Shengren – Chapter 1.2 – The Shengren or ‘Oriental Sage’

Two metaphors of the shengren and the art of sagehood are common, that of a) a harmonizer and the harmonious society and b) the composer and an orchestra. Mengzi offered the following image of a group of Chinese sages with Confucius being the greatest of them all:

Mencius said: ‘Bo Yi among the sages was the pure one; Yi Yin among the sages was the one most inclined to take office; Hui of Liu Xia among the sages was the accommodating one; and Confucius among the sages was the timorous one. In Confucius we have what is called a complete concert. A complete concert is when the large bell proclaims the commencement of the music, and the ringing stone proclaims its close. The metal sound commences the blended harmony of all the instruments, and the winding up with the stone terminates that blended harmony. The commencing that harmony is the work of wisdom; the terminating that harmony is the work of sageness. As a comparison for wisdom, we may liken it to skill, and as a comparison for sageness, we may liken it to strength – as in the case of shooting at a mark a hundred paces distant. That you reach it is owing to your strength, but that you hit the mark is not owing to your strength.’[1]

Associating the sage’s realm with the harmoniousness of an orchestra is a great metaphor that is met with warm enthusiasm by most sinologists. Every lover of classical music loves an orchestra. This should get their readers hooked to love Eastern spirituality. Cause it plays like an orchestra. The orchestra trick helps sinologists to explain the concept of Chinese sageness to their European and American countrymen who have not yet heard about shengren tradition before, yet who are aware of the power and beauty of Classical music. Music was a universal language, the subtleties of sagacity not quite universal yet.

Accordingly, in his The Confucian Quest for Order (2003) Masayuki Sato picked up the orchestra metaphor and explained: ‘Imagine that we were going to a concert of a top world orchestra […] the composer is an ancient sage king, musical scores are the rituals and social norms,’[2] while the American sinologists Henry Rosemont and Roger Ames described the shengren as ‘virtuoso [who] sings the songs that enchant the world.’[3] The sage was a composer of harmony. But how does he do it? Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism all emphasize spirituality and self-cultivation. Self-cultivation is practiced through the following: filial piety, ancestor worship, the love for learning, spiritual teachings, mind-body practices, the awareness of oneness, and the striving for balance and harmoniousness (Needham, 1954; Ku, 1906; Ji, 2006). The aim of self-cultivation is the ideal personality and the highest level of human perfection. And isn’t that describing the perfect ensemble of classical musicians, with their most accomplished one being the composer?

Throughout the Chinese Classics, the ‘ideal personality’ is associated with the 君子 (junzi, gentleman), and the highest level of human perfection with the 圣人 (shengren, sage). Consequently, the becoming a sage through self-cultivation of one’s character and constant improvement of one’s personality was and still is the highest aim and ultimate goal of the Confucians:

A central polarity in such works as the Analects is the polarity of self-cultivation (hsiu-shen, hsiu-chi) leading to personal self-realization (the attainment of the highest virtues of jen or cheng) and the ordering and harmonizing of the world (chi-kuo p’ing t’ien-hsia).[4]

In Christianity, man was created by God. In Confucianism, man was part of the universe, part of the 天人合一 or ‘oneness of heaven and man.’ There never was and there still is no God or Creator in Confucianism.[5] Becoming a junzi and ultimately becoming a shengren through the cultivation of the self was the single most important idea in Confucian China – it was a teaching about goodness, humility, social conduct, benevolence, and true humanity.

‘Sage,’ as said before, is a fine English (and French: ‘le sage’) translation of sheng(ren), as it combines positive connotations with timelessness. More important, it was not overused. It meant this: a man of the highest sagacity or wisdom; and although the German-speaking world had no sages, sages nevertheless seemed to be a universal concept that could be re-discovered once a higher degree of understanding was reached. Plato’s philosophy had condemned the sagacity of the sages, and Christianity attributed highest wisdom only to God and His son: even Jesus Christ the savior of humanity did not carry such a name; was never called a Weiser or sage; and if Christianity indeed preferred its saints, then it was save so say that the term ‘sage’ was not overused at all in the West. Translating sheng as English ‘Wiseman’ never occurred, and if should occur one day, it ought to be considered dull and unimaginative: Sagacity and wisdom are not the same. Translating sheng(ren) as German der Weise, which more or less correspondent to English Wiseman, was philologically speaking acceptable but a bit unfortunate, since the ‘Weise’-translation would always resonate with bedtime stories which made China look immature.

German der stoischer Weise [stoic Wiseman] was a) unsuitable for Confucius because it denoted a Greek concept: the particular Stoic sage, not just any sage, and b) biased because it produced that certain negative sensation of ‘hapless fools and quacks who allegedly possessed eternal Glückseligkeit (Holowchak, 2008). Even Arthur Schopenhauer, the spiritual philosopher and supporter of Buddhist thought, once accused the Stoic sages of Greece of their ‘total passivity’ and ‘disregard for human nature’ (dem Wesen der Menscheit).[6] Stoicism was a school of Hellenistic thought founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC. Although the Stoic tradition was unaffected by the collapse of the Roman Empire, Stoicism was dissolved in Europe in the 6th century by order of the Emperor Justinian I:[7] any personification of wisdom or sagacity – something that all sages had in common – had now become redundant and obsolete in a world dominated by that Heavenly ruler, where highest wisdom was with God alone and truth became unattainable: it could only be loved (philo-) and hoped for, like a never-ending treasure hunt Those who spread the word of God were called ‘saints’ (German: Heilige), the servants of the Divine. Divine in Chinese is 神shen. It is unrelated to 圣sheng. With saints guarding the European soul against secular competitors, plain sages, including the Stoic ones, became society’s outcasts.

