Shengren – Chapter 4.7 – Heilige vs. Sages (German vs. Anglo-American)

“Where can I find a Holy Man?”

As a result of the tendency to regard nature or actuality as absolute existence, the Chinese came to adopt the idea of optimism. Thus, they regarded this world as a good place in which to live; they finally came to believe that perfect existence must exist in this world. Here, the idea of the “Sheng-jen” (sage) was established. He was the perfect person such as the Chou King or Confucius. The sage is not a god but a man. However, he is in principle the ideal. In art, Wang Yi-chih was balled “the sage of writing” and Tu Fu “the sage of poetry”. They were regarded as the perfect models of principle in art.[1]

– Hajime Nakamura, Ways of Thinking of Eastern People

The above quote was taken from the English translation of Japanese buddhologist and indologist Hajimie Nakamura’s Ways of Thinking of Eastern People (1964). In Japanese language the Kanji for sages is the Chinese character for sages, same: 聖 (in China simplified: 圣). The definition of “Sheng-jen” given by the Sinologist Nakamura and the Japanologist Philip P. Wiener, his translator, were not at all controversial in Japan and the English-speaking world; however in Germany they would be considered sensational, because the common German translation for Chinese shengren and Japanese sējin were always “Heilige” (saints), not “die Weisen” (sages), not gods, not philosophers, not half-gods or holy men, whereas, if Nakamura in Japanese or Wiener in English had called shengren a saint or holy man or god-like, they would have been discredited in their respected academic communities:

Sage (sheng ren) is a term that appears throughout ancient Chinese texts to designate a person of ideal wisdom and understanding. […] In one of the earliest occurrences of ‘sage’ in a Chinese text, The Book of Historical Documents (Shu jing, c. 300 BCE), it is glossed as follows: ‘Sageness is to understand all kings.'[2]

Consequently, when the historian of Classical Chinese Alice W. Cheang reviewed four of the “recent translations” of Confucius’ Analects in The Review of Politics: 1) Ames & Rosemont’s The Analects of Confucius (1998), 2) Brooks’ The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and His Followers (1998), 3) Huang Chichung’s The Analects of Confucius [Lun Yu] (1997), and 4) Leys’ The Analects of Confucius (1997), she put great emphasize on the correct translation of shengren as sages; everything short of sages (like saints) was academically suspect.[3] Likewise, a work like The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China, by Liu An, King of Huainan (2010) by the sinologists John S. Major, Sarah Queen, Andrew Meyer and Harold Roth would be, I think, a quite different read if the hundreds of Chinese “shengren” and “sages” in the text had been replaced by “saints” or “holy men”. Yet, that is exactly what Wei Yuqing in her Vergleichende Paedagogische China Forschung (1993) and Heiner Roetz in his Konfuzius (1994) did; they translated shengren as “Heilige”[4] (and philosophers and genius).[5] And although German dictionaries like the Duden or the Dehanci still translated shengren first and foremost as “Heilige”, more German sinologists rather ignored the German holy-tradition and allied themselves to English- and thus international scholarship with the result that they translated English “sage” correctly into German “die Weisen”, like in Gregor Paul’s Konfuzius (2001) and Eun-Jeung Lee’s Konfuzius interkulturell gelesen (2008)[6] – although Lee’s translations also included very German terminology like “Kulturheroen” (cultural heroes or idols) and “halblegendäre Könige der früheren Dynastien”[7] (semi-legendary kings of the past dynasties), which indicated that German scholarship was still unaware of the living concept of sages and sagehood in China. The idea of sage culture did not exist in Germany, and certain expressions of sage culture were usually interpreted as “communist”, just like certain expressions of sage culture in Japan were still seen as strange Nationalism. The idea that a culture could be fundamentally different from German-European one, for example a sage culture with sages and sagehood for over 2500 years, was unthinkable to a German scholar. For some of the most renowned German sinologists, Confucianism was a shady ideology that was used by Communist China to take over the West, while even referring to the Confucius-Institutes, a place to study Chinese language and Chinese culture, as an unwanted “Chinese sub-marines” on German soil.[8]

The frustration of the Germans with Oriental studies was overwhelming. The were the only scholarly community in the world with considerable influence who collectively translated shengren as “Heilige”, “Kulturheroen”, “Philosophen”, “Göttliche”, “Berufene” – not only incorrect but senseless. They just wouldn’t let go.

