Shengren – Chapter 2.4 – Wu Nai, The Concept of Helplessness

“Looked not pretty, but showed that the Chinese had to play by the German rules. That sort of language imperialism goes largely unreported”

Chinas, tiefes große, ungeheure Kaiserreich in den äussersten Enden Asiens, hat von Jeher und in neurer Zeit besonders den Zugung ins Inntere desselben den Boten des Christenthums versperrt. Der Sage zu Folge soll schon der Apostel Thomas dort das Christenthum verkündigt haben, und man hat auch wirklich schon längst Spuren christlicher Gebraeuche daselbst angetroffen. Eine alte Schrift aus dem siebenten Jahrhundert in chinesischer Sprache, die man vor einiger Zeit dort aufgefunden hat, lautet also: ‚Unsere Dreiheit der Einheit sandte Eine Person, um der anbetungswürdige Messias zu sein. Dieser, seine Majestät verbergend, wurde Mensch, als ein Mensch, den übrigen ähnlich, geboren. – Alles, was mit ihm geschehen ist, ist von 24 Heiligen in dem alten Gesetze vorherverkündigt worden. – Die Predigt des neuen Gesetzes ist gleich dem Schalle des berühmten alten Instruments, welches gebraucht wurde, das Volk zur Tugend zu ermuntern und ihm Liebe und Sanftmuth einzuflößen.[1] [Chinas vast and gargantuan empire lies at the far end of Asia; it has always, and in modern times, blocked, especially in the interior, the messengers of Christianity from acess. Legend has it that already the Apostle Thomas had preached Christianity there, and indeed traces of Christian customs of a long time ago had been found [in China]. An old document from the seventh century in the Chinese language that has been discovered some time ago, reads as the following: “Our Trinity of unity sent a person to become the adorable Messiah. That person, hiding his Majesty, became human; a human born just like others. Everything that has happened to him has been foretold by the 24 saints in the old law. The sermon of the new law is equal to the sound of the famous ancient (music) instruments that was used to encourage the people to virtue and to instill love and gentleness.]

– Benedict S. Steger, Die Protestantischen Missionen

Benedict Steger was not the only German who decided that the Chinese were good Christians, or at least were suitable human material for Christianity. Already the great philosopher Leibniz had suggested that the Chinese were “in emulation of the higher teachings of Christ”.[2] The technical term for such an attitude is heteronomy. It means the subjection to the laws of another, in this case, to the laws of Christianity or, more general, the Western ways. No people on the face of the earth could escape Western heteronomy. The German word is Fremdbestimmung (or Fremdgesetzlichkeit; lit.: the laws of another), all the same: When Richard Wilhelm, the great missionary and China expert, said of Confucius that “God had inspired him”,[3] then, for the records and for all the German public knew and cared, God inspired Confucius and that was that.

To use the language of psychology, if someone tramples on others in disregard for their psychological and physical well-being, that is bullying. Disregard for autonomy is bullying, too. If someone motivates others to join his abusive actions, and if those people continue to refuse to admit the suffering caused by their actions, that is bullying. The victim, the being-bullied, over the time feels isolated, mishandled, coerced, and accused of things he has not or had not done, lied about, and talked behind his back. The sacking of thousands of Chinese terminologies and unique concepts and the replacing them with Christian or any other Western terminology is a disregard for Chinese autonomy. The stress that is built up in the victim, in this case the victim is a whole culture, is China, causes a fatal emotional reaction that I prefer to give a Chinese name to: 无奈 wu-nai or helplessness. 无奈 wu-nai is how China felt when the Western great powers (and Japan) took advantage of the desolated state of the Qing Dynasty in the 19th and 20th century and – joining forces – subjugated the Chinese to Western rule and dominance, and still do everything in their powers to bent China’s ascent to their will and advantage.

The Chinese people were only one people in a long list of people that had been subjugated to Western laws and terminologies by the Europeans before; in fact, the German philosopher Georg Hegel saw the subjugation of the Asians as a necessity:

Es ist das notwendige Schicksal der asiatischen Reiche, den Europäern unterworfen zu sein, und China wird sich auch einmal diesem Schicksal fügen müssen.[4] [Being subject to the Europeans is the necessary fate of all Asiatic empires, and China one day will also have to accept its fate.]