The image of the Stoic sage – originally a virtuous and happy man – nevertheless continued to excite world historians, and important lessons had been drawn from the failure of the Stoics. Stoicism has since become synonymous with foolishness, indifference, uselessness and ineffectiveness. Confucianism has become synonymous with foolishness, indifference, uselessness and ineffectiveness as well. So much so, that several attempts were made by Western conspirators and Chinese progressives to kick Confucianism down the road side, for example during the May Fourth Movement (May 4th 1919) and the New Cultural Movement (1919-1925). The movement’s flagship figure, Lu Xun, criticized Confucianism relentlessly, for example in his famous short stories ‘The True Story of Ah Q’ or ‘Kong Yiqi’ about two losers who are trapped in a pitiful, self-defeating, feudalist mindset. Naturally, both the Chinese communists and the Western capitalists applauded such ‘revolutionary’ writers, albeit for two different reasons. The communists wanted to get rid of the hierarchies in Confucianism, the capitalists wanted to get rid of Confucianism because it was inherently undemocratic. All the same, Confucianism in the 20th century became associated with backwardness, just like Islam in the 21st century became associated with terrorism.

And not just China suffered from the stigma. All so-called Confucian society, even if they had abandoned Confucianism a long time ago, still suffered from Western discrimination by Sinitic association: for example Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster of March, 11th, was accused of stoicism – the Economist magazine called it: ‘the admirable response to what fate deals you’ and a ‘coping mechanism in the face of incomprehension.’[8] Hence the expression: a stoical sufferer. It is safe to say that as long as Asians exist, they will always be associated by Western commentators with Chinese sage culture, Confucian culture, even if they practice Zen and Shinto and Christianity as hard as the Japanese do.

As far as Confucius’ The Analects is concerned, the earliest key words and translations associated with Confucius and the sheng(ren) were ‘Sapientum,’ meaning wisdom or sagacity, and ‘Sinarum Philosophus,’[9] meaning Chinese philosopher. From the earliest encounter with the Confucian Classics it was thus clear that Confucianism in the eyes of the European discoverers had something to do with the ‘teachings of wisdom’ or a ‘philosophy of wisdom’ (in German: ‘Weisheitslehre’). After that all-important first impression the missionaries nevertheless shifted away from the aspect of wisdom and more toward the aspect of holiness, which (we know today) had advanced the victory march of Christianity all over Asia.[10] The sheng(ren) became a saint or Heiliger (a holy man); although other translations like heroes, philosophers, and sages were still thrown in, seemingly depending on the aim and ideological or religious objective of the individual translator. The fruits of that past Evangelization of China can still be measured today: The Chinese character 圣sheng has become synonymous for holy, holiness, holy man, and saint. Till today, the Church was translated 圣会sheng hui; and The Bible was called 圣书sheng shu or 圣经sheng jing (Gützlaff, 1867). Next, Christmas became 圣诞节sheng dan jie; Holy Religion was now 圣教sheng jiao; and Santa Claus was called圣诞老爷sheng dan lao ye.[11] Notable exceptions were Jesus Christ who translated into耶稣 ye-su, and God who was rendered上帝 shangdi. Languages can be colonizers, too.

Which European idea about sheng(ren) was more correct from a Chinese-English dictionary point of view: the ‘sage’ or the ‘saint’ – the aspect of ‘wisdom’ or that of ‘holiness?’ Surprisingly, that depended on the cultural context: Anglo-American or German. When 圣sheng (holy) was in conjunction with 人ren (person), the English-speaking world translated 圣人 as ‘sage;’ despite the fact that in most other cases sheng conjoined with other characters was often read as ‘holy.’ German dictionaries told a different story: The German-speaking world, consistent and persevering, continued to christen Chinese tradition and called 圣人the saints or holy men (Heilige). Thus, a battle over one of China’s most valuable and long-term profitable resources had occurred: its names.

The literature about the rise of the philosophers and fall of the sages in Greek antiquity was abundant yet one-sided: Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: Die Formung des griechischen Menschen (1973), Robin Waterfields’ The First Philosophers (2000), and Oliver Taplin’s Literature in the Greek and Roman Worlds (2000), all described how the philosophers outmoded the sophists. Strikingly, the departure of sages and sagehood from European tradition was at no point considered a loss. On the contrary, the rise of philosophers and, later, Christian saints, were seen as win and gain.

In a chapter on ‘Sages, Sophists, and Philosophers’, the historian Oliver Taplin described what he called a major ‘modernization process’ around the fourth century BCE, the time when the Greek sages – the ‘masters of truth,’ as they often called themselves – after careers in deprivation and failure as ‘sophists,’ finally adopted the new and fashionable title ‘philo-sophers’ or lovers of wisdom, ‘when intellectuals laid claim to a distinct mode of wisdom which called for a novel title and an honorary place in Greek society.’[12] Plato introduced the term philosophia and Aristotle wrote the history of philosophy, starting with the Seven Sages of Greece and Thales of Miletos who was considered the first sage of Greek Antiquity. In Greek language ‘sophos’ meant a wise man, sage’[13]; while ‘magus’ meant mage or magi. Both Greek terms, sophos and magus, made it into German culture. Magus became the ‘Magier’ (English: mage) which still had a great impact on German (as well as English) culture. A German ‘Magier’ and German ‘Zauberer’ (sorcerer or wizard) became more or less synonymous, and it was no coincidence that a few German missionaries in China called Taoist sages Zauberer or else linked Taoism practice with ‘Magie’ and ‘Magier’.

