Benjamin Hobson: The Introduction of Western Religion, Medicine, and Science Into Nineteenth-Century China



Hobson’s success in China was not only based on the medical practice and his religious work, but also on his efforts in introducing natural science to the country. He used to preach to his patients before he treated them. Due to his kind and gentle manner, his faithful attention and skillful practice, he became known as “the model medical missionary.” He thought that medical science in China was at a rather low level, and that the knowledge of anatomy and surgery in ancient Greece and Rome was much superior to anything in nineteenth-century China. Therefore, he attempted to introduce the well-establishes principles and facts of Western medical science to China.

Although Hobson was a medical missionary, he did more to promote the study of science in China than any other men of their time. He was the first and for some time most influential Protestant writer on science in the Chinese language. Hobson presented a broad range of scientific knowledge pitched to a general audience, borrowing Chinese terms from those in common use. During the 1850s, he wrote five books on medical science, which were widely regarded as the standard works in this field. His book, bowu xinbian(Natural philosophy and natural history), which was published in 1855 and provided a general introduction to chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography and zoology, was described as like “the dawn of a new era upon Chinese minds.” His Chinese translations for the chemical elements oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, yangqi(nourishing gas), qingqi(light gas), and danqi(diluting gas), are still in use today.

The purpose of this paper is to research Hobson’s motivation for the transmission of Western science into China, and summarize his scientific works and translations in China.