Cai Gao was born in 1788 to a family of moderate wealth. Cai Gao’s father owned some assets, including a vessel engaged in transport between Southeast Asia and China. On an unfortunate return trip from Batavia, the boat met with disaster and Cai Gao’s father went down with the vessel in the South China Sea. This incident led to the ruin of the family fortune.
Cai Gao was the second eldest in the family, with an elder brother named Cai Xuan, and a younger brother named Cai Yun. After their father’s death, the brothers became responsible for the family debt, which was so burdensome that more than ten years later, Cai Xuan was turned over to the officials and unexpectedly shackled and imprisoned because he still hadn’t cleared the obligation. Fortunately, British missionary Robert Morrison of the London Missionary Society had an acquaintance with the county magistrate and put up the money to have Cai Xuan released from prison on bail.
When he was young, Cai Gao was often frail and sick, so as a student his schoolwork was quite poor, but his calligraphy was reasonably good. Because of his bad temper, he often got into fights with his brothers and classmates.
In 1807, upon Robert Morrison’s arrival in China, he lived in The Thirteen Hongs in Guangzhou. After being introduced to the missionary by Rong Sande, the three Cai brothers came to work for Robert Morrison. Rong Sande had previously taught Morrison Chinese during his time of study in England. After returning to Guangzhou, Rong reunited with Morrison. Beginning in February 1801, Robert Morrison was very pleased to have Rong Sande take over all business relationships between him and the Chinese, including the responsibility for hiring servants and assistants, as well as guaranteeing their moral behavior.
In March of 1808, the three Cai brothers, along with A-Ding and another man named Gui Youni (Kwei-Une), began working for Robert Morrison: Cai Xuan took responsibility for copying the Chinese Bible as well as teaching Morrison the Cantonese dialect; Cai Gao took charge of purchasing goods and supplies, and similar duties; Gui Youni taught Morrison Mandarin Chinese; and A-Ding served as the cook.
Morrison requested that his servants and assistants attend the daily meetings held in his home, as well as the Sunday morning worship service and other religious events. Each meeting opened with a prayer given by Morrison, followed by a scripture reading from his Chinese translation of the Bible, which he would explain for his listeners. The meeting would conclude with the singing of hymns. Sometimes Morrison would also discuss religious belief with them. Other times, after the meetings, he would meet with specific individuals from the congregation to offer counseling.
When Cai Gao was 21 years old, after five months of employment with Morrison, he began to pray with the missionary in Chinese. But in late September, because Cai Gao often quarreled with Gui Youni, Morrison had no choice but to dismiss them both. Afterwards, Cai Gao seems to have begun a career in the engraving and book printing industry, because two years later (1810), when Morrison began to entrust the printing of a missionary periodical to a Chinese engraving shop, Cai Gao was finally able to fill a position in this highly-skilled type of work.
Although Cai Gao didn’t have steady employment with Morrison during the following few years, Cai Xuan, on the other hand, continued to work for Morrison. As a result, Cai Gao maintained a close relationship with Morrison and continued to attend the worship meetings held at his home. Beginning in October of 1812, Cai Gao began to read through the Bible during the meetings and attempted to express his own thoughts and impressions about his religious beliefs. He participated in prayer times and even asked Morrison to teach him how to pray. After home worship meetings were over, he would sometimes stay behind voluntarily to study and read the Gospels with Morrison, or listen to him explain Christian doctrines. On October 19th of the same year, Morrison wrote in his journal:
“A-Gao (Cai Gao) continues seeking the truth in a pleasant way. Oh! May God open his heart. This evening he again came to pray and learn about prayer. I explained to him the ‘Evening Prayer,’ an appendix at the end of Teachings of Jesus. I knelt down to pray with him and he immediately dropped to his knees.”
“A-Gao brought some idols to show to me. He hoped I would not tell other Chinese because they would be angry with him because of it… . He said, ‘As for myself, I believe in Jesus, and I also believe what you told me, that the worship of wooden, stone, or any other kind of idol is vanity.’ I have thought that I would like to baptize him, but fear that his understanding is still insufficient, and his faith only momentary.”
After being exposed to Robert Morrison’s preaching of the Gospel for four years, on the evening of November 8th, 1812, Cai Gao expressed to Morrison his desire to be baptized, but due to various considerations, he wished to be baptized in secret. At that time, he possibly only had a superficial understanding of the Christian faith, and may not have sincerely repented and accepted it; or perhaps he feared being shamed and dishonored, or maybe he was worried about being found out by the authorities; or maybe, although he had religious belief, because his moral conduct still had not improved, he did not dare publicly confess his faith — but even more, he lacked the courage to act against the wishes of his elder brother. Although his brother, Cai Xuan, had worked for Morrison for quite some time, because he was deeply influenced by Confucianism, he rejected Christianity from the start. He was also disapproving of Buddhism and Taoism, insisting that Confucian doctrine was the only true path. His only reason for attending the meetings was that he saw it as integral to his employment with Morrison, so he faithfully came to all the meetings; but it had nothing to do with his religious beliefs.
