Holy Confucius! (Harvard University)

Few people realize how the fate of the shengren was inextricably linked to the German translators’ obsession with holiness.

Holy Confucius! Some Observations in Translating “sheng(ren)” in The Analects

Where: International Association for Comparative Mythology, Harvard University
When: Oct 8th, 2010

“For we shall also find, according to that computation, that the origin of the CHINESE nation was not long after the flood, for from the time of YAO to the year of this age 1688, it is four thousand forty and eight years. 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.” (Taylor, 1691, p. 8).

The Chinese term 聖sheng, appears 260 times in 156 paragraphs of the Huainanzi, 48/18 in Mengzi, 132/62 in the Chun Qiu Fan Lu, 157/94 in Xunzi 33/27 in Laozi, 149/77 in Zhuangzi, 81/22 in the He Guang Zi, 40/22 in the Yi Qing, 8/6 in the Lun Yu, and 185/134 in the Shiji etc., according to the Chinese Text Project. The all-time champion of English translations for sheng(ren) is ‘the sage’.


Accordingly, when one reads the Chinese Wikipedia entry on ‘Confucius’, the introductory paragraph mentions 聖sheng exactly 4 times (last access: 06/2010). In striking contrast to the Chinese, the English, French, and German entries call Confucius just this: a philosopher. There is no mentioning the sheng or sage. That is no mere coincidence; as important as China is to the world, the term sheng(ren) seems to be little known to the general Western readership.

In most major writings of English and French sinologists one will come across the translation “the sage/le sage” eventually; but not so in the majority of German writings. The all-favored German translation, based on Schott, Grube, Wilhelm, Haas, Biallas and others, is the biblical Heilige (saints, holy[men]). One of the reasons is that 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/legends only (e. g. die Sage).

In this talk, we will have a statistical look on the most important 100+ German, French/Latin, and English translations from 1649 to 2008 of sheng(ren) in Confucius’s Analects, and will discuss the various translator’s choices made, and why: saints, philosophers, geniuses, Berufene (appointees), Kutlurheroen (cultural heroes), Great Men, and Göttliche (the god-like) etc..

The purpose of this research report is to try to re-enact the extraordinary influences that particular translations of a Chinese key term played in shaping that country’s perception of China, and even changed China’s own ideas about sheng(ren).

Finally, there will be an attempt to draw analogy between India that was to keep her boddhisattvas and arthats etc. in European writings, and China that was to lose her shengren and junzi etc. in favor of European terminology. When that terminology is translated back into Chinese, China is essentially Christianized: The Bible is sheng jing, the Holy Spirit is sheng ling, Christmas is sheng dan jie and so on.

Key words: Sheng(ren), Confucius, European missionaries, mythical archetypes

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