William Alexander Parsons Martin, an American Presbyterian missionary at the turn of the twentieth century, lived in China for sixty-six years.

William Alexander Parsons Martin was a Presbyterian missionary and a pioneer in modern Chinese state education. Through his translations and his work as an educator, Martin contributed to China’s growing global engagement during the late nineteenth century.

William Alexander Parsons Martin was born in Livonia, Indiana, into a family with strong ties to the missionary movement. He arrived in China in 1850 and worked until 1860 as a missionary in Ningbo, where he wrote his famous Tiandao suyuan (Evidences of Christianity). During these years he believed that the Taiping Rebellion was a means of creating a Christian China. In 1863 Martin founded the Presbyterian mission in Beijing soon after the city was opened to foreign residents. His work as an interpreter for the Sino-American Treaty of 1858, and his friendship with Robert Hart, an Irish-born diplomat who served in China, and the U.S. minister to China, Anson Burlingame (1820–1870), provided him with contacts to the Zongli Yamen, the new ministry responsible for foreign affairs. Under its tutelage Martin completed a translation of Henry Wheaton’s Elements of International Law (1836) into Chinese in April 1865. From 1869 to 1895 Martin served as president of the Tongwenguan, a school established in 1862 to help prepare Manchu and Chinese students for a career in the diplomatic service. During the 100-Day Reforms in the summer of 1898 Sun Jianai (1827–1909), president of the recently founded Imperial University (later Beijing University), asked Martin to serve as head of faculty.

When Boxer militias, obviously supported by the Chinese government, laid siege to the legation quarters in Beijing in June 1900, Martin was among hundreds of foreigners and Chinese Christians who had barricaded themselves for weeks in the British legation. This experience briefly altered Martin’s usually optimistic stance on China. In his eyewitness account, Siege in Peking, and several newspaper articles he demanded punishment for China’s violations of international law. Martin, however, soon reversed his gloomy outlook, fully applauding the Chinese government’s post-Boxer reforms. From 1902 to 1905 Martin acted as head of the reformer Zhang Zhidong’s new university in Wuchang. From 1906 to his death in 1916 Martin served as an honorary missionary for the Presbyterian mission in Beijing.

W. A. P. Martin on Religion

Because Martin was a missionary, his work often focused on comparisons between religion in China and that in his native United States.

The fact is that the resemblances between the two great religions of the East and West lie far deeper than the external habiliment of poetical tradition, or the superficial analogies of religious orders and religious ritual. They are traceable in the general development and practical doctrines of both.

Both are found to pursue a course exactly the reverse of that mapped out in a celebrated Dictum of Auguste Comte; their initial stage was not far removed from positive, and yet both evolve a spiritual universe; one burst the bonds of Hindu caste, the other broke down the walls of Jewish isolation, and each stretched forth its hand to the nations with the offer of a new evangel.

Source: Martin, W. A. P.. (1901). The lore of Cathay or the intellect of China. New York: F. H. Revell, 251.

In his sixty-six years in China Martin played an important role as a crosscultural communicator. His Chinese publications on law and modern science were meant to disperse what he considered to be Chinese superstitions and to demonstrate Western civilization as a harmonious interplay of the sciences and Christianity. His English publications, frequent articles in the New York Times, and several well-received books and research papers introduced Chinese civilization in a comparatively positive light. As a missionary, Martin played the role of a well-known maverick. His acceptance of Darwinism and his view of both Buddhism and Confucianism as meaningful predecessors to Christianity were not generally shared. His willingness to accept Chinese ancestral rites as generally compatible with Christianity and to bow in front of an image of the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) during school ceremonies repeatedly scandalized the missionary community in China.

Further Reading

Covell, R. (1978). W. A. P. Martin: Pioneer of progress in China. Washington, DC: Christian University Press.

Martin, W. A. P. (1900). A cycle of Cathay. New York: Columbia University Press.

Martin, W. A. P. (1900). Siege in Peking: China against the world. New York: F. H. Revell.

Martin, W. A. P. (1912). The lore of Cathay or the intellect of China. New York: F. H. Revell.

Spence, J. D. (1969). To change China: Western advisers in China 1620–1960. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

Source: Gerber, Lydia (2009). MARTIN, William Alexander Parsons. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1417–1418. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

MARTIN, William Alexander Parsons (Dīng Wéiliáng 丁韪良)|Dīng Wéiliáng 丁韪良 (MARTIN, William Alexander Parsons)

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