Shengren – Chapter 4.15 – East-Asia Evangelized

Even our common milk-cow fancies the East is evil and the West is our savior.[1]

– A reader’s comment, Zeit

Christopher Columbus famously remarked: ‘I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion.’[2] He went on and christened the first few islands he conquered Los Santos (The Saints), Saint Kitts, Saint Fustativs, Saint Martin, and Saint Croix (Holy cross). Of course Columbus had not discovered India as he intended, but had harassed the New World—the Bahamas and Cuba, to be exact. Yet, the way the famous discoverer gave Christian names to islands and declared all their inhabitants potential Christians repeated itself all over the world, in particular in China. In 1691, Randal Taylor in his The Morals of Confucius made the following observation:

Most of the missionaries who relate this are firmly persuaded, that CONFUCIUS foresaw the coming of the MESSIAH.[3]

English scholarship has since asked the question who exactly started this Confucius-Messiah rumor, although after 300 years – many Germans still called shengren Heilige, a reminiscence of that good holy China – the question was still relevant. The English blamed the French; the French thought they were right; the Germans were always right – so in the end it suffices to acknowledge that the Europeans jointly and in concert brought down cultural China to its knees, pastoralized its once glorious civilization and worked with pro-Western dissidents which were to deprive China of her names, just as the allies were up in arms when they burned down the Summer Palace at the turn of the 20th century. European powers agitated collectively when they pursued a common cause, namely to spread European values to China, to finance European conferences and think tanks (the forerunners of non-governmental organization—which always are involuntarily and partly governmental or cover-ups for intelligence services). Any success of one Western power was the collective success of all Western powers: to abolish and to support revolutionaries whose aim was to abolish the last Chinese dynasty. Take the British tendency to translate junzi as gentleman.[4] How important it was to have future tens of thousands Chinese ‘gentlemen’—almost as important as to have them play cricket (an 16th Century English bat-and-ball game) and golf (a 15th Century Scottish terrain sport). A British gentleman in China was translated 先生 xiansheng—neutral: ‘Mister”—so no submission to foreign overlords here; meanwhile, the Chinese junzi—the noble Chinese exemplary character—was abolished in English reports. Although there was little value for Germans to call junzi a gentleman, traditionally a British title, the point made was that junzi was up for survival: The Germans translated him as ‘der Edle”—a noble aristocrat. All those translations of course were nowhere near the imperialist brilliancy of calling Confucius a philosopher or the shengren Heilige; still… all what mattered to the new linguistic architects was that the old and original Chinese terms had to go.

The first European translation of Confucius’ The Analects might not have been the words that set the world in motion, yet the nature of cultural scholarship has it that ideological translations are circulated and handed down to one’s peer group, and some peer groups are part of or resemble a political cartel. Those first translations of the Lun Yu which circulated in Europe were composed in Latin and French by people of God whose mission it was to bring ‘the True Religion and the Correct Sciences to the rest of humankind.’[5] The True Religion was Christianity and the Correct Sciences were European science, and the way that knowledge had been accumulated was by the philosophical approach. Before the missionaries traveled the lands, there was no Greco-Hellenic philosophy in China, but there was 教jiao (teachings); and there was no Bible but 经jing (sutras or writings); and there was no God but 天tian and 地di (heaven and earth, nature). China had been a sage culture since Yao and Shun 2200 BC, and because sage culture had vanished in Europe with the rise of the Greek philosophers and Christianity, the missionaries could not imagine how China looked like without Confucius the quasi-Socrates. Technically, the comparison between the thriving and developed sage tradition before them and the threadbare and infant sage tradition in Greece was impossible, since 2200 years have passed between them. Some Europeans felt puzzled, in disbelieve, and sometimes… angry. How could China not have advanced into a European-style culture? The very fact that China existed without Christianity, and did so well economically and culturally, became the stuff of bitter controversy.

Especially the Germans thought they had arrived in a fairy tale and angrily rejected dishonest China:

The astronomically high figures over the age of China that far outdated the Biblical creation story seemed so implausible that those figures were dismissed as fairy tale, just like other Oriental cultures.[6]

In a thought-scenario where China had sent missionaries to Europe, some of European greatest philosophers might as well be called shengren today, and the Bible could be another jing among many other jings. The Chinese at least were curious about Western philosophers and called them 哲学家zhexue jia—the family of knowledge students. Even that Jewish preacher Jesu of Nazareth 耶稣 could have past as impoverished shengren, and the missionaries took heed to pass Jesus Christ as shengren because it was evidently the highest title in the classics. If Jesus Christ was a shengren, than China was religious—she just didn’t know it yet. That by the same logic the West was Confucian without knowing could be dismissed: China lacked not just military power and economic might but lacked even more so what 21st Century US pundits would later call ‘soft power’—the power to convert Westerners to Chineseness.

