Shengren – Chapter – Christian Wolff

The first German philosopher who thoroughly engaged with Confucian thought was Christian Wolff:

Solos Sinas utroque oculo praeditos esse, ateras mortalium plane coecos.[1] [Only the Chinese have two eyes, all other mortals are blind.]

In 1721, the German philosopher and educator Christian Wolff delivered a historical lecture at the University of Halle entitled Oratio de Sinarum philosophia practica or ‘On Chinese Practical Philosophy’ in which he indirectly acknowledged the genius of Chinese civil society and civilization. Wolff, like Gottfried Leibniz before him, was considered a true Universalgelehrter (universal scholars or polymath), one who has mastered and published in all the sciences, including Mathematics, Physics, Statecraft, Religion and Philosophy. Wolff did not create a new system of philosophy, as Leibniz or Kant did; however his philosophy was systemized enough and is best described as through and through rational and logical and, as far as moral questions were redressed, a provocation into the face of the Church, making Wolff one of the most notorious individuals of the German Enlightenment.

Although his philosophical ideas were largely superseded by Kantian philosophy, Wolff still went in the history books for dethroning Latin and initiating the German tongue as the lingua franca of the scholarly society – although he himself still had to published in Latin so that his immediate and skeptical contemporaries would read him. The slogan of his life-work with regards to China was ‘practical philosophy’ which during his time was a synonym for ‘moral philosophy’. Why was it called practical, instead of moral? That was because in those days in Europe morality was directly linked to Christianity and God, so calling it “practical philosophy” rather than “moral philosophy” was an elegant way to escape from the divine.

The general approach in Wolff’ an philosophy was ‘rationalism': the conviction that every thinkable problem could and should be analyzed in an objective and scientific manner. Such a conviction was not at all common during Wolff’s time, and really only after Kant did German society turn into the kind of rationalist cult it came to be admired for, and envied and feared. Wolff’s strategy was simply placing the imaginatively condition ‘rational’ in front of each discipline he had knowledge of: Theology could be ‘rational theology’, ethics could be ‘rational ethics’, and psychology could be ‘rational psychology’, etc. Wolff’s approach looked fresh and optimistic; hence his philosophy became known as ‘positive rationalism’.

Wolff’s, because of his mathematical and scientific background, did not pay attention to historical context or personal experience; rather he tried to grasp the underlying timelessness of ideas and reflected upon their universality and practicability. One day he came into contact with two Latin translations of the Confucian Classics: François Noël’s Sinensis imperii libri classici sex (1711) and Philippe Couplet’s Collection of Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (1687). Wolff was fascinated, and immediately categorized the “philosophy of China” (as the two authors called it, so Wolff adopted that phrase), and incorporated Chinese philosophy into (Western) philosophy by designating Confucian thought as a branch of what was then known as “practical philosophy”, and today was “moral philosophy”. Wolff then tried to undermine Christianity’s general belief in God’s word as the sole source of moral guidance, and he did so by allegory: Confucian China, a through and through civilized society, had developed a sound system of practical ethics despite lacking the true religion, Christianity; ergo, the true religion was not a necessary requirement for any society to develop a relative high standard of public morals. That idea, as one might guess, did not go well with Wolff’s colleagues and theological opponents at Halle University who forced him to resign from his post shortly after he delivered his notorious lecture that went straight into the German history books simply as ‘Chinesenrede':

Nimirum prisci Sinarum Imperatores & Reges iidem errant Philosophi: Quid ergo mirum, juxta istud Platonis beatam fuisse Remp. ubi Philosoph regnabant, Reges philosophabantur? [The ancient Emperors and Kings were philosophers: [But] is that so surprising – with regards to Plato’s clause – that the blessed state is that in which the philosophers reign and the kings philosophize?][2]

Wolff’s obsession with equaling Confucius’ ideas on practical philosophy to his own, and his patronizing of the Chinese sages, of which he did not know the correct name, shengren, and which he called “philosophers” anyway, at some point became shallow and importunate. Wolff thought visiting China was a waste of time:

Da aber die Weisheit der Chinesen gemeinhin nicht so hoch eingeschätzt wird, dass man um ihretwillen nach China reisen müsse […]”;[3] [But the wisdom of the Chinese is generally not so highly valued that is was necessary to travel to China for its sake…]

He could not read Chinese and had to rely on Latin translations of some French missionaries who almost certainly never mastered the Chinese language, and despite all these shortcomings Wolff never felt an iota of shame.[4] Some of his most normative statements about Chinese culture – given that Wolff had never been to China, thought it a waste of time, and could not bother to learn Chinese – are embarrassing, to say the least. Some chapters are headlined: “Finis Sinarum ultimus” [Der Endzweck der Chinesen; The Final Purpose of the Chinese], “Summum bonum Sinarum” [Das höchste Gut der Chinesen; The Highest Good of the Chinese], “Motiva Sinarum” [Die Beweggründe der Chinesen; The Motives of the Chinese] and so on.[5] François Noël and Philippe Couplet translated (parts of) the Confucian Classics into Latin, of which the German translator and historian Michael Albrecht in his foreword to the Latin-German translation of Wolff’s lecture remarked the following: The translation of the missionaries…

