Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Sad, Tortured Life of Rev. Karl Gutzlaff

Karl Gutzlaff has a tiny street named after him in Hong Kong's trendy SoHo district - but blink and you'll miss it. You'll see it on the map to the left. It is effectively bookended by two military men, the General Gage in charge of Army military operations during the First Opium War, and the much more famous Wellington of Waterloo fame. Quite fitting really, since Wellington was still active in politics in the 1830s, during the period when Gutzlaff was doing his best to ship opium into China. Who was this Gutzlaff fellow, and what was this Pomeranian missionary doing in the drug trade?

Reverend Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff was a Pomeranian saddle-maker turned missionary that was sent by the Netherlands Missionary Society to the Far East. His first port of call was Java, where he learned Chinese (surprisingly - I wouldn't go to Jakarta to learn Mandarin today!). He then went with his young English wife (who he met in Singapore) and child to Bangkok to spread the good Word. But then tragedy struck - both his wife and son died while he was working together with her on a Khmer/Lao dictionary into English. Heartbroken, he moved in the late 1820s to Macau. There he wanted to create a business out of printing Chinese Bibles and distributing them into the interior.

The only problem was, he didn't really have the money to print all these Bibles. Since he was one of the only Europeans that actually spoke Chinese, though, his linguistic services were in demand. Specifically, from one William Jardine, who made him a proposal - ride with his opium clippers that were illegally selling opium up and down the China Coast to translate for his captains, and he would get the money for his Bibles. Gutzlaff had a crisis of conscience that lasted about 48 hours and then readily agreed. He was to be in the drugs and bible business. He later wrote a book about these voyages, with opium only incredibly tangentially coming up in his book; it was called Journal of Three Voyages along the Coast of China in 1831, 1832 and 1833.

He did not really get to print or distribute as many Bibles as he had originally desired however, because he was usually thrown out of China, and so spent the rest of the decade working on local flocks. From this local flock he tried to turn them into preachers, and have them distribute the Bibles themselves in China. By 1848, he apparently had 200 missionaries working for him from his new base in Hong Kong (founded 1841). He had in the meantime also taken a position in the Hong Kong government as the Secretary in charge of Chinese affairs. His daily routine was described thus:
Daily, between 7 and 8 am, scores of Chinese came to the government offices to hear him expound the Bible in Hokkien. Then, after a hasty breakfast, he taught in Hakka or another dialect before beginning his dayƂ’s work. After office hours he went into the Chinese villages to preach or worked at home on his own translation of the Old Testament.
He began to raise money, quite successfully at first, from abroad for his exertions, given his impressive track record of an apparent 600-700 converts baptized a year.

But then other missionaries began to smell a rat amongst his new converts and missionaries that he was having proselytize and distribute Bibles in China. He refused to believe it, but his contemporaries thought he was being cheated. They were right. According to one Christian website that seeks to learn lessons on how not to preach in China quotes Dr. E.J. Eitel, author of Europe in China:
"They came and went with the utmost regularity starting from Gutzlaff'’s office with bags full of Bibles, traveling money and directions for the route; returning at the proper time with well-written journals of travels they had never made, skeletons of sermons and lists of converts they had never baptized. Poor Gutzlaff - —he believed them all to be inspired with his own holy zeal. The very Bibles he bought from the printers with his hard-earned money were sold by them again to Gutzlaff."”
Gutzlaff finally had to admit his faith in his missionaries for several years had been misplaced, and the funds taken from abroad frittered away, not to mention his life's work. In shame disgrace, he died on August 9th, 1851, 154 years ago yesterday - perhaps of a broken heart. Many people today look back on him as the ultimate hypocrite, but one does have to believe that at some level he meant well; certainly anyone that had such a tragic life is bound to be slightly unhinged...!


Madame Chiang said...

13 years in HKG and I never even knew that the street existed..or the name!!! Thanks for yet another educational read!

Anonymous said...

thanks for the interesting information. I was going to write a short biography on an obscure but Godly Christian missionary and found Gutzlaff's name, but now I think I will look for someone else. The Opium trade doesn't fit very well with "Godly testimony"

dimbulb said...

sad to devote your whole life to something you believe in only to find you've been deluded by the very people you put your faith in. must run in the family (gary guetzlaff, 2007)

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