Shengren – Chapter 3.2 – Die Weisen (Sages) und die Weisheit (Sagehood) in Germany

Let us start this journey into sagehood with a quote from his Ideas on the Philosophy of History of Mankind by Johann Gottfried Herder: ‘The sages of all ages endeavored to lighten the realm of human ideas, to find the laws of culture and to promote the uniformity of mankind.’[1]

According to The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (1995) a sheng refers to: ‘a sage or sagehood, a Chinese concept of extraordinary human attainment or perfection.’ This definition was more or less in accordance with most Chinese dictionaries [maybe transcribed?], for example The Chinese Online Dictionary查字典 Cha Zidian (2010) says: ‘shèng rén ㄕㄥˋ ㄖㄣˊ (1) 圣人(聖人)[sage]: 德高望重、有大智、已达到人类最高最完美境界的人,有时也专指孔子;古之圣人,其出人也远矣.’[2] Sage: of highest virtue and respected; of great wisdom; has reached the highest and most perfect state of the human person; it sometimes specifically refers to Confucius; the ancient sage, the most accomplished. The Cha Zidian offers a classic quote from Han Feizi, The Five Vermin: [3]

Yong Han Yu –The Master said: That is the reason why the sage [shengren] neither seeks to follow the ways of the ancients nor establishes any fixed standard for all times but examines the things of his age.’[4]

The Han Feizi quote and its description of shengren and his features match the description of sage and his features in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy: the sage has reached the highest state of perfection. But the Chinese dictionary adds some more: the shengren is what we may call age-historical. When Herder’s quote at the beginning of this chapter was compared to the definition given in the Chinese Dictionary, it immediately became obvious that Herder’s concept described the activities of the sages (what do they do, they lighten the realm of human ideas, they find laws…), while the definition in the Dictionary described what the sages stand for (highest virtue and respected, in the highest and perfect state) and what the sage did and not did (examines the things of his age, no fixed standard for all times). The importance of sage is the being, not the doing.

Compared to the Western notion of a philosopher, which has been discussed at length in the previous chapters, a sage strived for self-perfection, in other words, he needed to be a good person with the highest set of moral standards. A philosopher has no such requirements. Moreover, a sage found wisdom through experience with the people in his age and never established a fixed standard for all times, while the philosopher was supposed to do exactly that: to fabricate a system of thought that disrupts and upsets.

A Western philosopher and an Eastern sage could not be any more different; the former is defined by what he does—to the object of the philosophical inquiry; while the latter is defined by who he is—to the subject who teaches. We can often detect a dissenting desire in some Western überphilosophers to break away from the Western syndicate and be revered above and beyond their philosophy and creed as an ageless supreme being, but that’s of course the nonacademic and religiously incorrect way of thinking. So did philosopher Leibniz muse about China’s ideal highest humanism, while he thought the West was rather partial and materialistic [possessive and money-orientated].[5]

After his stay at Peking University, British mathematician Bertrand Russell famously compared China to a nation of artists, ‘with the virtues and vices to be expected of the artist: virtues chiefly useful to others, and vices chiefly harmful to oneself.’[6] Historian Gu Hongming spoke of the gentleness and delicacy of the Chinese people: ‘It is the possession of this sympathetic and true human intelligence, which gives to the Chinese type of humanity, to the real Chinaman, his inexpressible gentleness. […] The Chinese people have this power, this strong power of sympathy, because they live wholly, or almost wholly, a life of the heart.’[7] If their ‘type of humanity’ was evidently so different, so was their ‘type of great masters of thought:’ the West almost exclusively nurtured philosophers; China almost exclusively nurtured sages.

If we look at the oldest universities in Europe, we find they were founded by Jesuits, initiated by Popes and Christian kings/emperors: Karls University of Prag in 1348; University of Cambridge in 1284; University of Oxford in 1096; University of Paris in 1088… all started with Christian geeks. The Ruprecht-Karls University Heidelberg, the oldest German university, was founded in 1386 by decree of Pope Urban VI. Safe to say they were not making imams. Safe to say, they were not making shengren. Safe to say, they were not making sages.