Not that China was unattractive—some of the best Jesuits fell in love with her people and rites and became what could best be described as Chinese agents, which prompted Pope Clement XI to issue his infamous Papal bull in 1704 condemning all Chinese beliefs and rites. The papacy, the most powerful religious institution the world has ever seen, urged its Christian missionaries to convert more Chinamen.

It took the British another 150 years before they thought they had found hard evidences from textual studies that China had no God, no religion, and that Confucius was no saint. In 1867, James Legge confirmed that indeed Confucius was ‘unreligious,’[7] and that he ‘gave no impulse to religion.’[8] The Christians responded with massive propaganda [a market emerged for Handbooks of Christianity in China]; they set up charities, built churches in their foreign concessions, infested book publishers (Brill, the Dutch publishing house founded in 1683, mixed theology with Asian languages and cultures) claimed victimhood if local authorities interfered, and—most importantly—collaborated with the imperialists by burdening themselves with the spiritual reparation after China’s downfall.

Nevertheless, academics of name stood by the objective truth: In 1926, Herbert Giles—who was a Cambridge University professor and a diplomat—reiterated was was borne out of all the evidences: ‘The Chinese are not, and, so far as we can judge from their history, never have been, what we understand by the term ‘a religious people’,[9] and ‘Translators of Chinese texts have indeed generally tried to shirk the use of the world ‘God’ as an equivalent for T’ien, and have adopted the vaguer word ‘Heaven.’[10] An intellectual battle in the West began not so much over returning cultural China back to China, but more so over defending the good name of (now proven erroneous) European Oriental scholarship. In 1932, Herrlee Glessner Creel, a Puritan and American sinologist from the University of Chicago, asked whether Confucius could have been Agnostic. Creel found that ‘Confucius could not possibly have developed deep knowledge of the human nature without believing in God.’[11] Even sceptic Herbert Giles could not have ruled out with absolute certainty a universe in which Confucius was a Christian without knowing it, and eventually contradicted himself when he wrote that ‘the Chinese are not a religious people,’ and next that ‘the word ‘God’ has been familiar in China from time immemorial:’[12]

The name T’ien or ‘Heaven’ (tian) is, indeed, constantly interchanged in Confucianism with Ti or ‘God;’ […] when our revealed Scriptures come to be familiar books in the country, the impersonal ‘Heaven’ will more and more give place to the personal name, and the fear and reverences of God that are now inculcated will have superadded to them the loving regard and childlike trust that we owe our Father in heaven, God of salvation.[13]

New German sinologists held on to old imperial conviction and predicaments about arrested China, understandably: Academia and old boy school was everything to them. Georg Hegel’s theories and Richard Wilhelm’s research gave them confidence and legitimacy, writing a philosophical piece on Immanuel Kant or Max Weber’s Asia views made them China authorities. There is a church-top pointing into the sky in the centers of every German town, and most businesses close on Sunday, the day the Lord’s rests. Now they had to make Sunday China rest. Chinese life was about to be interrupted and Confucius was about to be remodeled into China’s holy man.

The historian Brian Brown recalled the farce: ‘In considering the nature and organization of human society it is necessary for him [Confucius] to understand the laws of God.”[14] No co-religionist could avoid biblical interpretation; and neither could most politically invested groups—let alone the intellectual architects of China’s proto-philosophy and neo-Christianity: all those directors and research scholars crowding overfunded ‘China centers’ and ‘East Asia collections’ at Harvard University, the University of California Berkeley, and Cambridge University in England (all fundamental Christian institutions).

A milestone among Western publications was The Culture & Civilization of China series, published by Yale University Press and chaired—and I am not making this up—by George H. W. Bush, the President of the United States of America (and a devoted Christian). One except says the following: ‘God/Sky – ‘Heaven’ is an important concept in ancient Chinese philosophy. It comprises two aspects: on one hand it is an objective infinite reality, the ‘sky’; on the other it is ‘God’ or the supreme concept’.[15] More intriguing, shengren and junzi have no entries in the book at all. Instead, Confucius is called a philosopher and the Chinese thinkers are called philosophers and tian is called ‘Heaven or God.’ How did the author(s) justify imaginative stories of a China Philosophy? The book goes on: ‘The character for heaven is probably derived from that for big man. This is one reason why a human element has always been present in the Chinese conception of heaven as God’.[16] Since Chinese characters are pictograms, the Chinese sign for heaven 天looked to the Western experts like the combination of a big大man人 in heaven天. That ‘big man in heaven’… so the Western architects of China’s proto-Christianity (with the world’s Christian university presses at their command)… is an allusion to God the Almighty Creator.

