China’s millions

U 5.322-6: Same notice on the door. Sermon by the very reverend John Conmee S. J. on saint Peter Claver S. J. and the African Mission. Prayers for the conversion of Gladstone they had too when he was almost unconscious. The protestants are the same. Convert Dr William J. Walsh D. D. to the true religion. Save China’s millions.

The size of the population of China had been a matter of wonderment to the West at least since the Reformation. Precise figures were not available, and so the numbers mentioned were likely to be inflated. The statistical uncertainty was noted by John Francis Davis FRS, when he read a paper to the Royal Asiatic Society in May 1823:

The enormous amount of 333 millions, stated to Lord Macartney, was supported by no better authority than the mere assertion of Mandarins, at all times ready enough to make the most of their country in the eyes of foreigners […] The document to which Dr. Morrison refers for the sum of 143 millions, would be deserving of great attention, did it not destroy its own credit by the tremendous absurdity of its statements. According to this statistical work (the Yě-tung-chy), the total population about A.D. 1644, was twenty-seven millions and a half, and in 1790 it was increased to 143 millions.

In exasperation he laments that “the only thing certain is our total ignorance of the real population of China”.1

Dr Robert Morrison, mentioned by Davis, was a Presbyterian missionary who worked extensively in China in the early nineteenth century. In his Memoirs he notes that:2

The population of China makes at least one-third of the entire population of the globe.

While the precise extent of the Chinese population remained in doubt, Western missionaries had turned their attention to the issue of converting such a large mass of people to Christianity since the time of the Reformation. Morrison states further that:

The language I am studying, and into which I hope to see the sacred page rendered, is understood by an immense population, millions on millions who will be able to read for themselves the wonders of redemption.

Father Conmee would have known that Jesuits were the first to organise missionary expeditions to China, leading to the arrival of Matteo Ricci and his fellow mission workers on the mainland in 1582, in an outreach effort which continued strongly into later centuries. Predominantly non-Christian, China became increasingly important area for evangelising mission work not only by Jesuits, but by other Catholics and by Protestants and others.

“China’s millions”, as used by Joyce, became as evocative phrase for the mass of the Chinese population which might be “saved” by accepting Christianity. The earliest recorded uses date from the 1830s:

If we had known this twenty years ago [i.e. that China was accessible to Westerners], how many fruitless expenditures might have been spared; for Instead of spending strength and resources in small contracted spheres in the Malayan Archipelago, among a few thousand emigrants, we might have gone directly to China, and travelled through the length and breadth of the land, distributing the word of life, and proclaiming spiritual freedom to China’s millions, who are still led captive by the devil at his will.

Missionary Chronicle, cited in the Nottinghamshire Review (1834), 19 September

In America, the Baptist David Benedict included the expression “China’s millions” in one of his hymns (“Spread of the Bible”), published in his Conference Hymns for Social Worship (Providence, Rhode Island; ed. 8, 1842, though it may have appeared in earlier editions). Verse 4 runs:

Wandering Arabs, Tartars roaming,

Bushmen wild on Afric’s shore;

Jews and Turks with joy combining

Bow to thy converting power,

China’s millions

Shall thy wondrous deeds record.

Bloom saw the notice about China's millions on the church door, but the most likely, though indirect, source for the popularity of the expression “China’s millions” in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century is a Protestant magazine of that name, published continuously from July 1875 until 1952. China’s Millions was published by the China Inland Mission, a Protestant missionary group founded in 1865, and since 1964 known as the Overseas Missionary Fellowship.3

Echoing Robert Morrison, the Preface to the first bound volume (1875-6) reminds reads that:

we cannot too often ponder the fact that China contains about one-third of the entire population of the world.

On page 2 of the first issue (July 1875), Editor J. Hudson Taylor expresses his objective of making the plight of the unconverted Chinese more familiar to people in the West:

We shall hope to bring more vividly before our readers “China’s Millions”, and our work among them.

Talks about China's millions were given in Ireland, from time to time. Here, a Presbyterian missionary speaks in County Kerry about the missionary outreach in 1899:

Irish Presbyterian Church.

Rev James Carson, BA, Newchwang [= modern Yingkou, Liaoning Province], Senior Missionary of the Irish Presbyterian Church in China, will deliver an address in the above Church on Wednesday evening, the 11th inst, giving an account of the moral and spiritual condition of China’s millions, and the claims of that people on the sympathy of the Church of God.

Kerry Evening Post (1899), 7 January p. 2

Joyce added "Save China's millions" later into his text, as a late addition in June 1921. Just before the publication of Ulysses the American farming magazine Round-Up offers a view on the excess of charitable zeal in the face of famines in China:4

The frantic endeavours to raise Famine Funds, to save China’s millions; one is apt to look around now and ask the question, what has been accomplished?

The exclamatory “Save China’s millions” was an expression with a history.

John Simpson


1 Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society (1827), vol. 1 pp. 12-14, cited here from the earlier Asiatic Journal (1825), vol. 19, pp. 114-5.

2 Memoirs of the Life and Labours of Robert Morrison, D.D., compiled by his widow (London, 1839), vol. 1 pp. 66 and 203.

3 See facsimiles of the periodical at

4 Round-Up (1921), 27 August p. 7.

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