Shengren – Chapter 3.1 – On the Correct Names

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”[1]

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

A parent naming his or her child is a proud moment. Ideally, that name should stay with the offspring forever. If that name is taken away by someone who has other plans with the child, that is usually confusing. In our world, people would do it all the time, if names were not legally protected, for example by family law. Inventors also name their inventions, their “brain-children” so to speak. People would take away those names, too, all the time, if they had given the opportunity and if those names were not protected by civil law or intellectual property rights. There is, however, no protection for the “correct names” of any culture or tradition. The discoverer of such a foreign culture or tradition is basically a lawless creature. Sure, he must assume that law and some form of regulation will some time catch up with him, but until that happens he is free to roam about and re-name everything he sees after his own likings. As with all “markets”, and the business of naming things is certainly a business like any other – that are not yet regulated, or are only minimally regulated or badly enforced, a sort of mafia-structure will soon emerge that offers protection and pseudo-legitimacy. Such a “mafia-structure” can take the form of an academic community, a Seilschaft (an old-boy school), a sect or Church, a wave of missionaries, a group of publishers, etc. In the non-regulated global business of naming culture, or better: the re-naming it toward one’s own goals, if someone like Richard Wilhelm and his followers call the shengren Heilige and elsewhere totally re-name everything they observe in China, to withhold the correct names to European readers, that may appear now legitimate to German scholarship and its publishers who anyway felt they held the mandate to rule over the East intellectually, but to the Chinese it may look like a discounting of what China has done for thousands of years.

Translation, of course, is re-naming, and is as deregulated as any business can be. We have seen earlier that for historical reason, the Europeans are rather economical with the truth and use of language, and not exactly the faithful civilization when it comes to correct names, except their own. Confucianism, however, stressed the importance of the correct names very much: “名不正,則言不順;言不順,則事不成” [If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success].[2] Those Chinese characters are still used after 2500 years. Similar in Buddhism, in which the ancient scripts are preserved and constantly re-vitalized:

“Our opinion is that a being in hell is a being in hell, a hungry ghost is a hungry ghost, and the world of Buddha is the world of the Buddha; they are the ultimate reality just as they are themselves without transformation.” – This type of logic – that “A is A an nothing other than A” – is a typical idea of hongaku doctrine, one that I call the “principle of self-consistency”.[3]

For example, if we imagine the Buddha, the Europeans might translate him a psychologist, a businessman, a quack, a philosopher, a Kulturmeister, a Great Man, a Heiliger, a prophet, but as far as the ancient texts go, the Buddha is fundamentally the Buddha. Likewise, the shengren is the only thing that is a shengren, and to suggest that the shengren is a saint or philosopher is quite outrageous. Because of the chaos and deregulation in translating, Will Durant could write the Story of Civilization (1954) in beautiful American English, removing all Chinese original names and concepts, and win the Pulitzer Prize for it (not for the Volume on China, to be sure). To withhold the correct names is to manipulate their owners’ role in the world. Durant, like Wilhelm, believed he was doing a great service to his countrymen, and probably a favor to the Chinese. As Wilhelm observed: “Confucius’s implied level of humanity could only be realized through the actions of Jesus of Nazareth and his Christus-Mensch”.[4] In the same book on Chinesische Lebensweisheiten (1922), Wilhelm talked excessively about “Philosophen”, “philosophische Theorien”,[5] and “Heilige” (saints).[6] He called the teaching of Confucius “göttliche Offenbarungen”[7] and the 大学daxue he called “Die höhere Bildung” (lit. Higher Education).[8] He didn’t mention the shengren once, not a single time, letting alone using a single Chinese character throughout his book. Almost as if Richard Wilhelm wanted that un-European thing to disappear and die.

The Germans were reading Richard Wilhelm’s fictional books, and may have wondered: what exactly had China ever achieved, given that its description looked all-too-familiar, its theories suspiciously overused (given that it was such a distant culture, but described all in familiar German terminology), and therefore felt stupendously unoriginal – almost silly: “Der SINN der höheren Bildung ist die Klärung des klaren LEBENS, die Liebe zur Menschheit und die Zielsetzung in höchster Tüchtigkeit” [sic]. An English translation of Wilhelm’s translation is unnecessary at this point – the German is too far from the Chinese. Richard Wilhelm translated 道dao as Sinn (meaning), and 德de as Leben (life), and 大学da xue as höhere Bildung (higher education). A better example of language imperialism may not exist: Wilhelm’s China looked European, biblical, often fairy-tale, always quasi-philosophical, but never quite new or vital. The Germans during Empire, as said before, were quite aware that new words for legitimate new ideas were essential for the German language to expand and dominate. Likewise, they were also aware that this principle must not apply to new ideas found in China or in any other foreign tradition. Chinese tradition had to look as old and worn – as abgedroschen and abgelutscht – as possible.

