Bowring was born in Exeter of an old Puritan family. In early life he came under the influence of Jeremy Bentham. He did not, however, share his master's contempt for belles-lettres, but was a diligent student of literature and foreign languages, especially those of eastern Europe. As a linguist he ranked with Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti and von Gabelentz among the greatest of the world. The first fruits of his study of foreign literature appeared in Specimens of the Russian Poets (1821—1823). These were speedily followed by Batavian Anthology (1824), Ancient Poetry and Romances of Spain (1824), Specimens of the Polish Poets, and Servian Popular Poetry, both in 1827.
During this period he began to contribute to the newly founded Westminster Review, of which he was appointed editor in 1825. By his contributions to the Review he obtained considerable reputation as political economist and parliamentary reformer. He advocated in its pages the cause of free trade long before it was popularized by Richard Cobden and John Bright. He pleaded earnestly in behalf of parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation and popular education. In 1828 he visited Holland, where the university of Groningen conferred on him the degree of doctor of laws. In the following year he was in Denmark, preparing for the publication of a collection of Scandinavian poetry.
Bowring, who had been the trusted friend of Bentham during his life, was appointed his literary executor, and was charged with the task of preparing a collected edition of his works. This appeared in eleven volumes in 1843.
Meanwhile Bowring had entered parliament in 1835 as member for Kilmarnock; and in the following year he was appointed head of a government commission to be sent to France to inquire into the actual state of commerce between the two countries. He was engaged in similar investigations in Switzerland, Italy, Syria and some of the German states. The results of these missions appeared in a series of reports laid before the House of Commons. After a retirement of four years he sat in parliament from 1841 until 1849 as member for Bolton. During this busy period he found leisure for literature, and published in 1843 a translation of the Manuscript of the Queen's Court, a collection of old Czech lyrics.
After his return he distinguished himself as an advocate of the decimal system, and published a work entitled The Decimal System in Numbers, Coins and Accounts (1854). The introduction of the form as a preparatory step was chiefly due to his efforts.
Knighted in 1854, he was sent in April of the same year to Hong Kong as governor, invested with the supreme military and naval power. It was during his governorship that a dispute broke out with the Chinese; and the irritation caused by his "spirited" or high-handed policy led to the Second Opium War (1856-1860). In 1855 he visited Siam, and negotiated with the king Mongkut a treaty of commerce. After the usual five years of service he retired in May 1859 and received a pension.
His last employment by the English government was as a commissioner to Italy in 1861, to report on British commercial relations with the new kingdom. Sir John Bowring subsequently accepted the appointment of minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary from the Hawaiian government to the courts of Europe, and in this capacity negotiated treaties with Belgium, Holland, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.
In addition to the works already named he published Poetry of the Magyars (1830); Cheskian Anthology (1832); The Kingdom and People of Siam (1857); a translation of Peter Schlemihl (1824); translations from the Hungarian poet, Alexander Petofi (1866); and various pamphlets.
He was elected F.R.S and F.R.G.S, and received the decorations of several foreign orders of knighthood. He died at Claremont, near Exeter, on November 23, 1872. His valuable collection of coleoptera was presented to the British Museum by his second son, Lewin Bowring, a well-known Anglo-Indian administrator; and his third son, E. A. Bowring, member of parliament for Exeter from 1868 to 1874, became known in the literary world as an able translator.
Sir John Bowring's Recollections were edited by Lewin Bowring.