Shengren – Chapter – Johann G. v. Herder

The next important philosopher who had something to say about China, India and the Eastern traditions of thought was Johann Gottfried von Herder. Confusion about which tradition Herder belonged to abundant: German romanticism and German orientalism both occurred during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The approaches were similar; only the objects of the philosophical enquiry differed: the romanticists dwelled in the Middle Ages for inspiration; the orientalists chose the Middle and Far East as their source of motivation. Naturally then, the two movements often cross-referenced, and a good representative of those cross-references is Herder. The philosopher is considered a German romanticist as well as a German orientalist. He did not only look to the European Middle Ages for inspirations, but also flirted with India and China for that matter. Romanticism as a philosophical project was successful, but as a science it failed with regards to the romanticists’ aim to present the archaic, irrational, and supernatural as the modern, rational, and real. That is why there are no romanticist scholars (but plenty of orientalist ones; Oriental Studies was an academic major throughout Europe). Quite the opposite happened: every thing romanticized became archaic, irrational, and supernatural – like a variation of the Midas touch that turns everything into gold: a curse. Every story the romanticist touched upon became a fairy-tale, and the books of the Orientalist were the chronicles of a fairy-land: the exotic, fantastic, and twisted world of the Orientals. The creative genius of the Germans during German romanticism is legendary, for example in classical music: Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, and Richard Wagner. In philosophy, Germany pushed itself to the center-stage of the world with Herder, Schelling, Hegel, the Schlegel brothers, Fichte, and Goethe. In a fit of seemingly endless creativity and admiration for the archaic, irrational, and supernatural, the Germans described the world how they saw it, or how the world could to be, but never how it really was – because they were not able to experience that reality: only in their imagination could the romanticists reach the East.

It was not important enough to know how China really was when the imagery of China that was created by the orientalist was powerful enough to arouse the lofty dreams of the romanticists, who were quite a pre-modern legion of entertainers. Herder avoided China; he could not read Chinese and had been without Chinese friends. In fact, he did not know any Chinese person. Nevertheless, Herder wrote about China in his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1841). His verdict: China’s civilization was intellectually backward and immature and the idea of an Emperor and his dynasty was outright despotism. To Herder, China had put itself into chains by immovable cultural obstacles such as Confucianism. Confucian values and traditions were, according to Herder, the shackles that hold the Chinese back from achieving greatness forever, and that by then the Chinese had degenerated into a lesser type of humanity: a civilization with a slave mentality. That Chinese slave mentality was later picked up by another German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who made his infamous xiao-xin-remark (make your heart small) about the low self-esteem of the Chinese, but this on a side note. At the same time, however, Herder was not satisfied with the developments in Europe either. The Europeans faced their own superlative: a spiritual revolt against Enlightenment and Modernity. “The Old”, as Herder called it, should not be erased by the new, because the Old is part of Germany’s tradition and identity. Herder, in line with Giambattista Vico of Italy and Jean-Jacques Rousseau of France, demanded the revival of humanism, because the philosophers saw traditional Europe under siege by the ongoing rationalization of all branches of society that regarded thousand years of tradition and folklore as symbols of ignorance and fanaticism.[1]

Es war die Zeit der Romantik, als ihre verehrungswuerdigen Führer und Begründer die vergessene Herrlichkeit der deutschen Vergangenheit aus verstaubten Büchereien ans Licht brachten und aus dem Mund alter Weiblein, Handwerksburschen und Kinder zum Bewusstsein des ganzen Volkes wieder erweckten.[2] [There was a time of romance, when its most venerable leaders and founders brought to light the forgotten glory of Germany’s past. From dusty libraries and from the mouth of old women, artisans and children [the forgotten glory] was resurrected for the awareness of all the people.

Herder’s simplification of the world by worshipping an older, more primitive version of Europe was not the result of genealogy but the result of soul search. Nostalgia for die Alten (the Old), Ur-Völker (the Ancients/Ancestors), die Werken der Alten (the Books of Old), and das Goldene Zeitalter (the Golden Age)[3] are the reoccurring themes in Herder’s writings.[4] German romanticists called it the Sehnsucht nach Vergangenheit (the Longing for the past), while the German orientalist, never shy of scholarly adventures, changed that slogan into the Sehnsucht nach dem Orient (the Longing for the East). Asia was considered an ancient world: unchangeable and painfully resilient to modernity. Herder called China an “embalmed mummy wound in silk” – a fitting metaphor, given that the European imperialists were about to plunder and burn down that mummy’s Summer Palace in 1860.

