Interview: Pattberg on Shengren, Ruxue and the Rise of Chinese Terminologies (BON.TV)
Blue Ocean Network (BON TV) was struck by the global financial crisis and had to cancel a show on Confucianism and the world. This interview went rather well; so here is raw version:
Transcript: BON.TV Interview with DR. Thorsten Pattberg, Confucian Scholar and Linguist at The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies, Peking University
Host: MIN Weiyuan (闵蔚远), Tsinghua University, August, 2012
MIN Weiyuan: Shengren as a concept on its own is often not all known by many Chinese people, especially the youths of today. You’ve mentioned that this term can not be translated into English along with a list of other Chinese terms. Why is this so? What is your own understanding and interpretation of Shengren? Would it be correct to say that it is a category on its own? Philosophical or religious or spiritual or moral or a combination? Can we separate it from Confucianism and how is it taught in today’s China?
Thorsten Pattberg: I believe that the Shengren is its own category like the buddhas in Buddhism. It can’t be translated. There is a great misunderstanding actually in the West about China because many Chinese key terminologies are translated into biblical and philosophical terminology.
MW: Do you think it’s taught in today’s China: Shengren?
TP: Well, it is certainly taught into China because you can’t separate Confucianism from the Chinese language. Think about Confucian values like ren, yi, li, zhi, xin, zhong, xiao, jie, cheng, shu, lian, chi, liang, wen, gong, yong, rang. You can’t separate them, those are Chinese concepts and they are inter-connected with the Chinese language: Confucian values.
MW: How do you explain what Shengren is?
TP: The Shengren is quite un-European concept. The Shengren is the highest member in the Chinese family tradition. A sage, a wise man who follows the virtues, the highest virtues like de, follows the other key concepts and becomes something like a connector between all the members of the family, of the society, of the nation and finally, the world and beyond.
MW: The strong appeal of Confucianism and the adherance to its traditional teachings are more obvious in Japan and S. Korea than in China. True? There is growing appeal of Confucianism in Europe especially in Germany. Why is it so? What is its appeal and is the earlier assumption of diminishing attachment to Confucianism in China true?
Language and Culture are inseparable
TP: To answer the last question first, again, you can’t separate Confucianism from the Chinese language, that’s one thing. Second, the Japanese culture that you’ve mentioned and the Korean culture by the way also share key values of the Chinese civilization. The Shengren in Japan is the same Chinese character and in Korea, it’s spelled seong-in. So, it’s the same in all of East Asia. You have common values here. The next one is, I think that the Confucian tradition has a great potential in the west, especially at the moment in Europe and Germany. Why am I saying this? Because at the moment, Europe tries to unite and it’s finding its way. The Confucian way is the way of learning, the daxue, learning how to cultivate the character and it is also about how to cultivate able leaders, leaders who are also good people, who are haoren, maybe junzi and one day become shengren. And of course, there is the lofty Confucian pragmatism. That is something Europe aspires to.
MW: Germany- stronger appeal, different culture why?
TP: That’s right, Germany is studying china very carefully at the moment but still there is murky confusion in Europe about the real Chinese tradition and again, like I’ve said, most Chinese key terminology are translated in German, biblical and philosophical terminologies with the result that China, at this stage is still totally unknown. That is why Confucianism is such a great appeal. It is a new thing in Europe.
MW: Some say that Western China Studies are often not quite to the standard since the West remains uninformed about China’s social-cultural spheres. Why and how can the West learn to use and accept Chinese terms (this again links to translation).
“I’m not happy with the definition of Confucianism as religion. Why?”
TP: It is very difficult at the moment because it seems to be the case that western terms and taxonomies rules them all. I’ll give you an example. I’m not happy with the definition of Confucianism as religion. Why? Because religion is a Western concept and there is really only one religion in the West and that is the Christian one. We are living in the 2012 and this is the year of the birth of Lord Jesus Christ. Confucianism is not a religion in my understanding, jiao, it is a teaching.
MW: Biggest weakness in China study?
“I wouldn’t say weaknesses, just more open to Chinese concepts. Again, the language, I’m coming back to the problem with translation. If you don’t adopt the Chinese concept, you will never get the deep understanding. The English language is on the move to become the global language, and I’m happy with this.”
TP: I wouldn’t say weaknesses, just more open to Chinese concepts. Again, the language, I’m coming back to the problem with translation. If you don’t adopt the Chinese concept, you will never get the deep understanding. The English language is on the move to become the global language, and I’m happy with this. As you know, I’m German, I had to learn English myself but why not picking the key concept, the various civilizations like the Indians, Yoga and there’s other script, traditions and there’s the Chinese one like renmin, daxue and shengren and junzi, picking them out and adopting them into our global vocabulary. This way, we will have a true global humanity.
MW: We are seeing diminishing moral, lack of personal responsibility and rising apathy in China. Why is it so? What factors led to this phenomena?
Rising apathy in China?