The German philosophers criticized China’s thought: China’s culture was non-philosophical. The German orientalists criticized China’s culture: China’s tradition was backward. The German missionaries criticized China’s traditon: China’s belief was pre-Christian. China was constantly and systematically criticized for being authoritarian, unscientific, unenlightened, and full of superstitions. And because they did so exclusively in German language, about a China that was rendered in German language only, with no original Chinese concept present, the mere sight of the familiar German terminology (instead of the Chinese one) would encourage a German to claim a profound insight into all matters Chinese and to take over that Chinese culture after a good breakfast.

Oskar Weggel, a German historian, described Asia’s incompetence for governance in his Die Asiaten – Wie in Asien regiert wird (1989) [The Asians – How Asia is Governed]:

Man muss im asiatischen Kontext zwar umdenken und Nepotismus mit wohlfunktionieriende Patronagebeziehungen sowie Korruption mit Harmonisierung übersetzen; gleichwohl lässt die Häufigkeit, vor allem aber die Unschuld, mit der protegiert und harmonisiert wird, immer wieder Zweifel an der Fähigkeit asiatischer Gesellschaften zur Institutionalisierung aufkommen.[5] [One has to start thinking in the Asian context and {thus} translate Nepotism as well-functional system of patronage and translate corruption as harmonization; nevertheless the sheer frequency, and above all the innocence by which {the Asians} patronize and harmonize, will over and again cast doubts over the ability of Asian societies for institutionalization {of their societies}.]

The German compulsion for self-righteousness, fault-finding, and finger-pointing at other people was well documented by non-German scholarship. George Weinberg, a psychologist, in his Invisible Masters (1993) described compulsion as an act of terror: “It is an attempt to regulate something concrete and controllable because the person cannot identify and control some real psychological problems”.[6] Benedict S. Steger’s Die Protestantischen Missionen und deren gesegnetes Wirken (1838) described the systematical evangelization of China. The Chinese did not know that their Chinese Classics were already full of God’s word. Now they knew.

The German missionaries were convinced of their own goodness. Karl Gützlaff, who translated the Lutheran Bible into Chinese, reported back to his authorities how fortunate the Chinese were to learn the Gospel.[7] If a Chinese refused to convert to Christianity, that was a clear sign for Gützlaff that the Chinese feared suppression, banishment, and prosecution by the mandarins (Unterdrückung, Verbannung, and Verfolgung).[8] It was inconceivable that a Chinaman rejected Christianity because he did not want it. If he was reasonable, the Chinaman had to convert. The German Gützlaff wrote in the opening of his Biography (1847): “Ich wünsche dass in meinem Vaterland ein bleibendes Interesse für China hervorgebracht werde”[9] [I want that a lasting interest in China will rise]. Gützlaff was very successful. Most Germans believed the nonsense he wrote – “Confucius worshipped God”.[10]

The psychological violence inflicted on its (language) colonial subjects is done consciously. Colonialism rules out the unconscious. So do Imperialism and Orientalism. A colonial master, if he is sane, be it a diplomat, a professor, a military man, or a businessman who is officially sent to China and finds himself in pomp and luxury, the young and tender Chinese women at his feet, the city lights burning low beneath the windows of his penthouse apartment, earning the equal salary of a hundred Chinese employees combined, who is arrogantly saying his existence is unconscious is a liar – an irresponsible and dangerous person.

The excuse for colonial behavior and thinking is not a matter of consciousness or the lack of thereof. Rather, it is power, and the beauty of power. The individual perpetrators are without fault (and easily replaced, if they do not play along), because it is a systematic violence at work that comes with the power assumed by the imperialists, colonialists, and orientalists in their institutional roles. In plain English: they are just doing their work, and it is incredibly rewarding.