That said the Germans would rather call a Taoist shengren ‘Zauberer’ than calling him a ‘Sophisten.’ That’s because in the German tongue ‘Sophisterei’ bore the same negative connotation as you may know by English ‘sophistry.’ Someone who wise-talked or who claimed to have higher wisdom than the rest of us was considered shallow, only superficially plausible, and fallacious in his ways of reasoning.

The distinction between sophistry and sagacity is crucial. Sophistry derived from Ancient Greek sophos, which must remind the educated European reader of the downfall of the sophists. Sagacity is free of such doom, because it derived from Latin sapientia.

Ancient Mediterranean culture continued to replace its sages (or sophists) by philosophers and sageness (or sophistry) by philosophy. Even the great administrators of the Roman Empire expressed their contempt for the sophists who were ‘neither sages nor philosophers, but merely shrewd men with a turn for legislation.’[14] The Mediterranean world had contained its sages and their wisdom teachings and was now dominated by two unique European movements: Christianity and Greek philosophy. European sage culture was gone. From then on, whenever the Europeans wanted to meet those spiritual beings they now had to leave their country and travel eastwards: to the sages of the Orient.

The longing for sages and Eastern spirituality was skillfully described in a poem by William Butler Yeats: ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (1928). Yeats lamented that Europe neglected its ‘unaged intellect:’ its old people and their spiritual wisdom: ‘Old men’ were ‘dying’ in solitude and loneliness, while the youth were ‘in one another’s arms.’ Yeats poetic self decided to leave that ‘no country for old men’ behind and set out on a spiritual journey that would bring him to the holy city of Byzantium (Constantinople), where Yeats longed to find the ‘sages:’

That is no country for old men.
The young in one another’s arms,
birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium. […]

The poem became a classic in the East-West discourse. Outside of scholarship, the poem’s first line has made it into pop culture thanks to an Award-winning Hollywood motion picture by Ethan and Joel Coen: No Country for Sages (2008). In that motion picture, the original longing of the East has been dropped; instead the moral decline of the West, America, took to the center in form of drug wars, hitmen, and killings without remorse.

Back to the original poem, not everyone felt such great nostalgia for the sages of the East, of course. The reality of the encounter of East and West during Yeats’ time often looked very different from shallow poetic sympathy. The British imperialists showed contempt for the perceived idleness, arrogance, and uselessness of Oriental sages: ‘I suppose, a true Eastern sage would say that the working government which we (the British) have taken upon ourselves in Egypt […] is the dirty work, the inferior work, of carrying on the necessary labor.’[16] They found resonance in Continental Europe: The German world historian Oswald Spengler called the sages ‘lazy’ [bequem] and their teachings ‘spiritual egoism’ [geistiger Egoismus].[17] The German philosopher Hegel deemed the entire system of Chinese thought a ‘shallow fantasy’ [oberflächliche Phantasie] that was ‘untrue’ [keine Wahrheit], and inherently ‘inconsistent’ [ohne Einheit].[18]

At the very least, the British could name a sage or Oriental sage when they saw one. After all, the conquerors lived among the conquered; their annoyances with local imams, yogi, and gurus were of practical matter and bore out of direct experiences in the many overseas possessions and posts between 16th and 18th century. The Germans on the other hand read of such strange foreign people mainly from translated books. Overseas expansion and international order was simply beyond their interest and imaginations. And when the German empire finally did decide to join the colonial scramble in 1883, it started out in Africa. It fetched Deutsch-Südwestafrika (today: Namibia, a. o.), Kamerun (today: Cameroon, a. o.), Togoland (today: Togo and Ghana), and Deutsch-Ostafrika (today: Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, a. o.). All those unprofitable Kolonien were lost during the Reich’s defeat in WWI in 1918. As of China, the only German ‘concession’ there was in Kiautschou (Jiaozhou), today’s Qinqdao of Shandong Province. The Qing government leased the city for 99 years to the German Reich in 1889. The German ‘colonialists,’ not more but a few hundred men, built a picturesque German town square there, a protestant missionary, a military post, a now famous brewery, did commerce, but ultimately lost Tsingtau –as they spelled it– in 1914 when the Republic of China cancelled the lease and drove the Germans out. It was not exactly what we call multiculturalism today.

The German opinions about Far Eastern cultures relied on distant hearsay. And for empirical scholarship, that was problematic: ‘A trivial world!’ cried the orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. ‘Inhabited by magicians,’ continued the historian Oswald Spengler. A place ‘where ‘humans are venerated as Gods,’ wrote philosopher Immanuel Kant. The list goes on forever: The philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder decried China as ‘an embalmed mummy wound in silk;’ the philosopher Friedrich Schelling streamlined China ‘un universe sans Dieu’ [a godless universe]. August Conrady suggested: ‘a never-ending anachronism’ and ‘a living fossil.’[19] The writer Hermann Hesse mused: ‘We must not search ideal and higher meaning of life in China or in any other subject of the past; otherwise we would lose ourselves and adhere to a fetish.’[20]

The German repulsion for Oriental sages throughout the centuries was a fine reenactment of Plato’s dislike for Greek sages. In his Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte (1822/23), Georg W. F. Hegel reflected on die Sieben Weisen (the Seven sages) of Ancient Greece and described the sages’ tendency to end up as ‘noble tyrants’ and ‘evil rulers:’ ‘Diese Weisen waren vornehmlich Gesetzgeber, zum Teil Beherrscher, Tyrannen genannt, die edelsten, weisesten.’[21] The German poet Goethe had Mephistopheles the devil speak the following words: ‘After all, he who wants the treasure, the beautiful, requires the highest art: the magic of the sages.’[22] Germany’s suspicion of the ‘Weisen’ and their ‘Weisheit’ was just as intense and problematic as its aversion to the other extreme: ‘fools and their foolishness,’ or so explained Werner Jaeger, the historian of Greek philosophy:

The gods do not philosophize and do not study, because they are in possession of all wisdom. The fools and ignorant do not at all seek knowledge; that is the real evil of such ignorance: that they know nothing and yet consider themselves in the knowing. The philosopher alone strives for knowledge, because he knows that he does not possess that knowledge but that he is needy. He (the philosopher) stands in the middle between wisdom and ignorance, so he alone is capable of education and sincere enough to make an earnest effort.[23]

The two extremes of human cognitive capability were a) the gods who already possessed all the wisdom and became idle and lazy, and b) the fools who knew nothing but commented on everything. The gods and fools are figures of speech: gods and fools stood for the same thing, wisdom; one was divine, and the other merely human thus – in God’s words: false. In a secular society that Germany pretended it had become, both extremes of wisdom, the sacred and the false, are undesirable. Only being a philosopher – not too much concerned with wisdom – was attractive, because the philosopher alone strived for knowledge. German philosophy is thus an extension of Greek philosophy, and greatly affected the spirit of the German people. After all, what was the European Renaissance all about if not the re-enactment of Greek aesthetics, politics, theatre, arts and philosophical traditions? Raphael’s painting The School of Athens (1510) comes to mind, which became a symbol of not just German but Western philosophy. Just as the German missionaries saw holiness in Chinese thinking, the German philosophers saw the philosophical in all Chinese thought. Not enlightenment to the East but narrow-mindedness, a retro-Greekness reduced Confucius to an also-philosopher. You’ve got to have priorities, or, as missionary Randal Taylor extolled on focus and commitment in his The Morals of Confucius – A Chinese Philosophers (1691):

We are only capable of knowing one single object at once. The rest remains buried in our memory, as if it was not. Behold therefore our knowledge reduced to a single object.[24]

Greek philosophy has been opposed to the holism and loftiness of the sages and sagacity; henceforth German philosophy was opposed to sages and sagacity [dt: die Weisen und die Weisheit] as well. Calling Confucian thinkers ‘sages’ in English-language publications was common coin. In German-language publications, however, calling Confucian thinkers the great ‘Weisen’ was an insult: ‘so unbelievable that the idea must be rejected as fairy-tale, just like the (fabulous) historiographies of ancient Oriental societies ‘[25] Feeling German about China was a matter of attitude: To the German orientalists, the continuity of Greek useless sophist cultures in other, not yet liberated parts of the world felt wrong and needed to be corrected: It should have been ‘philosophy in China,’ not sagehood, combined with the ‘right religion,’ Christianity. In reality, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism were developmental milestones in their own right during the rise of sage cultures, living sage cultures, which will not disappear next week. Calling the shengren anything but shengren has become a pervasive ritual, a shower of superiority in German writings, whatever brings the Germans due:

Let us not forget that his teachings had nothing to do with religion and that they were not of a philosophical nature. He (Confucius) was neither the founder of a religion nor a philosopher. [26]

If Confucius was ‘neither a religious figure nor a philosopher’—why did China expert Eugen Feifel refuse to call him a shengren? Calling Confucius a philosopher was the obviously the wrong classification, like calling a whale a fish.

‘An error only becomes a mistake if people refuse to call it a mistake.’ John F. Kennedy, a former US president, said that once in his plea for higher moral standards and truth-speaking in the free press.[27] He was assassinated. Neither in the free press nor in free scholarship do we find particular high moral standards or truth-speaking. That’s because in the Western world the press and scholarship are ‘free’, free to write whatever they want. Over the course of history, in hindsight and with more clarity, many of those ‘stories’ turn out to be mistakes, hoaxes or deliberate lies. Once a group of so-called ‘China experts’ made a serious error, and don’t retract that error because the error got legs and progeny, they will only be able to maintain the illusion of scholastic integrity by paying the piper.

The idiom ‘Paying the Piper’ most pupils in Europe should have heard of–in their bedtime stories. It originated during the Middle Ages in the small German city of Hamelin and now has many different versions. One important one goes like this: The city of Hamelin once suffered from a rat plague. To get rid of the nasty rodents, the people hired a mysterious Piper who had come by the way. After a price was agreed on, the Piper started to play a magic tune and, see, the rats peeped and shrieked out of their holes and tapped to the sound of the Piper who led them out-of-town and into the dark woods. The next day, the Piper came back to the city gates and demanded his fee, but the arrogant city people refused to pay him. The Piper warned them about some terrible consequences of not paying the price for his fine service, but the people only laughed at him, threw stones, and drove him away. The following night the Piper came to the city one last time and played a different magic tune. This time, to the horror of the parents, it was the children of the city who stepped out of their bedrooms, danced to the sound of the Piper and followed the unholy man deep into the woods. None of them was ever to be seen again. The moral of this story is not about the poor children or the wicked Piper, but about the consequences of not paying the agents employed to keep one’s public image clean.

The pipers in German orientalism: the missionaries, philosophers, scholars, play the tune that keeps European culture clean of sages and sagehood, and any other foreign intrusion for that matter – think about Islam, a mode of life with millions of new vocabulary that Germany could never take or tolerate.

In the case of China, the pipers will produce a Chinese-free history and call Confucius a ‘Philosoph’ and the shengren ‘die Heiligen,’ and will be silent about shengren and 2500 years textual evidence as long as the German public is willing and can afford to pay for those services.