They Japanese, of course, did not translate 聖人shengren because they used the same Kanji: Shengren was essentially the same word in Chinese and Japanese. Shengren and sējin were sages because both China and Japan had been sage cultures with sages and sagehood, just like Germany and Britain had been cultures with philosophers and philosophy. The writings of Confucius and his disciples could better be summarized as “the teaching of the Sages”,[9] and not as “die Philosophie des Konfuzius”.[10] It was no surprise, that Chinese scholars in the English-speaking world felt much more confident about their own culture, then the Chinese scholars in Germany who were denied their own Chinese traditions. As early as 1911, Chen Huangchen of Columbia University wrote in his The Economic Principles of Confucius and His School (1911):

The future of China is bright. With an uninterrupted history extending over five thousand years, with an intelligent, diligent, prudent, and vigorous people of four hundred millions, with an extensive but connected territory of four and a quarter million square miles, with abundant natural resources, under one centralized government, one uniform language, one highly developed religion, one national idea, China will, without doubt, become a strong nation, but the world need not be afraid of the so-called yellow peril. China will indeed adopt both militarism and industrialism. But China will not injure any one not Chinese as the Western nations take advantage of other people. After China shall be strong, the Great Similarity of Confucius will come and the world-wide state will appear. Then the brotherhood of nations will be established, and there will be no war, but perpetual peace.[11]

The Chinese classical character聖sheng (simplified: 圣) was untranslatable into the German language. “Sage” was the English (as well as the French) translation, referring to sagacious person which made it a good translation. “Sage” in German language meant not a person but a legend or myth or even a fairy tale; a mouth-to-mouth story; hence its resemblance to the verb sagen (to say). The closest correct German translation for shengren and sages was “Weiser” (the wise, a wise man, a sage), but Weiser – that very old geezer – rang archaic and nauseating to a German ear. Der Weise sounded anachronistic, incompetent, almost weltfremd. The Stein der Weisen (Philosophers’ stone) was alchemistic and fiction. The Sieben Weisen von Griechenland (Seven Sages of Greece) were overthrown by the progressive philosophers; Christianity thought the Germans that the highest wisdom was with God, the Weisen of Zion were Jewish sages and we knew where that ended. “Weisen” was a question of ear, and it sounded odd.

Some tried to revive the sages and their ways, though. Immanuel Kant once remarked that: “Weisheit ist Philosophie in ihrer höchsten Form”[12] and the greatest German poet and writer Johann W. Goethe said that “der Philosoph, der sich in die Mitte stellt… und nur in diesem Mittelzustand verdient er den Namen des Weisens”.[13] With die Weisen placed higher in the hierarchy than all German philosophers, would it be wise of the German philosophers to acknowledge that China had so many sages and Germany had, officially, none? Maybe German intelligentsia would not like the new categories. Herman Hesse warned that the Germans should not lose themselves and cling to the fetish that was China,[14] and Oswald Spengler criticized the sages:

The sage is the man of the Golden Mean. His ascesis consists in a judicious deprecation of the world in favor of meditation. The wisdom of the enlightenment never interferes with comfort […] Virtue with Wisdom at its back is a sort of secret enjoyment, a superfine intellectual egoism. And so the ethical teacher who is outside real religion becomes the Philistine. Buddha, Confucius, Rousseau, are arch-Philistines, for all their nobility of their ordered ideas, the pedantry of their Socratic life-wisdom is insurmountable.[15]

In addition, some translations of sheng or sage into German Weiser did not sound as majestic as the original. The word shengren in Chinese context is very potent and has the power to ignite even simple words to explode in the mind, like 他不是人,他是圣人ta bu shi ren, ta shi sheng (That is no ordinary man, he is a sage). Again, the question of ear: The diphthong ‘ei’ (one of five in the German language) that was pronounced aĭ [as in English Why? Scottish Aye!] sounded rather soft and undramatic (as opposed to the English hssss-sound) with the initial “w” that was pronounced like v [as in English victory]; at the same time “Weise” also means manner or style, as in “die Art und Weise” [in this way/after this manner]. For example, how would someone translate this headline: “Weisen der Welterschaffung”?[16] Here, “Weisen” did not mean sages, but ways. So the correct reading would be something along the line of: Ways of world-creation. The Deutsches Wörterbuch (1965) of the Grimm Brothers furthermore explained that the close tangency of Weiser with its adjective weise – Weiser really was just a shortening of ein weiser Mensch – made the word feel oblique and subordinate; it needed a dependant like in die sieben Weisen Griechenlands (the seven Sages of Greece).[17] For example the translation of 宗圣寺zong sheng si (Ancestral Hall of the Sages), would become “Die ehrerfürchtigende Halle der Weisen”… what? “Weisen Männer”, “Weisen Leute”, “Weisen Chinesen”? (wise men, wise people, wise Chinese). All the same, it just did not sound powerful enough.