And so the presses pressed their propaganda. A philosopher Confucius was marketed by associate professor Karyn L. Lai in her career textbook Introduction to Chinese Philosophy (2008) published by Cambridge University Press. The title—Chinese Philosophy—is the program: Confucius is a philosopher and his teachings… philosophy. What was Cambridge University Press thinking? ‘Philosophy’ is written out everywhere in that textbook—in direct contrast to Chinese history and all the scriptures mentioned which are void of the word philosophy, 哲学zhexue. Meanwhile, shengren didn’t make it into the index of her book, which is rather thoughtless in an introduction to Chinese thought. The shengren translation ‘sage’[17] made it in the book by way of her citing another author, Chan Wing-tsit, from his The Way of Lao Tzu (1979).[18]

Back in the 19th century, James Legge could not avoid using Judea-Christian terminologies in his China writings due to the pressure mounting on him by his impatient superiors. So while his early 1867 Lun Yu manuscript eluded Christian interpretation, he backpaddled from his scholarly neutrality with an 1877 paper read before the Missionary Conference in Shanghai. In it, he defaulted to proto-Christianity: Tian, he explained, bears ‘striking similarities to the Christian notion of Heaven and God.’[19] Legge, stubbornly, never abandoned his shengren-sage translation though (he could have called Kongzi a saint); even though in his 1893 memorandum Life and Teachings he—at the age of 78—reconciled Confucian and Christian faith by saying ‘his [Confucian] teachings suggest important lessons to ourselves who profess to belong to the school of Christ’.[20] Today, the hoopla about Confucius’ true faith, a persona contruct that died over 2490 years ago, seems rather fictitious—but that’s what the scholars do and are paid to do, thousands of them. During the life times of Richard Wilhelm and James Legge, translation meant everything for German and British scholarship: winning or losing the battle over how the West would read China the next thousand years. Herbert A. Giles, the eminent Professor of Chinese at Cambridge University, made no secret about his Anglican faith and projected it onto China. He refused to discuss Confucian and Taoist China any other way than in close association to the Gospel. After all, the Emperor of heaven – how could he not be the ‘son of God’[21] and how could the great leaders of China not have been instructed by God?

But we are left entirely in the dark as to how and when and where King Wen received these communications from God; whether he saw Him in person, or whether, as in the case of Moses, he did his face, afraid to look upon the divine glory.[22]

Professor Giles called Confucius the ‘divinest of men,’ and ‘certain that he believed firmly in a higher Power – the God of his fathers.’[23] According to Giles, Confucius said this: ‘God implanted the virtue in me; what can this man do to me?’ And this: ‘I do not murmur against God, nor do I grumble against man. My studies lie low, but they reach high, and there is God – He knows me. If my doctrines are to prevail, it is so ordered of God; if they are to fail, it is so ordered of God.’ Mark Larrimore, Associate Professor in Religious Studies in New York, explained the possible logic behind Giles and other missionaries’ shameless efforts to abuse Confucius for their own Christian cause. In his paper ‘On Christian Wolff’s Oratio de Sinarum Philosophia Practica‘ (2000), Larrimore writes:

China was also an ethical provocation for European thinkers. The apparent antiquity of the Chinese histories posed the disturbing question: Was China not affected by the flood? If not, was China spared because its people had not fallen into sin? Parallel to speculation that the Chinese language preserved the Adamic language was the belief that the ethics of Adam lived on in China – or, if not the ethics of Adam, at least that of Noah, or Enoch, or the lawgiver of the prisca theologia.[24]

One cannot deny that nationalism and ideology played an important part in many cross-cultural translations, especially in the relatively new discipline of Comparative Studies where one compared culture usually falls short of the next, inviting inequality and hierarchies, even racism. The English and the Germans couldn’t allow shengren to enter the dictionaries because China would become an authority, a civilatory reference for the English and the German.

