Shengren – Chapter 1.3 – The Theory of No Country for Sages


Greek philosophy and Christianity had left a deep impression on German culture. As a result, German historians called thinkers “Philosophen” and spiritual men Heilige”. They did not call German thinkers “Weise” (sages) for good reason: Philosophers and philosophy had dethroned sages and sagehood. As a result, given a very narrow view of the world, German philosophers, orientalists, and other scholars had no suitable terminology for describing the sage traditions in China and the rest of Asia. Since they did not know any better, the Germans used a) biblical speech to describe non-Christian traditions, b) technical words borrowed from its Greek philosophical tradition, or c) vocabulary from German folk legends. That misunderstanding (or, in case the Church was involved, deliberate misinterpretation) of sage cultures had a ripple effect that planted itself forward and every subsequent piece of writing and scholarship the Germans produced about the Orient. Instead of correcting the earlier mistakes, the Germans held on to German names for Chinese concepts and their narrow “German version” of Chinese history, Indian history and so on. By the beginning of the 20th century, the German world had become out of sync with the Anglo-American world view on Asia, letting alone the realities in China and India, on which less experienced Germans could only communicate each other’s thought and impressions (a German monologue), while the true facts and a world of new vocabulary (riding on British Wade-Giles and pinyin transliterations) were exchanged exclusively between the Chinese and the English-speaking world. By the end of the 20th century, German-language China scholarship had made itself redundant.

A case in point: German scholars had no concepts for sheng(ren), sages and sagehood, and as a result they translated sheng(ren) as biblical Heilige (saints), Philosophen, Göttliche, Berufene, Kulturheroen, Genies, etc.[1] However, when translating from the English, German scholars translated English “sage” correctly as “der Weise”. That was paradox: When from an Anglo-American source, “sage” became German “der Weise”; when from a Chinese source, “sheng(ren)” became German “der Heilige”. If post-war history is of any guidance: Anglo-American culture was now the occupying cultural force in Europe, while Chinese culture was still considered inferior to the German one.

First reluctantly, later ultimately, the Germans had to believe in what Anglo-American scholarship relentlessly propagated, that shengren were sages. And because 99% of English-German dictionaries would translate sages as die Weisen, the Germans were forced to translate shengren as “die Weisen” in the case they translated from an English source. English-language scholarship was perceived as superior to German-language scholarship, both in quality as well as in quantity. Might, more often than not, was right: cultural might.

In the few cases, however, when German scholarship directly engaged with China (there are fewer than one might think; most Chinese novels, for example, are not translated straight from the Chinese but from the English into German), without Anglo-Saxon culture as an intermediary, German thinkers did not concede an inch of cultural superiority to China. On the contrary, Germany continued its former imperialist tradition: Chinese sages were (biblical) “Heilige” or “Philosophen”, and Chinese sagehood was (Western) “Philosophie”. And how could the German philosophers, non-experts in Asia studies, know it was shengren, and not philosopher, if they had never heard shengren before? Always better then, to go with the prominent and respected Georg W. F. Hegel:

Das Werk des Lao-tse, as Tao-te-king, ist berühmt. Confuzius besuchte im sechsten Jahrhundert v. Chr. diesen Philosophen, um ihm seine Ehrerbietung zu bezeugen. Wenn es nun auch jedem Chinesen frei steht, diese philosophischen Werke zu studieren, so gibt es [usw.].[2] [The work of Lao-tse, Tao Te Ching, is famous. Confucius visited this philosopher in the sixth century BC in order to testify his respect. If now every Chinese was free to study these philosophical works, …]

In his book Die orientalische Welt (1919 edition) [The Oriental World], Hegel used the terms “philosopher(s)”, “philosophical works”, and “philosophy” repetitively and exhaustively just like any other work of great propaganda; yet if any sinologist looked at what the Confucian classics really said the result was embarrassing: none of those “philosophy”-terms could be found in the actual Canon (the Chinese word for philosophy is zhexue 哲学). Some of the various key terms that actually did appear in the Chinese Classics were absent in Hegel’s World (of course, he had never seen those words), for example: 圣人sheng(ren), 君子junzi, 教jiao, 经jing, 德de, etc.