No matter who, translations will be translations, and people will always correct each other. At the north end of that Confucius temple and facing the South, the so-called “tablet of Confucius” showed the following inscription: zhi sheng xian shi kong zi (lit: to sage mister teacher kong zi). The sinologist Thomas Watters translated the Chinese inscription as the “Perfect Sage”, the “Former Teacher, the Philosopher K’ung”[18], while Reginald F. Johnston, a Professor of Chinese and Head of the Department of Languages and Cultures Studies at SOAS, London, dropped the “Philosopher”. In his new translation it said: “The Supreme Sage and Teacher, our Master K’ung, spoke thus”.[19]

The sinologists Thomas Watters and Henri S. j. Bernard both lived and published their works in China. Most German Orientalists did not have this privilege, and they did not need to, because rationality had ruled the day, “Aber freilich: nur im Abendlande”[20] [Rightly so, but only in the Occident], better, only in the Protestant Occident. The quote was from Max Weber, one of the greatest German orientalists, who made up for the German short-comings of not having experienced Asia by insisting that social sciences are best done from a birds-eye view. The German scholars believed in a German Sonderweg – the delusion that German philosophers explained the world entirely – and much better than the British empiricists for that matter – from behind their desks hidden in some recluse towns or tiny cities of their homelands, if only the orientalists provided them with some data. One could see from the works of the German thinkers, what kind of data they were provided with. Grünwedel was so full of the sacred and divine that he discovered holiness beneath every stone he turned over in India;[21] and Gützlaff became so obsessed with the revered and blessed that he concluded Confucius had a pact with God.[22] Before them, Leibniz and Wolff had received word that Confucius was a moral man, thus their writings about China were about ethics and politics. Hegel read much about the histories of India and China, and thus invented a new discipline that could explain world history. Goethe had heard about the wisdom of China, and Herman Hesse about the wisdom of India, and both wrote about (Oriental) wisdom, of course. Max Weber heard a lot about irrational things in the Orient, and wrote his manifesto on Western rationality,[23] in which cultures came in degrees of greatness and had found its preliminary peak at Protestant rationality. They all made the German world filled with pride.

The French were fond and generous with the title ‘philosopher’, too. They expected to see philosophers when they looked for it. Renan said: “To do philosophy is to know things”, which was easy.[24] The Chinese had to know something, so they qualified: French sinologists, with their historical enthusiasm, if not obsession with les philosophes, la Philosophie orientale, la Philosophie chinoise, la pensée philosophique, la pensée chinoise, et la sagesse chinoise (Chinese wisdom) found their philosophers, nevertheless – perhaps kindly so – often translated shengren as le Sage (the sage). That was because like the Englishman, the Frenchman too derived “sage” from sapientia (wisdom). Henri Bernard wrote: “Confucius, le Sage des Sages”[25] and elaborated: “En réalité, Confucius n’est pas un philosophe. C’est un moraliste érudite, doublé d’un “honnête homme” au sens où le XVIIIme siècle français entendait ce mot”[26] [In fact, Confucius wasn’t a philosopher. He was a scholar and moralist, coupled with “highest virtue” {lit. a good man} in the sense of what the 18th century-meaning of the word was]. It was a reference to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s honnête homme or “an upright man”.[27]

The French wanted to extend their friendship and like-mindedness with Chinese leaders, and some of those attempts became well-known, for example the comparison of the Sun King Louis XIV with the kind Emperor Kangxi, French Chinoiserie of the 17th century, Rousseau’s idea of honnête homme or “an upright man” (from 君子junzi) and ideal citizenship, Voltaire’s praise for Confucian values, and the Confucian concept of ideal leadership that helped foster the French Revolution. The French President Sarkozy during France’s hold of the European presidency in 2008, and after attending the Beijing 2008 Olympic Opening ceremony (which the German chancellor Angela Merkel boycotted) proposed to establish a “Comité des Sages” to address future problems of the European Union. The Germans disapproved. “Kommittee der Weisen” sounded Oriental and patriarchic. Like the sage council that was seen lately during the revolution in Egypt after the demise of president Mubarak’s regime.[28] The French called Confucius a sage and the Rousseau of China, while the Germans distinguished between Rousseau the “Aufklärungspaedagoge” [the enlightenment’s pedagogue], and Confucius the “feudal Unterdrückungsphilosoph” [the feudal philosopher of oppression].[29] The French approvals of Chinese sage-traditions were undeniable, and sages a fact of life. How will European scholarship decide in the end? Will the shengren be shengren, sages, saints, or rather philosophers?

