Shengren – Chapter 1.2 – The Shengren or ‘Oriental Sage’

“Calling Confucius a philosopher is the wrong classification, like calling a whale a fish”

Two metaphors of the shengren and the art of sagehood are common, that of a) a harmonizer and the harmonious society and b) the composer and an orchestra. Mengzi offered the following image of a group of Chinese sages with Confucius being the greatest of them all:

孟子曰:”伯夷, 聖之清者也; 伊尹, 聖之任者也; 柳下惠, 聖之和者也; 孔子, 聖之時者也. 孔子之謂集大成. 集大成也者, 金聲而玉振之也. 金聲也者, 始條理也; 玉振之也者, 終條理也. 始條理者, 智之事也; 終條理者, 聖之事也. 智, 譬則巧也; 聖, 譬則力也. 由射於百步之外也, 其至, 爾力也; 其中, 非爾力也.” Mencius said: “Bo Yi among the sages was the pure one; Yi Yin among the sages was the one most inclined to take office; Hui of Liu Xia among the sages was the accommodating one; and Confucius among the sages was the timorous one. In Confucius we have what is called a complete concert. A complete concert is when the large bell proclaims the commencement of the music, and the ringing stone proclaims its close. The metal sound commences the blended harmony of all the instruments, and the winding up with the stone terminates that blended harmony. The commencing that harmony is the work of wisdom; the terminating that harmony is the work of sageness. As a comparison for wisdom, we may liken it to skill, and as a comparison for sageness, we may liken it to strength – as in the case of shooting at a mark a hundred paces distant. That you reach it is owing to your strength, but that you hit the mark is not owing to your strength.”[1]

Associating the sage’s realm with the harmoniousness of an orchestra is a common metaphor that is met with great enthusiasm by most sinologists. It helps them to explain the concept of Chinese sageness to their European and American countrymen who have not yet heard about shengren tradition before, yet who are aware of the power and beauty of Classical music. Music was a universal language, the subtleties of sagacity not quite universal yet.

Accordingly, in his The Confucian Quest for Order (2003) Masayuki Sato picked up the orchestra metaphor and explained: “Imagine that we were going to a concert of a top world orchestra […] the composer is an ancient sage king, musical scores are the rituals and social norms”,[2] while the American sinologists Henry Rosemont and Roger Ames described the shengren as “virtuoso [who] sings the songs that enchant the world”.[3] The sage was a composer of harmony. But how does he do it? Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism all emphasize spirituality and self-cultivation. Self-cultivation is practiced through the following: filial piety, ancestor worship, the love for learning, spiritual teachings, mind-body practices, the awareness of oneness, and the striving for balance and harmoniousness (Needham, 1954; Ku, 1906; Ji, 2006). The aim of self-cultivation is the ideal personality and the highest level of human perfection. Throughout the Chinese Classics, the ideal personality is associated with the 君子 (junzi, gentleman), and the highest level of human perfection with the 圣人 (shengren, sage). Consequently, the becoming a sage through self-cultivation of one’s character and constant improvement of one’s personality was and still is the highest aim and ultimate goal of the Confucians:

A central polarity in such works as the Analects is the polarity of self-cultivation (hsiu-shen, hsiu-chi) leading to personal self-realization (the attainment of the highest virtues of jen or cheng) and the ordering and harmonizing of the world (chi-kuo p’ing t’ien-hsia).[4]

In Christianity, man was created by God. In Confucianism, man was part of the universe, part of the 天人合一 or “oneness of heaven and man”. There never was and there still is no God or Creator in Confucianism.[5] Becoming a junzi and ultimately becoming a shengren through the cultivation of the self was the single most important idea in Confucian China – it was a teaching about goodness, humility, social conduct, benevolence, and true humanity; therefore a correct and appropriate translation of sheng into European languages was and still is vital for the proper understanding of Confucianism and any other sage culture.

“Sage”, as said before, is a fine English (and French: “le sage”) translation of sheng(ren), as it combines positive connotations with timelessness. Importantly, it was not overused. It meant this: a man of the highest sagacity or wisdom; and although the German-speaking world had no sages, sages nevertheless seemed to be a universal concept that could be re-discovered once a higher degree of understanding was reached. Plato’s philosophy had condemned the sagacity of the sages, and Christianity attributed highest wisdom only to God and His son: even Jesus Christ the savior of humanity did not carry such a name; was never called a Weiser or sage; and if Christianity indeed preferred its saints, then it was save so say that the term sage was not overused at all in the West. Translating sheng as English “Wiseman” (with capital “W”) never occurred, and if it occurs one day, it should be considered dull and unimaginative: Sagacity and wisdom were not the same. Translating sheng(ren) as German der Weise, which more or less correspondent to English Wiseman, was philologically speaking acceptable but a bit unfortunate, since the “Weise”-translation would always resonate with mythology and Grimm‘s’ Fairy Tales, which made China look childish.

German der stoischer Weise [stoic Wiseman] was a) unsuitable because it denoted a Greek concept: the particular Stoic sage, not just any sage, and b) biased because it produced that certain negative sensation of “hapless fools and quacks who allegedly possessed eternal Glückseligkeit (Holowchak, 2008). Even Arthur Schopenhauer, the spiritual philosopher and supporter of Buddhist thought, once accused the Stoic sages of Greece of their “total passivity” and “disregard for human nature” (dem Wesen der Menscheit).[6] The Stoics were true sages in the sense of that word. They claimed to have wisdom, and they personified it. Having said that, now perhaps the rise and fall of the particular Stoic sages could partly explain the rise and fall of all the sages in the Western world.

