Shengren – Chapter 4 – The Sheng(ren) in The Analects

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.[1]

– Confucius, The Analects

The Chinese term 聖sheng (simplified: 圣) appeared 260 times in 156 paragraphs of the Huainanzi, 48 times in 18 paragraphs in Mengzi, 132 times in 62 paragraphs in the Chun Qiu Fan Lu, 157 times in 94 paragraphs in Xunzi 33 times in 27 paragraphs in Laozi, 149 times in 77 paragraphs in Zhuangzi, 81 times in 22 paragraphs in the He Guang Zi, 40 times in 22 paragraphs in the Yi Qing, 8 times in 6 paragraphs in the Lun Yu, and 185 times in 134 paragraphs in the Shiji. The various texts can be consulted at the Chinese Text Project.[2]

The occurrences of Sheng(ren) in selected
Chinese Classics
Source Text Paragraphs/number of sheng ()
Huainanzi – The Masters of Huainan淮南子 (2nd century BC) [Confucianism and Taoism] 156/260
Mengzi 孟子 (4th – 2nd century BC) [Confucianism] 18/48
Chun Qiu Fan Lu 春秋繁露 (2nd century – 10 BC) by Dong Zhongshu, [Confucianism] 62/132
Xunzi 荀子(4th – 2nd century BC) 94/157
Laozi 道德经 (Daoism) (5th – 2nd century BC) 27/33
Zhuangzi 庄子 (Daoism) (4th –1st century BC) 77/149
He Guang Zi 鶡冠子(4th – 2nd century BC) (Daoism) 22/81
Yi Jing 易经 – Book of Changes (10th – 7th century BC) (Ancient Chinese Classic) 22/40
Shiji 史書 – Book of History (1st century BC) 134/185
The Analects 论语

by Confucius (5th – 2nd century BC)


The all-time champion of English translations for 聖人shengren was ‘sage’.’ Since聖sheng was one of the most important, if not the most important key concept in the history of Chinese thought, accordingly, when one read the Chinese Wikipedia entry on Confucius, the introductory paragraph mentioned 聖sheng exactly 4 times[3]. In striking contrast to the Chinese entry (last access 06/2010), the English, French, and German Wikipedia entries all called Confucius just that: a ‘philosopher.’ Wikipedia, a US company, is a global online resource used by hundreds of millions of users every month, but of course each article is edited and maintained by just one, two, at most a handful of possessive admins—in our case the China experts—who have a vital career interest that their own version of history and that of their academic clients is featured. There was no mentioning of the sheng or sage and there could be no mentioning because Wikipedia’s neutral editors who sometimes patrol and double-check cultural-specific articles have no way of knowing the shengren from any Western textbooks. They just echo and repeat the propaganda [the full entries can be seen in the appendix]:

English Wikipedia: Chinese thinker and social philosopher

German Wikipedia:           chinesischer Philosoph

Chinese Wikipedia:           思想家和教育家聖,孔聖人,

French Wikipedia: le premier «éducateur» de la Chine

The Western public was kept completely ignorant of the sheng(ren), the single most important name and concept in Chinese tradition. In contrast the European public was well aware of buddhas and bodhisattvas in the Indian traditions. So what exactly happened in India that did not repeat itself in China? The Sanskrit tradition has kept Buddhas, bodhisattvas and arhats in European writings, but the Chinese tradition has lost shengren and junzi in exchange for rather dull and overused European fiat. When the European names were backtranslated into Chinese, China essentially looked westernized… it felt Christian: The Bible was 圣经sheng jing, the Holy Spirit was 圣灵sheng ling, and Christmas was 圣诞节sheng dan jie, and so on. Yet, whatever false names the European thinkers translated or invented, obviously the original Chinese text never changed [it’s still there], with the awkward consequence that—especially in the case of Germany—not much what the European thinkers speculated is supported by textual evidence.

The German orientalists had a tendency to re-invent and re-write history as they pleased, the biblical scheme was always preferred; that is, if they could get away with it—in case of Richard Wilhelm, he got away with it for a hundred years. And although the academic community, especially those scholars who read English translations, knew that Wilhelm, Conrady, Gützlaff, Haas, Stange, and Jaspers’s ‘Heiligen’-translations were poor and all-too-convenient, they never dared to drop it: ‘The word ‘Heiliger’ bears religious and spiritual connotations that a Sheng ren lacks,’ confessed Gregor Paul, in his Philosophie in Japan (1993)[4]—he lacked authority to correct it. The German sinologues were so overwhelmingly in favor of an obsolete and outdated messianic interpretation of the Sinitic world that they would never concede to error.

The philosophers needed no actual experience of the East to re-invent its history, and the orientalists only needed to translate certain key words incorrectly—or to misread the foreign culture purposely as a matter of great gesture and patronage—in order to achieve their goal to make China look like a second cradle for Christianity and Greek philosophy. The missionaries knew exactly what they were doing.[5] China and India were particularly vulnerable to heteronomy [ruled by a foreign power] not only as prey for physical coercion and humiliation by the European imperialists and colonialists but ever more so very vulnerable to psychological and intellectual abuses by the orientalist writers and their global abilities. As the historian of German orientalism Kamakshi Murti lamented on the logic of European expansionism: ‘Once the inferiority of a race had been essentialized and naturalized, the European scientists could indulge in the most unethical, outrageous behaviors.’[6] Among the Europeans, withstanding their cross-European disagreements, there had been a silent consensus: what happened in Asia, stayed in Asia. Only their books, sometimes written between the lines, revealed their true intention and desire for control. The Germans, as demonstrated in the following sections, were not always but far too often cognizant: they systematically ruined the old names and concepts of China.

[1] Legge, 1891, 13.3

[2] Chinese Text Project, 2001-2010

[3] For all Wikipedia quotes: last date of access: 06/2010

[4] Paul, 1993, p. 201

[5] Engelfried & Jami, p. 63 ff.

[6] Murtie, 2001, p. 52/53

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