Buddhist thought alone, originated in India, created 35,000 new terms for the Chinese language; take this and the indigenous Chinese terminologies combined, and it becomes apparent: there’s a lot to guard against China in Europe. The pipers have to guard against ren and li and dao and fo and ru and zhi and de if German culture was to remain tidy and clean. The task is enormous: Sanskrit concepts and terminology alone easily exceeded Latin and Greek vocabulary combined. Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Chinese loanwords are not few in numbers either. European scholars despite having learned and practiced those foreign languages (that’s the craziness of it) now sit and down and eliminate them.

Some terms escape the mass-elimination process. They proof a point. Take Sanskrit ‘karma’, which originated in India. Since the Germans failed to push a German name for it (there exists no translation), German scholars now have to listen to proud Indians lecturing them about Indian karma.

‘Zu viel eingedeutscht ist nicht gut!’ –Too many loanwords are bad. Loanwords are just loaned from somewhere else; they are not owned. In academia, this is equivalent to property rights. If a loaner (or owner) and a borrower (or user) meet in a conference, there is little doubt who will have the prerogative of final explanation. So it has been observed in a discussion in 2010 at the German East Oriental Society in Tokyo between a group of visiting German Japanologists who found it irritating to enter a discussion with Japanese equals about the ‘天皇Tennō’. The Germans called the Tennō: ‘Kaiser’. Which demonstrates the double standard here, since the Germans would never call a German Emperor ‘Tennō.’ The German Empire had a ‘Kaiser’ –not a Tennō! For ‘Tennō’: ‘Kaiser’ or ‘Tennō’ –which one should it be? Why, Tennō of course! The Japanese scholars did well by not surrendering one of their most important cultural key concepts.

The shengren (sage) in the Confucian Analects was an incredibly talented individual of perfect virtue. Confucius, in a self-deprecating style of rhetoric, said a true shengren was difficult to find[28]:

The Master said: A sage it is not mine to see; could I see a man of real talent and virtue that would satisfy me.


The Master said: The sage and the man of perfect virtue – how dare I rank myself with them?

The Western Inscription by Confucians Zhang Zai of the Song Dynasty who lived from 1020 to 1077 (called ‘Western’ because this small inscription reportedly hung on the Western wall of his study) read the following:

Yang is the father; Yin is the mother. And I, this tiny thing, dwell enfolded in Them. Hence, what fills Heaven and Earth is my body, and what rules Heaven and Earth is my nature. The people are my siblings, and all livings things are my companions. My ruler is the eldest son of my parents, and his ministers are his retainers. To respect those great in years is the way to ‘treat the elderly as elderly should be treated.’ To be kind to the orphaned and the weak is the way to ‘treat the young as young should be treated.’ The sage harmonizes with their virtue; the worthy receive what is most excellent from Them.[29]

The sinologists David Hall and Roger Ames in Thinking Through Confucius (1987) defined the character of a sage by ‘four aspects’ derived from The Analects:

  • the aural sensibility to know the nature and conditions of someone or something by listening, by attuning the ear;
  • the power to transform the world by the spoken word;
  • the power to create values;
  • the power to integrate with and enrich all relationships.

To sum this up: the sage relates to people, family, society [the philosopher dissociates].

Though becoming a shengren was almost impossible to achieve, becoming a pre-sage, a junzi, was not. The junzi was inferior to the sage but still far above the ordinary man. In the English-speaking world junzi was best rendered as ‘exemplary person,’ ‘superior man,’ or ‘gentleman’ (gentleman being the most common [British] English translation, for obvious reasons). One became such a superior person by means of walking the path (often referred to as 道dao) that led to sagehood, namely constant self-cultivation and maintaining the goodness of one’s character. This is what Mozi said about the Self-Cultivation leading to sagehood:

There is nothing in his mind that goes beyond love; there is nothing in his behavior that goes beyond respectfulness, and there is nothing from his mouth that goes beyond gentility. When one pursues such a way until it pervades his four limbs and permeates his flesh and skin, and until he becomes white-haired and bald-headed without ceasing, one is truly a sage.[30]

That form of pre-sagehood, the junzi, had all the qualities and the ongoing commitment to personal growth, self-cultivation, and leadership. Whether Confucius, Laozi, or Mozi, they all used the term sheng(ren) several times in their works. Zhuangzi, another text attributed to Taoism, used sheng too. It would not be an exaggeration to say the shengren was all the Chinese teachings were about.

The English-speaking world and its best known translator, James Legge, had consistently and probably without much afterthought translated the sheng(ren) mindfully as ‘sage’ or ‘sagely man;’[31] mindfully because sheng(ren) was indeed (semantically very close to) what was meant when sage was translated. The temptation to name a sheng(ren) any other name – a saint, a prophet, a half-god, a cultural hero, a pedagogue, a philosopher –, as the Germans did, was almost inconceivable to English-speaking scholarship[32] were a sage was a sage, simple.

If names are not correct, what kind of scholarship arises? If someone calls the Vedas ‘Götter’ (Gods), he is perfectly right, but a poor scholar. The Vedas are the Vedas. Cultural studies need to be exact, not universal. Unfortunately, that is often the tendency of today’s universities: construing a Western universe. Every culture does the best it can, with the resources and knowledge available to it, to describe and explain the unknown. When there was no appropriate German name for shengren or sages, (‘Weise’ was a pejorative, we’ve said it), and when the proud Germans refused to capitulate to their own cultural limitations, there was left to them only the German way: they had to christen the Chinese shengren and the Western sages ‘Heilige’ and Confucius a ‘Philosoph.’[33] It was a cruel case of censorship: Shengren was completely erased.[34]

