Chinese Erroneously Translated: German scholar thinks shengren are overlooked
By Victor Fic
BEIJING – The German scholar Dr. Thorsten Pattberg spent eleven years at Edinburgh, Fudan, Harvard, Tokyo, and Peking University to slake his thirst for East-Asian languages and thought. He insists that many Western translations of Chinese key terms are wrong. In this exclusive interview with veteran journalist Victor Fic, he calls for a respectful accuracy and opposing “language imperialism.”
Victor Fic: You have an unusual background. Tell us where you where born, and what brought you to China.
Thorsten Pattberg: I was born into a family of police officers in Hamm, Germany. At working-class school I was a notorious underachiever, bored, and playing pen and paper role playing games most of the time. At 15, I left school and worked at the Local District Court as a typist. At 18, I was transferred to Munster, a university town. There I was encouraged by my superiors to sit the German Abitur. I did it in 2001, and scored well into the top 2% of the entire German student population.
VF: Why did you decide that you must leave Germany if you wanted to learn something new?
TP: The German-speaking world represents a mere 1.2% of the world’s population. But if you live long enough in it, they make you think its 100%. And German is my mother tongue. So I reasoned that the only way for me to learn something entirely new is to learn other languages in foreign lands.
VF: You first went to Scotland, then China, Japan and the USA to study Sanskrit and Chinese, why?
TP: I actually first went to Oxford University, but was quickly turned down at interview stage. I was told I was too old and too German. Then I looked north and went to Edinburgh instead, where I studied many languages like Chinese, Sanskrit, Swedish, and later abroad Hindi and Urdu. I also spent long summers in Paris, Tokyo, Boston, Beijing and Shanghai. But I knew what I was looking for — to study the sages.
VF: In the west, we prefer philosophers.
TP: That’s right. Since Plato’s attack on the sophos or those who claim to have wisdom, the west embraced a new type of thinker: the philo-sophos or those who seek knowledge. There is a big difference between them. The philosophers see wisdom as an unattainable goal and as man’s hypocrisy. Maybe Jesus Christ was the last sage, who, in a cunning move before his departure, delegated the highest wisdom to his father in heaven – the Lord God. After the rise of Christianity, the West’s sages gradually disappeared. Sage traditions like Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and even Hinduism could never have arisen or caught on in Europe. To use a metaphor: we are immune to them because the Hellenic and Christian tradition runs through our veins. Hence the controversial remark I think by Ernst Haeckel, a scientist by the way, that “we Europeans, if we understand ourselves properly, would never indianize ourselves, for example.”
VF: What is the difference between a Western philosopher and an Oriental sage?
TP: The major difference, I believe, is that a philosopher relies on his sound judgment and argument, while a sage relies on his wisdom from life-experience. About a philosopher, the first thing we want to know is: what is the philosophical object?; about a sage, we want to know: who is he, or what did he do? The sage has to be an exemplifying good person. A philosopher can be a hook and crook, even a Nazi like Martin Heidegger. Everyone can do philosophy, but not every philosopher is a sage.
VF: Why are there so few sages in the west?
TP: Linguistically, there are none. We don’t call our thinkers sages. In Germany, the word for sage is “weiser”, and it’s not a proper title or even a name for any Germany thinker, not even for Goethe or Meister Eckhart. Anglo-Saxon universities hand out doctorates of philosophy, and so on. We are, of course, sentimental about what we lack. A good example is how we think of old people in the West as unproductive, undesirable, and lock them away in nursery homes. Yet, they are the ones with life-experience and wisdom.
VF: So such callousness drives Westerners like your self to search for sages?
TP: I love the symbolism in the award-winning Hollywood blockbuster No Country for Old Men, an ultra-violent, shocking tale about a society that has lost its moral compass. According to the Jewish directors Joel and Ethan Coen, the movie’s title and book title, by author Cormac McCarthy is based on the poem Sailing to Byzantium by William B. Yeats. If you look it up, you will see that what Yeats is really mourning about is the absence of sages in the West. That’s why his poetic self travels to the East.
VF: Do you argue that the East is a more humane place than Europe?
TP: It is definitely more spiritual, and, in the case of Buddhism or Confucianism, as Gottfried Leibniz in his ‘Novissima Sinica‘ and Bertrand Russell in his ‘The Problem of China‘ both pointed out, in many ways more advanced in the humanities.
VF: How does this apply to your present home?
TP: China to this day is a living sage culture. It’s exactly this expression of humanity that is lacking in the west, at least, if we are honest to ourselves about our limitations, and if we promote a holistic worldview that somehow values all human achievement. The West, however, is very different; it believes it lacks nothing. The Western way of thinking is very linear. Western philosophy and Christianity are supposed to be the only and the most advanced cultural mode; all others are seen as deviations of Western standard. The east is expected to westernize.
VF: Don’t Chinese also apply the wrong label to Western ideas?