As for its names – China’s most valuable possessions -: calling Chinese concepts the correct way was culturally incorrect. That is why Victor von Strauss’s Lao-Tse’s Tao Te King (1924), despite his extensive translational commentary in the footnotes, in German language still reads like a passage of the Bible: the shengren become “die heiligen Menschen”, Laozi’s ideal becomes “der heilige Mensch”, his actions become “des Heil’gen Thun”, “daher der heilige Mensch”, etc.[9] Moreover, Von Strauss never leaves the realm of “Philosophie” and “Wesen” (the nature of…). The Germans never changed perspective, and continued Oriental scholarship after the recovery of the Great Wars as business as usual, and lies begot more lies, as they furnished a China of philosophers and saints that simply wasn’t there. In his Lao-tzu und der Taoismus (1996), Max Kaltenmark displays his obsession with philosophy and philosophers, despite these words nowhere to be found in any of the Chinese texts. He discusses: “das philosophische Denken”, “die Zeit der Philosophen”, “philosophische Strömungen”, “Lao-tzu der Philosoph”, “die beiden grossen Philosophen” [Confucius and Laozi].[10] Kaltenmark knows when “das philosophische Denken in China einsetzte,” and he reports “Philosophenschulen” in China. He then goes on admitting: “Denn was weiss man wirklich über diesen Philosoph?” [What do we really know about this philosopher?].[11] Well, for a start, we know that he wasn’t a philosopher, and that philosopher and philosophy, those two words, are not in the texts. This textual fact, or, shall we say blatant truth, cannot impress German scholarship though; Kaltenmark goes on: “die Philosophenschulen des Alten Chinas”, “Hsün-tzu der konfuzianische Philosoph”, “die gängigen philosophischen Vorstellungen”, “philosophische Reflexionen”, etc.[12] That’s a lot of propaganda for a word that is simply not there, right? (We recall that the Chinese loanword for philosophy is zhexue). And as expected, not a single time did Kaltenmark mention the original shengren. Only once, hardly noticeable, did he say “verborgener Weiser” [the hidden sage], evidently a modification of Richard Wilhelm’s “verborgener Heiliger” [the hidden saint].[13] Yet, the rest of the text is dedicated to holiness, the holiness that Germany so desperately wanted to see in China: “Heiligkeit” (p. 27), “heilige Texte” (p. 30), “der taoistische Heilige” (p. 69), “Heilige” (p. 27, 29, 42, 64, 83, 85, 96, 97, 113 ff.). There is even a whole chapter entitled “Der Heilige”, not to mention other biblical terminology like “Seelen” for hun and p’o (p. 111), Helle for ming (p. 113), Leerheit for wu (p. 64), Geheimnisvoll for hsüan, Wiederkehr for fu, Vollkommende Tugend for te, etc.[14]

We have already discussed Germany’s obsession with holiness. The list of further examples is truly overwhelming, for example the writings of August Conrady, a Sanskritist and Sinologist (he reportedly spent only eight months in China), who described Chinese tradition almost exclusively in Christian terms: “von Gott geschaffen”, “göttliche Fußspur”, “tiefer Gottesglauben”, “die Heiligen”, “die heiligen Bücher”, “mit dem Willen Gottes”, “Glaubensbekenntnis”, “Gottesdienst”, “göttlicher Vater”,[15] and even compares the advent of Confucianism with the advent of the Holy Roman Empire and Christianity.[16] Not a single correct Chinese name – with the exception of people and place names – was holy enough, so to speak, to keep it: the junzi became the Gentleman (an English word, taken from James Legge’s translation), shangdi became the “Kaiser” (who, on another occasion, was called nothing else but “Götter”),[17] shengren became die “Heiligen” or “Könige und zugleich Priester”, the shi became “der Krieger und Gelehrte”. Suspiciously, the shi jing (Book of Odes) became “Das heilige Liederbuch”, hua shan became “Der heilige Weltberg”, and xuan wu (black/mythical tortoise) became “Die göttliche Schildkröte”.[18] Needless to say, the German words for holy or divine in Conrady’s translations were superfluous. He just made them up for the occasion. Conrady projected his German want for holiness onto innocent Chinese textbook titles. Manly P. Hall comes to mind, who once eloquently said: “To venerate means to add too much of holiness to that which is not in its manifested state totally holy. To venerate too much is to open the consciousness to terrible disillusionments.”[19] There is some evidence that Conrady was sufficiently ignorant about the Chinese language as a living language – even as a professor of Chinese in Leipzig he could hardly correspond in Chinese. He was a human automat, a professional philologist, a humble servant to Empire, who compared Chinese hieroglyphs to already incorrect existing translations from Wilhelm and Grünwedel, but also from Legge. He could not verify those translations; and as contributor to Weltgeschichte (1910) [world history], he was not required to; Germany legitimizes German, not Chinese.