For Christians a sage who is non-religious is a quack, an impostor. The German dictionaries could have used Herder’s flattering of die Weisen, yet die Weisen in German language was an archaic, folkloric and, because of its presence in fairy-tales, a pejorative concept in the real world. Sages and sagehood has no place in a Christian university. It’s secular poison. How German does the following (Chinese and English) sequence look and sound:


It is only he, possessed of all sagely qualities that can exist under heaven, who shows himself quick in apprehension, clear in discernment, of far-reaching intelligence, and all-embracing knowledge, fitted to exercise rule; magnanimous, generous, benign, and mild, fitted to exercise forbearance; impulsive, energetic, firm, and enduring, fitted to maintain a firm hold; self-adjusted, grave, never swerving from the Mean, and correct, fitted to command reverence; accomplished, distinctive, concentrative, and searching, fitted to exercise discrimination.[8]

Sure, a general concept of sages developed in all ancient societies, but in reality it varied from place to place. With today’s sophistication, we can demonstrate that none was like the other; yet from the distance hawks and sparrows all looked like birds. The sages practiced some form of sagehood, and sagehood often referred to the political and moral teachings of wise teachers. When Greek philosophy developed in Europe it organized itself in schools and taught its methodology: that peculiar philosophical approach that consisted of a systematic advance and logical argumentation in order to find universal formulas, soon those first philosophers like Plato and Aristotle casted doubt on the sagacity of their predecessors and competitors: the sages. The philosophers wanted a monopoly [and they got it].

The wise men were basically teaching the rules of good conduct and their life experience to other people. The transition from Greek sagehood to Greek philosophy looks smooth. Plato is usually considered the first philosopher, while his teacher, Socrates, could still be regarded as a sage or, at that time: a sophist. The reason why Plato is considered the first philosopher was that he wrote about philosophy and how he came to antagonize the sophists.

Socrates could still be considered a sage, but not so Plato. Socrates applied situational and rhetorical devices to manipulate and persuaded in debates—no doctrine, no system, no theories. He didn’t even write a book. Plato had to write it for him.

The Greek philosophers and their philosophy became very successful and suppressed the sages and discredited their wisdom. By the time of the rise of Christianity, sagehood largely vanished and the last sages of Europe were prosecuted, because of that one clever sage that ruined the multitude: Jesus Christ. No one in the Western Hemisphere today calls Jesus Christ a sage, for good reasons: Following the philosophical need of the Europeans for ‘a first cause’ – Jesus proclaimed that he was the Messiah, the son of God, the Holy Trinity, and that highest wisdom lied with God from now on, not with human beings who were clearly separated from Him. And don’t we dare to compete with Him, as the fall of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and the collapse of the Tower of Babel remonstrated.[9] Since the Creator was separated from the created, oneness was no longer possible or desirable: Here was the priesthood, there was the sheeple.

The march of the philosophical approach and Christianity in the West had led—in over 2000 years—to perfecting those traditions. It also led to the pauperization of the sagacious approach. In the East however it was different: Sages taught at all levels of society. That was probably what Claude ‘Advanced Humanism’ Lévi-Strauss meant when he wrote the East was ‘several thousand years ahead of the West.’[10]

Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism, the ‘three schools that are one’—De Groot called them Universismus—were the results of the perfection of the sagacious approach to wisdom and the continuity of sages and sagehood in China. Hence: A living sage culture.

At the same time those sage cultures developed, the philosophical approach to knowledge known so well in the West, had been largely ignored in the East, until, of course, the contact with the Western world gradually increased after the Western missions to Asia in the 16th – 18th centuries. The British Empire, because of its early and lasting presence in Asia, engaged in the first meaningful cultural exchange. By the time the Germans unified in 1871 and set out to join the club of Western colonialists, the British had understood that Hinduism and Confucianism and Buddhism are full of non-European concepts that Europe lacked. And because the British Empire was very powerful and uncontested [much like the United States today who appears so open-minded, multicultural, and generous], it felt benevolent so as to make linguistic concessions.