During the first few years of the 21st century, the Max-Planck Society of Germany (MPG) opened a partner research institute in Shanghai. The Germans had no experience with Chinese culture, but had all the best intentions for a partnership of equals. It was agreed that the Society with its headquarter in Munich would control one third, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai two thirds of the joint venture. When the German directors and administrators arrived in Shanghai they turned around all Chinese names. Gao Xue became Xue Gao, Huang Fang became Fang Huang, Li Li became Li Li, Han Fei became Fei Han and so on (the names are fictional here). Looks confusing? It was confusing. But it was extremely stimulating and exciting that a few German masters in a country of 1.3 billion Chinese could call the names, in this case: deciding what was the correct way of naming. Most of the Germans, usually referring to themselves as “Westerners” or starting sentences with “We, the West” had als spent some time in the United States before, a place where Chinese students usually took on English names, like Leslie Cheung or Grace Wang, for example. But the Germans misunderstood. Consequently, when those Germans came to China they felt they should coerce the local Chinese in Shanghai to turn around their names. A Chinese researcher protested and turned around the Germans names for fun, family names first, only to be sacked on trivial grounds a few weeks later. No fun with the Germans, then. The directors were encouraged to pursue the German name policy in Shanghai, and were further backed by German newspaper policies – the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Die Zeit, two of the most respected quality newspapers in the Bundesrepublik. Those turned around Chinese names as well (today, no more). Looked not pretty, but showed that the Chinese had to play by the German rules. This sort of language imperialism goes largely unreported.

All was fine until Hu Jintao, the President of the People’s Republic of China, by the logic of the German elites in Shanghai and elsewhere, now became “Jintao Hu”, and the Premier and Party Secretary Wen Jiabao now became “Jiabao Wen”, and Mao Zedong, of all, now became “Zedong Mao”. This is not a joke. And it got even more absurd. The German elite in Shanghai, quite ordinary employees back in Germany, none of them spoke a single sentence of Chinese, were utterly convinced and had the full support from the authorities in Munich and elsewhere that the Chinese staff had to submit to German linguistic convention: “Erst Rufnamen, dann Nachnamen” (Names before surnames), despite the fact that this was China, and the Partner Institute was two-thirds run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They assumed they had that mandate, and for all they knew they deserved it: After all, they earned five to ten times more than their Chinese colleagues working in the same house, letting alone the usual pegs like housing and return flights every Christmas. The Germans would have gotten away with their way in China if only international politics and the international press had played along. It did not. The world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei: now a “Weiwei Ai”? The Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo: now a “Xiaobo Liu”? Unthinkable and nonsense. German newspapers like FAZ and DIE ZEIT had to reconcile, and by now they call the Chinese the correct way: Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo, etc.; otherwise they would risk international isolation and embarrassment. It is reported though, that the average Chinese, if he or she works for a German company in China, still has to turn around surname and name. If they can, the Germans will always try.

Again, the individual is hardly to blame. The Germans – none of them knew Chinese – came to Shanghai and assumed their “institutional roles” (a term often used by Noam Chomsky, a critic of Western imperialism), and honestly believed the Chinese needed to turn around their names in order to resemble the German convention, no matter that the 1.3 billion people (surrounding the fifteen or so Germans at the MPG in Shanghai) wrote their name before the surname – since the beginning of Chinese civilization. The Chinese tradition is just not something that the Germans consider relevant. Turning 1.3 billion names around, orchestrated by a few German administrators in Shanghai, was the ultimate ego-trip. A feeling of power, control, and domination, maybe occasionally even sexually charged (as far as the theory of Orientalism goes, e. g. Colonial fantasies);[11] or, as the merry German director of the Goethe Institute in Shanghai once urged the German expatriates: “Get yourself a Chinese wife, she will make you rich”. Back to the essentials: if the Chinese could not take care of their own names and leave it to the foreigners to decide, how about their culture, traditions, markets, and resources? This is what is meant by无奈 wu-nai.


[1] Steger, 1838, p. 42

[2] Leibniz, 1677, §1

[3] Wilhelm, 1914, 7.22

[4] Hegel, 1952

[5] Weggel, 1989, p. 95

[6] Weinberg, 1993

[7] Steger, 1838, p. 42

[8] Ibid., p. 43

[9] Gützlaff, 1847, p. III

[10] Gützlaff, 1840, pp. 373-379

[11] Yegenoglu, 1998; Zantrop, 1997, Murti, 2001