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Robert Henry Mathews (1877–1970)

by Arthur Huck

This article was published:

Robert Henry Mathews (1877-1970), missionary and sinologist, was born on 13 July 1877 at Flemington, Melbourne, son of London-born William Mathews and his Australian wife Mary, née Whitlaw. Many sinologists have mistakenly assumed that the great lexicographer, author of Mathews' Chinese-English dictionary, was English. William had been a tinsmith and later worked in the Victorian Railways. His son studied lithography as part of his apprenticeship in the printing trade at the Working Men's College (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). Mathews was an intensely religious Congregationalist. While 'waiting and praying for light' he became interested in the evangelical work of the Christian missionaries, and the activities of the China Inland Mission in particular.

Abandoning his printing business, Mathews joined the C.I.M. in August 1906, after spending eighteen months in Adelaide where he received Bible instruction and ministered to the city's outcast population. He sailed for China on 4 October. After spending a short period at C.I.M.'s Shanghai headquarters he was sent to two stations in Honan Province. In 1915 Mathews was transferred to Hueichow in Anhwei Province where, as in Honan, he was confronted by 'a peculiar lack of response to the Gospel's message'.

His experience in Anhwei, however, first aroused Mathews' passion for the Chinese language. Noting the variety of dialects, and believing that 'a preacher must not only be understood, but easily understood', he developed a consuming interest in questions of language. In 1921 he returned to Honan to conduct Bible classes among the troops of Feng Yu-hsiang, a prominent warlord and convert. Before the rise of Chiang Kai-shek the C.I.M. looked to Feng to institute a new moral order in China. Comforted by the fervour with which Feng's army embraced Christianity, Mathews for the next four years travelled across Szechwan, leading Bible classes and supervising the work of young Chinese seminarians. In 1926 he returned to Australia for a brief vacation but the deterioration of the political situation in China and the evacuation of thousands of British missionaries forced him to remain in Australia until February 1928.

On his return to Shanghai he was asked to revise Baller's Chinese-English dictionary. After three years of intense work Mathews produced a volume of 1200 pages that contained 7785 Chinese characters and over 104,000 phrases, including classical, modern and technical terms. A Chinese-English Dictionary compiled for the C.I.M. by R. H. Mathews was published in Shanghai in 1931. In 1943 Harvard University Press issued an American edition entitled simply Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary and the work is now universally known simply as Mathews. In that year the C.I.M. compound in Shanghai was taken over by the Japanese army for use as its headquarters. Unbound copies of Mathews' own revised edition of his dictionary, printing blocks and the mission's library were confiscated and destroyed. For the next two years he was held in Japanese internment.

In 1945 Mathews returned to Melbourne for only the third time in forty years and retired from active missionary work. However his talents and command of Chinese were recognized by the Department of Defence. In 1948 he was recruited to work part time on translation of archival material and compilation of glossaries, and he was employed full time for six years from 1951.

Mathews was a quietly spoken and humble man who achieved a high standard of scholarship through patience, dedication and an unusual degree of linguistic skill. His dictionary, described by C. P. Fitzgerald as a 'monument of learning', became the standard text for English scholars. Its circulation was enhanced by the fact that many printings were made in America and Asia without Mathews' authorization. His Kuoyu Primer suffered a similar fate.

His great achievement was made without any formal educational background in languages and his contribution long went without any official acknowledgement. In 1962, however, the University of Melbourne awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters. He is described as being short, slender and 'round shouldered like a scholar'. In his mission work he presented the Gospel in a forceful and practical way, as befitted his evangelical calling. He was invariably courteous and kindly. His colleagues in the Department of Defence regularly addressed him, with affection and respect, as 'Mr Ma' as he had been known in his Chinese households for so many years.

Mathews died in Melbourne on 16 February 1970 and was cremated. His first wife, Annie Ethel Smith, a New South Wales C.I.M. missionary whom he married on 30 December 1908, died in 1920; they had three children. In 1922 Mathews married another missionary Violet Ward (d.1954) who collaborated very closely with him on his linguistic work.

Select Bibliography

  • M. L. Loane, The Story of the China Inland Mission in Australia and New Zealand 1890-1964 (Melb, 1965)
  • China Inland Mission, China's Millions, 1 Oct 1906, 1 July 1909, 1 Apr 1911, 1 Sept 1915, 1 May 1920, 1 Aug 1921, 1 July 1943, 1 Mar 1954, 1 Mar 1970
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 15, no 4 (1956)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Feb 1963
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Dec 1962
  • private information.

Citation details

Arthur Huck, 'Mathews, Robert Henry (1877–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 July, 1877
Flemington, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


16 February, 1970 (aged 92)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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