This article was first published by Shanghai Daily on 20 Dec 2012.
FEW people know what Confucius is – not who but what.
The ancient teacher is known by many names; he’s King Kung, Master Kong or just K’ung Fu-tzu. But unlike the biblical Saint Nicholas, alias Santa Claus, Confucius isn’t a Christian saint but a Chinese sage; more correctly: Confucius a shengren.
The shengren of Confucianism (there are hundreds of them) – like the buddhas of Buddhism – are un-European. They cultivate the ideal personality and become the highest members in the family-based Chinese value tradition.
Yet, even in China, there are only a handful of scholars who know about shengren. That’s because shengren, this word and concept, has been carefully removed from the history of thought. To the Western missionaries in the 17th century and thereafter, Confucius was erroneously believed to idolize the Christian God, and thus ought to be a true “saint,” just like, say, our Western Saint Jerome or Saint Benedict.
In the year 1688 of our Lord, Jesus Christ, Randal Taylor wrote that “the origin of the Chinese nation was not long after the Flood […] This being so, it must necessarily follow that the first inhabitants of China had likewise the true knowledge of GOD and of the creation of the world.”
This was the beginning of the seemingly total Christianization of China. And, today, yes, Beijing lives in the year 2012 of our Lord, and China celebrates a Christmas. In contrast, who in Europe knows, for example, that this year is also the 2,563rd anniversary of the birth of Confucius?
Lost in translation
How could China lose its shengren to Western cultural imperialism? The Chinese term sheng appears 260 times in the Huainanzi, 48 times in Mengzi, 132 times in the Chun Qiu Fan Lu, 157 times in Xunzi, 33 times in Laozi, 149 times in Zhuangzi, 40 times in the Yi Qing, and a whopping 185 times in The Records of the Grand Historian. Yet, despite its omnipresence, Western scholars obviously never read those books nor used that term. Why?
As the historian Howard Zinn once wrote: “If something is omitted from history, you have no way of knowing it is omitted.” Western efforts to distort China’s originality by translation knew no restraint: the British, the French, and the German philosophers, the theologicians and storytellers, they all called K’ung Fu-tzu everything but by his true term; they called him, fashion-wise, a philosopher, a saint, a magus, a teacher, or a sage, whatever floated their theory at that time.
Tens of thousands of other Chinese (and other foreign) key concepts were excluded from world history this way. In effect, translations made China drop out of the humanist project and made her look as if she had no originality at all.
Some scholars have argued with me that China must engage in a dialogue with the West – they mean “in English language.” To this I add, yes, but only if the Chinese bring their own terms to the tables. Otherwise the so-called dialogue with the West will always be a Western monologue. In practice, this would mean to identify the untranslatables, and to promote them. Most writings of European “China experts” today are inadequate because they describe a China without Chinese terminologies.
Traditionally, European thinkers translated China at will, always according to their own cultural predicaments. For example “the sage/le sage” became today’s preferred (neutral) translation of shengren only in Britain and France, but not so in Germany. The all-favored German word is the biblical “Heilige,” meaning saint or holyman. The reason is simple: German language, in contrast to English and French, reserved the noun phrase of “sapientia” (a Latin term for wisdom) not for persons but for fairy tales and legends.
In addition, German language is deeply biblical. The first major German book in print was Luther’s translation of the Bible. Unsurprisingly, the word “heilig,” meaning holy, follows the Germans like a dark specter wherever they venture; that’s why the works of Karl Guetzlaff and Richard Wilhelm, for example, read like biblical bedtime stories.
The German language, frankly speaking, is uniquely disqualified from translating the Chinese tradition which is entirely non-Christian.
As long as Western China scholarship floats on misleading European terminology, the West isn’t learning anything new from Asia. In this century, it will be necessary to depart from some Western erroneous translations. The East isn’t just an appendix to the Western lingo; it has more to offer than the West could ever satisfactorily translate.
The key is to adopt Chinese terminologies. So that, one day, we may have something, anything really, to celebrate for being truly and faithfully Chinese.