Global Language with Chinese Characteristics

Confucius is a shengren
Confucius is a shengren!

Global language can take on Chinese characteristics

A slightly modified version of the ‘Language imperialism’ article, this time published in Global Times on Oct 24th, 2011:

If you are an American or European citizen, chances are you’ve never heard about shengren, minzhu and wenming. That’s because these are Chinese concepts. They are often conveniently translated as “philosophers,” “democracy” and “civilization.” In fact, they are none of those. They are something else. Something the West lacks or has a different view on in turn.

I estimate that there are over 35,000 Chinese words or phrases that cannot properly be translated into the English language. Words like yin and yang, kung-fu and fengshui. Add to this another 35,000 Sanskrit term, mainly from India and Buddhism. Words like buddha, bodhisattva and guru.

In a recent lecture at Peking University, the renowned linguist Gu Zhengkun claimed that wenming describes a high level of ethics and gentleness of a people, while the English word “civilization” derives from a city people’s mastery over materials and technology.

In the past, tourists and imperialists did not come to be taught. They called things the way they called things at home.

In many countries, adopting Chinese terminology was taboo. Even the most noble-minded thinkers, such as the German Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse, was afraid and warned the Germans that “we must not become Chinese … otherwise we’d adhere to a fetish.”

Next is “democracy,” a concept of Greek origin. “Democracy” originally had a very different meaning back then; it meant that various, powerful interest groups should fight over the resources, each by mobilizing their influential supporters from the city.

While in China we still see a family-value based social order, in the West we find an interest-group based social order. When in your family you do not apply strict laws or make contracts; instead you induce a moral code. When among strangers who fight against other interest groups, you simply cannot trust them like your own family, so you need laws.

Up to the 20th century, the Europeans believed China was not a proper “civilization,” because it had no police force, while China accused Europe of being without “wenming” because it lacked filial piety, tolerance, human gentleness, and so on.

Finally, the shengren is the ideal personality and highest member in that family-based Chinese value tradition, a sage that has the highest moral standards, called de, who applies the principles of ren, yi, li, zhi and xin (and 10 more), and connects between all the people as if they were, metaphorically speaking, his family.

As philosopher Slavoj Zizek once said, “The true victory (the true ‘negation of the negation’) occurs when the enemy talks your language.” In 1697, the German philosopher Leibniz famously urged all Germans not to use foreign words, but use their own language instead, for the benefit of Germany, in order to build and enlarge the German-speaking world.

And so they did. And so the Germans rose to the top. As expected, the Germans, the descendants of the Holy Roman Empire, called Confucius a “Heiliger” (a saint or holy man) in 19th century translation. Now, that’s convenient. But is it correct scholarship?

Since the European languages have their own histories and traditions, they cannot sufficiently render Chinese concepts. The solution, I think, would be to not translate the most important foreign concepts at all, but adopt them.

So that next time in international relations we could discuss how we’re going to improve minzhu in Europe, and how to help America’s transition into wenming. Maybe the West just lacks shengren after all.