The Germans subsequently believed—not just since their greatest philosophers Leibniz, Wolff, Kant, Hegel, Herder, and Husserl but through constant philosophy propaganda—that Confucianism was some kind of religion and Confucianists were some kind of moral philosophers. The Germans also believed that China was some kind of premature civilization that now, though contact with the European invaders, grew up to become a real culture, complete with Christian values and trained in the Western ways of thinking. European civilization (and now the West) was seen as the end goal and final solution for the Chinese and all Asians.[35]

The reasons for Germany’s inability to relate to others were manifold, but on a cultural level it was glorified ignorance (world class censorship, book burning),[36] hostility and racism,[37] and, yes, German philosophy.[38] A single book like Herder’s Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1841) could supply thousands of scholars with feelings of greatness, pride, and nostalgia –perhaps more so than an actual stressful colonial empires did to the British or Americans. If it’s a fantasy, one that doesn’t punch back, then the Germans could fully indulge in their intellectualism: the analysts of unfolding world history. Hegel’s Die Orientalische Welt (1837) and Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1805) were Germany’s retreat and substitute for real colonies. After Humboldt’s education reform, Cultural studies, philology, and transliteration of all foreign texts could be done at home – no need to experience or, worse, to ‘become the Oriental.’[39] Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922) felt so much deeper than India was older. And if the Germans hadn’t heard about the Devas (mythical super-humans), at least they got their rip-off in print with Nietzsche’s ‘Übermenschen.’[40] Once Oriental thought was renamed and assimilated, it was repackaged and distributed all over the world as Western product. Nothing that Kant or Hegel thought and admired within their own philosophical systems had any relevance in reality in places ten thousands miles away, yet the Germans acted upon any philosophical system as if it did: ‘Und es mag am deutschen Wesen Einmal noch die Welt genesen.’ [Once doeth as we may The world the German way][41] was a much cited verse by national poet Emanuel Geibel from 1861. Ten years later, in 1871, the German Empire was born.

The consequences of the Eurocentric world view were manifold, and in the case of Oriental studies, it meant that Germany mentally disconnected from the reality of India (that now served as inspiration for Aryanism, Swastika, and Nazism) and China (that now served for theories on Eastern backwardness, pseudo-Christianity, and ‘Chinese philosophy’).

Elsewhere in the English-speaking world that had allied with China and India against the delusional Germans (and the germanphile Japanese) – India and China declared war on Germany (September 1939 and December 1941) for that matter –[42] a deeper understanding of sage cultures had already been under way. That was because in contrast to the conditions in Germany, in the US and Great Britain and many other English-speaking countries, Chinese and Indian scholars were actually welcomed, not so much already for cultural diversity, but more out of intellectual curiosity, while in Germany any major Eastern contribution to world history and thought was ruled out categorically by Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Haeckel.

The most highly qualified Asians for good reasons would like to study and spend some time in the English-speaking word, and avoid Germany altogether.[43] They wish to be understood, to be free and to feel confident, and to be valued, while in the rigid and inflexible German-speaking environment they would constantly be patronized, read about their inferiority and the nauseating superiority of everything German. Americanism always meant multiculturalism, Germanism just assimilation.

In fact, Asian students in Germany now demanded and expected English language and culture in Germany, and the German professionals to speak English (most of the course books were in English, already) – even in Asian studies, otherwise they would always trade German provincialism, vocational and Europe-centered, with Anglo-American, and, recently, Asia-Pacific world-class education. As to German publications in Chinese studies, if there is an English translation or equivalent English book, the German one may be kept for paraphrasing. The rest of German publications is now irrelevant to Asian students, and a waste of time.

The scholar of Confucian studies Tu Weiming, spent many years at Harvard University in the United States. In an essay entitled ‘The Confucian Sage: Exemplar of Personal Knowledge’ (1987), he defined the ‘Confucian sage’ in English language as the following:

The Confucian sage attains the highest moral excellence without losing sight of the humanity that unites him with all other members of society. True, his greatness lies in his effort to transform himself from an ordinary mortal into something awesome: a good, true, beautiful, great, sagely, even spiritual being.[44]

The Neo-Confucian Rodney L. Taylor in his The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism (1990) similarly defined the Confucian sage as ‘emerging amidst images of kindness and humility, peacefulness and reverence.’[45] A sagely pattern emerged: goodness, kindness, and humility were all positive character traits: The sage was a truly wonderful, ideal personality, even a role model. How far from the English noble meaning of ‘sage’ was the German depraved meaning of ‘der Weise’ who was but a folkloric old geezer and philistine? As the German Oswald Spengler said: ‘The sage is the man of the Golden Mean; his ascetics consist in a judicious depreciation of the world in favor of meditation.’[46] The way Spengler says it, the sage is not a local but a non-German phenomenon.

Jos Slabbert, a blogger, in The Modern Taoist Sage (1999), provided his useful list of paradoxical sagely attributes: the sage was ‘detached, yet compassionate; enjoyed life, yet did not cling to it; was a perfectionist, yet indifferent to success or failure; was a man of honor, yet avoided reaping honor; ignored ethics and morals, but lived a life of the highest moral order; did not strive, yet achieved; knew the answers, but preferred to remain silent; had the innocence of a child, but incredible inner strength.’[47]

Slabbert then went on saying that the sage was unwanted in some societies: ‘These paradoxes are in harmony in the sage, the same way nature itself seems to be a harmonious blend of paradoxes. This makes it difficult to describe the sage in conventional terms and categories. In fact, in most societies the sage’s qualities would be seen as negative, even harmful.’ The German thinkers in Oriental studies indeed thought that Oriental sages were harmful to the German way. The psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung once cried: ‘Our way starts at European reality and not at some yoga-exercises that belie reality.’[48] Even the great Goethe (who elsewhere explained the concept of the middle-way flawlessly)[49] showed restrain for the sage’s pursuit of harmoniousness:

It is folly to demand that people should harmonize with us. I’ve never done it. I see in a man only the individual that I want to observe and study his peculiarities; I certainly do not require any further sympathy from him. [50]

The Korean sage Yi T’oegye [also known as Hwang Yi] who lived from 1501 to 1570 composed the Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning, which was essentially an introduction on ‘how to become a sage.’[51] Those Ten Diagrams, translated by Michael C. Karlton in his To Become a Sage (1988) were: 1) Supreme Ultimate, 2) Western Inscription, 3) Elementary Learning, 4) Great Learning, 5) Rules of the White Deer Hollow Academy, 6) The Mind Combines and Governs the Nature and the Feelings, 7) Chu His’s Explanation of Humanity, 8) Study of the Mind, 9) Admonition for Mindfulness Studio, and 10) Admonition for Rising Early and Retiring Late. It would go beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the sage’s traits associated with the Ten Diagrams. But they were, unsurprisingly, very similar to other definitions of the sages before. Sages were ‘at one with universe (Heaven and Earth),’ and practiced ‘spontaneous perfection’, ‘self-cultivation’, and ‘mindfulness.’[52] The historian Huang Guiyou in Whitemanism, Imagism, and Modernism in China and America (1997), explained the Modern Chinese sheng(ren) (and thus: living sage culture) to his Western audience this way:

Shengren is the highest title in Chinese society that can be bestowed upon a Chinese person, and it was applied to most of the leaders of the May Fourth Movement like Lu Xun, Chen Duxiu, and to various other great educators, spiritual leaders, men of letters and model scholars throughout modern history.

Those definitions of Confucian sages, Taoist sages, and Neo-Confucian and Modern sages above were all very similar; they all took at their basis the Chinese sheng(ren).

Although Buddhism originated in India (where it had vanished by the 12th century), it flourished in East-Asia; and Buddhist sages were as un-German as the Confucian ones: The Five Dhyani Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism each represented a different aspect of enlightened consciousness to aid in the practitioner’s spiritual transformation. From Manjushri, the Buddha of wisdom and the power of differentiating, we heard about the ‘six virtues’ or ‘six perfections,’ that were essential for attaining sagehood (Buddhahood, in this case) and – as the ultimate goal in Buddhism – becoming a bodhisattva: a sagely being or enlightened being. Becoming a Buddha, of course, was only reserved for a chosen few bodhisattvas. The six perfection were: 1) generosity, 2) discipline, 3) patience, 4) energy, 5) meditation, and, again the most important: 6) wisdom (prajna). The ‘wisdom’ that the buddhas were referring to was not easy to explain in words in general, and impossible to capture in Western terminology anyway; sagely or Buddhist wisdom was essentially not the result of Western philosophizing or debating or reasoning; rather, it was the insight in the true nature of the world and the inter-connectedness of all things. Prajna as such was untranslatable, thus stayed prajna in Western scholarship.

Oriental scholars said prajna when they referred to prajna, and wisdom when they meant something else. Some translators who did not believe that foreign terminology hold any surprises to the Western mind tried to replace prajna by ‘supreme wisdom’ or ‘insight into emptiness’ or ‘true knowledge.’ But really, nothing conveyed the foreignness of prajna better than the word prajna. All the same, Oriental sages and sagehood were quite un-European. An insult to some.

In a book with the telling title Soldier, Sage, Saint (1978), Robert C. Neville, a Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, did not have the shengren in mind, but had ideas about sages in general when he elaborated on his ‘three models of spiritual perfection:’

The ideal soldier is the model of psychic integrity. The sage is the model of enlightenment. And the saint is the model of perfection of the heart.[53]

His definition was very concise, but useful. Like all other definitions of the sages above, it made one think what the Germans would have said about the English-speaking world seeing ‘sages’ here and there and in the Orient, while Germany’s most prominent orientalists only saw Heilige, saints. The Germans had no Weise (sages). If they had, we would have seen in their translations, in their literature. In effect, Germans cannot even agree on the English: ‘The sage is the model of enlightenment,’ said Neville. The Buddha, the Enlightened One, comes to mind. Not Western Enlightenment, that spiritual growth of which the German version is Aufklärung. But Aufklärung is exactly what the East was supposed to have lacked: Kant said that enlightenment was ‘the liberation of one’s understanding from the guidance from another.’[54] That is like saying to liberate oneself from the guidance of so-called Wiseman. The sage (or Buddha) was exactly not the model of Enlightenment in German culture, the philosopher was. Germany had another synonym for enlightenment, Erkenntnis, meaning insight. The kind of enlightenment Neville meant, the enlightened sage, however, was best translated in German Erleuchtung, literally meaning the state of being enlighten(ed). Here, light is said and meant: hence dying Goethe’s notorious: ‘Mehr Licht!’ or the Latin saying Ex Occidente Lex, Ex Oriente Lux [from the West—Law, from the East—Light]. Goethe never got what he hinted at (being called a ‘Weiser’);[55] one could not make that claim oneself, but some other Germans could have recognized Goethe as such, yet none did: the Indian Buddha was the only one called ‘der Erleuchtete’ in Germany. Germany officially had a thousand philosophers, but not a single sage.

[1] Legge, 1891, Mencius, Wan Zhang II: ‘孟子曰:’伯夷, 聖之清者也; 伊尹, 聖之任者也; 柳下惠, 聖之和者也; 孔子, 聖之時者也. 孔子之謂集大成. 集大成也者, 金聲而玉振之也. 金聲也者, 始條理也; 玉振之也者, 終條理也. 始條理者, 智之事也; 終條理者, 聖之事也. 智, 譬則巧也; 聖, 譬則力也. 由射於百步之外也, 其至, 爾力也; 其中, 非爾力也.’”