Conrady occasionally said a right thing or two about China: “Das Fundament des ganzen Kulturgebäudes ist genau wie ehedem die Familie” [The foundation of the whole cultural building is exactly as before the family]; yet it would have been a greater achievement if Conrady had printed a single Chinese character or used the correct names for Chinese concepts instead. To be fair, he could not, as German printing technology was not advanced enough to print Chinese characters. Oh the irony, given that the essence of his book chapter was to drone about China’s backwardness.

Although Conrady, like Grünwedel, Gützlaff, Wilhelm and Von Strauss, used countless biblical allusions in his Weltgeschichte (1910), still his main theme was the mythical and legendary. He was deeply convinced, that “die Grundpfeiler modernen chinesischen Denkens tief im Gedankenfelde der Urzeit gegründet stehen” [that the cornerstones of modern Chinese thought are deeply founded in the field of thoughts of prehistory]. Among his favorite names are “Götter” and “Helden” (p. 522), Sagen (p. 521), Zeit (p. 527), and usage of the prefix “ur-“, meaning ancient or primeval, similar to the prefix proto-, for example: “Urzeit” [prehistory] (p. 483), “Urheimat” [native homeland] or Urstämme [original tribes] (p. 522), but also: “ureinfachste Verhältnisse” and “urchinesische Gesellschaft” [simply primitive and proto-Chinese society].[20] This all, of course, reminds us of Herder’s folklore and romanticism; Conrady, as a philologist, must have felt great satisfaction in re-discovering Chinese “Göttermythen” (p. 527) [legends and mythology], as seen from the headers of his text: “Die Urzeit, Die Sagenzeit, Das Altertum, Das Mittelalter, Die Neuzeit” – all sounding first archeological, than European, and than primeval again. In fact, he himself called Chinese culture: “ein nie wandelnder Anarchronismus”, “ein lebendes Fossil”, and “die primitive Urtümlichkeit” (p. 477). Those characteristics were not written in the Chinese text, they were Conrady’s own conclusions (or those of Herder, slightly modified) based on his own “anachronisms”.

Needless to say that Conrady was commenting on his own work, not the original Chinese story, since he did not mention a single correct Chinese name for any concept he felt obliged to substitute with some dull and uninspiring terminology from German folklore and biblical allegory. Any reader will inevitably ask him- or herself at some point: “die Klassiker”, “der Kaiser”, “der Krieger”, “der Philosoph”, “das Beamtentum”, “Geister und Dämonen”, “Gelehrte und Söhne des Reichs” – whose history am I reading? Is is about the people of Leizpig or Würzburg, or the people of Chengzhou or Beijing? Such is the delusive and deceptive power of translation, that one is ubiquitously reminded of Christian Wolff’s legendary remark, that, upon reading the Latin translations by some French missionaries, he hadn’t missed much by not visiting China: it looked all very familiar. In fact, by using exclusively the vocabulary of the German tradition to describe the tradition of China (and Weltgeschichte) and, thereupon, calling it a “fossil, primitive and anachronistic society”, could only be described in psychological terms as the unconscious response to Germany’s own reverberated cultural outlook and self-loathing. After all, there was some form of German hubris prior to the First World War. Leaving the German exodus of the 20th century aside for now, in the following section we shall examine some German original concepts of wisdom and wise personalities. This seems necessary, as the Germans were mostly ignoring the correct Chinese name, shengren, in most of their writings anyhow.

[1] Carroll, 1865

[2] Legge, 1891, 13.3

[3] Sueki, 1999, p. 276

[4] Wilhelm, 1922, p. 64

[5] Ibid., p. 67

[6] Ibid., p. 97

[7] Ibid., p. 97

[8] Ibid., pp. 55, 56

[9] Von Strauss, 1924, pp. 10, 17, 28, 53, 55, 133, 136, 163, 259, 314, 330, 343 ff.

[10] Kaltenmark, 1996, pp. 9, 17, 15, 18, 23 ff.

[11] Ibid., p. 17

[12] Ibid., pp. 32, 42, 48, 52

[13] Ibid., pp. 7, 27

[14] Ibid., pp. 64, 65, 81, 111, 113

[15] Conrady, 1910, pp. 474, 475, 485, 513, 514, 518, 518, ff.

[16] Ibid., pp. 539, 540

[17] Ibid., p. 522

[18] Ibid., pp. 474, 475, 476

[19] Hall, 2001

[20] Ibid., p. 483