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

When Diogenes Laertius, the ‘biographer of the Greek philosophers,’[1]compiled his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers in Greek in the 3rd AD, he was unaware of Confucius or any other Chinese sage but instead focused on where philosophy was founded and belonged—the Mediterranean world. But in a French translation of Diogenes’ work, in 1761, the new publisher, J. H. Schneider in Amsterdam, decided to include a chapter on Confucius. Philosophy had become a global project. The Chinese 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] (Saintly Heroes and the holy Law). Confucius became ‘cet illustre Philosophe’[3] (that 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.’

Confucius in French was described as a scientific instructor who cultivated kings and princes and other virteous men into becoming even more cultivated and virtuous… all under the auspices of Heaven. Schneider’s French publication—need we say this—made no clear distinction between a shengren and a junzi; both were translated interchangeably as ‘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) 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 earlier mentioned English translation from Intorcetta (1691) by Randal Taylor (1691). Although the 1691 edition differed slightly from the latest 1999 edition, 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 prominence 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 his 17th century interpretation, 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]

Prospero Intorcetta’s Lun Yu translation was first published in a compilation arranged by Ludovico Magno in 1687 in Paris. This way Magno could deliberate his own commentaries alongside those chapters by his peers Prosperi Intorcetta, Christiani Herdtrich, Francisci Rougemont, and Philippi Couplet, which resulted in the 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—in peer review—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 in their mid-thirties, when one’s natural memory ability for learning foreign languages is declining, and thus had to rely on Chinese interpreters. The foreigners’ understanding of Confucianism had been simplistic and superficial; they understood the political, educational, and moral spectrum of the sage’s teachings, and they noticed the steady talk on superior persons or ‘çem-çu’ [天子tianzi or ‘princes’] which Ludovico Magno also took the junzi for:[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 concise and precise text; no word was superfluous, and none was missing. 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 stylists with their use of fashionable synonyms in general made it difficult for them not to lose themselves in glorious translations among all those zhizhe (wise men), tianzi (princes), junzi (superior men), shanren (good men), and shengren (sages)—all characters of high virtue.

Whereas the use of original Chinese concepts in their relation to each other was unambiguous, the translations turned out to be overtly creative: The junzi—always junzi in the Chinese original—was çem-çu here[15] and the hominum naturae (the natural man) there, or the imminent istiusmodi personae (the proper person) over there.[16] Hence the European misconception that the Chinese characters were ambiguous and could be replaced at will. In reality, language diminution was a strategy for the Europeans to march in with their own termini. As to the six passages in the Lun Yu in which sheng(ren) did occur, the Magnus/Inorcetta translations left the title unrecognizable: from ‘monimentisque Priscorum sapientum’[17] (wise man of ancient memorial time)’ over ‘virtutum magis illustrium’ (the Illustre of the highest virtue),[18] to no translation at all.

Although the mentioned translations of the Lun Yu were among the first work of ‘exact scholarship,’ many other general accounts about the Chinese tradition were probably published before that. 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]; in 1275, Marco Polo traveled to China, and so on. J. W. De Jong reported in his A Brief History of Buddhist Studies in Europe and America (1987) that the Italian Franciscan friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine (c. 1182-1252) spoke ‘of the religion of the Kitai in Christian terms.’[20] People heard what they want to be heard.

[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

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