Stoicism was a school of Hellenistic thought founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC. Although the Stoic tradition was unaffected by the collapse of the Roman Empire, Stoicism was dissolved in Europe in the 6th century by order of the Emperor Justinian I:[7] any personification of wisdom or sagacity – something that all sages had in common – had now become redundant and obsolete in a world dominated by Christianity, where highest wisdom was with God only and truth was unattainable: it could only be loved (philo-) and hoped for. Those who spread the word of God were called “saints” (German: Heilige), the servants of the Divine. Divine in Chinese is 神shen, it is unrelated to 圣sheng. With saints guarding the European soul against the infidels, sages, including the Stoic ones, became obsolete.

The image of the Stoic sage – originally a virtuous and happy man – nevertheless continued to excite world historians, and important lessons had been drawn from the failure of the Stoics. Stoicism has since become synonymous for foolishness, indifference, uselessness and ineffectiveness. The effect was doubled when any sage society, for example Japan after the 2011 disaster of March, 11th, was accused of stoicism – the global Economist magazine called it: “the admirable response to what fate deals you” and a “coping mechanism in the face of incomprehension”.[8] Hence the expression: a stoical sufferer.

As far as Confucius’ The Analects is concerned, the earliest key words and translations associated with Confucius and the sheng(ren) were “Sapientum”, meaning wisdom or sagacity, and “Sinarum Philosophus“,[9] meaning Chinese philosopher. From the earliest encounter with the Confucian Classics it was thus clear that Confucianism in the eyes of the European discoverers had something to do with the “teachings of wisdom” or a “philosophy of wisdom” (in German: “Weisheitslehre”). After that all-important first impression the missionaries nevertheless shifted away from the aspect of wisdom and more toward the aspect of holiness, which we now know greatly helped their cause in China.[10] The sheng(ren) became a saint or Heiliger (a holy man); although other translations like heroes, philosophers, and sages were still applied, seemingly depending on the aim and ideological or religious objective of the translator. The fruits of that past Evangelization of China can still be measured today: The Chinese character 圣sheng has become synonymous for holy, holiness, holy man, and saint. Till today, the Church was translated 圣会sheng hui; and The Bible was called 圣书sheng shu or 圣经sheng jing (Gützlaff, 1867). Next, Christmas became 圣诞节sheng dan jie; Holy Religion was now 圣教sheng jiao; and Santa Claus was called圣诞老爷sheng dan lao ye.[11] Notable exceptions were Jesus Christ who translated into耶稣 ye-su, and God who was rendered上帝 shangdi. Languages can be colonizers, too.

Which European idea about sheng(ren) was more correct from a Chinese-English dictionary point of view: the “sage” or the “saint” – the aspect of “wisdom” or that of “holiness”? Surprisingly, that depended on the cultural context: Anglo-American or German. When 圣sheng (holy) was in conjunction with 人ren (person), the English-speaking world translated 圣人 as “sage”; despite the fact that in most other cases sheng conjoined with other characters was often read as “holy”. German dictionaries told a different story: The German-speaking world, consistent and persevering, continued to christen Chinese tradition and called 圣人the saints or holy men (Heilige). Thus, a battle over one of China’s most valuable and long-term profitable resources had occurred: its names.

The literature about the rise of the philosophers and fall of the sages in Greek antiquity was abundant yet one-sided: Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: Die Formung des griechischen Menschen (1973), Robin Waterfields’ The First Philosophers (2000), and Oliver Taplin’s Literature in the Greek and Roman Worlds (2000), all described how the victorious philosophers superseded the sophists. Strikingly, the departure of sages and sagehood from European tradition was at no point considered a loss. On the other hand, the rise of philosophers and, later, Christianity and its saints, were seen as win and gain.

In a chapter on ‘Sages, Sophists, and Philosophers’, the historian Oliver Taplin described what he called a major “modernization process” around the fourth century BCE, the time when the Greek sages – the “masters of truth”, as they often called themselves – after careers in deprivation and failure as “sophists”, finally adopted the new and fashionable title “philo-sophers” or lovers of wisdom, “when intellectuals laid claim to a distinct mode of wisdom which called for a novel title and an honorary place in Greek society”.[12] Plato introduced the term philosophia and Aristotle wrote the history of philosophy, starting with the Seven Sages of Greece and Thales of Miletos who was considered the first sage of Greek Antiquity. In Greek language “sophos”  meant a wise man, sage”[13]; while “magus” meant mage or magi. Both Greek terms, sophos and magus, made it into German culture. Magus became the “Magier” (English: mage) which still had a great impact on German (as well as English) culture. A German “Magier” and German “Zauberer” (the latter was a Germanic word often used in folklore) became more or less synonymous, and it was no coincidence that a few German missionaries in China called Taoist sages Zauberer or else associated Taoism practice with magic. But no German called any of the Chinese sages “Sophisten”, because in the German tongue “Sophisterei” bore the same negative connotation as English “sophistry”. Someone who wise-talked or who claimed to have wisdom was considered shallow, only superficially plausible, and fallacious in his ways of reasoning. Since the definition of a sophist had not changed much since Plato’s verdict around 360 BC, the modern English meaning of sages was not derived from Ancient Greece sophos. Rather, the modern term “sage” derived from Latin sapientia (wisdom or sagacity), where it reminded the public no more of the downfall of the sophos.