TP: Actually, in comparison they usually do not. They keep their socio-cultural originality to themselves. That’s not always a good thing – it’s too passive. They have too much respect for the West. Chinese students are eagerly studying, and often imitating the West. Same with Japanese students. But the Western understanding of East Asia is still a murky confusion. Ask a group of Western students, when is the Chinese New Year? What year do we have in Japan? They will most likely think you are an idiot and reply: “Of course, it’s the year 2012 AD” –the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The correct answers are: Longnian or year of the dragon, Jan 22nd; and Heisei or the current emperor’s reign 24th year.
VF: Do Western scholars and missionaries ever get it right?
TP: Some of the few archetypes that escaped Western language imperialism are the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Still, Western scholars call Buddhism a religion. This has everything to do with what the Germans call deutungshohheit – the prerogative of the final explanation. Think about concepts like “human rights” or “democracy”. The west wants to dominate foreign cultures intellectually; since it cannot own Indian, Chinese, or Japanese culture, it still wants to own world history. And it does so by monopolizing names and definitions. Language matters, or, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek once said: “The ultimate victory (the negation of the negation) is when the enemy speaks your language”.
VF: They think of Confucianism as a religion or superstition?
TP: The West doesn’t have a word for it, so they instead call Confucianism a religion or philosophy or superstition. Confucianism is a “教 jiao“, a teaching
VF: Who is Confucius in your framework?
TP: Confucius is a 圣人 shengren. A shengren is the highest member in the East-Asian family-based value tradition, a wise person that has the highest moral standards, called 德 de. He applies the principles of 仁 ren, meaning benevolence; 礼 li, meaning ritual; 义 yi, meaning righterousness; 智 zhi, meaning wisdom; and 信 xin, meaning faithfulness. There are ten more principles, too. He connects between all the people as if they were, metaphorically speaking, his family. Calling the shengren “philosophers”, “saints”, or any other familiar name is the greatest historical blunder since Christopher Columbus’s discovery of “the Indians” in America.
VF: Modern Chinese themselves often call Confucius a 哲学家 zhexuejia, a philosopher.
TP: Maybe they want to be seen as modern and pro-Western. The word “philosopher” doesn’t appear in the Chinese classics. Our so-called “Chinese Philosophy” departments in Europe and America are reminiscences of the imperial past. In fact, the Chinese word for philosophy, 哲学 zhexue, came to China via Japan, where it is pronounced tetsugakusha and was first used in 1874 by Nishi Amane.
VF: What did ancient Chinese correctly call him?
TP: Confucianism talks about five grades: 庸人 yongren, 士人 shiren, 君子 junzi, 贤人 xianren, and圣人 shengren. People usually assigned Confucius the highest grade: a shengren.
VF: Are there shengren in China today?
TP: Yes, but this title is bestowed upon them a posteriori. The famous writer Lu Xun of the 1930s who explored China’s modern dilemma is regarded as a modern shengren. Ji Xianlin is a renowned indologist, writer and educator. He is called a linguist-shengren, and so on.
VF: Are there any scientist-shengren?
TP: Yes, the late Albert Einstein is a scientist-shengren. But we in the west don’t have such a classification yet. We need to learn it first. It’s a bit like the concepts “artist”, “scientist”, and “philosophers”, that were introduced to first Japan and then China in the late 19th century. It’s simple reciprocity.
VF: Is Mao Zedong considered a shengren?
TP: No, Mao distanced himself from Confucianism, and to my knowledge was never referred to as shengren.
VF: How come this alleged language imperialism isn’t much known in the West?
TP: It will be as more independent Western scholars learn Chinese and demand adopting Chinese terminology that accurately reflects the reality of things. As Confucius once said: If names are not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. It’s known as the rectification of names. The East invented tens of thousands of non-European concepts we may have never heard of.
VF: How do Chinese or Westerners react to your ideas?
TP: I am ostracized. During my time at Harvard, I tried to present my research at the Fairbank Center, but was banned under the pretext that I was only a grad student. The German Academic Exchange Service revoked my China scholarship. In the German community I am outlawed because I studied in China, the ideological enemy of the West. German journalists avoid me like jaundice. Western academic publishers shun my work. But that’s ok; the first guy always goes through the wall. Adopting Chinese or any other Asian concepts is threatening the way we do things in the west.
VF: Why do these issues provoke your interest?
TP: I’m just doing my job. I know Chinese. History has been messed up by erroneous Western translations. So now, when I bring on the real stuff like shengren, junzi, daxue, wenming and so on, the public begins to realize: that’s a new word, not one of ours…hell, we are not alone! Also, showing respect for another culture’s socio-cultural originality goes a long way.
Victor Fic is a writer and broadcaster. He can be reached at vfic’at’hotmail.com.
Note: This interview took place in March 2012 and is published here with permission of Victor Fic. (c) 2012, 2013 Victor Fic