Shengren – Chapter 4.12 – Language Imperialism

This book was originally written in Germany during the author’s time of study in Berlin; but every one will understand, why it is now published in English, as that is the more widely read language.[1]

– Wang Ching-Dao, Confucius and New China

Berlin, 1912. The German speaker Wang Ching-Dao had written a book during his stay in Berlin but published it back in Shanghai. That book was written in English, which amounted, during his time, to a blatant betrayal of his German patrons. Wang informed his readers in the foreword that English was the more widely read language, thus he decided against a German language publication. Wang, in the Anglo-American fashion, called Confucius ‘The Chinese sage.’[2] If he had stayed in Berlin, would his supervisors have coerced him into reconsidering his blasphemy? How could he not call Confucius a ‘Heiliger’ or ‘philosopher?’ Yes, they would have pressured him. A doctorate in Germany in Asian Studies was always more Glaubensbekenntnis—a confession of faith—to the German brotherhood. One could show once unconditional love for the foreign… it would be academic treason.

In 1931, two Americans (one husband and his wife) made an effort, sat down, and translated Richard Wilhelm’s Kung-Tse – Leben und Werk (1925), a monumental book that had blown like a storm over Germany and Europe (and still dominates Chinese-German dictionaries). George H. Danton and Annina P. Danton made a discovery of epic proportions: Richard Wilhelm, they said, had made stupendous errors in his China translations. Here is a part of their verdict:

As far as we know, there is no English translation of this book, but there is a French rendering by Chavannes. Wilhelm translated directly from the Chinese, but used Chavannes, including the latter’s vast learned apparatus, which often completely swamps the actual text. […] we discovered that to treat Wilhelm’s text without reference to the Chinese original would result in English rendering which was very apt to be long removed from what Sse-Ma had said.[3]

The Dantons refused to translate Wilhelm’s ‘Heilige’ as saints or holy men. Holy Confucius… was absurd! What was that crackpot Wilhlem thinking? Instead, the Dantons decided to disabuse him from his German faith and called Confucius ‘the Sage’ and the shengren ‘sages’[4]—a revision that trashed Wilhelm’s mirror world of Heilige or göttlichen Wesen. The two Americans published their ‘translation’ of Wilhelm’s work under the title Confucius and Confucianism by Richard Wilhelm (1931), which was really an entirely new book because so much of Wilhelm’s original humbug had to be corrected: ‘extremely simply and paratactically, consciously archaistic, with a certain naïve warmth’.[5] One example: In the Lun Yu chapter two verse three two key concepts were discussed: 德de and 耻chi, which James Legge translated as virtue and shame.[6] Fair enough. Wilhelm on the other hand called the former the Kraft des Wesens (force of character) and the latter Gewissen (conscience). When it came to shengren and junzi, Wilhelm’s translations beggard common sense:

The Chinese ideogram which Wilhelm translates as der Edle, der höhere Mensch, or der Weise, and Chavannes as le sage, is translated by Legge as the superior man. It is the chün tze, which also has the idea of gentleman. The term is one of the most important in the Confucian canon. Its opposite, Hsiao jen, literally means the little man. […] In general, we have rendered Wilhelm’s der Edle by the Sage, his der höhere Mensch by the superior man, his der Weise by the Philosopher.[7]

For Wilhelm, the shengren was ‘der Edle’ and the junzi was ‘der höhere Mensch,’ yet even if the two were overlapped or interchanged, there still was no conception of sage in Wilhelm’s writing. When he finally did translate der Weise, it was for the character zhi (wise), but not for shengren and junzi. Deliberatedly? The table below shows the key shengren and junzi translations by Richard Wilhelm, James Legge, Edouard Chavannes, and the two Dantons, George and Annina:

Author Translation sheng(ren) Translation junzi
Wilhelm (1914) Gott, iv; einer der dem Volke reiche Gnade spend, 60; göttlich, 60; zu einem Gott inspiriert mit göttlicher Autorität und Kraft des Geistes, 60 (in the notes); Genie, 88, 114; wenn der Himmel im Gelegenheit gibt, wird er sich als Genie beweisen, 88; die grossen Männer, 187 Der Weise, xx; der Edle (höherer Mensch), xxi, 75, 89, 169, 187
Wilhelm (1925) Die Heiligen, 165 Der Edle, 66
Legge (1893) Sages, 6.30; 7.26; 7.34; 9.6; 16.8; 19.12 The superior man, 6.24 ff.
Chavannes (1905) N/A Le sage
Danton (1931) N/A – mixed up with junzi The Sage (for Edle), 174-176;

Superior man (for höhere Mensch), [The Philosopher (for Der Weise), 42, 46 note: probably translated from zhi/knowing (18.6)]

The Dantons were overwhelmed by the translation salad: Chavannes omitted shengren and called the junzi sages. Legge called shengren sages. Wilhelm avoided sages. For junzi, the Dantons had now three major choices: sages, superior men, noble men. And that was not the end of the confusion: When zhi-zhe (the wise man) needed a proper translation also, the Dantons found that shengren where sages and thus translated zhi-zhe as philosophers.

Another German sinologist, this time Hans Stange, offered his ‘new translation from the original Chinese text: Gedanken und Gespräche des Konfuzius (1953). He avoided calling ‘Konfuzius a philosopher in European sense’ and explained: ‘In place of logical reasoning in Western philosophy, in China we have a proof process that involves historical examples as evidence.’[8] Let that sink in for a moment: Having just declared in one sentence that Confucius was not a philosopher, in the next sentence Stange called the shengren biblical Heilige[9] and die grossen Männer,[10] and went on and translated the zhi-zhe (the wise men) as die Weisen,[11] and ren-zhe (the virtuous man) as ein Guter.[12] Any translation was better than the correct Chinese term.

[1] Wang, 1912, p. i

[2] Ibid., p. 6, 19

[3] Danton, 1931, p. iv

[4] Ibid., p. v

[5] Ibid., p. v

[6] Ibid., p. 157

[7] Ibid., p. 35

[8] Stange, 1953, Introduction: ‘An Stelle der logischen Argumentation der abendländischen Philosophie tritt in der chinesischen nämlich im Beweisverfahren das geschichtliche Beispiel als Beweismittel.”

[9] Ibid., pp. 71, 79, 88, 180

[10] Ibid., p. 159

[11] Ibid., p. 159

[12] Ibid., p. 70

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