Shengren – Chapter 4.10 – Supernatural and Utopian Sages

Eun-Jeung Lee, a German-speaking Professor for Korean Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, saw utopian elements in the Lun Yu. This was how she described the utopian shengren:

But precisely with him (Confucius), the idealized past takes on the role of a utopia. This is particularly evident in his conception of the cultural heroes, the shengren, the first and relative semi-royal kings of the former dynasties. They are regarded as a personification of spiritual and moral greatness and the capacity for ideal rule, similar to Plato’s philosopher kings.[1]

Professor Lee actually used this word ‘shengren’ throughout her writings. Yet, German culture did not allow her to correct hundreds of years of German misconceptions about Oriental sages: she still had to – as expected from Eingedeutsche (the Germanized) – paraphrase die Weisen so that the translation would compliment German ears and flatter the Berliner establishment, which required a lot about Kulturheroen, or halblegendäre Könige, and the synonym Philosophenkönige. One could only speculate at what would happen if the Germans – over the time – had to adopt Chinese concepts like shengren or junzi or li, ren, qi, dao (also: tao). Berlin would never be the same. Here another Lunyu-translation of hers, in which she spared the shengren:

The Master said, ‘What is it all about humanity? It would surely have to be a shengren. Even Yao and Shun were probably not without a flaw.’ [2]

Professor Lee frequently used the Chinese words junzi and shengren and explained how, in her view, both concepts came about:

Confucius however believed that not everyone could become a junzi, because there are different categories of people: One consists of people who have wisdom from birth, the shengren, and another consists of people who strive for knowledge by learning.[3]

Here we found (again) the classical distinction between a philosopher, one who seeks wisdom, and a sage, one who has wisdom (although it could be argued whether the sage’s wisdom was handed to them at birth or acquired through he process of visible self-cultivation). Buddha, Confucius, Laozi all attained sagehood through experience later in life; it was true that the concepts of ‘Buddha’, ‘Confucius’, and ‘Laozi’ meant historic and timeless sagacity indeed. Hence, Ames and Rosemont’s hint at ‘cosmic beings.’[4] If Professor Lee had thought that Confucius was talking about Heilige or Philosophen, she would have translated shengren the old way; yet she chose to leave shengren as it is – to promote and make visible an important concept that was un-German and un-European. Some German sinologists already agreed in theory: ‘Wie bei Gautama and Sokrates wird keine systematische Philosophie präsentiert.’[5] Others agreed not quite.[6]

While the English missionaries like James Legge and A. W. Loomis as early as 1861 and 1871 already translated shengren as ‘the sages:’ ‘When a sage shall again rise, he will certainly follow my words;’[7] the German missionary Richard Wilhelm in 1910-14 translated shengren as ‘Gott,’Genie,’ or ‘einem zum Gott inspirierten mit göttlicher Autorität und Kraft des Geistes.’[8] He revised his translations in 1925, from now one using exclusively the biblical term ‘die Heiligen,’ that filled most dictionaries in the German lands. Scholars like Lee will have to better that.

[1] Lee, 2008, p. 49: ‘Aber gerade die idealisierte Vergangenheit übernimmt bei ihm (Confucius) die Rolle einer Utopie. Dies schlägt sich insbesondere in seiner Vorstellung von Kulturheroen, den shengren, den ersten beziehungsweisen halblegendären Königen der früheren Dynastien nieder. Sie gelten ihm als Personifizierung geistiger und moralischer Größe und der Befähigung zur idealen Herrschaft, ähnlich wie Platons Philosophenkönige.”

[2] Lee, 2008, p. 50: ‘Der Meister sagte: Was hätte das allein mit Menschlichkeit zu tun! Ein solcher wäre sicher ein shengren. Selbst Yao und Shun waren hierin wohl noch nicht ohne Fehl.”

[3] Ibid., p. 57: ‘Konfuzius glaubt allerdings nicht, dass es jeder schaffen kann, junzi zu werden, da es unterschiedliche Kategorien von Menschen gibt: Zu einer gehören die, die von Geburt an über Wissen verfügen, eben shengren, zu einer anderen diejenigen, die durch Lernen nach dem Wissen streben [..].”

[4] Rosemont, 2009

[5] Zotz, 2000

[6] Roetz, 1994, pp. 7, 9, 19, 43, 104

[7] Loomis, 1867, p. 208

[8] Wilhelm, 1914, pp. 60, 88, 114

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