In Mencius, the chapter eight, Li Lou II, was entitled and dedicated to the “Traditions of the Sages” because that was what the chapter was all about: sages and sagehood.[30] It described the he rise of the early sages, Shun and King Wen:

孟子曰:“舜生於諸馮,遷於負夏,卒於鳴條,東夷之人也. 文王生於岐周,卒於畢郢,西夷之人也. 地之相去也,千有餘里;世之相後也,千有餘歲.得志行乎中國,若合符節. 先聖後聖,其揆一也.” Mencius said, ‘Shun was born in Zhu Feng, removed to Fu Xia, and died in Ming Tiao – a man near the wild tribes on the east. King Wen was born in Zhou by mount Qi, and died in Bi Ying – a man near the wild tribes on the west. Those regions were distant from one another more than a thousand li, and the age of the one sage was posterior to that of the other more than a thousand years. But when they got their wish, and carried their principles into practice throughout the Middle Kingdom, it was like uniting the two halves of a seal. When we examine those sages, both the earlier and the later, their principles are found to be the same.'[31]

The title shengren lead to European puzzlement, if not bewilderment. The sinologist Maurice Collis decided that shengren was not a sage but a “Divine sage”[32] and “Holy One” in his Confucius: The First Holy One (1948):

Confucius was not a god, or God, or a Prophet of God. Gods there were in plenty at his period; Buddha, his contemporary, later became God, as did Christ; the Jewish Prophets of God slightly preceded him, and Mohammed and Mani, also Prophets of God, appeared after him. Speaking of himself, he said: ‘As to being a Divine Sage or even a Good Man, far be it from me to make any such claim.’ […] It is true that later Emperors conferred title after splendid title upon him, among them styles intimating that he was a Divine Sage, as does the style First Holy One, and that of Universal Father conferred in the seventh century A.D. […] To call him, out of profound respect, a Sage or even a Divine Sage or Holy One was not improper, though he had disclaimed the titles. […] As the infallible author of the state cult, he would have had to be God, or at least the inspired Prophet of God. There is no trace of this, however, in the canonical books […]

If there was – as Collis said- no mentioning of “God”, or” prophet of God” or “Holy One” in the canonical books (quite right), why was he writing a book about “God”, “prophet of God”, and Confucius the “Holy One”? Collis’ Confucius was full of biblical language, and in that he had much in common with the majority of German writers like Schott, Wilhelm and Haas. The German missionary Hans Haas never used the Chinese terms junzi and shengren; instead he talked about die Edlen and die Heiligen[33], while Richard Wilhelm translated sheng as Gott, Genie, or göttliche Männer.[34] Die Weisen (sages) were not mentioned. Some said Haas acknowledged that Confucius was ein Weiser, but why then did he not say it? Shengren, Weiser, simple. Instead Haas called Confucius every other possible name one could imagine: “reformatorischen Genius” [genius of reform], “Mann der Tradition und des juste milieu, der Formen und der strikten Observanz, dem warmherzigen Gemütsmenschen, den Rechtspedanten, dem Propheten, den Deuteronomiker, dem tiefsinnigen Philosophen, den hausbackenen Rationalisten”, “chinesischer Geistesheroe”, “eine Art chinesischer Jules Simon: ein edeldenkender, phantasieloser Ethiker, Politiker und Pedant”, “der ungekrönte König“, “der szepterlose Monarch“, “Praeceptor Sinarum”, and “Heiliger”, etc.[35] On one occasion, Haas said “Weisen” and meant Confucius:

Wohl bin ich der Meinung, dass selbst wir Abendländer noch dies und jenes von dem Weisen des fernen Ostens lernen könnten.[36] [Well, I think that even we Westerners could learn more of this and that from the sage {Confucius} of the Far East.]