Winning the inner-British culture war, Giles surrendered to Legge’s neutral sages: shengren became ‘the great sages” and junzi became ‘the superior men.”[25] He could have sided with Wilhelm’s saints (Heilige), but chose not to—and we can only speculate as to why: Perhaps Giles finally realized that lofty wisdom played more into the conception of the shengren than religious fundamentalism. Reverend A. W. Loomis once wrote in a chapter entitled Remarks on the Doctrines Taught by the Chinese Sages (1867):

We notice that [the Chinese] fall short of the high standard of morality which we find in the Bible. In several places we find that which at first sight may seem to read almost like the precept, ‘love they neighbor as thyself,’ but nowhere do we find the commandment, ‘love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.[26]

Indeed, a sage by any characterization of the archetype needs no allegiance to religion. Confucius said he did not believe in the supernatural and ghosts. Moreover, his so-acquired wisdom about relations in society was practical, borne out of intuition. This is plain and acknowledged by Western philosophers, say Arthur Schopenhauer:

Wisdom proper is something intuitive, not something abstract. It does not consist in principles and ideas which a person carries round ready in his head, as results of his own or others’ investigation; it is the whole way in which the world presents itself in his head.[27]

Chan Wing-tsit (1963), Lau Dim-cheuk (1979), Tu Weiming (1987) all successively translated shengren as the sages. Professor Tu, a mainland Chinese educated in Taiwan and nationalized in the United States wrote that Confucian virtue can be learned and that the highest exemplification of that virtue, sagehood, is practically attainable: ‘Sagehood is an authentic manifestation of humanity and the paradigmatic sage, and Confucius is a case in point’.[28] With more and more Asiatic scholars flocking into the Anglo-Saxon education system, they might challenge the Eurocentric saint talk. What the timid Asiatic scholars won’t do is calling the shengren shengren. That’s because they equate international with English and felt obligated to use English terms abroad.

Just for how long continental Europe can keep up its saint translations remains to be seen. The difference between saints and sages has been discussed extensively, for example in Hawley, John S. (1987), Saints and Virtues or Rodney L. Taylor’s, The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism – The Sage as Saint (1990), or Robert C. Neville’s Soldier, Sage, Saint (1978). To recall a crucial definition, Rodney L. Taylor wrote: ‘The technical definition of saint in its Christian historical context has little or no meaning whatsoever in the Confucian tradition’,[29] although Taylor also warned his reader that religious people and generally people who grew up in Christian traditions may always want to refer to Confucius as a holy person of the Chinese tradition no matter what.

[1] Anonymous user, in Zeit, 2011, JUN 19th: ‘Das einfache Melkvieh glaubt ja an den heilbringenden Westen und den bösen Osten.”

[2] Fuson, 1992

[3] Taylor, 1691, p. 45

[4] Cranmer-Byng (1910), p. 56; Lyall (1925), p. 1 ff.; Brown (1972), p. 84; Pound (1928), p. 229; Starr (1930), p. 37; Johnston (1935), p. 207; Lin (1938), pp. 154, 179; Collis (1948), pp. 11 ff.; Herbert (1950), p. 26; Creel (1951), pp. 67, 86, 91, 97, Liu (1955), p. 92

[5] Pfister, 2003, On Translation and Its Problems, p. 734

[6] Albrecht, 1985, p. Xi: ‘Die astronomisch hohen Zahlen über das Alter Chinas, mit denen die biblische Weltschöpfung weit überboten wurde, erschienen zu unglaubwürdig, dass sie ebenso wie die schon bekannten Chronologien der altorientalischen Völker als märchenhaft zurückgewiesen wurden.’

[7] Legge, 1867, p. 99

[8] Ibid., p. 115

[9] Giles, 1926, p. 1

[10] Ibid., p. 9

[11] Creel, 1932, p. 57

[12] Giles, 1926, p. 1

[13] Lette, 1877, p. 4

[14] Brown, 1927, p. 152

[15] see Zhang, 2002

[16] Zhang, 2002, p. 3

[17] In Lai, 2008, p. 101

[18] see Chan, 1979, p. 101

[19] Legge, 1877, A Paper Read Before the Missionary Conference in Shanghai

[20] Legge, 1893, pp. 114-115

[21] Giles, 1925, p. 21

[22] Ibid., 67-68

[23] Ibid., p. 67

[24] Larrymore, 2000, p. 190

[25] Giles, 1926, p. 73

[26] Loomis, 1867, p. 394

[27] Payne, 1958, p. 75

[28] Tu, 1987, p. 73

[29] Taylor, 1990, p. 47

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