1832–1851). China Repository. 20 vols. Macao and Guangzhou, China.

Fairbank, J. K., (Ed.). (1974). The missionary enterprise in China and America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lazich, M. C. (2000). E. C. Bridgman: America’s first missionary to China. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Rubinstein, M. A. (1996). The origins of the Anglo-American missionary enterprise in China, 1807–1840. London: The Scarecrow Press.

Turbet, R. (2002). The bible and the gun: Christianity in south China, 1860–1900. New York: Routledge.

Source: Lazich, Michael. (2009). BRIDGMAN, E. C.. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 205–207. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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