Shengren – Chapter 1.4 – The Four Classes in German Orientalism

“Few people realize that the  fate of the shengren, conveniently called saints or holy men, was linked to the German obsession with holiness

To this day, no German person that I know of has been called a “Weiser”, for all those reasons given above so far. Not even Meister Eckhart was called a “Weiser” or sage, but a “philosopher”, “theologist”, or “Christian mystic”; and not even Goethe, the master-poet, nor Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared God dead and the super human alive; nor Albert Einstein who, after his successful career as a scientist followed a spiritual path. Rabindranath Tagore, a friend of Albert, would have said Einstein reached the highest level of human perfection; followers of Maslow maybe called it self-actualization (which is not quite the same, though), and thus Einstein, like Tagore, became a spiritual being indeed, but never a Weiser. German culture, we have said it before, discouraged sage culture. Germany was neither designed for it nor did it intend to become one next week.

Yet, news and ideas from the Orient reached Europe – mostly either in textual form or by hear-say -, and new data entered Germany on a regular basis; so how did German culture protect itself from becoming “Indian”, for example?[1] As expected, one was able to identify some cultural defense mechanisms at work that prompted instant and reliable resilience against Eastern sagely traditions. For a start, among historians, it was well established that German philosophy since Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had been heavily influenced by Indian thought (Behler, 1987; Hecker, 2001; Herling, 2006; Moore, 2003; Murti, 2001; O’Hear, 1999). “German” here must be understood as “the German-speaking world”, that was: “all texts written in the German language”. Although a German person most likely believed he or she was unique and individual and free, by looking from afar those beliefs were seriously contested by a perceived collectivism and automatism of the German society that was conform on the outside and collectivist on the inside. Everything the Germans did, how could it be any different than other countries in that respect, was a collective effort, and in the case of over-regulated, through-and-through rationalized German society, that collective effort was exceedingly co-coordinated and systemized; all scholarship was state-sponsored and state-regulated, and German orientalism, the German study of Eastern cultures, languages, and traditions, was highly systemized, too. The large number of German contributors to Oriental studies could be categorized into four groups, according to their functions. The four groups or classes were: 1) the philosophers (whose functions were: creative, universal, abstract), 2) the orientalists (whose functions were: re-creative, particular, exact) which may be subdivided into ‘generalists’ and ‘specialists’ (whose functions were: instructive or investigative, respectively), 3) the practitioners (whose functions were: passive, maintenance), and last 4) the sponsors of German orientalism (whose functions were: active, promotion).

The structure of German orientalism with its four classes, their very specific ways of interaction and their precise functions, protected German scholarship from unwanted contamination with Eastern spirituality that otherwise might have easily occurred if such a system of defense had not been erected to begin with. The principle was simple: usually someone becomes what someone has been conditioned or learned to do. In order to avoid that those Germans who learned and experienced so much – too much – of Chinese or Indian or Buddhist or Japanese traditions etc. actually became members of those foreign traditions, the learned (material) had to be preventively and heavily modified: it had to be made German first.

This preventively and heavily modifying the foreign learning was one of the most fascinating collective defense mechanism against the infiltration of pure foreign thought and surely was one of the few single most successful survival strategies intellectual man had ever developed: to think that what someone else thought was his. The German philosophers, the highest and most respected class, did not need any experience of Oriental cultures, on the contrary: their philosophical approach to thinking necessarily and inevitably lead to philosophies that theoretically explained, valued, and judged all Asian cultures without ever having to learn a single Asian word or to pay a single visit to any foreign country. The German orientalists, the professional scholars, transliterated (Romanized foreign texts, according to its pronunciation), and did such peculiar things – of great consequences – as to translate shengren as biblical “Heilige”, thereby deforming the original language and tradition and creating an in-between imagery of China (or India etc.) that was German, not Chinese (or Indian etc.) any more.

Chinese and Indians now had to come to Germany or read German literature in order to understand that newly-invented China and India that they themselves as Chinese or Indians had not yet heard about.  They could not have heard about it, because it was invented somewhere else, in another language. The German practitioners of Oriental traditions, those lay Buddhists for example, had been pushed to the fringes of German societies and their reputation and status in society was kept relatively low.

Finally, the German sponsors of Oriental thought were the most powerful force in promoting Eastern thought, but only really to enhance Germany’s culture, e. g. German Romanticism, German Idealism etc.

