Shengren – Chapter – Karl F. A. Guetzlaff

The Evangelists Karl F. A. 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 books like 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 rich and detailed.[1] His opinionated reports were a treasure box of information and intriguing remarks. Some descriptions, for example on Chinese costumes, appeared overbearing and ill-natured[2] and his account of Chinese cleanliness was telling too:

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.[3] [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!]

Whether the German missionaries went to India or China, they did essentially the same: Albert Grünwedel saw die Heiligen everywhere in India and Tibet; and Karl Gützlaff saw die Heiligen everwhere in China. The two German travel writers were unrelated and travelled 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 explained. Grünwedel could not understand Asia and lost his sanity. Gützlaff was lost, too. He tried so hard to make the Chinese sheng(ren) look like some pre-Christian saints waiting to receive the Gospel:

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.[4] [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.]

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 Chinese 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: “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[6] [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.]

The German thinkers either withheld the sheng(ren), in case they thought it too difficult a word for the Germans to learn and remember; 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 disputed Chinese concepts in 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 attitude. If a philosopher like Hegel – who clearly had prejudices against the Chinese – asked that question about Chinese philosophers, he would have patronized them either way: either they said “Yes”, in which case their philosophers seemed inferior to the European philosophers, or they said “No”, in which case Hegel made them feel incompetent and backward. Such a negative attitude toward foreign cultures is unhealthy and inexcusable. If ill-will is anticipated that way, the Chinese thinker should excused himself and avoid any further subversive discussions. On the other hand, if an open-minded and curious German mind asked the same question about Chinese philosophers, the Chinese thinker should answer him politely: “No, China did not have philosophers. That is a very European concept, evolved under European historical and cultural conditions. Yet China had its excellent thinkers too. China called them 思想家sixiangjia, 大师dashi, or 圣人shengren, in accordance with Chinese tradition. Moreover, China never had philosophy in the European sense and tradition of that word; instead China had hundreds of 教 jiao“. Something like that.

Germany lacked sages and failed to understand the basics of Eastern tradition; instead the German thinkers expanded their German world in which all Oriental thinkers looked like underdeveloped Philosophen or unenlightened Heilige. Germany was not a sage culture, therefore a “German Confucianism”, “German Taoism”, and “German Vedantism” could not develop. There was “Buddhism in Germany”, but no such thing as “German Buddhism”. Although Oriental thought went into the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries’ German academic mainstream, with strong evidence of an intrinsic philological, scientific, and theological interest in Buddhist texts; however the philosophers and orientalists had no experience with sages and sagehood. As a result, till today, the cultural outlook of the German people and their attitude toward Oriental thought continued to remain largely No Country for Sages.

[1] For a complete list see Walravens, 2001

[2] Lutz, 2008, p. 135

[3] Richter, 1833, p. 13, 16

[4] Ibid., p. 16

[5] Ibid., p. 16

[6] Ibid., p. 24

[7] Kim, 1978

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