Iakinf (Bichurin)

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Archimandrite Iakinf (Bichurin)

Iakinf (Bichurin) of Beijing was the ninth leader of the Russian Orthodox Mission to Beijing, China, in the early nineteenth century. Spending fourteen years at the mission, his scholarly studies of China and the Chinese culture brought him distinction as one of the founding fathers of Sinology and also being the first Russian sinologist.


Nikita Yakovievich Bichurin was born of August 29, 1777. He was tonsured a monk in 1800, with the name Iakinf. He soon was raised to the dignity of archimandrite. In 1807, he was appointed the head of the Russian Orthodox Mission in Beijing, China.

Upon his arrival at the mission, Arch. Iakinf, engaged in the normal routine of the mission of divine services, upkeep of the facilities, conducting the religious education of the Albazins, and studying the members of the mission. The Albazins were descendants of the original inhabitants of the mission who were cossacks who had settled there in the late seventeenth century on what became the mission property. Having a knowledge of the Chinese language, he prepared a brief catechism in Chinese of Orthodox Christianity.

Noting the paucity of information about the Chinese culture that was making missionary work among the Chinese difficult, Iakinf began to study the Chinese language and culture. He spent most of his time at the mission in translation of Chinese classics, writing of Chinese history, geography, and religion as well as compiling dictionaries. These studies included such subjects as: Notes about Mongolia, Description of Tibet, and History of Tibet and Tsinghai. He recorded the folk customs of the Chinese, their holidays, their clothing, and detailed descriptions of Beijing. After spending fourteen years a head of mission, Iakinf returned to Russia in 1821.

His studies reached such an intensity that after his return to Russia, his religious motivations were brought into question: were his social science interests in sinology greater than interest in the religious affairs of the mission? As a result of the criticisms, Arch. Iakinf was deposed and exiled to Valaam Monastery for four years. After his release from the monastery, in 1826, Iakinf became a translator for the Asian department of the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry. Iakinf continued his studies of China, making two trips to Siberia in 1830 to 1831 and 1835 to 1837. He was instrumental in the establishment of a Chinese language school in Kyakhta for which he prepared the text books.

His work as a sinologist gained him membership in the Academies of Science of Russia, Germany, and France. After his release from Valaam in 1826, Arch. Iakinf lived in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra where he reposed on May 11, 1853.