The English language added loanwords such as dharma, guru, jungle, curry, and even juggernaut to its inventory. That was privileged by transliteration systems such as Romanized Devanagari (the Hunterian system) or Chinese Wade-Giles or Pinyin, all inventions of the British Empire. Wade-Giles is now considered the orthodox spelling where the words Peking, Tsinghua, Nanking, Tao, T’ai Chi, T’ien, Chün-tzu, and jen originated from. In modern Pinyin, these names look quite different: Beijing, Qinghua, Nanjing, Dao, Tai Qi, tian, Xunzi, and ren.

The British and later the Americans did what the inwardly Germans were unwilling to do: Risking reverse colonialism by inviting masses of Orientals to prestigious London and Boston schools. Indian concepts such as Buddha, bodhisattvas, arhats, rishis, Nirvana, Yoga, Ayurveda, and many more entered the Anglo-Saxon mainstream. And because those words signaled non-Englishness, some Indian scholars rose to eminence and reclaimed some authority over the East at the expenses of white men. Surprisingly, despite a large influx of Chinese into Britain, their intellectual impact is low, non-threatening, perhaps because of a preference for Hong-Kong and Taiwan Chinese who—having been brainwashed by the British and American overlords, have lost their aspirations for world domination and Western take-over.

Very different situation in Germany were Chinese are minus persons. There is a neutral person, that person can get into plus by becoming more German, or by becoming more Anglo-Saxon [that’s even superplus]; but that person can also get into minus by losing that German or Anglo-Saxon and by becoming more Oriental. Being oriental is a minus. It drags your value down, not up. You are a journalist or academic or politician in Germany and you say something remotely Chinese that drags Germany down or beneath China (a minus) and you are losing your job, status, and reputation. On the other hand, if you say something that elevates Chinese into German (say: ‘More Chinese want to learn Germany’), that is a great plus. China has no human rights, no rule of law, has inferior philosophy, lacks Christian values, and has a redundant, primitive language. Everything that China stands for is minus. On the other hand, if you bring all those Western things to China, and make the officials hear you say and mean it, than you are a state-approved ‘China Experte’.

China is not an exception. If the German Oriental scholars had it their way, India’s Buddha would today be der Erleuchtete, bodhisattvas die Erleuchteten or die Heiligen, Nirvana das Paradies, rishis die Seher or die Priester and so on. We would have no Indianization in our dictionaries, only the Germanization of India. Adopting foreign names was a weakness of culture [true, if a zero-sum game] and anyway would have caused dependency. Imagine the centers for China Studies would be in China! In the end, unsurprisingly, Germany never ‘infected’ itself with Chineseness [Hermann Hesse], and it never ‘Indianized’ itself [Ernst Haeckel].

Richard ‘Messenger from China’ Wilhelm managed to write general history books such Chinesische Lebensweisheiten (1922) entirely with German replacement words for each and every Chinese concept, except Tao and Te and Yin and Yang and the eight guas from the ‘Buch der Wandlungen’ (he calls it J King). On an important note: Wilhelm never made a secret about his willful practice of Umdichtung (re-interpretation), and openly admitted the European fight over Chinese original names: ‘not easy to translate (…). There seems to be a certain ambition to not follow the footsteps of a predecessor, which is all the more necessary, because the vast majority of these translations are not derived from the Chinese, but only re-interpretations of some English or German translations.[11] He knew translations were inadequate; yet somehow he agreed that the original Chinese terminology must not survive. It had to be translated. By the end of the 20th century, everyone in the Western hemisphere has laid eyes on either James Legge’s or German Wilhelm’s translations. As a consequence, almost no one in the Western hemisphere has ever heard about shengren, junzi, de, li, jiao and other Chinese names and concepts.