Ancient Mediterranean culture continued to replace its sages by philosophers and sageness by philosophy. Even the great administrators of the Roman Empire expressed their contempt for the sophists who were “neither sages nor philosophers, but merely shrewd men with a turn for legislation.”[14] The Mediterranean world had contained its sages and their wisdom teachings and was now dominated by two unique European movements: Christianity and Greek philosophy. European sage culture was gone. From then on, whenever the Europeans wanted to meet those spiritual beings they now had to leave their country and travel eastwards: to the sages of the Orient.

The longing for sages and Eastern spirituality was skillfully described in a poem by William Butler Yeats: ‘Sailing to Byzantium” (1928). Yeats lamented that Europe neglected its “unaged intellect”: its old people and their spiritual wisdom: “Old men” were “dying” in solitude and loneliness, while the youth were “in one another’s arms”. Yeats poetic self decided to leave that “no country for old men” behind and set out on a spiritual journey that would bring him to the holy city of Byzantium (Constantinople), where Yeats longed to find the “sages”:

1. That is no country for old men. The young In one another’s arms, birds in the trees —Those dying generations—at their song. The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

2. An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

3. O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me. Into the artifice of eternity.

4. Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium. Of what is past, or passing, or to come.[15]

The poem became a classic in the East-West discourse. Outside of scholarship, the poem’s first line has made it into pop culture thanks to an Award-winning Hollywood motion picture by Ethan and Joel Coen: No Country for Sages (2008). In it, the original longing of the East has been dropped; instead the moral decline of America took center stage in form of drug wars, hitmen, and killings without remorse.

Back to the original poem, not everyone felt such great nostalgia for the sages of the East, of course. The reality of the encounter of East and West during Yeats’ time often looked very different from poetic sympathy. The British imperialists showed contempt for the perceived idleness, arrogance, and uselessness of Oriental sages: “I suppose, a true Eastern sage would say that the working government which we (the British) have taken upon ourselves in Egypt […] is the dirty work, the inferior work, of carrying on the necessary labor”.[16]  They found resonance in Continental Europe: The German world historian Oswald Spengler called the sages “lazy” [bequem] and their teachings “spiritual egoism” [geistiger Egoismus].[17] The German philosopher Hegel deemed the entire system of Chinese thought a “shallow fantasy” [oberflächliche Phantasie] that was “untrue” [keine Wahrheit], and inherently “inconsistent” [ohne Einheit].[18]

At the very least, the British orientalists could name a sage or Oriental sage when they saw one. After all, the conquerors lived among the conquered; their annoyances with Oriental sages were of practical concern and bore out of direct experiences. The German orientalists on the other hand not only lacked sages and sagehood in Germany, but also were oblivious to the quirks and habits of other races who they intellectually despised. The German aversion for Asian cultures was real. And for precise scholarship, it was problematic: the Germans as a general rule could not make much sense of what they heard or read in second and third sources: “A trivial world!” cried the orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. “Inhabited by magicians,” continued Oswald Spengler. A place “where “humans are venerated as Gods,” wrote Immanuel Kant. The list goes on forever: The philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder decried China as “an embalmed mummy wound in silk”; the philosopher Friedrich Schelling streamlined China “un universe sans Dieu” [a godless universe]. August Conrady suggested: “a never-ending anachronism” and “a living fossil”.[19] The writer Hermann Hesse mused: “We must not search ideal and higher meaning of life in China or in any other subject of the past; otherwise we would lose ourselves and adhere to a fetish”.[20]

The German dislike for Oriental sages throughout the centuries was a fine reenactment of Plato’s dislike for Greek sages. In his Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte (1822/23), Georg W. F. Hegel reflected on die Sieben Weisen (the Seven sages) of Ancient Greece and described the sages’ tendency to end up as “noble tyrants” and “evil rulers”: “Diese Weisen waren vornehmlich Gesetzgeber, zum Teil Beherrscher, Tyrannen genannt, die edelsten, weisesten”.[21] The German poet Goethe had Mephistopheles the devil speak the following words: “Denn wer den Schatz, das Schöne, heben will, bedarf der höchsten Kunst: Magie der Weisen“[22] [After all, he who wants the treasure, the beautiful, requires the highest art: the magic of the sages]. Germany’s suspicion of the “Weisen” and their “Weisheit” was just as intense and problematic as its aversion to the other extreme: “fools and their foolishness”, or so explained Werner Jaeger, the historian of Greek philosophy:

Die Götter philosophieren nicht und bilden sich nicht, denn sie sind im Besitz aller Weisheit. Die Toren und Unweisen aber trachten überhaupt gar nicht nach Erkenntnis, denn das ist ja das eigentliche Űbel solcher Unbildung, dass sie nichts weiss und sich doch für wissend hält. Der Philosoph allein strebt nach Erkenntnis, weil er weiss, daß er sie nicht besitzt und sich ihrer bedürftig fühlt. Er steht in der Mitte zwischen Weisheit und Unbildung, deshalb ist er allein zur Bildung tauglich und aufrichtig und errnstlich um sie bemüht.[23] [The gods do not philosophize and do not study, because they are in possession of all wisdom. The fools and ignorant do not at all seek knowledge; that is the real evil of such ignorance: that they know nothing and yet consider themselves in the knowing. The philosopher alone strives for knowledge, because he knows that he does not possess that knowledge but that he is needy. He (the philosopher) stands in the middle between wisdom and ignorance, so he alone is capable of education and sincere enough to make an earnest effort.]

