Shengren – Introduction

‘I am Master of this College;
And what I know not, Is not knowledge.’

–A. N. Whitehead

The Roman Empire is narrated with pride and pomp, and Latin, its lingua franca – having superseded the Hebrew and Greek lexicons – perpetuates all European languages to this day. Yet, the Mongols had their empire too, and so did the Han and the Manchu, the Turks and Persians, the Arabs and the Hindu. Their civilizations towered large and different, and their languages: just as rich and original to humankind. Yet, why are we so reluctant, even in this age of globalization, to adopt Asian key terminologies?

One obvious reason seems to be that of power and dominance; those who own its language control knowledge. The Jewish world order ended when St. Jerome translated the Hebrew and Greek bible into Latin; Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, translated the Latin bible into German, hence the march of the germanphone Empire.

The translation rationale has served European expansionists well for a thousand years; but is it ethical, scientific or even legal in the 21st Century to translate Asia’s socio-cultural originality into convenient European words? Why is it that, say, US brand names like ‘Coca-Cola’ and ‘Google’ enjoy greater legal protection than the entire intellectual output of India and China of the past 3000 years?

One way to protect words is to limit translation: Ayatollahs and imams are not ‘philosophers,’ philosophers are not ‘buddhas’ or ‘bodhisattvas,’ buddhas are neither ‘shengren’ nor ‘rishis.’ Western categories are often unsuitable for non-Western creations: Calling a heshang, rabbi, ulama, or junzi ‘priest’ seems unnecessary in the face of our digital age, where we can easily dig the originals (if we wanted to, that is).

In the following chapters this author is going to illustrate –pars pro toto (a part stands for the whole) – the case of the ‘shengren’ of the Confucian tradition. The shengren is the most important key concept in East-Asian thought, only perhaps comparable to the ‘philosophers’ in Europe; yet, shengren are not ‘philosophers,’ nor are they biblical ‘saints,’ ‘prophets’, folkloric ‘sages’ or Lutheran ‘appointees:’ the shengren are just this: shengren.

Unfortunately, the entire Confucian tradition of ‘ruxue’—including the daxue, an instruction manual on how to become a junzi (often loosely translated as ‘Chinese gentleman’)—has been obscured by European categories. Few Chinese terms have survived the translational onslaught during the age of European imperialism.

Some commentators have tried to arbitrate my case. They argue that the English language had already adopted enough Asian loanwords such as Japanese samurai, ninja, and sumo, or Sanskrit yoga, guru, and pundit. To which I reply: Yes, but that was just the beginning.

Compared to what the Asian hemisphere still holds on offer for us, the number of foreign loanwords remains suspiciously low and, in the case of Chinese words, almost insignificant. This is going to change.

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