Still, autodidacts who read a lot about the Orient would become instantly famous. Arthur ‘Buddha of Frankfurt’ Schopenhauer wrote: ‘Auch im Buddhaismus fehlt es nicht an Ausdrücken der Sache: z.B. als Buddha, noch als Bodhisattva, sein Pferd…’[12] That was three foreign termini—Buddhism, buddha, bodhisattva—in one sentence, yet Schopenhauer probably thought nothing treacherous about using them because he simply adopted the three Sanskrit loanwords from a 1843 French translation of a Chinese work, 佛国记Fo Guo Ji, by the sinologist Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat. Writers repeat what they read. If the Europeans had not erroneously translated Confucianism, we would all read about ru, ruxue, and junzi.

According to Richard Wilhelm, Master Confucius allegedly said to his people: ‘Alas, if only God were to look on from the Heavens! But where is He?’[13] and: ‘Leadership personalities are needed to guide the people toward true happiness.’[14] For Christian consumers, ‘God’ had to be mentioned, and if only it was for the Chinese Master Confucius to say that He really wasn’t there, then.

For the Chinese to entertain a world without God’s revelations (a revelation in the Bible is usually when the Creator slapped around his creations) was considered only a blessing in disguise: Consider the sunny days just after the biblical Flood when a united humanity—under Jewish leadership, of course—migrated to the Holy land and build a tower besting the Heavens. When meeting face to face on even clouds with the Lord Almighty, the Lord got very upset, slapped the social climber humans down, smashed their Tower and ‘confused their tongues.’ Victor von Strauss explained the Chinese in that story: ‘The crisis was a punishment from God, yet in reality it was also a blessing. For, it wove the people in a struggle for and with the Divine, which allowed them to mature for the completed revelation. The Chinese escaped with that punishment also their blessing.’[15] The Confucianists may have dodged from under God’s counterpunch, but they surely also had failed to learn how to punch.  This ambition and risk taking in Christianity—Chesterton’s ‘We should hunt God like an eagle upon the mountains: and we have killed all monsters in the chase’[16]—is precisely what was absent in Confucianism which taught that talking to humans, not Gods, was very exciting. If Christianity was a mighty sword, Confucianism was a backscratcher. [‘Know thy enemy’ –Sun Tzu] All this inexperience didn’t mean, however, that the Chinese were left off the hook just yet, as von Strauss ends his final paragraph with a prayer: ‘And may soon be revealed to them, what has been revealed to us…’[17]

If God’s revelations were any guidance, the Chinese had a lot to catch up with the world. Not everyone was convinced, though, that this fair cultural policy. Hermann Hesse noticed:

The Far East is willing to get to know us, to respond to our thoughts and games and to learn from us, and to engage with us in a spiritual exchange. Unfortunately I can not say that Western intelligence would be ready and eager to reconcile and become familiar with the spirit of the East.[18]

Germany is not China. Germany and China did not experience the same history; in fact, they were often on the opposite ends of it. Germany had no Han, Tang, Ming or Qing Dynasties. Germany colonized a small part of China, Tsingtao. Germany produced hundreds of philosophers. Germany had no shengren. Some sages in Asia were ancient, mythical, or fictional like the Monkey-King Sun Wukong; many more were real persons and psychologically more accessible. The Sixteen Arhats in Buddhism were often referred to as sages (sheng), their names were: Ajita, Subinda, Pindola Bharadvaja, Panthaka, Nakula, Vajraputra, Bhadra, Kanakavatsa, Rahula, Kanaka Bhadra, Chudapanthaka, Angaja, Jivaka, Nagasena, Vanavasin and Kalika. Each of them had many stories woven around their lives and teachings. Other great sages were Prince Shōtoku of Japan who lived in 573 to 621; or the Tibetan Buddhist Miarepa who livid in 1052-1135. Most Europeans have heard one or more of the following sages (although in Europe they are propagated as philosophers, correct): Confucius, Laozi, Xunzi, Si Maqian, the King of Zhou [Zhou Wu Wang], Cai Lun. The great poets of China often were called sages, too: Li Bai and Du Fu of the Tang dynasty, or the author of the Dream of the Red Chamber: Cao Xueqin. Just as the Europeans had categorized their philosophers according to the fields they had contributed—e. g. Moral philosophy, Political philosophy, Philosophy of the mind, and so on—so did the Chinese distinguish between 史圣shi-sheng (sages of history), 诗圣shi-sheng (sages of poetry), 医圣yi-sheng (sages of medicine), 武圣wu-sheng (sages of military), 书圣shu-sheng (sages of letters), 草圣cao-sheng (sages of calligraphy), 画圣hua-sheng (sages of painting), 茶圣cha-sheng (sages of the arts of tea), and even 酒圣jiu-sheng (sages of the spirits [the liquid ones]) or 兵圣bing-sheng (sages of soldiery), each of those categories including countless individuals.