…können nicht genügen, weil […] sie auf eine Weise die vom christlichen – abendländischen Denken geprägt ist bzw. diesem Denken verständlich sein soll, ziemlich frei übertragen”. […can not suffice because {…} it is shaped by and designed for the Christian-Occidental way of thinking, and thus is a fairly loosely translated.]

That observation by Albrecht was an understatement. Noël’s 1711-translation was a paean to the Jesuits’ missionary work in China. And Couplet’s 1687-collection of Jesuit essays and translations, including one of the first timetables of Chinese history, the Tabula chronologica Monarchiae Sinicae (1687), was a patchwork featuring several authors on a mission to establish the kingdom of God in China.

The influence of Wolff’s lecture – based on Noël and Couplet’s Latin translations of the Chinese Classics – could not be underestimated: Wolff learned from the French missionaries that “wisdom” was “worshipped in China”, which stirred quite a sensation in Germany. In Europe, it was usually the “divine” that was worshipped. In Latin wisdom was sapięntia. Noël, Couplet, and now Wolff all three authors made heavily use of sapięntia in all its forms, for instance: Sapientiae Sinensium [Weisheit der Chinesen; the Wisdom of the Chinese] or sapięntia antiquissimorum Sinarum principia [die Grundsätze der Weisheit der Chinesen; the Fundamentals of the Wisdom of the Chinese].[6] There could be no doubt that Latin sapięntia was German Weisheit (and not sageness, because there was no concept for sages and sageness in Germany), so other translators of Wolff’s lecture such as Gottlieb F. Hagen (1740) and Michael Albrecht (1985) translated – from Wolff’s Latin sapięntia(-ae) accordingly: die Weisheit; while French translators (who had a concept for sages and sagehood) like Jean Henri Samuel Formey (1741) translated: sagesse or sagacité. Noël and Couplet had overlooked the sheng as one of the most if not the most important concept in Chinese tradition (letting alone that it is a person, not merely an adjective or just another synonym for wisdom). Thus, to the defense of Wolff, the German philosophers were missing crucial information about China. Already Leibniz had failed to understand that China was a sage culture with sages and sagehood, and now Wolff continued that great German delusion about the East. When the German Weisheit was re-translated into Chinese again, it was not 圣sheng but 智zhi. 智Zhi was wisdom. 圣Sheng was sagacity. With regard to Wolff it was not at all clear if sheng(ren) had actually been understood, not even on a basic level, when distinguishing Eastern sagacity from German/Christian wisdom.

Technically, Wolff overlooked the sheng(ren) because the word did neither appear in Noël’s text nor in Couplet’s collection. A Latin-based Christian culture had not sufficiently accurate vocabulary to describe (letting alone explain) a Chinese-based Confucian culture. The Latin language thus lacked the words that would accurately convey the Chinese notion of sheng(ren). In Latin sapięntia(-ae) meant wisdom that aroused from the proficiency in philosophy and the sciences, and not from the sage’s self-cultivation and the way of sagehood through experience. Words do come with a history and cultural baggage. Only ignorance, that of a tourist, or complete disregard, that of an imperialist, for that history and cultural baggage would prompt a scholar to go to Asia and call everyone a philosopher.

Having said that sapięntia meant proficiency in philosophy and the sciences to the German Christian Wolff who, as said before advocated a logical and scientific approach to ethics, he evidently felt he had to explain and justify to his German fellowmen why the missionaries and scholars like himself used Latin sapięntia when it was commonly believed (as a result of Leibniz and other sinophiles) that Confucius was considered exactly not what the Latin word conveyed: Confucius was non-philosophical and unscientific, and he was non-Christian, and therefore Confucius amounted to a non-rational and non-religious “philosopher”. Had Wolff used the single word shengren, he could have spared the world with his own attempts to define Chinese thinkers. Yet, in the interest of the German people, he called Confucius a “philosopher” nevertheless and thus reserved from him and the Europeans once and forever the right for the final explanation of the Chinese tradition.