The table below exemplifies No Country for Sages, that concept, and shows the mechanism of German Orientalism: Four classes, with philosophers at the top and orientalists (scholars) being the largest class. Such an organization would not cause the emergence of a German Buddhism (or German Confucianism, or any other sage culture), for example, regardless of how much time and goodwill was spent:

Class Representatives Functions
1. Philosophers Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche etc. creative, universal, abstract
2. Orientalists Weber, Mueller, Winternitz etc. re-creative, particular, exact




3. Practitioners Neumann, Dahlke, Zimmermann etc. passive, maintenance
4. Sponsors Humboldt, Wagner, Goethe, Hesse etc. active, promotion

The next table presents Sage Culture and shows how Germany’s Orientalism would have looked like, if it had cultivated a sage tradition early on. In that case the emergence of a German Buddhism would have been achieved: Four classes, with sages replacing philosophers, and a very large class of practitioners:

Class Representatives Functions
1. Sages none creative, universal, abstract
2. Orientalists Weber, Mueller, Winternitz etc. re-creative, particular, exact




3. Practitioners Neumann, Dahlke, Zimmermann etc. passive, maintenance
4. Sponsors Humboldt, Wagner, Goethe, Hesse etc. active, promotion

The interaction between the classes was nicely demonstrated in Bradley L. Herling’s The German Gita (2006). Bradley reconstructed the gradual reception process of the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu scripture, in Germany from 1771 to 1831. According to his research, the textual Gita entered the German cultural sphere in the latter half of the 18th century, when the four classes took up their descriptive work, a joint-process that was known as ‘hermeneutics’ or the science of textual interpretation. If all four classes (in their specific functions) worked together harmoniously, as could be expected in the German society that was through and through rationalized, textual hermeneutics would reproduce a Germanized blueprint of that original cultural artifact – hence Herling’s title: the German Gita.

From this new German blueprint of the Gita, new theories about the Orient could be formed at will, in contrast to the original Gita which hardly anyone in Germany was able to read. Although German scholars continued to call it the “Gita”, referring to the original Gita, they nevertheless would exclusively discuss the German new blueprint of the Gita, in the same way every German was referring to the “original Bible“; while in reality they were talking about the latest German translation and thus a fake Bible. That Gita-blueprint was not a text nor a copy, nor a translation, but rather it was a concept: the German idea about what the Gita should say, a total fabricated, abstract idea that served the interest of a particular group of people, rather than what the actual Gita said – a concrete yet foreign legion of words (that had to be given German names in order to enter).

The new concept could be a first translation into the German language, or a German textbook on the Gita, anything but the original Gita – that was the German way and the way of the philosophers.

We recall the philosophers were distinguished for their wisdom and sound judgment. The definition did not imply that the philosopher should experience reading the real Gita or experiencing Hindu culture or learning Sanskrit. Philosophy required sound judgment about a proposition, not the experience of the real world. Germany philosophized a lot about India; and by doing so Europe could never become India. Only the sages relate, the philosopher dissociate.

Edmund Husserl confirmed the German way: “There is something unique here in Europe that is recognized in us by all human groups, too. […] It becomes a motive for [Indians] to Europeanize themselves in their unbroken will to spiritual self-preservation, whereas we, if we understand ourselves properly, would never Indianize ourselves”.[2] Husserl had no concept for sages and sagehood. He was born and raised in the German world – Austria and Germany. He called the sage culture of India the “will to spiritual self-preservation”, because what the German philosophers did, philosophizing about India, never required any actual experience of India or anything Indian. This not-having-to-experience India, Husserl called “something unique here in Europe” – and rightly so. Husserl knew perfectly well that the great Western project of East-West learning was not mutual. How long – and how often – had prominent Eastern thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore,[3] Lu Xun, Nishitani Keiji,[4] and Ji Xianlin[5] asked the radical question: when will the West learn from the East? The West, in its own ways, always learned from the East, of course, but not directly from the original but indirectly from those newly-created blueprints, a mere Western representation of the East. This way, the “East as the Teacher”, that wishful thinking that German philosophers like Leibniz, Goethe, and other China-enthusiasts had expressed, was elegantly side-stepped. The real, the wise China was ignored and left unwanted.

A useful metaphor for this regrettable and utterly one-sided affair, I think, unintentionally was Lu Xun’s fictional character Kong Yi Ji,[6] a learned and aged Chinese scholar who had much knowledge about the Chinese Classics and was now, the reader suspects, waiting for someone, anyone really, to come over to “Master Kong” (the parallel to Confucius then was intentional) and ask for his advice or employ his service as a wise teacher because surely he knew more and understood better the Chinese tradition than anyone else. But, as the story goes, no one would even bother to ask Kong Yiji. The modern continuation of that moral tale – if there was a sequel, one imagined – could have ended with some Western universities in Europe already having translated – with the help of native Chinese speakers – the story of Kong Yi Ji and wrote their social critic of his doings and judged Chinese society at large long before the original Kong Yi Ji died uninformed and clueless.