The two extremes of human cognitive capability were a) the gods who already possessed all the wisdom, thus idled to strive for it, and b) the fools who knew nothing but commented on everything. The gods and fools are figures of speech: gods and fools stood for the same thing, wisdom; one was divine, and the other merely human, thus – in God’s words: false. In a secular society that Germany pretended it had become, both extremes of wisdom, the sacred and the false, were undesirable. Only being a philosopher – not too much concerned with wisdom – was attractive, because he alone strived for knowledge. After its triumph over sagehood, Greek philosophy was all there was left, and it certainly left a great impression on German culture and affected greatly the spirit of the German people. After all, what was the European Renaissance all about if not the re-enactment of Greek aesthetics, politics, theatre, arts and philosophical traditions? Raphael’s painting The School of Athens (1510) comes to mind, which became a symbol of Western philosophy. Just as the German missionaries saw holiness in Chinese thinking, the German philosophers saw the philosophical in Chinese thought. Not enlightenment but narrow-mindedness reduced China to a European fetish. As Randal Taylor wrote in his The Morals of Confucius – A Chinese Philosophers (1691):

We are only capable of knowing one single object at once. The rest remains buried in our memory, as if it was not. Behold therefore our knowledge reduced to a single object.[24]

Greek philosophy has been opposed to sages and sagacity; henceforth German philosophy was opposed to sages and sagacity [dt: die Weisen und die Weisheit] as well. Calling Confucian thinkers “sages” in English-language publications was common coin. In German-language publications, however, calling Confucian thinkers the great “Weisen” was an insult: “zu unglaubwürdig, dass sie ebenso wie die schon bekannten Chronologien der altorientalischen Völker als märchenhaft zurückgewiesen wurden”[25] [so unbelievable that the idea must be rejected as fairy-tale, just like the (fabulous) historiographies of ancient Oriental societies]. Feeling German about China was a matter of attitude: To the German orientalists, the continuity of Greek useless sage cultures in other parts of the world felt wrong and needed to be corrected: It should have been “philosophy in China”, not sagehood, combined with the “right religion”, Christianity. In reality, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and other Eastern traditions were developmental milestones during the rise of sage cultures, living sage cultures, which will not disappear next week just because Germany wants them badly to go away. Calling the shengren anything but shengren has become a pervasive habit in German writings, whatever floats the German boat:

Vergessen wir jedoch nicht, dass seine Lehre mit Religion nichts zu tun hatte und dass sie ebensowenig philosophischer Natur gewesen ist. Er war weder Religionsstifter noch Philosoph gewesen.[26] [Let us not forget that his teachings had nothing to do with religion and that they were not of a philosophical nature. He (Confucius) was neither the founder of a religion nor a philosopher.]

If Confucius was “neither a religious figure nor a philosopher”, why did Eugen Feifel refuse to call him a shengren? Calling Confucius a philosopher was the wrong classification, like calling a whale a fish.

Confucianism was un-European, quite obvious: sagacity was technically invalidated by Greek philosophy; and the sages debased of their social and moral status by Christianity.

An error only becomes a mistake if people refuse to call it a mistake. John F. Kennedy said that once in his plea for higher moral standards and truth-speaking in the free press.[27] Once a group of people made a serious mistake, they will only be able to maintain the illusion of integrity by paying the piper.

The idiom “Paying the piper” most schoolchild in Europe should have heard of. It originated during the Middle Ages in the small German city of Hamelin and now has many different versions. One important one goes like this: The city of Hamelin once suffered from a rat plague. To get rid of the nasty rodents, the people hired a mysterious piper who had come by the way. After a price was agreed on, the piper started to play a magic tune and, see, the rats peeped and shrieked out of their holes, and tapped to the sound of the piper who let them out of town and into the dark woods. The next day, the piper came back to the city gates and demanded his payment, but the arrogant city people refused him. The piper warned them about some terrible consequences of not paying the price for his fine service, but the people only laughed at him, threw stones, and drove him away. The following night the piper came to the city one last time and played a different magic tune. This time, to the horror of the parents, it was the children of the city who stepped out of their bedrooms, danced to the sound of the piper and followed the sinister man deep into the woods. None of them was ever to be seen again. The moral of this story is not with the poor children or the wicked piper, but with the consequences of not paying the agents employed to keep one’s public image clean.

The pipers in German orientalism: the missionaries, philosophers, scholars, play the tune that keeps European culture clean of sages and sagehood, and any other foreign concept for that matter – think about Islam, a mode of life with millions of new vocabulary that Germany could never tolerate.

In the case of China, the pipers will call Confucius a “Philosoph” and the shengren “die Heiligen”, and will be silent about shengren and 2500 years textual evidence as long as German-language scholarship can afford to pay the price. Buddhist thought alone, originated in India, created 35,000 new terms for the Chinese language; take this and the indigenous Chinese terminology together, and it becomes obvious: that’s a lot of rats at Europe’s gates.

The pipers have to guard against ren and li and dao and fo and ru and zhi and de or get rid off foreign concepts if German culture was to remain tidy and clean. Sanskrit concepts and terminology alone easily exceeded Latin and Greek vocabulary combined. The pipers needed to find German or familiar names for foreign things in order to create the illusion of tidiness and simplicity, as if the world was German, or was to be transcendented by the German spirit.

