Shengren – Chapter – Karl F. A. Guetzlaff

The Evangelists Karl Friedrich August Gützlaff was another travel writer and sponsor of German orientalism. His biographer, the historian Heinrich Richter, called Gützlaff’ ‘den Königs-Missionar, or king of all missionaries. Gützlaff’s main travel notes such as Report of Proceedings on a Voyage to the Northern Ports of China (1833) and A Journal of Three Voyages along the Coast of China in 1831, 1832 & 1833 (1833) were creatively rich and detailed.[1] His opinionated reports were a treasure box of information and intriguing remarks. Some descriptions however, for example those on Chinese costumes, appeared overbearing and ill-natured.[2] His accounts of Chinese ‘cleanliness’ in their temples, too, were far from kind:

The Chinese treats his sanctuary with contempt, he plays and dances in it, and he is not ashamed to pollute the same. With the Chinese, we are seeing the most ridiculous show![3]

Whether the German missionaries went to India or China, they did essentially report the same: Albert Grünwedel saw die Heiligen everywhere in India and Tibet; and Karl Gützlaff saw die Heiligen everywhere in China. The two German travel writers were unrelated and traveled in two (three) different sage countries; yet both – because of their German heritage – failed to see the sages. If the names were not correct, sagehood could not be identified. Grünwedel could not understand Asia and lost his sanity. Gützlaff was lost, too. He tried so hard to make the sheng(ren) look like some pre-Christian saints waiting to receive the Gospel:

Although almost everyone (Chinese) in the back of his room has portraits of a primeval God, yet they laugh at their follies and cannot believe in {that God} because they have not yet received the gift of the Holy Spirit. [4]

Gützlaff could not speak Chinese [at least not at first, and not fluently], and he reminded his readers that most of the missionaries in China could not speak it either.[5] Not-knowing-Chinese, as said before, did not compromise in any way the cause of German orientalism; on the contrary: ignorance enhanced it. The German missionaries translated Chinese culture into their own cultural language, including Gospel talk. Gützlaff’s biblical China was his own creation, and we assume he was aware of it. Being the creator of an evangelized China’s gave him great power: ‘Since God’s goodness made it easy for me to learn foreign languages, I clearly realized my profession as a pioneer. I must be very fortunate to [being able to] pave the way for the Gospel and apply all the power to it.’[6]

The German ‘China experts’ either withheld the sheng(ren), in case they thought it too confusing a world and term for the Germans to learn and memorize; or they misappropriated it, in case they thought it was of no great importance; or they ignored it simply because that’s what the imperialists do, they call the people whatever they want. Most scholars felt that something was wrong, that it seemed all too lazy and convenient for the German philosophers[7] to call Chinese thinkers ‘philosophers,’ and for the German missionaries[8] to call Chinese thinkers ‘saints.’ It seemed highly suspicious that philosophers were all over the East, but not a single shengren has been reported in the West. Does Germany have 圣人shengren? Technically, the answer is: No, it does not. Not a single German historical source has this word in it: 圣人shengren. Likewise, not a single text of the Chinese Classics has the word philosopher in it: 哲学家zhexuejia.

Germany also had no words for other Chinese concepts such as 功夫Kung-fu and 少林Shao-lin, although those are less threatening Chinese concepts to Germany (because they are less threatening). Likewise, philosopher is a European concept of Greek origin that only got its Chinese name, 哲学家zhexuejia, imported from Japan (who got it from Western sources) in the early 19th century.

The question ‘Did China have philosophers?’ is not so much a matter of textual evidence (the answer then is clearly: NO!), but is more a matter of pride and self-delusion: If a professional philosopher like Hegel –who clearly had prejudices against the Chinese– had been asked about ‘Chinese philosophers,’ he would in all probability have patronized the Chinese either way: either they said ‘Yes, we also have philosophers,’ in which case their philosophers would have appeared inferior to European philosophers, or they said ‘No, we don’t have philosophers,’ in which case Hegel made them feel incompetent and backward. At no probability can we imagine a disarmed Hegel’s response to Chinese intellectual sovereignty: ‘No philosophers, but we sure have damn good sages!’

[1] For a complete list see Walravens, 2001

[2] Lutz, 2008, p. 135

[3] Richter, 1833, p. 13, 16: ‘Der Chinese behandelt sein Heiligtum mit Verachtung; er spielt and tanzt darin, und schämt sich nicht dasselbe zu verunreinigen. Mit den Chinesen erleben wir die lächerlichsten Auftritte.”

[4] Ibid., p. 16: ‘Obgleich beinahe ein jeder (Chinese) in der Hinterseite des Zimmers Bildnisse eines Urgottes hat, lachen sie über ihre Thorheiten; doch können sie nicht glauben, weil sie die Gabe des heiligen Geistes noch nicht empfangen haben.’

[5] Ibid., p. 16

[6] Ibid., p. 24: ‘Da mir Gottes Güte die Erlernung fremder Sprachen so leicht macht, so scheint mir mein Beruf als Pionier sehr deutlich […] Es muss mich freuen, den Weg für das Evangelium zu bahnen und alle Macht dazu anzuwenden.”

[7] Kim, 1978

[8] Zotz, 2000; Haas, 1920b, p. 8-12

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