Cai Gao continued to participate regularly in the daily meetings and Lord’s Day worship service. He prayed devoutly every morning and evening, studied the teachings of Scripture, received instruction from Morrison, and examined himself for shortcomings. Sometime between June and July of 1814, Cai Gao once again expressed his desire to be baptized, writing:
Jesus’ atonement for the sins of the world is good news. All words and thoughts are unable to express Christ’s mercy and goodness. Today I firmly put my trust in Jesus, and depend on him to rescue and redeem me from my sins. I am sinful and flawed. If I don’t trust in Jesus to atone for my sin, I will be miserable forever. Today, since I have heard and trusted that Jesus is able to atone for sins, I should whole-heartedly trust in his power. If I don’t, I am not kindhearted and benevolent. I am not kindhearted — each time I examine myself, from infancy until today, I have been found incapable, immoral, and without learning. This year I am twenty-seven, and I still have not tried to do anything that measures up to the kindness God has shown me in giving me life in this world. I also have not yet repaid the debt of gratitude I owe my parents, relatives, and friends. Am I grumbling? Should I hope to do something good for my own benefit? I trust in my God, the Heavenly Father, with my whole heart to forgive my sins, and ask God to grant me the Holy Spirit.
At this time, however, Morrison still considered Cai Gao to have a limited understanding of Christianity, and thought he was still unclear on some articles of the faith. Seeing that his faith was truly sincere, however, he decided to baptize him. So on July 16, 1814, at a spot on the steep hills and gullies along the shore of Macao, a place seldom reached by crowds of people, Robert Morrison baptized Cai Gao, who on that day became the first of millions of Chinese Christians.
After being baptized, Cai Gao was even more devout in his faith. In a letter dated June 10, 1816, Morrison mentions Cai Gao: “Every Sunday, so long as Cai Gao is within a few miles, he always comes to attend worship.”
In January, 1817, local officials from Guangdong searched the Macao printing offices of the British East India Company. Rong Sande, Cai Xuan, Cai Gao, and others fled in droves to avoid trouble. Cai Gao and two other men stowed away on a boat to Malacca, located on the Malay Peninsula, to seek help from the London Missionary Society local mission station. In addition to paying the stowaway fees for Cai Gao and the others, Robert Morrison also gave six dollars, and two boxes of tea, to each of their families who had been left in China. At the same time, in order to encourage Cai Gao, Morrison gave him a two-hundred-dollar interest-free loan with the hope that he and his brother, Cai Xuan, could set up some business in Malacca.
After reaching Malacca, Cai Gao became writer of books at the mission station. He and the station printer, Liang Fa (baptized 1816), who at the time were the only two Chinese believers, attended the worship services led by Robert Morrison’s assistant, Dr. William Milne. Every Tuesday evening at eight o’clock, Dr. Milne gave them special guidance, which furthered their understanding of the Bible. In Dr. Milne’s view, the two men were “very flawed, but very devout Christians.” Possibly because Cai Gao and Rong Sande were not able to become accustomed to life away from home in Southeast Asia, they returned to China after six months.
As before, Cai Gao continued to participate in the time of Bible reading and prayer held at Morrison’s home every evening, and thus grew considerably in his faith. However, on October 10th, 1818, Morrison wrote a letter to the London Missionary Society, which read: “Cai Gao, whom I had baptized previously, is suffering from a serious lung disease and I fear this illness is on the verge of ending his life.” According to the London Missionary Society 1819 annual report, Cai Gao passed away in October, 1818, not yet 31 years old.
As for Cai Xuan, Cai Gao’s elder brother, in 1822 he wrote a letter to Morrison, who at the time was in Macau, asking to be baptized by him. Morrison was truly taken by surprise that Cai Xuan, who he had always considered to be a conceited, reticent, and indifferent scholar, now wished to request baptism. Morrison may not have accepted Cai Xuan’s request; a search of the extant historical materials on Robert Morrison and the London Missionary Society reveal no record of Cai Xuan’s baptism. Even though since 1816 Morrison had no longer employed Cai Xuan, their relationship, in fact, continued to remain close; until early 1827, Cai Xuan continued to attend Morrison’s family gatherings and worship.
In 1818 Cai Yun became employed by London Missionary Society missionary John Slater as his servant when he was traveling to Malacca, but before long he returned again to China. In November of 1819, Cai Gao was hunted by the officials because he had become implicated with Liang Fa. Morrison hid him in a room and took advantage of the cover of darkness to send him away, sparing him from calamity. Early in 1823, Cai Yun and another servant accompanied Morrison to Malacca to handle the affairs of the local mission station and Anglo-Chinese College after Dr. Milne’s death. Thereafter his whereabouts, and whether he became a Christian, remain unknown.