Philosophy and Western scholarship was construed like that: it would have imagined and re-invented China and the East without consulting the client, long before the intellectually beholden East took any notice. As far as the philosophical approach to thinking was concerned, East-West learning was not mutual, as Husserl had recommended, but beneath the obvious content of the philosopher’s lecture and statement hung a hidden layer of aesthetical subtleties: the way and manner in which Western philosophers let China and other known about Western superiority: by badmouthing the Asians while they were not in the same room.

The great German monologue was problematic, like any other situation when Germans talked to Germans and decided what was good for other people: If Hegel had lived he would have thrown his hands up in horror upon hearing Husserl’s lectures. Did the creator of the world spirit not assure the Chinese earlier that European culture was universal? Universal as in “you have to follow us sooner or later”. Now Husserl had hinted at the Indians (metaphysically, since, technically, not a single Indian person was in the room) that European culture was unique. Unique as in “you can never be like us”. The day that the Asians discovered that in fact it was the Germans who composed a unique minority, and not the universal majority the West traditionally claimed it was, that day Asia might be tempted to change the greater order of things and the classification of cultures in the world. After all, what honor is there in eternal submission?

The four classes in German orientalism consisting of philosophers, orientalists, practitioners, and sponsors did not generate a new form of Buddhism, German Buddhism, or indeed any new Oriental tradition, but kept the science of Buddhist thought, the new German blueprint, and made Buddhism part of the academic discipline of (Western) Oriental Studies. Two German cultural movements and their protagonists made good use of – or at least drew some inspiration from – Oriental Studies: German romanticism and German idealism. However, no cultural movement could transform Germany into a culture that welcomed sages and sagehood.

No German Buddhism existed in Germany (and here, Buddhism could be replaced by Confucianism or most other Oriental traditions) and there were two main reasons for it: first, Germany had no sages; and second: Germany had no culture for sages:

1)      The absence of sages in Germany

Unlike most Asian countries like India, Nepal, China, Thailand, Korea or Japan, which had tradition of nurturing spiritual thinkers (sages), but no philosophers; Germany had a long tradition of nurturing rational thinkers (philosophers), but never had Weise or people that were reverenced as sages. The philosophers Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, and Husserl all praised European Gelehrsamkeit. The ideal thinker in Germany was a philosopher: an individualist and rationalist that acquired new knowledge fast. But knowledge was not wisdom, and Gelehrsamkeit was relative.[7] Knowing about Buddhism was different from knowing Buddhism, and the same was true for Confucianism, Hinduism, etc.

In the table, No Country for Sages, philosophers take the top position in the formation of German new ideas about the Orient. The philosopher’s top position in the formation of new ideas should be seen metaphorical; of course new ideas could be introduced by any one at any time. Yet, philosophers enjoyed the highest reputation and social status in German society, because philosophy was the preferred cultural mode that affected all four classes and the entire education of that country. In direct disproportion to the far-reaching influence and authority of the philosophers stood their actual level of inexperience with Asian culture. A philosopher only needed to produce arguments and sound judgments about Asian culture; Kant, Hegel, Herder, Schlegel, Fichte etc. did not need to experience one of those strange foreign cultures. Why did German society trusted its philosophers’ judgments about things they had neither seen nor experienced? The answer was: Because German society had a long tradition of the philosophical approach to thinking and did not require nor asked for wisdom from experience any more. Philosophers had acquired their knowledge about Buddhist wisdom through logical inferences, coherent argumentations, and sound judgment; not through life experience or the practice of Buddhism, for example. Those individuals who did experience Buddhist culture through studying Sanskrit or Chinese, who were professional Buddhologists for example, or those who had Buddhist friends or family, and who lived in Asia for many years, the orientalists and practitioners, were much better equipped with Oriental wisdom than the philosophers could wish ever for. Yet, as far as German philosophical culture and the cult of Germanism was concerned, sagacity was the wrong kind of wisdom: Germany understood philosophy, it did not understand sagehood. And Germans who tasted too much of the un-German were always suspicious. That is why Germany preferred the inexperienced Georg W. F. Hegel to philosophize about Chinese sagehood (he calls sagehood “Philosophie”); rather than inviting some experienced Chinese thinkers over to Germany and having them instruct the Germans, as another philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz once famously requested.[8]

Germany did not want to become Chinese; it just wanted to philosophize about the Chinese and judge their culture accordingly.

