How Western Translations Distort China’s Reality

How Western translations distort China’s reality


Special to The Japan Times, 5 May 2012

BEIJING— A lot of people search endlessly for the secret key or a magic formula that would enable them to understand China. Naturally, at some point, they will want to know how the Chinese are educated. The Middle Kingdom has many prestigious schools, but let us take a closer look at PekingUniversity, the mother lode of the Chinese wenming.

Wenming is often translated as “civilization,” but that is misleading. In a recent lecture atPekingUniversity, the renowned linguist Gu Zhengkun explained 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. Think about architecture.

“PekingUniversity” is, of course, a Westernized name so that foreigners can find its address. The Chinese themselves, however, call their institutions of higher learning daxue (in Japanese: daigaku).PekingUniversity isBeijing daxue or Beida,TsinghuaUniversity is Qinghua Daxue and so on.

“Daxue is not a translation of Greek universitas,” explains Professor Gu, but “a reference to one of the great Confucian classics, the Daxue”.

The Daxue is often loosely translated as “The Great Learning,” but it is really this: an instruction manual on how to become a junzi and then, perhaps, a shengren.

A junzi is the ideal personality in China’s family-value based tradition, while a shengren is its highest member, a sage that has perfected the highest moral standards, called de, who mastered the principles of ren (benevolence), li (ritual), yi (righteousness), zhi (wisdom) and xin (faithfulness), and who now connects between all the people as if they were, metaphorically speaking, his family.

The historian Tu Weiming even calls the shengren “the highest form of an authentic human being”.

The junzi and shengren of Confucianism are as clearly defined, unique and non-European as the bodhisattvas and buddhas of Buddhism are. Yet, the former are completely unknown to the educated Western public due to erroneous, biblical and philosophical European translations dating back to the 17th to 19th centuries.

As the historian Howard Zinn once remarked: “If something is omitted from history, you have no way of knowing it is omitted.”

While a Western university’s principal aim is to produce a skilled expert, a Chinese daxue’s principal aim is to cultivate an ideal character. Anglo-Saxon students often seem surprised when they hear that Chinese daxue do not award Ph.D. degrees or “Doctors of Philosophy”. They award a boshi or, literally, an erudite master.

The word for “philosopher” doesn’t appear in the Chinese classics. Our so-called Chinese philosophy departments in the West are reminiscences of the imperial age. In fact, the Chinese word for philosopher, zhexue-jia, came to China via Japan not before 1874, where it is pronounced tetsugaku-sha.

As great educator and linguistic sage Ji Xianlin once remarked, “We practically know the West like the palm of our hand, but the West’s vision of the East is still a murky confusion”.

Maybe, since the West obviously lacks the concepts of shengren and junzi, let alone daxue, we should adopt those Chinese concepts, out of necessity and by common sense, just as Japan and China back in the 19th century adopted Western concepts such as “artist,” “scientist” and “philosopher”. It’s simple reciprocity.

Of course, some Western philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel have traditionally played down Chinese socio-cultural originality. Western scholarship is strategically withholding valuable information about China— it will always prefer European terminology to describe Chinabecause it wants to keep what the Germans call deutungshoheit — the prerogative of final explanation.

Or, as Slovenian philosopher and critical theorist Slavoj Zizek once said: “The true victory (‘negation of the negation’) occurs when the enemy speaks your language.”

Tourists and imperialists rarely come to be taught; they call things in Chinajust the way they call things at home — only to put their feet in their mouths later because all is clear mafan (trouble) and maodun (contradiction).

Using the correct terminology often makes a huge difference, indeed: Yes, a “PekingUniversity,” this architectural colossus, was founded in 1898, only recently by Western standards. Yet, the Chinese daxue can be traced back to its origins in the Spring and Autumn periods, some 700 to 500 years B.C.!

As Confucius once said: If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. It’s known as the rectification of names.

Educated in error, the people of Europe to this day have no idea what they are missing:East Asiainvented tens of thousands of non-European concepts they may have never heard about.

Chinais a wenming with a Confucian love for learning. AndPekingUniversity— that’s a living shengren culture.

Thorsten Pattberg, Ph.D., is the author of “The East-West dichotomy” (2009), “Shengren” (2011), and “Inside Peking University” (2012). He has a degree from the Institute of World Literature of Peking University.