Shengren – Chapter 3.11 – Das Genie (Genius)

孟子曰:“大人者,不失其赤子之心者也.” The man who is truly great is one who does not lose his child’s heart.[1]

– The Book of Mencius

Wirklich ist jedes Kind gewissermaaßen ein Genie, und jedes Genie gewissermaaßen ein Kind.[2] [Really every child is to a certain extent a genius, and every genius to a certain extent a child.]

– Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung

In his Konfuzius – Gespräche (1919), Richard Wilhelm translated shengren on two occasions as “Genie”;[3] and, again, in the 1974 edition.[4] An unusual translation, that looked more like a compliment than a true synonym. In European culture, genius is not necessary a person, but a spiritual guardian,[5] or, as Immanuel Kant once said, a “GENIUS can also be explicated as the ability to [exhibit] aesthetic ideas”.[6] In particular, a genius has taste (or is guided by it, either way), and to have taste is linguistically linked to Latin sapere (to taste, to have taste, to be wise).[7] Semantically, then, genius is somehow related to sapientia and thus sagacity. An interesting association, but is Wilhelm’s “Genie” a good (albeit a one-time) translation or title for a shengren?

Usually, Wilhelm, a Protestant missionary, turned the shengren into Heilige (saints, holy men) and – as expected – made heavy use of biblical vocabulary elsewhere in his texts about cultural China. On other occasions, he talked about “von Gottes Gnade” (by the grace of God) und “göttlich” (divine, god-like). To render the shengren as “Genie” however seemed more like the advancement into sociology, because, technically, the concept of genius in the Western hemisphere had always been revolved around Anschauung (perception), [8] in this case: how someone sees the world.

The two quotes at the beginning of this section, one given in The Book of Mencius, the other from the spiritual philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, are in essence very similar. The bright or clever child was curious and open-minded, and more importantly – unprejudiced. The mind of the bright child slowly diminished over the years, however, and, in the majority of people, extinguished during their “age of manhood, the Philistines incarnate”.[9] If someone were able to keep one’s childlike innocence; that one would truly be a very special, unique person: a genius. Genius was an evaluation and thus not an acceptable rendering of the word shengren, in the same way that genius was not an acceptable translation for names like poet, a writer, or a philosopher either. But since genius was related to perception of the world, it clearly separated those with abstract knowledge (the mere scholarly, talented) from the few with intuitive wisdom (the spiritual, visionary). In this respect, genius was a tasteful departure from Wilhelm’s “Heilige”, although it lasted only a single line. Apart from Wilhelm, by the way, only Leonard Shihlien Hsü translated shengren as genius.[10] The following passage described the notion of genius and what set it apart from the mere talented and gifted – from Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Imaginations (1819):

Actually all truth and all wisdom ultimately lie in perception; but unfortunately perception cannot be either retained or communicated. At the most, the objective conditions for this can be presented to others purified and elucidated through the plastic and pictorial arts, and much more indirectly through poetry; but it rests just as much on subjective conditions that are not at everyone’s disposal, and not at anyone’s at all times; in fact, such conditions in the higher degrees of perfection are the advantage and privilege of only the few. […] Therefore, as a rule, the man of the world cannot impart his accumulated truth and wisdom, but only practice it. He rightly comprehends everything that occurs, and decides what is conformable thereto. That books do not take the place of experience, and that learning is no substitute for genius, are two kindred phenomena; […].[11]

This perception of the genius who saw a different world than all the others was not explicitly discussed in the Confucian canon, although it could always be induced, of course as in the above Mencius quote. In Confucianism, intuitive wisdom was a deeper understanding of the hidden mechanics of the world through the process of self-cultivation and guidance by rituals and moral conduct. In Chinese, genius was 天才tiancai, a person of extraordinary ability. In Latin, the word genius derived from gen, meaning to be born or to beget: “Genius functions as an attendant to one’s actions”.[12] That would pose the question if the sages were born that way, or if sagehood made them that way. Confucius surely was attended by genius. But, really, he was a shengren.

[1] Legge, 1985, 8.40

[2] Schopenhauer, 1819, II, 3.31

[3] Wilhelm, 1919, pp. 88, 114

[4] Wilhelm, 1974, p. 98

[5] Bruno, 2010, p. 9

[6] Kant, 1987, p. 217

[7] Watkins, 1985, p. 58

[8] Schopenhauer, 1819, p. 1243

[9] Schopenhauer, 1958, p. 396 (transl. by Payne, E. F. J.)

[10] Hsü, 1932, p. 30

[11] Schopenhauer, 1958, p. 74-75 (transl. by Payne, E. F. J.)

[12] Bruno, 2010, p. 9, p. 116