What the Germans understood about “wisdom” or “sapięntia” was different from what the Chinese sages (Wolff did not know they were sages) embodied. In other words, Wolff rejected Chinese loanwords for Chinese concepts simply because he was ignorant or uneducated about it. That aside, it was always a challenge to the philosopher, true mind acrobatics in fact, to mold the entire Chinese tradition of thought into what sounded familiar and agreeable to the German ear; in particular to talk about the concept(s) of wisdom in Asia and reduce them (by withholding the proper foreign terminologies) to European ideas about wisdom. Wolff tried to convey Chinese moral exceptionalism (from a point of view of Christianity), but lacked the linguistic tools (e. g. the correct Chinese terminology) to support his case. One needed to be reminded that everything short of Western ideas and opinions about virtually everything was deemed unscientific and illogical, to this day in fact:

Wolff nennt Weisheit die Wissenschaft der Glückseligkeit, und muss das erklären, denn Weisheit unwissenschaftlich und unlogisch würde sofort zurückgewiesen werden.[7] [Wolff called wisdom the science of happiness, and had to explain that, since unscientific and illogical wisdom would immediately be dismissed (by his German contemporaries).]

One imagined that the German Wolff struggled hard, equipped only with Latin sapięntia in his vocabulary and the German concept of Weisheit in his mind, to establish credibility and sovereignty for Chinese zhi and sheng圣 and thousands of other concepts he had neither seen, studied, nor heard about. He wanted to say that Chinese wisdom was not God’s, yet “wisdom” in the Christian world view was related to God; the question was how to side-step one’s own cultural predicaments? He wanted to say Chinese wisdom was different from folkloric German wisdom, but in Germany there was hardly any tradition of wisdom than went beyond the folkloric one. If Wolff had had at his disposal the Chinese term “sheng(ren)”, he could have used it as a good starting point to explain and promote a new and very un-Germanic kind of wisdom and way of thinking. But that was not the case; he exclusively used familiar vocabulary of his own culture to describe the foreign and alien. What new could be learned from that? Or did Wolff just invented and speculated about China (that he never saw nor studied) in order to ignite and angry the Church’s monopoly on European thought?

Given that eternal wisdom or highest wisdom in the Christian world was God’s; talking too much about a supposedly non-religious Chinese wisdom was an act of bravery in Wolff’s time. It was like saying, in our times, that the truths we discover every day by the scientific method were unrelated to the sciences. The source of wisdom (and morals), God, was questioned the moment a German philosopher talked about Chinese morals. There was only one way Chinese thought could be explained and rationalized: Chinese thought was disorganized and un-scientific, for:

Weisheit ist nicht gleichbedeutend mit Wissenschaft im Sinne exakter Forschung und organisatorischer Einheit des Wissens.[8] [Wisdom is not synonymous with science in the sense of exact research and organizational unity of knowledge.]

Therefore, the Chinese thinkers who taught their wisdom were what the Germans understood as Weisheitslehrer – a pejorative term for the reasons in the definition for wisdom given above. Inevitable, there was little room for Wolff maneuvering around traditional German suspicion of non-Christian and unscientific Weisheitslehrer who built their career on teaching dubious morals based not on logic (that God holds the highest wisdom) but on mythical history and the sayings of kings. That was why Wolff had to go – leaving his university chair.

As a rhetorical device, brave Wolff compared Confucius of the Chinese to the Moses of the Jews and to Muhammad of the Turks; all of whom were the Lehrer des Volkes (the educators of the folk)[9]: “Das Verhalten der Juden und der Chinesen ist also das selbe!”[10] (The behavior of the Jews and the Chinese is thus the same!). Wolff compared the impact of Jewish and Chinese wisdom teaching – not the truthfulness of its content, and he did not include the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ, because that would have meant comparing Confucius to the Messiah. Comparing Confucius to the Jewish or Turkish prophets was alright, while comparing Confucius to Jesus Christ was blasphemy, simply because, as Wolff explained: “Jesus can not err”.[11]

Wolff – with no knowledge of Chinese and a limited vocabulary – tirelessly described every piece of thought in China philosophy: Sinarum Philosophia Practica, philosophiae Sinicae – everything was philosophy and philosophers in China – an assumption based on absolutely nothing but the very fact that Wolff himself considered himself a philosopher and his thought philosophy, and it would follow from this that everything he wrote about was philosophical too.

The truth he never knew: Philosophy and Philosopher, those two terms were nowhere to be found in the Chinese Canon. Wolff made it up – it was an invention, a bogus. The hubris and great German delusion that shengren were biblical saints or pre-philosopher and that what they taught was philosophy had no equivalent in the history of cultural studies. The idiocy of that could be compared to the fictional case that a group of Hindus travelled to German lands and called the German philosophers Brahmans. In academic studies, mistakes were often corrected. The British in India reasoned that bodhisattvas and buddhas were non-European concepts and thus deserved their original names; and the British in China realized that shengren was a non-European concept too, or at least were “sages”. Not so the Germans. The German historians like Hegel utterly believed that Indian and Chinese cultures could not significantly contribute to world history: the East had philosophers (whatever they Germans liked to call foreign thinkers but their true names), but Germany, we all know, was the land of the philosophers. We today know that economies can collapse, and governments – how about the academia of a country? An economy based on bad loans and unlawful speculations may collapse, a government based on corruption and bribery may collapse; say an academia based on error and deception may collapse, too. It is beyond sanity, how – in the 21st century – not a single German I have ever met (with the exception of a few sinologists) has ever heard about the shengren, when the 1.4 billion living huaren (the Chinese) had shengren for thousands of years? That is not a tragedy; that is not funny; say we call it the same way we would feel if some Easterner told us he had never heard about Western philosophers: we say there is an intellectual deficit in the German academia with regards to the study of foreign cultures – institutionalized, ignorant, vindictive and dangerous.