The phrase “von dem Weisen meant “from the wise Confucius”, it did not demonstrate any understanding of shengren on Haas’ behalf. On the contrary, Haas said “could”, not “can” learn more from Confucius, and in a way he was pleading the superior people of the Occident could learn something – if only they would. Meanwhile, it was the Orient that was pressured to conform and, of course, to convert. After all, what else could the Chinese elite do if even their beloved junzi, a concept as old as Confucius himself, had already converted to Catholicism in the words of the Lun Yu translator Brian Brown: “The great man is catholic-minded, and not one-sided; the common man is the reverse”[37] or Tehyi Hsieh: the great man was “catholic and not partisan; the mean man is a partisan and not catholic”.[38] And Lin Yutang in his Wisdom of Confucius (1938) had his Confucius say: “the kingdom of God is truly within man himself”.[39] Even Rev. James Legge who translated shengren as sage (and not as saint, holy man, or whatever biblical title), when addressing The Missionary Conference in Shanghai on May, 11th, 1877, had to be humble again:

As to what the Confucian books contain about man. First. – That man is the creature of Heaven or God (Tian sheng min).[40]

And Legge continued in his speech that great fortune had been bestowed upon the people of China because Confucius’ “utterances are in harmony with both the Law and the Gospel.” It was also seen as a great service to his country that Confucius had “made the golden rule his own and repeatedly enunciated it”.[41] It was not uncommon in those days to attribute Confucius’ Law of Reciprocity to Christianity’s Golden Rule, and both to the words of God.

The German Protestant Karl F. A. Gützlaff who lived from 1803 to 1851 translated the Lutheran Bible into Chinese. According to his biographer Alexander Wylie, Gützlaff was known for his views that “Confucius secretly worshipped God.” The notion of a Supreme Being glimmers faintly through the doctrines of the ancient sages”.[42] Wylie saw the missionaries’ obsession with holy China pragmatic: the Church could sustain the dream of a Christian China, raise funds in and outside Europe, and recruit ever more preachers, even touring Europe for the evangelists’ cause:[43] “Gützlaff dressed as Confucian scholar and chose several Chinese pen names, including “Ai Hanzhe” (Lover of the Chinese) and “Shan De” (Admirer of Virtue).[44]All he meant was well.


[1] Nakamura, 1964, p. 281

[2] Shankman & Durrant, 2000, p. 8

[3] Cheang, 2000

[4] Wei, 1993, pp. 167, 171, 176, 189; Roetz, 1994, p. 104

[5] Roetz, 1994, p. 9 ff., 19, 43, 104

[6] Paul, 2001, pp. 35, 91, 108, 109, 114, 199; Lee, 2008, p. 50 ff.

[7] Lee, 2008, p. 49

[8] Ehrendoktortitel im Überfluss, in, 10th Dec, 2010

[9] Starr, 1930, p. 31

[10] Lausberg, 2009 (4/2009)

[11] Chen, 1911

[12] Kant in Trawny, 2008

[13] Goethe, 1981, p. 605

[14]Hesse, 1921

[15] Spengler, 1918/1926, II., pp. 307-308

[16] Wagner, p. 510

[17] Grimm, 1965, entry: Weiser

[18] Watters, 1879, p. 1

[19]Johnston, 1934, p. 16

[20] Weber, 1920, p. 10: But of course: only in the West

[21] Grünwedel, 1900, p. xvm

[22] in Richter, 1833, pp. 13, 16, 24

[23] Weber, 1920

[24] Renan, 1890

[25] Bernhard, 1935, p. 27

[26] Ibid., p. 31

[27] Damrosch, 2005, p. 289

[28] Zeit, 2011, 6th Feb, 2011

[29] Wei Yuqing, 1993, p. 10

[30] for example: Ch’ai, 1965

[31] Legge, 1985, chapter 8

[32] Collis, 1948, pp. 11 ff.

[33] Haas, 1920, pp. 26, 48, 49 ff.

[34] Wilhelm, 1914, pp. 60, 88, 114, 187

[35] Haas, 1920b, pp. 8 ff.

[36] Ibid., p. 12

[37] Brown, 1927, p. 142

[38] Hsieh, 1936, p. 79

[39] Lin, 1938, p. 17

[40] Legge, 1877, p. 7

[41] Ibid., 1877, p. 9

[42] Gützlaff, 1840, pp. 373-379

[43] see Lutz, 2008, pp. 228 ff.; Schlyter, pp. 226, 228-229

[44] Lutz, 2008, p. 334