Shengren – Chapter 3.12 – Der Berufene (Appointee)

When Wojciech Jan Simson handed in his doctoral dissertation in Bern in 2002, he translated shengren as “Berufene” [the chosen, the appointed, the called upon].[1] In Germany since Martin Luther: to each individual its profession, meaning that God has assigned: to each man his trade.[2] Just one trade, let it be understood. The Germans lived through their entire formative life [from kindergarten to university, according to their background] to serve the purpose of taking up exactly one profession, baker, carpenter, salesman, policeman, doctor, pfaffe [priest], etc. and – as God has appointed each and every one of them – he shall be tüchtig in it [competent]. By the way, that is why German vocational trainee degrees and university degrees, as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon model (in which the level of education counts but not so much the major graduated in) are ten times more vital to a German student in order to follow their exact profession, their Beruf or Berufung, but quite inadequate outside that that particular profession, sometimes even valueless or even a total hindrance for those unfortunate souls who wanted to or had to switch profession later in life. Because German society has always been extremely rigid and regulated, its citizens took immense pride in their Beruf and Berufung, rightly considering their life a profession, and their profession a calling. So, why should that not be true of Confucius as well?

Simson’s name of choice for the shengren reminded of “die Berufenen” in Karl Jaspers writings: “Trotz seines Berufungsbewusstseins ist (Konfuzius) eher bescheiden”.[3] [Despite his awareness of his appointment/calling, Confucius is modest]. Long before Simson and Jaspers, Richard Wilhelm wrote his Laotse: Tao te king. Das Buch des Alten vom Sinn und Leben (1911), in which he called the Taoist shengren “der Berufene” already. Simson’s translation, whether it was his own or adopted from Wilhelm or Jaspers, was incorrect, but zeitgemäss: it was a) appropriate because Berufene highlighted Confucius’ educational side: his moral teachings and his appointment as political advisor, and b) timely, because by the very end of the 20th century, Germany’s educational system underwent its second and greatest reform in history (the first was in the beginning of the 19th century) and everyone in academia spoke about Bildung und Lehre (education and teaching), higher education, elite universities, global competitiveness, and the new Anglo-Saxon degree system. The German Beruf or Berufung now looked a thing of the past, slowly becoming an anachronism; yet Confucius, as well as Luther, was still worthy being called Berufener, evoking both a religious as well as a practical nostalgia.

Confucius’ title “Master Kung” was another link to a profession. The German term Meister could either mean a honorific rank, as in Master Mason, or a certified proficiency, as in master craftsman. Either way, calling Confucius a Meister would at some point raise the question: master at what? Confucius’ main occupation was traveling and teaching; he lectured some years at the Court of Lu and in other counties. Such a profession in Germany would probably fall under Privatgelehrter (independent scholar) or Lehrer (teacher).

The term Berufener entails the Beruf or occupation, one’s profession, one’s appointment. That particular occupation was the key to Confucius’s Berufung. So, what is it that Confucius does? His teachings were more of a spiritual nature: one was employed by the court of Lu but called by something else into that profession, the caller being not a concrete person or institution but a cause. That cause, argues German scholarship, is divine or even missionary (but not prophetic), hence the permanent translation of shengren as Heilige; or, in the case of Confucius being moral teacher: practical. Something that August Conrady in his Weltgeschichte (1910) described as “Ausübung der Humanität”[4] or “exercise of humaneness”. Quite a stretch to actual “sagehood”, but possibly the best the German language can do.

Another clue to Confucius’s profession comes from etymology. The idea of “Berufener” for聖 sheng(ren) could be – with a little bit of imagination – derived from its Chinese form: The classical Chinese character is assembled by the following parts: 王wang (king), 耳er (ear), and 口kou (mouth). The illustrious foreigner will see a pictogram of someone appointed to the king as adviser. Unfortunately, as beautiful as that Chinese character’s interpretation is, the呈cheng in it served mainly as the phonetic radical to an approximate pronunciation.[5]

Overall it seemed that since the Germans did not have a concept for sages and sagehood, and that calling the Oriental sages “Heilige” was inadequate, the only other way to go for them was to stick to the Confucian practical aspect, the educational one, that not only focused on his pedagogical qualities, but also concentrated entirely on his Sittenlehre or moral teachings. We recall that practical and moral philosophies in Germany once were synonymous (Wolff, 1721).