TP: I’m not sure if this is just a Chinese thing at the moment but we are seeing a lack of morality all over the world and I think it has to do with something, of course there are factors with the economy but also we are living in an age of information. People can look up the situation and on the internet these days and they find out that life is really unequal , it’s unfair, it’s cruel and most of us can’t achieve what we wanted to be and all these contradiction, the fast pace of our lives, the choices we have, it’s a big confusion. That’s why we need a new kind of spirituality, everywhere in the world, not just in China but also in Europe and America, they have to find it because as a spiritual person, no matter what tradition I would say that you are always a little bit more successful in life because you can relate to others, you are respects to be a good person and maybe to become a junzi.
MW: Does China need a moral and spiritual construction? Is China’s spirituality and morality also globalized?
Confucianism is not global yet
TP: I don’t think that China’s spirituality has been globalized, again, how can you globalize anything Chinese if you can’t transport the key Chinese terminologies into the West. What Confucian said, if the words are not correct, speech is not in accordance with the truth so if you don’t use the correct names, you can’t transport anything to the West because if there is anything Chinese at the moment in the Western Media, they will see Western terminology so they think that China is a place of zero originality. To answer the second question, the decline of morality in China, yes I think there’s a certain carelessness in the Chinese tradition at the moment, the total lack of sympathy and empathy in the fellow citizens at the moment except of course if they are close family or if they are close guanxi. We see this in the case of little Yueyue, the little baby girl who was rolled over by the truck twice in daylight and left to die, this is quite a heartbreaking thing to watch.
“I don’t think that China’s spirituality has been globalized, again, how can you globalize anything Chinese if you can’t transport the key Chinese terminologies into the West.”
MW: Some in the West praised China for being more accommodating than before in terms of religion and religious beliefs however, some still argues that China’s fast development is nothing but a vacuum cleaner, sucking the spirituality and age old tradition out of its people. Do you agree? Different religious beliefs are on the rise, why? how well do you think the government is handling it?
TP: Everyone in the West at the moment aspires a secular state and China already has it. So, yes, they are doing quite well.
MW: Different religions on the rise?
Confucianism is for the elite, not for the people?
TP: People are searching for identity at the moment and there are a lot of identity and truth-seeking in reality. There’s so much to do in China. We are talking about Confucianism but of course we have Daoism and Buddhism and you also have many other traditions coming to China. This is to be appreciated but of course, there’s always the danger of fundamentalism also Confucianism. The danger of Confucianism is that it becomes too elitist and it becomes a spiritual practice for the elites, not for the people.
MW: Can Confucianism still survive and compete with other age-old religions?
Can Confucianism compete?
TP: Oh yes, it will surely survive, there’s no doubt about this and it’s not so much about competition. I don’t think Confucianism is in competition with anyone at the moment because Confucianism is more like an attitude towards life. You can imagine a Confucian Jew of a Confucian Buddhist simply because Confucianism is an attitude towards life, to learning, to family and to the state, so there’s really no competition with other religions.
MW: Harmonization with strong roots in Confucianism is heavily promoted by the Chinese government as the way to maintain stability and social harmony. How successful is this?
Chinese categories: hexie shehui, datong, tianren heyi
TP: You have several categories of this. You have Hexieshehui, datong and tianren heyi, even greater concepts. I think this is very successful. The comparison with Germany, my home country is this that Germany has something like social solidarity or social contract, those ideas but Germany is a young state, founded only recently 1871. China is something bigger, was found several thousand years ago so it is a wenming while Germany is a sub-culture of the European continent so I agree that China needs something more, something above simply social solidarity. It needs concepts like that.
MW: As China becomes more capitalist, materialistic, individualistic and consumer based, how does modern China balance this new modernity with traditional harmony? Challenges? Future?
TP: Well, the way Capitalism works in China is a success story. I think most people would agree, of course there are downfalls but I want to mention that it is my personal belief that China must not only just compete in the markets and for shares but China must also compete for its terminologies like they compete with everything else. They should make sure that their traditional cultural China is heard in the West, is not simply translated into Western terminology.
MW: With rapid urbanization, many citizens find themselves moving between cities and sectors. Do you feel that the Chinese are now losing their own identity as individuals? …we all have strong attachment to our particular city.
Chinese cities and Identity
TP: No, I think it’s not a loss of identity but a gaining of more identity. In the past, you are just maybe a citizen of Shanghai and now you can say that you are a citizen of Shanghai and Beijing and maybe Tokyo and then you move to Berlin and it’s the same in Inner China, you are moving from the land into the cities, you move back and change the backdrop quickly. You become a university graduate; you become an accountant so you add up all these identities. I think there is no problem for that. I think there is a phase for adjustment for each of us actually, it is beautiful. We are just adding up all our identities, we are not losing anything.
MW: One country, two system- identity for Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Ethnic group, promotion of one China- crisis?
TP: At the moment, identity for cities for instance is actually much more strong than people in the States because there’s certain things that states can’t do. In the city, even me, as a German, I feel like a Beijinger, but I can never become Chinese. So there is actually this strong focus at the moment all over the world, focusing on the places. It’s all about localization.
MIN Weiyuan (闵蔚远) or ‘Wendy Min’ is a journalist and freelancer with focus on globalism and China from the University of Technology Sydney, Australia and L’Universite de Caen, France. She also studied at Tsinghua University, China.
Nick Compton is the Chief Editor at the Global Journalism Institute at Tsinghua University, Beijing.