By using a Christian term like religion to describe Buddhism or Confucianism or Hinduism, does that make them all alike? The answer is no, only the superimposed term Religion creates such an illusion. But using German or familiar names for foreign concepts gives the Germans security and control. Once a simple term like karma was adopted from India, for example, Germany lost its power over it, and had to listen to some Indians’ lecturing about it. “Zu viel eingedeutscht ist nicht gut!” Too many loanwords are bad. It lends authority to other parties. For instance, the German Japanologists find it very difficult to enter a discussion among equals about the 天皇Tennō. They can not simply say they have a Tennō too – they don’t. The Germans had a Kaiser, but no Tennō.  The Japanese do well in keeping their names. It is something well worth fighting for.

Most people reduce the world to a single set of vocabulary because they lack the capacity of memorizing foreign terms. It is simply minimizing one’s effort to make sense of the world. All translation is simplification. But how do we want to study the humanities and doing science in the future? Do we want to restrict ourselves because our intellect feels overwhelmed by sheer number and variety of concepts and modes of thinking?

How tiresome and unimaginative it was of the European discoverer to roam Confucian China freely only to call the shengren a familiar saint or philosopher and the junzi a British gentleman? We know it has something to do with unawareness and ignorance, because tourists do it too. So do little children: My little baby girl of one-and-a-half years calls the elephant, the lion, the hawk and the beetle all: dada. She will grow up to differentiate soon. Why do we have to live with shenanigans of some Orientalism scholars’ intent on bringing rigor and familiarity to the world by calling each and every person in Asia that thinks a philosopher? And to totally destroy the Asian’s confidence in their own concepts, the Europeans spread salt into the wounds by telling them their “philosophers” are no good philosophers. Beware of the pipers. They are paid to make sure that the world looks German to the Germans.

He who believes that Chinese or Arab or Hindu or Japanese languages have nothing new to teach us, shall abandon his own language first and then see; because the truth is that each language has history and aspect and culture, and to replace it or to compromise its names does not happen because English, now besieging German language, is so fashionable and could accommodate or replace all German terminology. No. It happens because a group of people became so powerful that they now consciously want to control and compromise the stock of languages of its competitors. Competition, as common sense dictates, is always a sure sign that difference exists.

When Imperial Germany finally decided to physically and intellectually expand and conquer foreign cultures in the 18th – 20th centuries, it still had no concept for sages and sagehood when engaging for example a sage culture like China. The only other idea about sages and sagehood that German orientalists could rely on for comparison was the negative imagery of sages and sagehood transmitted to them by Plato’s curse of the sophists some two thousand years ago. When it came to the development and perfection of sage culture, China’s was at least two thousand years ahead of the European civilization; either that or, as the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz calmly remarked: “the Chinese are from another world”[28]. Hence the occasional comparison of shengren with “utopian kings”[29] or “cosmic beings”,[30] but  more on this later.

In The Analects Confucius, immodest, described the sage (shengren) as the highest form of talent and perfect virtue, though such an ideal was hardly ever to be realized[31]:

子曰:“聖人,吾不得而見之矣;得見君子者,斯可矣. The Master said: A sage it is not mine to see; could I see a man of real talent and virtue that would satisfy me.

子曰:“若聖與仁,則吾豈敢? The Master said: The sage and the man of perfect virtue – how dare I rank myself with them?

The Western Inscription by Confucians Zhang Zai of the Song Dynasty who lived from 1020 to 1077 (called “Western” because this small inscription reportedly hung on the Western wall of his study) read the following:

乾称父,坤称母;予兹藐焉,乃混然中处. 故天地之塞,吾其体;天地之帅,吾其性. 民,吾同胞;物,吾与也. 大君者,吾父母宗子;其大臣,宗子之家相也.尊高年,所以长其长;慈孤弱,所以幼其幼;圣,其合德;贤,其秀也. Yang is the father; yin is the mother. And I, this tiny thing, dwell enfolded in Them. Hence, what fills Heaven and Earth is my body, and what rules Heaven and Earth is my nature. The people are my siblings, and all livings things are my companions. My Ruler is the eldest son of my parents, and his ministers are his retainers. To respect those great in years is the way to “treat the elderly as elderly should be treated.” To be kind to the orphaned and the weak is the way to “treat the young as young should be treated.” The sage harmonizes with Their Virtue; the worthy receive what is most excellent from Them.[32]

The sinologists David Hall and Roger Ames in Thinking Through Confucius (1987) defined the character of a sage by “four aspects” derived from The Analects: 1) the aural sensibility to know the nature and conditions of someone or something by listening, by attuning the ear; 2) the power to transform the world by the spoken word; 3) the power to create values; 4) the power to integrate with and enrich all relationships. In a nutshell: the sage relates (to people, family, society); the philosopher dissociates.

Though becoming a shengren was almost impossible to achieve, becoming a pre-sage, a junzi, was not. The junzi was inferior to the sage but still far above the ordinary man. In the English-speaking world junzi was best rendered as “exemplary person”, “superior man”, or “gentleman” (gentleman being the most common [British] English translation, for obvious reasons). One became such a superior person by means of walking the path (often referred to as 道dao) that led to sagehood, namely constant self-cultivation and maintaining the goodness of one’s character. This is what Mozi said about the Self-Cultivation leading to sagehood:

藏於心者,無以竭愛。動於心者,無以竭恭. 出於口者,無以竭馴. 暢之四支,接之肌膚,華髮隳顛,而猶弗舍者,其唯聖人乎. There is nothing in his mind that goes beyond love; there is nothing in his behavior that goes beyond respectfulness, and there is nothing from his mouth that goes beyond gentility. When one pursues such a way until it pervades his four limbs and permeates his flesh and skin, and until he becomes white-haired and bald-headed without ceasing, one is truly a sage.[33]

That form of pre-sagehood, the junzi, had all the qualities and the ongoing commitment to personal growth, self-cultivation, and leadership. Whether Confucius, Laozi, or Mozi, they all used the term sheng(ren) several times in their works, and it would not be an exaggeration to say the shengren was the single most important concept of Chinese history of thought similar to the philosopher in the West.

Zhuangzi, another text attributed to Taoism, used sheng too. The English speaking world, and its best known translator, James Legge, had consistently and probably without much afterthought translated the sheng(ren) correctly as “sage” or “sagely man”;[34] correctly, because sheng(ren) was indeed (semantically very close to) what was meant when sage was translated. The temptation to name a sheng(ren) any other name – a saint, a prophet, a half-god, a cultural hero, a pedagogue, a philosopher –, as the Germans did, was almost inconceivable to English-speaking scholarship[35] were a sage was a sage, simple.

If names are not correct, what kind of scholarship arises? If someone calls the Vedas Götter, he is perfectly right, but a poor scholar. The Vedas are the Vedas. Cultural studies need to be exact, not universal. Unfortunately, that is often the tendency of today’s universities: construing a Western universe. Every culture does the best it can, with the resources and knowledge available to it, to describe and explain the unknown. If there was no appropriate German name for shengren or sages, Weise was a pejorative, and the Germans refused to admit any limitation to their own German ways, they evidently had to christen the shengren and sages “Heilige” and Confucius a “Philosoph”.

Most Germans, even the highly educated ones, even the sinologists,[36] call Confucius and the shengren die Philosophen or Heiligen, to this day.[37] They simply don’t know shengren. Most non-specialists have never heard about it. The Germans believed – not only since their greatest philosophers Leibniz, Wolff, Kant, Hegel, Herder, and Husserl that Confucianism was some kind of religion and those Chinese sages were some kind of moral philosophers. The Germans also believed that China was some kind of premature civilization that now grew up to become a real culture, complete with Christian values and the mirroring of the Western ways of thinking. Germany (and the West) was seen as the end goal for the Chinese and all Asians.[38]

The reasons for Germany’s inability to relate (to others) were manifold, but on a cultural level it was ignorance,[39] hostility and racism,[40] and, yes, German philosophy.[41] A single book like Herder’s Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1841) could supply the Germans with more greatness, pride, and nostalgia than an actual, geopolitical empire could to the British. Hegel’s Die Orientalische Welt (1837) and Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1805) were Germany’s retreat and substitute for real colonies. After Humboldt’s education reform, Cultural studies, philology, and transliteration of all foreign texts could be done at home – no need to experience or, worse, to “become the Oriental”.[42] Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922) felt so much better and German than the real India. And if the Germans could not be super-humans in the real world, then they could at least read about Nietzsche’s Übermenschen.[43] Nothing that Kant or Hegel thought and admired within their own philosophical systems had any relevance in reality in places ten thousands miles away, yet the Germans acted upon any philosophical system as if it did.

The consequences of the Eurocentric world view were manifold, and in the case of Oriental studies, it meant that Germany mentally disconnected from the reality of India (that now served as inspiration for Aryanism, Swastika, and Nazism) and China (that now served for theories on Eastern backwardness, pseudo-Christianity, and “Chinese philosophy”).

Elsewhere in the English-speaking world that had allied with China and India against the delusional Germans (and the German-phile Japanese) – India and China declared war on Germany (September 1939 and December 1941) for that matter –[44] a deeper understanding of sage cultures had already been under way. That was because in contrast to the conditions in Germany, in the US and Great Britain and many other English-speaking countries, Chinese and Indian scholars were actually welcomed, not so much already for cultural diversity, but more out of intellectual curiosity, while in Germany any major Eastern contribution to world history and thought was ruled out categorically by Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Haeckel.

The most highly qualified Asians for good reasons would like to study and spend some time in the English-speaking word, and avoid Germany altogether.[45] They wish to be understood, to be free and to feel confident, and to be valued, while in the rigid and inflexible German-speaking environment they would constantly be patronized, read about their inferiority and the nauseating superiority of everything German. Americanism always meant multiculturalism, Germanism just assimilation.

In fact, Asian students in Germany now demanded and expected English language and culture in Germany, and the German professionals to speak English (most of the course books were in English, already) – even in Asian studies, otherwise they would always trade German provincialism, vocational and Europe-centered, with Anglo-American, and, recently, Asia-Pacific world-class education. As to German publications in Chinese studies, if there is an English translation or equivalent English book, the German one may be kept for paraphrasing. The rest of German publications is now irrelevant to Asian students, and a waste of time.

The scholar of Confucian studies Tu Weiming, spent many years at Harvard University in the United States. In an essay entitled ‘The Confucian Sage: Exemplar of Personal Knowledge’ (1987), he defined the “Confucian sage” in English language as the following:

The Confucian sage attains the highest moral excellence without losing sight of the humanity that unites him with all other members of society. True, his greatness lies in his effort to transform himself from an ordinary mortal into something awesome: a good, true, beautiful, great, sagely, even spiritual being.[46]

The Neo-Confucian Rodney L. Taylor in his The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism (1990) similarly defined the Confucian sage as “emerging amidst images of kindness and humility, peacefulness and reverence”.[47] A sagely pattern emerged: goodness, kindness, and humility were all positive character traits: The sage was a truly wonderful, ideal personality, even a role model. How far from the English noble meaning of “sage” was the German depraved meaning of “der Weise” who was but a folkloric old geezer and philistine? As the German Oswald Spengler said: “The sage is the man of the Golden Mean; his ascetics consist in a judicious depreciation of the world in favor of meditation.”[48] The way Spengler says it, the sage is not a local but a non-German phenomenon.

Jos Slabbert, a blogger, in The Modern Taoist Sage (1999), provided his useful list of paradoxical sagely attributes: the sage was “detached, yet compassionate; enjoyed life, yet did not cling to it; was a perfectionist, yet indifferent to success or failure; was a man of honor, yet avoided reaping honor; ignored ethics and morals, but lived a life of the highest moral order; did not strive, yet achieved; knew the answers, but preferred to remain silent; had the innocence of a child, but incredible inner strength.”[49]

Slabbert then went on saying that the sage was unwanted in some societies: “These paradoxes are in harmony in the sage, the same way nature itself seems to be a harmonious blend of paradoxes. This makes it difficult to describe the sage in conventional terms and categories. In fact, in most societies the sage’s qualities would be seen as negative, even harmful”. The German thinkers in Oriental studies indeed thought that Oriental sages were harmful to the German way. The psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung once cried: “Our way starts at European reality and not at some yoga-exercises that belie reality”.[50] Even the great Goethe (who elsewhere explained the concept of the middle-way flawlessly)[51] showed restrain for the sage’s pursuit of harmoniousness:

Es ist eine Torheit zu verlangen, dass die Menschen zu uns harmonieren sollen. Ich habe es nie getan. Ich habe einen Menschen immer nur als ein für sich bestehendes Individuum angesehen, das ich zu erforschen und das ich in seiner Eigentümlichkeit kennenzulernen trachtete, wovon ich aber durchaus keine weitere Sympathie verlangte.[52] [It is folly to demand that people should harmonize with us. I’ve never done it. I see in a man only the individual that I want to observe and study his peculiarities; I certainly do not require any further sympathy from him.]

The Korean sage Yi T’oegye [also known as Hwang Yi] who lived from 1501 to 1570 composed the Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning, which was essentially an introduction on “how to become a sage”.[53] Those Ten Diagrams, translated by Michael C. Karlton in his To Become a Sage (1988) were: 1) Supreme Ultimate, 2) Western Inscription, 3) Elementary Learning, 4) Great Learning, 5) Rules of the White Deer Hollow Academy, 6) The Mind Combines and Governs the Nature and the Feelings, 7) Chu His’s Explanation of Humanity, 8) Study of the Mind, 9) Admonition for Mindfulness Studio, and 10) Admonition for Rising Early and Retiring Late. It would go beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the sage’s traits associated with the Ten Diagrams. But they were, unsurprisingly, very similar to other definitions of the sages before. Sages were “at one with universe (Heaven and Earth)”, and practiced “spontaneous perfection”, “self-cultivation”, and “mindfulness”.[54] The historian Huang Guiyou in Whitemanism, Imagism, and Modernism in China and America (1997), explained the Modern Chinese sheng(ren) (and thus: living sage culture) to his Western audience this way:

Shengren is the highest title in Chinese society that can be bestowed upon a Chinese person, and it was applied to most of the leaders of the May Fourth Movement like Lu Xun, Chen Duxiu, and to various other great educators, spiritual leaders, men of letters and model scholars throughout modern history.

Those definitions of Confucian sages, Taoist sages, and Neo-Confucian and Modern sages above were all very similar; they all took at their basis the Chinese sheng(ren).

Although Buddhism originated in India (where it had vanished by the 12th century), it flourished in East-Asia; and Buddhist sages were as un-German as the Confucian ones. For example, the Five Dhyani Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism: each represented a different aspect of enlightened consciousness to aid in the practitioner’s spiritual transformation. From Manjushri, the Buddha of wisdom and the power of differentiating, we heard about the “six virtues” or “six perfections”, that were essential for attaining sagehood (Buddhahood, in this case) and – as the ultimate goal in Buddhism – becoming a bodhisattva: a sagely being or enlightened being. Becoming a Buddha, of course, was only reserved for a chosen few bodhisattvas. The six perfection were: 1) generosity, 2) discipline, 3) patience, 4) energy, 5) meditation, and, again the most important: 6) wisdom (prajna). The “wisdom” that the buddhas were referring to was not easy to explain in words in general, and impossible to capture in Western terminology anyway; sagely or Buddhist wisdom was essentially not the result of Western philosophizing or debating or reasoning; rather, it was the insight in the true nature of the world and the inter-connectedness of all things. Prajna as such was untranslatable, thus stayed prajna in Western scholarship.

Oriental scholars said prajna when they referred to prajna, and wisdom when they meant something else. Some translators who did not believe that foreign terminology hold any surprises to the Western mind tried to replace prajna by “supreme wisdom” or “insight into emptiness” or “true knowledge”. But really, nothing conveyed the foreignness of prajna better than the word prajna. All the same, Oriental sages and sagehood were quite un-European. An insult to some.