Back to the sages: Laozi himself once gave an instruction on how to become a sage in the Dao De Jing:

所以圣人守道, 为天下人树立了好的典范.不自我表扬, 反而显明; 不自以为是,反而彰显; 不自己夸耀, 反而见功; 不自我矜持, 反而长久.正因不与人争, 所以天下没有人跟他争”. [Therefore the sage embraces the One and is a model for the empire. He does not show himself, and so is conspicuous; He does not consider himself right, and so is illustrious; He does not brag, and so has merit; He does not boast, and so endures. It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in apposition to contend with him.][3]

The instructions given above on how to become a sage do not sound like an instruction on how to become a philosopher. It appears that what defined a philosopher lied outside of him: in the subject’s matter or object of philosophical enquiry. Whereas what Laozi thought defined a sage lied within a person: that person’s character and his relation to the people around him. Laozi even said: 圣人shengren, not philosopher which would be a 哲学家zhexuejia. Who is right, Laozi on Laozi or Hegel on Laozi?

Hegel invented a new name, “philosopher”, for Laozi and Confucius, and he invented a new word for 教jiao (teachings) too: “philosophy”; and his ignorance of Chinese names and concepts shaped all German commentary to this day. Again, had it really been the word philosophy in the Chinese text, the Canon would have said 哲学zhexue, but it did not, and could not, because哲学was a much later concept in Chinese history of thought. The true achievement of Hegel, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, was a) his invention of a philosophical system that included and explained China without having actual experience of China, and b) making everyone in the Western world believe it was actual China, or say a better China than China’s China.

Such was the power of the philosophical approach to thinking that Hegel himself expounded in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1822) on the difference between philosophy and all other forms of thinking. He said: “Philosophy is distinct from EXPERIENCE [sic] and the empirical disciplines. […]. It has the same CONTENT as, but differs in FORM from, art and, more explicitly, religion”[4]. This we already knew: Philosophy was void of actual experience, and differed in form because the content was presented coherent within that philosophical system. How could, according to Hegel, the becoming a sage not have evolved from experience, and yet he considered it a philosophy? It surely was not. Confucius traveled the lands and instructed kings and noblemen how to perfect oneself and become a good person – how was that “not connected to experience”, and yet it still qualified, in Hegel’s own definition, as “philosophy”? The German philosophers were building a ship for fools, waiting for the flood that would drown the shengren eventually. If all Chinese terms were gone and forgotten, and only (Western) philosophers remained in the world, that was a China most useful to the West.

The becoming a sage through self-cultivation and the practicing sagehood were necessarily about life experience and the relations between people and all things, as opposed to the Hegelian doing philosophy which could be done literally from behind one’s desk, never having to meet a single Chinese man that one intended to write the history of thought for. From the point of sociology, calling Chinese thinkers “philosophers”, as Hegel did, was a good strategy to make Chinese history look as if it resonated perfectly with the Hegelian idea of Weltgeist or world spirit.

All thinkers of the world should be honored to be called philosophers, a Western tradition. Ethically speaking, such a strategy was no less corrupt than that of the missionaries calling Confucius a holy man. Most philosophers wanted to include everything in their philosophical systems, even the non-philosophical, no matter how absurd that undertaking. Hegel thought that world history was an expansion of Greek antiquity; that cause was all the Chinese needed to know about their future.[5]He did not believe in sages anymore. He had never seen one.

[1] Gützlaff, Schott, Wilhelm, Haas, Biallas, Darré, Stange, Feifel, Schwarz, von Wedemeyer, Goepper, Jaspers, Wei, Roetz (see appendix, table 4 ‘Shengren translations’)

[2] Hegel, 1919

[3] D. C. Lau, 1979, XXII

[4] see Inwood, 1992, p. 220-221

[5] Hegel, 1830, p. 174 ff.