Professor James LEGGE (1815–1897)

Sinologist and missionary

3 Keble Road, Oxford

James Legge

James Legge was born at Huntly, Aberdeenshire, the son of Ebenezer Legge, a drapery merchant, and his wife Elizabeth who died when James was two years old. His background was one of strict nonconformist religious observance and zeal. He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and graduated from King’s College, Aberdeen with a first class degree in Classics. After a brief spell as a schoolmaster in Blackburn, he entered Highbury College to train as a Congregational minister. He was ordained in 1837 and joined the London Missionary Society, studying Chinese for the first time in London. In 1839 he set sail for China with his newly-wed wife Mary (née Morison). After a period at the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca where he learned Cantonese and Mandarin, he took charge of the Society’s Mission in the new colony of Hong Kong, recently established after the First Opium War in 1842.

He remained in Hong Kong for thirty years, seeing his role as that of cultural mediator and scholar rather than zealous evangelist. He sought to cross cultural and racial boundaries, befriending influential Chinese figures such as Wang Tao, and engaging with educational, social, and political issues in the colony. He produced a massive translation of Chinese classics regarded as the greatest single achievement of Western sinological scholarship in the nineteenth century and still a standard work of reference.

3 Keble Road

In 1873 he returned to Scotland and soon accepted a fellowship at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. In 1876 he was appointed to the newly endowed Oxford Chair of Chinese, the first nonconformist to be made a professor. He extended his translations of Chinese classics, contributing to Max Müller’s huge project Sacred Books of the East with translations of Confucius, Taoism, and Buddhist texts. He also played an important part in the liberalisation of the University, promoting a new curriculum and examination system, religious tolerance, and women’s education. He was a member of Somerville’s founding committee. His career epitomized some of the most significant religious, social, and intellectual changes during the Victorian era.

Throughout his time in Oxford he lived at 3 Keble Terrace (Keble Road) (right), where he would rise early and be at his desk from 3 am each day. His wife Mary had died in 1859 and he had married Hannah Willetts. His family now consisted of two married daughters from the first marriage and two sons, two daughters, and a stepdaughter from the second.

Legge plaque

In 1897 just after completing a class on elementary Chinese composition he suffered a stroke and died at home. He is buried in Wolvercote Cemetery.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, article by N. J. Girardot



Left: Memorial to the Revd James Legge at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

The plaque was unveiled at 3 Keble Road on 16 May 2018 by Christopher Legge, great-grandson, who also gave the address. The ceremony was attended by Councillor Colin Cook (Lord Mayor of Oxford), Mr Xiang Xiaowei (Minister Counsellor in charge of the Cultural Office at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China), China specialists, and a representative of Corpus Christi College, among others. Refreshments were taken afterwards at the new University of Oxford China Centre.

Photographs taken at the ceremony:

Speech made by Christopher Legge at the ceremony

Oxford Mail, 19 May 2018:
Blue plaque unveiled in Keble Terrace for Chinese professor James Legge


Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board



Missionary and Sinologist
Translator of the
Chinese classics

lived here

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