The Religion of Opiates

He arrived in Guangdong carrying Bibles on a ship that was seeking new markets for the opium trade. He remained a man of God, they say. Who can tell?

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Karl Friedrich August Gützlaff (1803-1851) was born in the Baltic Sea state of Pomerania (part of Poland today) and was educated in Berlin and Rotterdam. A chance meeting with the English missionary Robert Morrison sparked a yearning to travel to Asia, and in 1826, Gützlaff left Europe for Java. For the next six years, he studied Chinese among the immigrant communities of Southeast Asia, first in Java, then in Singapore and Bangkok.

While in Bangkok, he showed off the linguistic gift for which he would one day become famous around the world, by working on translations of the Bible into Thai, Khmer, and Lao.

Beginning in 1831, Gützlaff sailed from Bangkok and made a series of three voyages along the China coast. His crew proved to be challenging companions for a man of God.

“I would give a thousand silver dollars for three days of Gützlaff,” wrote one opium trader.

“Opium-smokers by habit, and drunkards by custom, it was necessary that strong drink and opium should be provided; and the retailers of these articles were soon present to lend a helping hand… When all their resources railed, the men became furious and watched for an opportunity to reimburse their loss, either by deceit or force. Observing my trunks well secured, it was surmised by the sailors that they contained silver and gold; a conspiracy was formed to cleave my head with a hatchet and to seize the trunks and divide the money among themselves.”

Fortunately, Gützlaff persuaded his fellow shipmates that as a missionary, he was as penniless. It would not be the last time that Gützlaff was forced to justify unsavory associations.

Many of his missions along the China coast were bought and paid for by opium merchants such as the infamous Jardine and Matheson Company. Gützlaff required passage and the opium traders needed a superior interpreter.

Wherever they landed, Gützlaff became the prototype for all future versions of Lao Wai Street Theater where a crowd of locals gawk at the Chinese-speaking foreigner. His act was so good that when combined with his habit of dressing in Chinese garb, frustrated local officials accused the Lutheran missionary of actually being a native Chinese that was “traitorously serving the barbarians.”

“I would give a thousand silver dollars for three days of Gützlaff,” wrote one opium trader.

Gützlaff was also an early and famous example of the intimate link between opium and religion in China. Though he claimed innocence in those endeavors, insisting that he only provided linguistic help and cultural knowledge.

In truth, he was paid well for helping traders’ smuggle drugs into closed ports. Gützlaff dazzled the public and kept officials at bay as his crew mates offloaded illicit cargo, just out of sight.

When Britain went to war against China in 1840 to protect and expand the trade in opium, Gützlaff was enlisted to serve as the primary interpreter for the British forces. As cannons pounded the city walls of the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River valley, Gützlaff would call on the officials to parley, negotiating terms of surrender. For his assistance, Gützlaff was made Chinese secretary in the new British colony of Hong Kong, a position he held until his death in 1851.

Gützlaff justified his actions by investing in missionary work through financing printing projects, opening training centers for Chinese to become mission workers and funding translations of Christian literature. Gützlaff’s Chinese Bible, done with Walter Medhurst, Elijah Coleman Bridgman, and John Robert Morrison, was published in 1847.

Their version became famous after it was adopted by the revolutionary Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the almost-Christian, Taiping Heavenly Kingdom that fought a vicious civil war against the imperial court between 1850-1864.

Gützlaff died in scandal, just as the Taiping were beginning their campaign. At the time of his death, Gützlaff’s fame had spread throughout Asia to Europe. He traveled back and forth on fundraising missions, boasting of large numbers of converts back in China.

The numbers were fake.

The Chinese missionaries who were spreading the word in the interior provinces often falsified reports of conversions, enrolling opium addicts and unreformed gamblers and criminals. Then, they pocketed and split the money that Gützlaff had given them for their efforts. When the fraud was exposed in 1851, Gützlaff was devastated, even though there is no evidence that he knew that the numbers were cooked. He died later that year.

Gützlaff’s name lives on in Hong Kong. Gutzlaff Street cuts through Central, and his grave can be found at the Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley.