Shengren – Chapter 3.2 – Die Weisen (Sages) und die Weisheit (Sagehood) in Germany

Die Weisen aller Zeiten bestrebten sich, das Reich menschlicher Begriffe aufzuhellen, Gesetze der Kultur zu finden, und die Gleichförmigkeit der Menschheit mit ihnen zu fördern. [The sages of all times endeavored to lighten the realm of human ideas, to find the laws of culture and to promote the uniformity of mankind.]

– Johann G. Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menscheit

According to The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (1995) a sheng referred to: “a sage or sagehood, a Chinese concept of extraordinary human attainment or perfection”. This definition was in more or less in accordance with most Chinese dictionaries, for example The Chinese Online Dictionary查字典 Cha Zidian (2010) said: “shèng rén ㄕㄥˋ ㄖㄣˊ (1) 圣人(聖人)[sage]: 德高望重、有大智、已达到人类最高最完美境界的人,有时也专指孔子;古之圣人,其出人也远矣。——唐· 韩愈《师说》 是以圣人不期修古,不法常可。——《韩非子·五蠹》”.[1] [sage: of highest virtue and respected; of great wisdom; has reached the highest and most perfect state of the human person; it sometimes specifically refers to Confucius; the ancient sage, the most accomplished. – Yong Han Yu: “The Master said: That is the reason why the sage neither seeks to follow the ways of the ancients nor establishes any fixed standard for all times but examines the things of his age.” – Han Feizi, The Five Vermin][2] In this respect, the English sage is a very sensible translation of shengren.

When Herder’s quote at the beginning of this chapter was compared to the definition given in the Chinese Dictionary, it immediately became obvious that Herder’s concept described the activity of the sage (e. g. to lighten the realm of human ideas, to find laws), while the definition in the Dictionary described what the sage was (e. g. of highest virtue and respected, in the highest and most perfect state) and what he did and not did (e. g. examines the things of his age, no fixed standard for all times). Compared to the Western notion of a philosopher, which has been discussed at length in the previous chapters, a sage strived for self-perfection, in other words, he needed to be a good person with the highest set of moral standards. A philosopher has no such requirements. Moreover, a sage found wisdom through experience with the people in his age and never established a fixed standard for all times, while the philosopher was supposed to do exactly that: to create a system of thought that appeared universal. A Western philosopher and an Eastern sage could not be any more different; the former is defined by what he does (the object of the philosophical enquiry) while the latter is defined by who he is (the subject who teaches). That is why the philosopher Leibniz early on acknowledged the superiority of China’s profound humanism, while he thought the West was superior in all things material.[3] After his stay at Peking University, Bertrand Russell famously compared China to a nation of artists, “with the virtues and vices to be expected of the artist: virtues chiefly useful to others, and vices chiefly harmful to oneself”.[4] Gu Hongming spoke of the gentleness and delicacy of the Chinese people: “It is the possession of this sympathetic and true human intelligence, which gives to the Chinese type of humanity, to the real Chinaman, his inexpressible gentleness. […] The Chinese people have this power, this strong power of sympathy, because they live wholly, or almost wholly, a life of the heart.”[5] If their “type of humanity” is evidently so different, so is their “type of great masters of thought”: the West almost exclusively nurtured philosophers; China almost exclusively nurtured sages.

To recall the English definition: A philosopher is a wise man distinguished for wisdom and sound judgment; a sage is a wise man distinguished for wisdom and from experience. Now, what if a culture has no sages? Germany is such a culture: English and Chinese definitions of sheng become pointless when German dictionaries are consulted. German dictionaries translate sheng(ren) as die Heiligen (holy men or saints); that is because the Chinese/English concepts of sages and sagehood make no sense to the Germans.

The German dictionaries could have used Herder’s notion of die Weisen, yet die Weisen in German language is an archaic, folkloric, and – because of its German association with fairy-tales – a pejorative concept; moreover, Herder’s definition was very abstract and did not convey the idea of self-cultivation. Germany then, had no proper translation for shengren that conveyed the meaning expressed by either the Chinese definition of shengren or the English definition of a sage. Germany was a culture without shengren and sages. How German does the following look and sound:

唯天下至圣,为能聪明睿知,足以有临也;宽裕溫柔,足以有容也;发強刚毅,足以有执也;齐庄中正,足以有敬也;文理密察,足以有別也. It is only he, possessed of all sagely qualities that can exist under heaven, who shows himself quick in apprehension, clear in discernment, of far-reaching intelligence, and all-embracing knowledge, fitted to exercise rule; magnanimous, generous, benign, and mild, fitted to exercise forbearance; impulsive, energetic, firm, and enduring, fitted to maintain a firm hold; self-adjusted, grave, never swerving from the Mean, and correct, fitted to command reverence; accomplished, distinctive, concentrative, and searching, fitted to exercise discrimination.[6]

Sure, a general concept of sages developed in all ancient societies, but in reality it varied from place to place. With today’s sophistication, we can demonstrate that none was like the other; yet from the distance hawks and sparrows all looked like birds. The sages practiced some form of sagehood, and sagehood often referred to the political and moral teachings of those wise teachers. When Greek philosophy developed in Europe it organized itself and advised its teachers its methodology, that peculiar philosophical approach that consisted of a systematic advance and logical argumentation in order to find universal formulas, soon those first philosophers like Plato and Aristotle casted doubt on the sagacity of their predecessors and competition: the sages. The wise men were basically teaching the rules of good conduct and their life experience to other people. The transition from Greek sagehood to Greek philosophy looks actually very smooth. Plato is usually considered the first philosopher, while his teacher, Socrates, could still be regarded as a sage or, at that time: a sophist. The reason why Plato was considered the first philosopher was that he wrote about philosophy and how he came to antagonize the sophists. The reason why Socrates, Plato’s teacher, could still be considered a sage was because of his situational and rhetorical approaches to manipulate and convince his opponents, and because Socrates, his person and self, stood for his wisdom, while Plato was mainly read for the sake of his theories, the first true philosopher indeed.

The Greek philosophers and their philosophy became very successful and suppressed the sages and discredited their wisdom. By the time of the rise of Christianity, sagehood largely vanished and the last sages of Europe were prosecuted, because of that one clever sage before: Jesus Christ. No one in the Western Hemisphere today calls Jesus Christ a sage, for good reasons. Following up on the philosophical need of the Europeans for “a first cause” – Jesus proclaimed that he was the Messiah, the son of God, the Holy Trinity, and that highest wisdom lied with God from now on, not with human beings who were clearly separated from Him – even competed with Him, as seen in the story of Adam and Eve, and the city and its tower (Babel).[7] Since the Creator was separated from the created, oneness was no longer neither possible nor desirable. The closest thing to a true sage the individual Europeans could do now do was to become priests, missionaries, or saints in the name of God, or else stay away from that hot iron called highest wisdom. Christianity and its supernatural God now had a monopoly on sagacity (also on morals, we come to that later).

The triumphal march of the philosophical approach and Christianity in the West had led – over 2000 years – to perfecting those traditions. At the same time, the abolishment of sages and sagehood in the West had led to the pauperization of the sagacious approach. The East however was different: it had perfected its sages and sagely teachings on all levels of society. That advanced humanism was probably what Claude Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist, meant when he proclaimed that in the “disciplines between the body and psyche” the East was “several thousand years ahead of the West”.[8]

Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism were the results of the perfection of the sagacious approach to wisdom and the continuity of sages and sagehood in Eastern cultures. That is why we may call them sage cultures. At the same time those sage cultures developed, the philosophical approach to knowledge known so well in the West, had been largely ignored in the East, until, of course, the contact with the Western world gradually increased after the Western missions to Asia in the 16th – 18th centuries. The British Empire, because of its early and lasting presence in Asia, engaged in the first meaningful cultural exchange. By the time the Germans unified in 1871 and set out to join the club of Western colonialists, the British had understood that Hinduism and Confucianism and Buddhism are full of non-European concepts that – strictly speaking – European vocabulary lacked proper names or synonyms for. And because the British Empire was very powerful and uncontested (much like the United States today who appears so open-minded, multicultural, and generous in Cultural Studies), it felt safe enough to make cultural concessions to the Asians. The English language added many loanwords like dharma, guru, jungle, curry, juggernaut, etc. In addition, most transliterations like Romanized Devanagari (e. g. the Hunterian system) or Chinese Wade-Giles or Pinyin were inventions of the British Empire. The Wade-Giles Romanization, for example, is where the words Peking, Tsinghua, Nanking, Tao, T’ai Chi, T’ien, Chün-tzu, and jen, etc. came from. In Pinyin, they look like this: Beijing, Qinghua, Nanjing, Dao, Tai Qi, tian, Xunzi, and ren. Both variants are used, even by the Germans, and both are Anglo-Saxon inventions. The British (and later the Americans) did what the inwardly Germans and their Germanism could not do: letting the indigenous people of their colonies continue their own traditions as long as Anglo-Saxon rule was secured and sending as many talented Asians back to Britain for further education. Indian concepts like Buddha, bodhisattvas, arhats, rishis, Nirvana, Yoga, Ayurveda, etc. have been successfully loaned. And because those words indicate an Indian origin, the Indian scholars are still in the game, get some sense of pride, and may claim some kind of authority. Very different from the situation in China where any German tourist – because in Germany he has never heard anything authentic about China except Kung-fu – immediately feels the urge to lecture the Chinese on their inferior “philosophies”, lack of “Christian values”, and redundancy of the difficult writing system. If the German Oriental scholars had it their way, India’s Buddha would today be der Erleuchtete, bodhisattvas die Erleuchteten or die Heiligen, Nirvana das Paradies, rishis die Seher or die Priester etc., as the Germanization of foreign names was the German fashion of the Empire. Adopting foreign names was a weakness of culture and anyway would have caused dependency.

In the end, unsurprisingly, Germany evidently never “infected” itself with Chineseness, just as it never “Indianized” itself, as Hesse and Haeckel had recommended. Richard Wilhelm managed to write general history books such Chinesische Lebensweisheiten (1922) entirely with German replacement words for each and every Chinese concept, except Tao and Te and Yin and Yang and the eight guas from the “Buch der Wandlungen” (he calls it J King). On a side note, Wilhelm never made a secret about his willful practice of Umdichtung (re-interpretation), and openly admitted the European fight over Chinese original names: “sind nicht leicht zu übersetzen (…). Es scheint einen gewissen Ehrgeiz zu geben ja nicht die Spuren eines Vorgängers zu folgen, was um so nötiger ist, da die überwiegende Mehrzahl dieser Übersetzungen nicht aus dem Chinesischen stammt, sondern nur Umdichtungen englischer oder deutscher Übersetzungen sind”[9] [they are not easy to translate (…). There seems to be a certain ambition to not follow the footsteps of a predecessor, which is all the more necessary, because the vast majority of these translations are not derived from the Chinese, but only Umdichtungen (re-interpretations) of some English or German translations.]. In other words, the European scholars were unsure about the right translation, knew that their translations were – in one way or another – inadequate; yet they somehow all agreed that the original Chinese terminology must not survive. It had to be translated. By the end of the 20th century, everyone in the Western hemisphere has laid eyes on either English Legge’s or German Wilhelm’s translations. As a result, almost no one in the Western hemisphere has ever heard about shengren, junzi, de, li, jiao and thousands other Chinese names and concepts.