In a book with the telling title Soldier, Sage, Saint (1978), Robert C. Neville, a Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, did not have the shengren in mind, but had ideas about sages in general when he elaborated on his “three models of spiritual perfection”:

The ideal soldier is the model of psychic integrity. The sage is the model of enlightenment. And the saint is the model of perfection of the heart.[55]

His definition was very concise, but useful. Like all other definitions of the sages above, it made one think what the Germans would have said about the English speaking world seeing “sages” here and there and in the Orient, while Germany’s most prominent orientalists only saw Heilige, saints. The Germans had no Weise (sages). If they had, we would have seen in their translations, in their literature. In effect, Germans cannot even agree on the English: “The sage is the model of enlightenment”, said Neville. The Buddha, the Enlightened One, comes to mind. Not Western Enlightenment, that spiritual growth of which the German version is Aufklärung. But Aufklärung is exactly what the East was supposed to have lacked: Kant said that enlightenment was “the liberation of one’s understanding from the guidance from another”.[56] That is like saying to liberate oneself from the guidance of so-called Wiseman. The sage (or Buddha) was exactly not the model of Enlightenment in German culture, the philosopher was. Germany had another synonym for enlightenment, Erkenntnis, meaning insight. The kind of enlightenment Neville meant, the enlightened sage, however, was best translated in German Erleuchtung, literally meaning the state of being enlighten(ed). Here, light is said and meant: hence dying Goethe’s notorious: “Mehr Licht!” (more light!), or Latin Ex Occidente Lex, Ex Oriente Lux (from the West, law, from the East, light). Goethe never got what he hinted at (being called a “Weiser”);[57] one could not make that claim oneself, but some other Germans could have recognized Goethe as such, yet none did: the Indian Buddha was the only one called “der Erleuchtete” in Germany. Germany officially had a thousand philosophers, but not a single sage.


[1] Legge, 1891, Mencius, Wan Zhang II

[2] Sato, 2003, p. xiii

[3] Rosemont, 2009, p. 84

[4] Schwarz, 1959

[5] Izutsu, 1984

[6] Schopenhauer, 1819, Bd. 2, p. 215

[7] Russell, 1967; Pohlenz, 1970; Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010

[8] Economist, 24th March 2011

[9] Magno, Ludovico, 1687, pp. Aij/B, G, cxviij ff.

[10] Taylor, 1691, p. 45; Lette, 1877, p. 4; Larrymore, 2000, p. 190

[11] Wylie, 1922, p. 284; Xin Han De Ci Dian, 1985; Han Ying De Ci Dian, 1993

[12] Taplin, 2000, p. 156

[13] Oxford Latin Dictionary, 1982

[14] Diogenes Laertius, 1925

[15] Yeats, 1928

[16] Balfour, in Said, 1976, p. 33

[17] Spengler, 1918, p. 934 ff.

[18] Hegel, 1837

[19] Conrady, 1910, p. 477

[20]Hesse, 1921

[21] Hegel, 1822/1823, p. 369

[22] Goethe, 1901, Faust II, 6315

[23] Jaeger, 1973, p. 776

[24]Taylor, 1691, p. ix

[25] Albrecht, 1985, p. xi

[26] Feifel, 1982, p. 58

[27] Kennedy, 1961

[28] Widmaier, 1990, p. 213 ff.

[29] Lee, 2008, p. 49

[30] Rosemont, 2009, p. 84

[31] Legge, 1891, The Analects VII;26, VII;34

[32] Zhang Zai, The Western Inscriptions, transl. by Van Norden, 2006

[33] Mozi, Book One, Self-Cultivation, in Graham, 1978

[34] Legge, 1893

[35] Taylor, 1990, p. 47; Hall & Ames, 1987; Graham, 1978; Encyclopedia Britannica, 2010

[36] Gützlaff in Walravens, 2001; Schott, 1826; Grube, 1902; Haas, 1920; Wilhelm, 1925; Biallas, 1928

[37] (online dictionary), 2010; (Chinese-German dictionary) 2010; Brockhaus, 1911; Kramers, 1979; Flad, 1904; Schwanfelder, 2006; Roetz, 2006

[38] Hegel, 1766, p. 342; Hegel, 1930, p. 174; Husserl, 1935; Herder, 1841

[39] Mann, 1932; Marchand, 2008; Fülberth, 2007

[40] Stern, 1963; Murti, 2001

[41] Ringer, 1990

[42] Humboldt, 1836; Hesse, 1921; Husserl, 1935

[43] Nietzsche, 1968, 1969

[44]India andChina were among the Allies against Nazi Germany – a fact that many Indians and Chinese were proud of – was often omitted in German history books; few Germans know

[45] Sueddeutsche (25th Feb, 2008) ‘Hochqualifizierte meiden Deutschland’

[46] Tu, 1987, p. 86

[47]Taylor, 1990, p. 47

[48] Spengler, 1918, p. 937-943

[49] Slabbert, 1999

[50] Jung, 1939, p. xiiii

[51] Goethe, 1981, p. 605

[52] in Eckermann, 1988, p. 98

[53] see Kalton, 1988

[54] Ibid., pp. 26, 38, 41

[55] Neville, 1978, p. 1

[56] Kant, 1987, p. 41

[57] Goethe, 1981, p. 605