Buddhism (or any other Eastern tradition) could not prosper in Germany. A Buddhist scripture was a dry-good import; it enabled the German scholarly class a theorizing about an imported text fossil. The curiosity to read an abstract Oriental text was Gelehrsamkeit; but Gelehrsamkeit was not wisdom per se.[9] Wisdom, according to Arthur Schopenhauer, had something to do with Anschauung. And here, Anschauung could not be translated as the usual ‘conception’ or ‘idea’, but should be understood as intuition. The highest degree of Anschauung, or intuition, required more than just a high degree of intellect: Confucius would probably say it required 禮li. Li in Western literature had seen many translations like rites, etiquette, morals, good behavior, or proper conduct. It was a little bit of all: li was what led to the right Anschauung; li caused the right intuition; li was also an attitude towards life, life in a family social structure, “the world family” (天下一家, tian xia yi jia), with all its obligations and family morals. Only the plains of China could have produced天下一家. The Mediterranean world produced another kind of social structure,[10] the Western social system of competing interests of various power cliques, but more to that later. For now we know shengren cannot be Western philosophers, because shengren bring their cultural baggage from China.

Of course, wisdom feels like a universal human concept. All societies have cultivated wise people, and have elevated them to various heights. Yet, some cultures have achieved more than others. And although all cultures are legitimate, some are superior to others, otherwise why do the Germans constantly have the Americans in their face? Different cultures have developed different strengths and weaknesses, and some cultures became more intuitive than others.

Sagacious individuals in Europe have been streamlined and their sagacity compromised throughout the ages. After the rise of Christianity and in the face of God the Almighty and His son, Jesus Christ the Messiah, no German was called a Weiser. After the rise German rationalism, in the faces of Immanuel Kant and the German academia: foolish was the German fellow who had himself addressed “der Weise”. Highly intuitive German individuals were belächelt (sneered at) and would go on and fill low rank occupations in German society such as Künstler, poets, writers, musicians. Or they bought esoteric books and read about ren仁、yi义、li礼、zhi智、xin信、yong勇,[11] or just yoga, gong fu, meditation, mantras, feng shui, Asian values, strange forms of “religion” [“religion”, a European terminology], and other spiritual things that for strange reasons all originated in the East. Suddenly, it dawned to some enlightened spirits that Germany might be a culture with limits after all; and if someone irresponsibly told us that Germany had all these things mentioned above all along, and sages, what were the odds? And who would believe this?

2)      The absence of sage culture in Germany

Buddhahood was a form of sagehood. There was no Buddha in Germany, and Buddha is not a German word, but a foreign loanword. Germany also has not a single bodhisattva (Rudolf Steiner will be discussed later in this chapter). Buddhist sages, Confucian sages, Taoist sages, Indian sages – all sages and sagehood appear to be quite un-European.

Buddhism was – and still is – a form of culture, and as such it did not only entail Buddhist scriptures and practice, but also certain values and world views, places of worship, music, festivals, rituals, customs, food, clothing, monuments, architecture, art and language. Buddhism had just as long – or even longer – been cultivated and developed into a major culture as Christianity had.

Not all the above criteria had to be met for any country to become Buddhist or to nourish a Buddhist culture. Some aspects may vary. Architecture and clothing may be a matter of fashion that could change easily and did indeed from place to place; and monuments and places of worship were not always erected as magnificently and majestic as in Chengde, China, for example. Some world views might not get along very well with those views expressed in Buddhism – no Western country has ever become a Buddhist culture. Buddhist festivals lose their original meanings, and so on. There may be thousands of scattered, highly specialized Buddhist groups all over Asia, even modern ones, like the Soka Gakkai in Japan. Some of them had even departed from reading the actual Buddhist scriptures, much like the Christian Church had departed from reading the original Hebrew Bible in Germany. Some people who did not grew up in a sage culture and lacked the concept for sages and sagehood might feel offended by a world without God. Despite all this, Germany nevertheless was the classical example of a no-sage-culture that did not meet any of the criteria that would be necessary to develop its own Buddhist culture, letting alone maintaining one. If Buddhism was a gigantic sporting event that Germany wanted to host next year, Germany would have to build an entirely new cultural infrastructure for it first. That was never going to happen.