That, of course, sets us back to square one, as the German language is not designed to describe a morality outside the Christian realm.

If German terminology is evidently so inadequate to render the Chinese tradition appropriately, then why are the scholars still preventing its softening up and lowering its defenses toward Chinese loanwords? Because language business is not just about “guo or Pfanne” or “zse-ma or Pferde-wart”.[6] It is fundamentally about who calls whom what and why – a very mean and often merciless human activity about control and dominance. That’s why ‘the foreign’ or, better, its language intake is unerwünscht in German academia, with the exception of the English that for historical reasons could hardly be prevented. The shengren is the most important concept in the Chinese tradition – Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, the Shiji, the Yi Jing, all talk about it. If Germany prefers to eliminate the shengren and instead prefers to talk about some lesser versions of (Greek) Philosophen or (biblical) Heilige, that says – in a self-congratulating way – a lot about its thorough understanding of history, its discipline in ‘Orientalism’, the sophistication of its scholarship, and thus its determination to exploit the matter further.

Heiner Roetz in his Konfuzius (1994), published by Beck Verlag, a flagship-publisher for scholars in Germany, propagated Confucius as a “philosopher” throughout his book. Now, Confucius is said to no longer belittle himself not having met a shengren (Lun Yu, 7.26; 7.34) – but instead, in the German version of that story, Confucius now laments that he has never met “einen großen Denker”. The aspect of sagacity had gone. Close to the end of the book, Roetz – like all good Germans – adopted Richard Wilhelm’s translations “Genie” and “Heiliger” for no apparent reason other than Richard Wilhelm has always been the authority in Germany on those things Chinese.

Inge von Wedemeyer published her views on Confucius in 1986. As one of the very few female scholars at that time, academia should have cared about her voice. After all, women tended to value social relationships more than men, and usually did not participate in any ritual of potency and fight for status with other men. By now, at least since the eternal struggle between James Legge’s translation of shengren as “the sages” and Richard Wilhelm’s translation of shengren as “die Heiligen”, Europe had fallen into two camps: the Germans still wanted a religious China without sages and sagehood, and the Anglo-Saxons wanted China with sages and sagehood, without religion. Von Wedemeyer initially opted for the educational third aspect (the first one was the divine aspect, resulting in “saint”; the second one the sagacious aspect, resulting in “sage”) and appointed Confucius to a Sittenlehrer and Moralapostel (moral teacher and moral apostle), but fell back on biblical language again, entwined with a language of enormity: gewaltig (gargantuan), der Menschheit (of humankind), Superthesen (super-theories) and konfuzianische Bible (Confucian Bible). Religious vocabulary like Gütigkeit (amiableness) and Menschlichkeit (benevolence) are explained by direct reference to the Bible and Jesus Christ[7] Just like Karl Jaspers categories of great philosophers, von Wedemeyer categorized Confucius as a Grosser im Geiste[8], called Confucius and Mencius “Philosophen” and the shengren, well: “Wie muss einer sein, dass man ihn einen Heiligen nennen kann? Die Antwort lautet: Was man einen Heiligen nennt, dessen Wissen durchdringt die grosse Wahrheit.” [What does it take for someone to be called a saint? The answer is: He whose knowledge penetrates the great truth is called a saint.] To conclude this, it looks as if there existed an unspoken agreement among the leading German sinologists to try any trusted name, “Philosopher”, “Berufener”, “Heiliger”, if only the very un-European “Shengren” is avoided.

[1] Simson, 2002, pp. 81, 82, 90, 94, 95, 169, 246

[2] Craig, 1982, p. 129

[3] Jaspers, 1957, p. 154

[4] Conrady, 1910, p. 540

[5] Fu, 2003, p. 697

[6] Conrady, 1910, p. 488

[7] von Wedemeyer, 1986, pp. 36-37

[8] Ibid., p. 6