From the romanticists Germany had learned that wise men and wisdom are concepts of folklore and mythology, not part of reality. And from the philosophers Germany had learned that sages and sagehood had been abolished in Ancient Greece because searching knowledge was superior to being wise. Now the orientalists filed strange reports about wise men and wisdom that seemed to play a far greater role in China than it played in Europe, and that the Middle Kingdom had perfected the very sage culture the European were never to have. The nature of imperialism has it, that something had to happen to China about it.

As said before, Germany, theoretically, had three terminologies applied to the sages: Philosophen (from Greek antiquity), Heilige (from Christianity), and die Weisen (from German folklore); yet none of them applied to what Sino-Tibetan culture understood by sheng(ren). And unlike the British with their empirical approach to thinking (as opposed to German pure rationalism, meaning thinking rather than experiencing) and valuable experiences and exchanges with Asian cultures, the Germans had not the familiarity necessary to decide what sages and sagehood was and how to name it. The German philosophers did what came naturally to them: they thought about Germany’s short-comings and rationalized that its short-comings were really strengths. Ignorance is strength. Not to be Chinese and not to be Indian is the strength of Germany. To present this to the world, German culture, and by extension European culture, had to stay forever at the center of world’s history, and Asian history had to be re-invented, totally and lastingly.

The Swiss novelist and Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature Hermann Hesse took great part in the re-inventing the Orient with his observations in Chinesische Betrachtungen (1921) [Chinese Observations] and his spiritual novels: Siddhartha (1922) and the Glass Bead Game (1943). Although Hesse’s work feels authentic, he confessed: “Hätte ich beizeiten eines der Fächer gelernt, vor denen ich besonderen Respekt habe, Musik oder Sanskrit oder Chinesisch oder Astronomie, dann hätte ich es nicht nötig gehabt, ein Glasperlenspiel zu erfinden”[5] [Had I studied one of those subjects that I particularly respected, music or Sanskrit or Chinese or astronomy, then I wouldn’t have needed to invent the Glass Bead Game]. It is precisely by ignoring reality, or by being ignorant, that new theories and stories come about. But that would logically entail that Europe has to instruct its people to consciously avoiding any situation in which they have to reproduce an accurate picture of the world or develop a long-time memory. In Western class-rooms, no student is asked to reproduce what Plato said exactly; rather the student is encouraged to give his opinion or analysis, as if he was the new Plato. That is very different from a Chinese class-room, where the pupils really have to recite what Confucius said and (officially) meant. We can say then, that wherever Westerners went, what they brought back from foreign lands was never what they initially found. That is because, had they brought back home exactly what the found abroad, I am talking about ideas and concepts, that foreign culture would have been totally victorious and the Europeans would have been hijacked like a zombie ant that strolled too far away from the hive and got infected by a mind-controlling fungus. No, the nature of the “discoverers” (and discovery in general) necessarily has to be a different one: The Europeans never mastered anything Asian, nor did they learn foreign languages (the way the natives do), but invented Romanized versions of those foreign languages (like pinyin, which will be discussed later). As for reproducing accurately the foreign concepts and names, that was mathematically impossible anyway: Germany constituted less than 2% of the world’s population; how on earth could a few orientalists trained in Germany well into their adulthood ever bring the true China into Germany? Tens of thousands of undiscovered Chinese concepts had better go extinct rather than to flood German culture; we count 35,000 Buddhist terminologies in China alone. There has never been a single philosopher in East-Asia; the written texts give proof to this. For comparison, the Europeans would have been out of their minds to call their own philosophers shengren; they knew it would not only be un-manly to give in to Chinese tradition, but also inappropriate and wrong, because a Western philosopher is not a shengren. Overwhelmingly, the other way round must also be true: a Chinese shengrenis not a philosopher; only that at this point the imperialists have all blushed and left the room.

[1] McDaniel, 1952, p. 168

[2]Bethel, 1922, p. 7

[3] Novalis, in Samuel, 1929, III, p. 440, #894

[4] Herder, 1766, chapter 6

[5] Hesse, 1970, III, p. 282