Language matters - Shengren, bigger than the buddhas?

by on Tuesday, 31 January 2012 Comments

The shengren is the most important concept in Chinese tradition.

Since the Europeans never had anything like it, but refused to hold the candle to China; instead they omitted the shengren and talked about some lesser versions of Greek "philosophers" or Christian "holy men".

The English soon found a slightly better translation; they called the shengren "sages", from Latin sapientia –being wise.

The Germans however, the descendants of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, never had a concept for sages or sagehood. In their effort to christen China, the Germans called the shengren "Heilige" (saints), from Germanic hailaz –being holy.

Because of the many confusing translations, Confucius is said to be a paradox. He is not, he is a shengren.

As the ideal human being, the shengren is the highest member in the East-Asian family-based value tradition, a wise person that has the highest moral standards, called de, who applies the principles of ren, li, yi, zhi and xin (and 10 more), and connects between all the people as if they were, metaphorically speaking, his family.

The renowned linguist Gu Zhengkun of Peking University describes the shengren as "technically perfect", and the distinguished historian Tu Weiming of Harvard University calls the shengren "the highest form of an authentic human being".

There are Confucian shengren, Taoist shengren, mythical shengren, shengren of poetry, shengren of literature, linguistic shengren, and many more categories. Yes, there is a culture of shengren in East-Asia –shengren in Japanese, of course, is "seijin", and in Korean "seng-yin", and so on.

Calling the shengren in Asia "philosophers", "saints", or any other familiar name is the greatest historical blunder since Christopher Columbus's discovery of "the Indians" in North America.

European scholars, instead of adopting a Chinese concept, translate it into something familiar, like: All Chinese thinkers are now "philosophers". Moreover, the English and the Germans each employ suspiciously convenient translations, each to their own culture's benefit, for example, the Chinese junzi translates into a "gentleman" in Britain, and into an "Edler" (man of noble bloodline) in Germany. Finally, calling the shengren "philosophers" or "Heilige" (saints) is obviously beneficial to Christianity and Western philosophy, they'll tend to propagate.

As to today, the Western public is ignorant about the shengren; worse, people have no way of knowing that they don't know shengren. As the historian Howard Zinn reminded us: "If something is omitted from history, you have no way of knowing it is omitted."

We are taught in Western schools, that there are "philosophers" and "saints" all over Asia; yet, upon reflection, evidently there isn't a single Buddha, bodhisattva, or shengren in Europe. Think. What is that probability? Whose version of history are we taught?

The word for "philosopher" doesn't appear in the Chinese classics. Our so-called "Chinese Philosophy" departments in Europe and America are reminiscences of the Imperial age. In fact, the Chinese word for philosophy, zhexuejia, came to China via Japan, where it is pronounced tetsugakusha and was first used in 1874 by Nishi Amane. So, what does East Asia have instead, if not Greek "philosophers"? It has shengren!

The shengren in Confucianism are just as clearly defined and non-European as the buddhas in Buddhism are (yes, there are more than one buddha; you knew that, didn't you?). Everyone knows buddhas, no one knows the shengren. Who's to blame?

The first translations of Confucius's Analects in the 17th and 18th centuries were poorly done by aged European missionaries who never mastered Chinese. Their first impression was that China must have experienced the Flood and that Confucius probably knew God, just didn't confess it. In the retellings of those accounts, errors typically accumulated. The British even named a gossip game for children after this –the "Chinese whispers".

The Germans at least were honest about their dispositions. Gottfried Leibniz urged his countrymen to avoid foreign terminology. Christian Wolff claimed that visiting China was unnecessary and, despite being totally Chinese illiterate, shamelessly wrote a "History of Chinese philosophy". Hegel's low opinion on Chinese "philosophy" is legendary. Even the Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse warned his fellows: "we must not become Chinese, […] otherwise we'd adhere to a fetish".

Cultural critic and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek once said: "The true victory (the true 'negation of the negation') occurs when the enemy talks your language." Indeed, the West would be irrational to adopt key Asian concepts; it would give away its Deutungshoheit –the prerogative of the final interpretation. Think about concepts like "democracy" or "human rights".

What about accurate scholarship, then? The original shengren is permanent –buried in the Chinese texts, beneath all Western power charade and suspiciously convenient translations.

As long as Western 'China scholarship' floats on misleading European terminology, the West isn't learning anything from Asia.

In the 21st century, it will be necessary to depart from erroneous Western translations. The East isn't just an appendix to the Western lingo; it has more to offer than the West could ever adequately translate. The shengren is above philosophy and beyond religion. He is decisively not European.


Illustration by Bendu

Thorsten Pattberg

Dr. Pattberg (裴德思) is a German writer and cultural critic and an expert in Chinese-Western Comparative Studies. He is fluent in Chinese, English, and German, knowledgeable in Sanskrit and Hinduism, Taoism, and Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, and he wrote his doctoral thesis on the first European encounter with Confucianism. 

He is the author of 'The East-West dichotomy', 'Shengren', and 'Inside Peking University', and has published articles in Asia Times, Global Times, China Daily, China Today, Shanghai Daily, Die Zeit (German Times), Korea Herald, and The Japan Times. He has given public lectures, and he is a member of several academic associations like the International Association of Comparative Mythology (IACM), the German East Asiatic Society (OAG), and the International Association for Comparative Study of China and The West (IACSCW). 

Dr. Pattberg is also an alumnus of The University of Edinburgh, Harvard University, The University of Tokyo, and Peking University.


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