[2] Sato, 2003, p. xiii

[3] Rosemont, 2009, p. 84

[4] Schwarz, 1959

[5] Izutsu, 1984

[6] Schopenhauer, 1819, Bd. 2, p. 215

[7] Russell, 1967; Pohlenz, 1970; Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010

[8] Economist, 24th March 2011

[9] Magno, Ludovico, 1687, pp. Aij/B, G, cxviij ff.

[10] Taylor, 1691, p. 45; Lette, 1877, p. 4; Larrymore, 2000, p. 190

[11] Wylie, 1922, p. 284; Xin Han De Ci Dian, 1985; Han Ying De Ci Dian, 1993

[12] Taplin, 2000, p. 156

[13] Oxford Latin Dictionary, 1982

[14] Diogenes Laertius, 1925

[15] Yeats, 1928

[16] Balfour, in Said, 1976, p. 33

[17] Spengler, 1918, p. 934 ff.

[18] Hegel, 1837

[19] Conrady, 1910, p. 477

[20] Hesse, 1921

[21] Hegel, 1822/1823, p. 369

[22] Goethe, 1901, Faust II, 6315: ‘Denn wer den Schatz, das Schöne, heben will, bedarf der höchsten Kunst: Magie der Weisen.”

[23] Jaeger, 1973, p. 776: ‘Die Götter philosophieren nicht und bilden sich nicht, denn sie sind im Besitz aller Weisheit. Die Toren und Unweisen aber trachten überhaupt gar nicht nach Erkenntnis, denn das ist ja das eigentliche Űbel solcher Unbildung, dass sie nichts weiss und sich doch für wissend hält. Der Philosoph allein strebt nach Erkenntnis, weil er weiss, daß er sie nicht besitzt und sich ihrer bedürftig fühlt. Er steht in der Mitte zwischen Weisheit und Unbildung, deshalb ist er allein zur Bildung tauglich und aufrichtig und errnstlich um sie bemüht.”

[24] Taylor, 1691, p. ix

[25] Albrecht, 1985, p. Xi: ‘zu unglaubwürdig, dass sie ebenso wie die schon bekannten Chronologien der altorientalischen Völker als märchenhaft zurückgewiesen wurden…’

[26] Feifel, 1982, p. 58: ‘Vergessen wir jedoch nicht, dass seine Lehre mit Religion nichts zu tun hatte und dass sie ebensowenig philosophischer Natur gewesen ist. Er war weder Religionsstifter noch Philosoph gewesen.”

[27] Kennedy, 1961

[28] Legge, 1891, The Analects VII;26, VII;34: ‘子曰:’聖人,吾不得而見之矣;得見君子者,斯可矣. 子曰:’若聖與仁,則吾豈敢?”

[29] Zhang Zai, The Western Inscriptions, transl. by Van Norden, 2006: ‘乾称父,坤称母;予兹藐焉,乃混然中处. 故天地之塞,吾其体;天地之帅,吾其性. 民,吾同胞;物,吾与也. 大君者,吾父母宗子;其大臣,宗子之家相也.尊高年,所以长其长;慈孤弱,所以幼其幼;圣,其合德;贤,其秀也.”

[30] Mozi, Book One, Self-Cultivation, in Graham, 1978: ‘藏於心者,無以竭愛。動於心者,無以竭恭. 出於口者,無以竭馴. 暢之四支,接之肌膚,華髮隳顛,而猶弗舍者,其唯聖人乎.”

[31] Legge, 1893

[32] Taylor, 1990, p. 47; Hall & Ames, 1987; Graham, 1978; Encyclopedia Britannica, 2010

[33] Gützlaff in Walravens, 2001; Schott, 1826; Grube, 1902; Haas, 1920; Wilhelm, 1925; Biallas, 1928

[34] (online dictionary), 2010; (Chinese-German dictionary) 2010; Brockhaus, 1911; Kramers, 1979; Flad, 1904; Schwanfelder, 2006; Roetz, 2006

[35] Hegel, 1766, p. 342; Hegel, 1930, p. 174; Husserl, 1935; Herder, 1841

[36] Mann, 1932; Marchand, 2008; Fülberth, 2007

[37] Stern, 1963; Murti, 2001

[38] Ringer, 1990

[39] Humboldt, 1836; Hesse, 1921; Husserl, 1935

[40] Nietzsche, 1968, 1969

[41] Geibel, Emanuel, 1861

[42] India and China were among the Allies against Nazi Germany – a fact that many Indians and Chinese were proud of – was often omitted in German history books; few Germans know

[43] Sueddeutsche (25th Feb, 2008) ‘Hochqualifizierte meiden Deutschland’

[44] Tu, 1987, p. 86

[45] Taylor, 1990, p. 47

[46] Spengler, 1918, p. 937-943

[47] Slabbert, 1999

[48] Jung, 1939, p. xiiii

[49] Goethe, 1981, p. 605

[50] in Eckermann, 1988, p. 98: ‘Es ist eine Torheit zu verlangen, dass die Menschen zu uns harmonieren sollen. Ich habe es nie getan. Ich habe einen Menschen immer nur als ein für sich bestehendes Individuum angesehen, das ich zu erforschen und das ich in seiner Eigentümlichkeit kennenzulernen trachtete, wovon ich aber durchaus keine weitere Sympathie verlangte.’

[51] see Kalton, 1988

[52] Ibid., pp. 26, 38, 41

[53] Neville, 1978, p. 1

[54] Kant, 1987, p. 41

[55] Goethe, 1981, p. 605

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York

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