Few dare to criticize Wolff for having misinterpreted China. German scholars had perfected the art of explaining history,[12] and they did it so eloquently, convincingly and commanding from behind their desks, that it became a great sport for the elites to create their own versions of history. The sinologist and historian Adrian Hsia brought this to further attention by speaking of the “Leibnizen Chinesen” or “Webers Chinesen” etc.[13] The creations in Europe were usually given the name of their creators. It works like a patent. That is why everyone is so eager in Europe to invent a new version of the Chinese, a new label. And creating their own fancy versions of the East was big business for the German philosophers. Wolff was praised for his Wolff ‘an Chinesen just like Leibniz was praised for his Leibnizen Chinesen and they became the founders and greatest China experts of their times:  

Was das Wissen über China anbetrifft, dürfte er [Leibniz] der belesenste Denker in Europe sein. Viele sehen ihn sogar als den besten Sinologen seiner Zeit, er hat fast alle wichtigen Űbersetzungen aus dem Chinesischen und Abhandlungen in europäischen Sprachen gelesen.[14] [As for knowledge about China, he (Leibniz) should be the most knowledgeable mind in Europe. Many see him as even the best sinologist of his time; he has read almost all the important papers and translated from Chinese into European languages.]

With so much praise and eulogy it was almost impossible to criticize the “best sinologist of his time”. Leibniz’ writings were not even based on secondary sources but on translations of those secondary sources; and Wolff’s Chinesenrede was based on a translation of a text of which little was known of its Chinese transcription history. Leibniz once wrote to Peter the Great of Russia about Leibniz’s China views, and Wolff, not an inch less opportunistic and clearly a career-type sort of academic philosopher, was well on his way to become Germany’s greatest philosopher and European China specialist. Wolff, too, flattered Peter the Great in 1723, who was just recognized as ‘Peter the Great, Emperor of all the Russians’ by Frederick William I of Prussia, that Peter’s Russia “inherited the spirit of the Chinese Philosopher-Kings who had inherited it from the Greeks before them”.[15]

The Germans talked as if the world already belonged to them; all understanding fell under the authority of the European mind over history. There were always two parties to which one could compare himself – to the glorious civilizations that descended from the Greeks or to those trifling civilizations that were the rest.

Leibniz and Wolff’s writings about China were not factual but fictionist. But their arguments were logical, sound, made a lot of sense. That was all a philosopher’s requirements. The real world, the reality of life, the how to get along with others, is not the philosopher’s concern. Wolff could not read Chinese just like any other great “sinologist” or “China experts” like Fichte, Herder, or Hegel who were not able to study the Chinese language or experience Chinese culture either. It seemed obvious to them, by reading secondary sources and novels about the East, that the very essence of the East would reveal itself to the rational German mind eventually.

In the end, his own creation of China, the Wolff’an China, must have appeared to Wolff much more accurate and more correct than China’s China. Wolff was the thinking subject, and the several millions of Chinese (at that time) were the object of Wolff’an theory. This binary fashion of thought –the distinction between subject and object – had played a great role in Western tradition and was believed to be absent in most Eastern traditions. The mind that saw the objective world as separated from itself and that also had the capacity of seeing itself as separated from the world and therefore as an object (which is different than the subject merely going into itself like in meditation), was the most dogmatic yet easily most impressive dichotomy at hand of the Europeans to explain the otherness of the East.


[1] Wolff, 1721

[2] Albrecht, 1985

[3] Wolff, 1721, transl. in Albrecht 1985, p. 7

[4] Ibid., p. LXXX

[5] Ibid., pp. 54, 56, 60

[6] Wolff, 1721, in Albrecht, 1985, pp. 22, 47, 60 ff.

[7] Albrecht, 1985, p. 23

[8] Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 1955

[9] Albrecht, 1985, p. 116, 117

[10] Wolff, 1721, transl. in Albrecht, 1985, p. 119

[11] Ibid., p. 120/121

[12] Watson, 1992, p. 141

[13] Hsia, 2001, p. 347-350

[14] Hsia, 2001, p. 356

[15] Albrecht, 1985, p. LXXXVIII ff.