Modern sages existed, too. The leaders in the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement between 1915 to 1921 were called shengren, for example Lu Xun or Hu Shi. The revolutionary Mao Zedong, on the other hand, had not been referred to as sheng(ren). He, like most top communist leaders, was instrumental in oppression Confucianism and Chinese tradition in general during the Cultural Revolution.

To sum up, in order to exercise linguistic authority, the West—in particular the Germans who hated sages and sagehood—used biblical and philosophical terminologies, erased the Chinese words, and thus effectively buried Chinese history under Europe.

[1] Herder, 1841: ‘Die Weisen aller Zeiten bestrebten sich, das Reich menschlicher Begriffe aufzuhellen, Gesetze der Kultur zu finden, und die Gleichförmigkeit der Menschheit mit ihnen zu fördern.”

[2] Cha Zidian, 2010

[3] Cha Zidian, 2010: ‘——唐· 韩愈《师说》 是以圣人不期修古,不法常可。——《韩非子·五蠹》”

[4] Liao, 1939 [translation]

[5] Leibniz, 1697, §3

[6] Russell, 1922, Chapter 1

[7] Gu, 1915, p. 21 ff.

[8] Legge, 1891, The Doctrine of the Mean, XXXI

[9] Genesis, 11;1-9

[10] Lévi-Strauss, 1967

[11] Wilhelm, 1922, pp. 11, 12: ‘sind nicht leicht zu übersetzen (…). Es scheint einen gewissen Ehrgeiz zu geben ja nicht die Spuren eines Vorgängers zu folgen, was um so nötiger ist, da die überwiegende Mehrzahl dieser Übersetzungen nicht aus dem Chinesischen stammt, sondern nur Umdichtungen englischer oder deutscher Übersetzungen sind’

[12] Schopenhauer, 1819, p. 777

[13] Wilhelm, 1922, p. 6: ‘Ach, daß doch Gott vom Himmel drein sehen wollte! Aber wo ist er?”

[14] Ibid., p. 47: ‘Die Menschen müssen zu ihrem wahren Wohle geleitet werden durch Führungspersönlichkeiten.”

[15] Von Strauss, 1924, p. LXXX: ‘War jene Krisis [the confusion of tongues after the collapse of the Tower of Babel] eine Strafe Gottes, so trug sie auch ihren Segen in sich. Sie verflocht die Völker in ein Ringen nach und mit dem Göttlichen, wodurch sie für die vollendete Offenbarung reifen konnten. Die Chinesen entgingen mit jener Strafe auch ihrem Segen.”

[16] Chesterton, 1908, p. 201

[17] Ibid: ‘Möchte bald auch an dem Volke […] erfüllt werden, was uns erfüllt worden ist”

[18] Hesse, 1955, quoted in Hsia, 1976, p. 172: ‘[…] der fernste Osten ist willig, uns kennen zu lernen, auf unsre Gedanken und Spiele einzugehen, von uns zu lernen, mit uns geisten Tauschhandel zu treiben. Leider kann ich nicht sagen, dass die abendländische Intelligenz ebenso bereit und begierig wäre, sich mit dem Geist des Ostens zu befreunden und vertraut zu machen.”

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