German Oriental scholarship collected Buddhist scriptures, but lacked everything else, most notably the experience of Buddhist culture. In order to experience Buddhist culture, one had to visit the East. Unlike the British empiricists who had been in India, physically and politically, and who had – subconsciously – been in a dialog of civilization with Indian culture (however imbalanced), the Germans staged a grand German monologue about Indian culture.

The disproportion between Germany’s low actual experience of India on the one side, and its high intellectual authority over Indian thought on the other was remarkable. In the above example of the “German Gita of 1771, a new string of German theorizing about India was initialized by a German translation of a French translation of a Persian translation of a Sanskrit text that was intermixed with stories of the Upanishads (Herling, 2006). Hundreds of German orientalists were so occupied with the textual analysis, genealogy, hermeneutics, transcription, and grammaticality, that the philosophers, for lack of expert knowledge, were forced to invent the Orient. If expert opinion on some Oriental issue was needed the philosophers had to consult secondary and tertiary literature, and even cite – always a good idea, because it legitimates – other philosophers who relied on secondary and tertiary sources as well; and in case of Hegel and Schopenhauer, who never learned Sanskrit or visited India: both of them referred to scholastic hearsay.

It was that lack of any cultural and spiritual experience of India or Hindu and Buddhist traditions that no reading of how many German books on India, Hindu and Buddhist traditions, could remedy. The German lack of experience with Buddhist culture was a cause, but also the result of No Country for Sages. Without getting involved with others in a tolerant and honest way – instead of dissecting the others’ miserable lives in a cold and abstract manner and finding flaws in the other person’s thinking – Germany would admittedly get bits of “Buddhism in Germany”, but it would not get its German Buddhism or any other forms of sage culture for that matter. If one took the following table as representing Buddhist culture, and recalled for each entry the things one found in Germany and China for example, the result is self-evident: German culture looks very different from a Buddhist one:

Buddhism, as a culture, includes particular forms of:

Names Titles
Religious doctrine Food
Places of worship Clothing
Music Monuments
Festivals Architecture
Rituals Language
Customs Practice (e. g. 念佛,深思,坐禅,念经)
Values Arts

The table above could be filled with any cultural tradition such as Confucianism or Shinto, and, as common sense would have it, by just comparing any Oriental culture with German culture, the Germans could have known that their own culture was very different from any other. More technically, that meant it was almost impossible – in many instances a thousand years of tradition: outright unthinkable – for Germany to become a Buddhist culture overnight or in the near future. Yet, many Germans and in general Western philosophers expected just that from foreign cultures: that those people ought to become “Western” as a matter of urgency. When they refused to comply with Western cultural imperialism, Germany lost its patience or, worse, its respect for the source cultures like China, as evident in many German philosophical writings and translations.[12] In practice, that meant devoting one’s intellectual energies to the total deconstruction of foreign cultures and the subsequent embedding of bits here and part there into Western world history, as Hegel did, or appendicing Asia to the history of Western (philosophical) thought, as Weber did.

Language imperialism also meant the domestication of foreign names and concepts by translating them into familiar (European) terminology in order to make the world cultures look increasingly homogenous. Such practice would not help the Germans a bit in the true understanding and appreciation of foreign cultures, but rather served as the German reflection about it – how the foreign ought to look like. China ought to look like Germany: Christianized and full of philosophers; Confucius a holy man, and to hell with the sages.

In reality, China was a sage culture, and full of shengren. By calling the key concepts of China by familiar but ultimately false names, a deformed and misguided conception about China emerged in Germany’s intellectual circles. Such a practice could only lead to disappointment, disillusionment, and even outright German contempt for Oriental concepts (and names that could not be understood): the Chinese “Heilige” were not really “holy”, and the Chinese “Philosophen” were never quite philosophical enough.

[1] Husserl, 1935, p. 278

[2] Husserl, 1935

[3] R. Tagore was convinced that the East can learn from the West as much as vice versa, see Gupta, 2005, p. 44; Sinha, 1962, p. 198; Stasulane, 2005, p. 49

[4] Keiji, 1942: “Western modernity is to be overcome by the Eastern religious mind.”

[5] Ji, 2006, see ‘give-and-take’ attitude (送去主义)

[6] Lu Xun, 1919/2010

[7] Schopenhauer, 1819, p. 1255

[8] Leibniz, 1677

[9] Schopenhauer, 1819, p. 1255

[10] Gu, 2011

[11] Ibid., 2011

[12] Gu, 1998; He, 2005