Shengren – Chapter 4.5 – Sapientia, les Sages, the Sages

When the “biographer of the Greek philosophers”,[1] Diogenes Laertius, compiled his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers [in Greek] in the 3rd AD, he was unaware of Confucius or any other Chinese sages but instead focused on the Mediterranean world. But in a French translation of Diogenes’ work in 1761, the publisher J. H. Schneider in Amsterdam had a whole chapter on Confucius added. The 先王之道xian wang zhi dao or “way of the ancient kings”, as James Legge would later translate, became: “Saint Héros & la fainte Loi”[2] (Saint heroes and the holy Law). Confucius became “cet illustre Philosophe”[3] (the illustre philosopher), who taught in his “La grande Science” (Da Xue, The Great Science), the Great Secret: “pour acquérir la véritable science, la science par conséquent digne des Princes, & des personnages les plus illustres, c’est de cultivar & polir la raison qui est un présent que nous avons reçu du Ciel.” In it, Confucius was described as a science instructor who cultivated kings and princes and other good men into becoming even more cultivated and virtuous personages – all under the auspice of Heaven. Schneider’s French publication made no clear distinction between a shengren and a junzi; both were translated interchangeably: “les Sages” (the sages).[4] Here is an example of Schneider’s Lunyu passage 16.8 in which the junzi was translated “le Sage”, and shengren was translated “gens de bien” (good men):

孔子曰:“君子有三畏:畏天命,畏大人,畏聖人之言.小人不知天命而不畏也,狎大人,侮聖人之言.” Il y a trios choses que le Sage doit reverer: les Loix du Ciel, les grands homes, & les paroles des gens de bien.[5]

In Diogenes, the junzi, first known as “perfect man”[6] later as “superior man”[7] and then as “(true) gentleman”[8], was now called the sage, while the shengren or sage was called the “good man”. To translate shengren simply as “good men” was a great misreading of the Lunyu which was all about shengren. It could be assumed that the French translator and publisher Schneider (who translated from the Latin from Intorcetta and Couplet etc.) could not read Chinese and/or instead expressed his own feelings about Chinese tradition that came to him through the Latin.

Another important work – among the earliest European writings on Confucian and The Analects – was the English translation from Intorcetta (1691) by Randal Taylor (1691). Although the 1691 edition differed slightly from the 1999 one, in size and page numbers, yet Intorcetta’s philosophic-biblical duality of Confucius remained: Confucius was called a “Chinese philosopher”, “King of the Learned”, while the key concepts shengren and junzi were never directly translated or taken to any greater levels of importance but were instead paraphrased as “saints”, “first perfection” (an abstract, not a person), “philosophers” and “perfect man”, “the good man”, “the wise man” or “the illustrious personage respectively”.[9] On another occasion in the text, Randal Taylor made no clear distinction between kings or sages and princes or gentlemen but instead used them synonymously.[10] The grand narrative in The Morals of Confucius (1691) was not so much a true account of the reality in China, but more the Jesuit’s ambition to declare Chinese tradition holy:

For we shall also find, according to that computation, that the origin of the CHINESE nation was not long after the flood, for from the time of YAO to the year of this age 1688, it is four thousand forty and eight years. This being so, it must necessarily follow that the first inhabitants of CHINA had likewise the true knowledge of GOD and of the creation of the world.[11]

The mentioned translation by Prospero Intorcetta had been first published in a compilation by Ludovico Magno in 1687 in Paris. This way Magno published his own writings with that of his peers Prosperi Intorcetta, Christiani Herdtrich, Francisci Rougemont, and Philippi Couplet in his renowned Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, Sive Scientia Senensis, Latine Exposita (1687), which included, in the third volume entitled Scientiae Sinicae – Liber Tertius – Lún Yúthe first direct translation (Latin from Chinese) of the Lun Yu published in Europe (other works on Confucius like that of Varenio [1649] or Thevenot [1669] were only general historical accounts). As the title of the compilation and the accounts in third book revealed, the European missionaries saw in Confucius first and foremost the greatest “Chinese philosopher”. Ludovico Magno attributed Confucius with terms like “wisest”, “moral philosophy”, “master politician”, “one of China’s most accomplished”:

[…] uno Sinensium consensus habitus omnium, qui unquam apud eos floruerunt, Sapientissimus & Moralis Philosophiae partier ac Politicae Magister & Oraculum.[12]

The first waves of missionaries started to learn Chinese during their mid-thirties, when one’s memory’s ability for learning foreign languages declines, and thus had to rely on Chinese interpreters. The foreigners’ understanding of Confucianism had been general and superficial; they understood the political, educational, and moral spectrum of the sage’s teachings, and they noticed the steady talk on superior moral beings and their superior virtues when it came to human relationship (in all major Chinese texts, including Moism, Daoism, Legalism, Histories etc.) such as the “çem-çu” (junzi and tianzi [superior man and prince] were treated as interchangeable by Ludovico Magno):[13]

Quae igitur tu aversaris in superioribus, ne agas cum inferioribus; & quae aversaris in inferioribus ne agas cum superioribus.[14] [In the company with superiors, to not offend them; in the company of the inferiors, do not embarass them.]

The Lun Yu was a very concise and precise text; no word was superfluous, and none seemed to miss. Synonyms were not used. If the shengren was meant, the shengren was said; if the junzi was meant, the junzi was said. When the Europeans translated the text, it soon became clear that European lightheartedness with the use of synonyms in general made it difficult for them not to lose oneself in translations among all those zhizhe (wise men), tianzi (princes), junzi (superior men), shanren (good men), and shengren (sages), all of whom were characters of high virtue. Where the use of original Chinese concepts in their relation to each other was unambiguous, the translations were creative and of great varieties. The junzi – while always the junzi in the Chinese original – was çem-çu here[15] and became the hominum naturae (the natural man) or imminent istiusmodi personae (the proper person) there.[16] Hence the European misconception that a Chinese character was ambiguous – the ambiguity only arose when the European languages tried to circumference it.

In the third book, Scientiae Sinicae – Liber Tertius – Lún Yú, the translation of the Lun Yu demonstrated the European irritation and their various synonyms for princes and superior people (Magnus transliterated: çem-çu). Of the eight true positions in six paragraphs where shengren did occur in the original Chinese text, the translations were unrecognizable either “monimentisque Priscorum sapientum”[17] (wise man of ancient memorial time) or “virtutum magis illustrium [the Illustre of the highest virtue],[18] or it was not translated at all.

Although the mentioned translations of the Lun Yu were among the first work of “exact scholarship”, many other general accounts of Chinese tradition were published long before. The use of philosophical and Christian terminology in analyzing Asian traditions wasn’t restricted to mere Confucianism. We may recall that one of the first encounters of the Western world with Buddhism took place in the 13th century already (in 1245, Franciscan and Dominican missionaries were sent by Pope Innocent IV to the Mongol khan[19], while Marco Polo travelled in China from 1275 to 1291), J. W. De Jong observed in his A Brief History of Buddhist Studies in Europe and America (1987) that for example the Italian Franciscan friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine (c. 1182-1252) always spoke “of the religion of the Kitai in Christian terms”.[20]People then come and go but old habits die slow.



[1] title in Wikipedia, 03/2011, Diogenes Laertius

[2] Diogenes, 1761, p. 106

[3] Ibid., 1761, p. 107

[4] Ibid., 1761, pp. 174, 175, 176, 177, 182, 183 ff.

[5] Ibid., 1761, p. 187

[6] Intorcetta, 1691, p. 96

[7] Legge, 1861, p. 59, 133: Loomis, 187, pp. 96, 98-102

[8] Cranmer-Byng, 1910, p. 56

[9] Taylor, 1691, pp. 2, 10, 20, 30, 41, 42, 44, 99, 103, 104, 109, 118, 131, 133, 144

[10] Ibid., pinces or junzi? see pp, 5, 53, 58; kings or shengren? see p. 20

[11] Ibid., p. 8

[12] Ludovico Magno, 1687, p. Aij/B

[13] Ibid., pp. 23-25, 29, 32, 33-35 ff.

[14] Ibid., p. 26

[15] Ludovico Magno, 1687, pp. G23-25, 29, 32, 33, 34, 35 ff.

[16] Ibid., p. 33

[17] Ibid., III, p. 88

[18] Ibid., III, p. 126

[19] De Jong, 1987, p. 8-9

[20] Ibid, p. 9-10

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