The German Empire and its Oriental scholarship entered the age of colonialism relatively late; it planted itself on and around the British and French thrust. Famous examples are the German Max Mueller and the Austrian Moriz Winternitz at Oxford University who both excelled in their fields because they combined in the academia German might and righteousness with Anglo-Saxon legitimacy. Likewise the legitimacy that came from the French colonial expertise: Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, could easily use exotic names in his work: “Auch im Buddhaismus fehlt es nicht an Ausdrücken der Sache: z.B. als Buddha, noch als Bodhisattva, sein Pferd…”[10] because he had (no alternative but) adopted the three Indian loanwords above from the 1843 French translation of a Chinese work, 佛国记Fo Guo Ji, by the sinologist Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat. Not that Germans would ever use Eastern terminology in their own right – borrowing from the English and French, however, seemed legitimate. Unfortunately, as the proverb goes: Cling together, swing together: The German symbiosis with British or French scholarship forced the Germans to accept the reality of Asia: non-European concepts do exist in that part of the world. So far, to Germany the world was a place that just needed to be translated. But once Buddhas and bodhisattvas were established, sovereign categories, it was hard to get rid of them. As to the extent by which each culture was able to keep its own terminology – it certainly came in degrees: Lucky Japan could keep its Shinto, Samurai, Tenno, Zen, banzai and hundreds of other original names – a blessing for many Japanologists; otherwise how could they ever communicate the otherness of Japan to the German public? In fact, many scholars and language learners have come to love and appreciate those un-European concepts. With China the situation was very different. The Germans had robbed China of much of its cultural traditions by the careless Germanization of very Chinese concepts such as 圣sheng (die Heiligen) or 教jiao (die Religion, die Kirche) or 天下tianxia (der Himmel) or 君子junzi (der Edle).[11] According to Richard Wilhelm, this is what Confucius has allegedly said: “Ach, daß doch Gott vom Himmel drein sehen wollte! Aber wo ist er?”[12] [O that God would look down from Heaven! But, where is He?] or “Die Menschen müssen zu ihrem wahren Wohle geleitet werden durch Führungspersönlichkeiten”,[13] [People need to be guided to their true happiness by leader-personalities]; or this gem by Max Kaltenmark: “Die Ching enthalten eine Lehre von überragender Bedeutung; es sind heilige Texte, durch Heilige oder durch Götter offenbart”[14] [The Ching contain lessons of paramount importance; those are the sacred texts, revealed by saints and gods]. Reads like biblical talk? It is biblical talk. Again, the German obsession with holiness made them ruthlessly overthrow all Chinese terminology and re-present Confucius (Wilhelm) and Laozi (Kaltenmark) as Heilige and Gläubige (believers). It is essential to the German peace of mind, the continuation of their cultural identity and mode of thinking, to recommend highest wisdom to where it – in the Christian view – always belonged, to God and the Bible, and to – literally – kill off the sages and to evict the shengren from the world mind forever. For the Chinese to even consider a world without Revelations, was seen both as God’s blessing and as punishment for their child-like naivety, as Victor von Strauss explained: “War jene Krisis [the confusion of tongues after the collapse of the Tower of Babel] eine Strafe Gottes, so trug sie auch ihren Segen in sich. Sie verflocht die Völker in ein Ringen nach und mit dem Göttlichen, wodurch sie für die vollendete Offenbarung reifen konnten. Die Chinesen entgingen mit jener Strafe auch ihrem Segen.”[15] The Chinese had escaped the struggle of the peoples with the divine, a blessing. But because they escaped, they were not yet ripe for the Revelations, a punishment. Which one weights more, Von Strauss hints at in the final paragraph of his book: “Möchte bald auch an dem Volke […] erfüllt werden, was uns erfüllt worden ist”[16] [Would soon be revealed also to them, what has been revealed to us.].

Sage cultures took over 2000 years time to develop, and the East went through just as many intellectual movements as the West. In addition, sage cultures controlled larger populations. Germany on the other hand is was a young culture, and since it lacked sages and sagehood, it thus neglected practices such ancestor worship, propriety, filial piety, self-cultivation, memory, and other spiritual practices. One could say then that with respect to the wisdom of those cultures, China and India are the senior partners in any cultural exchange or dialogue with Germany.

The Germans, despite the condescending and contemptuous writings about the Eastern people on the parts of many German thinkers, could have felt envious and threatened by the sheer might of Asia. Its passivity (of a culture) was seen as the weakest point of the East. In real life however, passivity could be a virtue. Non-violence (of a culture) was seen as a weakness, too. But in real life, non-violence could be virtuous, too. Because of Western imperialism, colonialism, and orientalism, Eastern cultures seemed gentler and wiser than Western cultures, because violence, as a general rule in ethics, more often than not was seen at the lower end of all human activity, and in its purest form only to be found in the animal kingdom and among the beasts. The spiritual writer and Nobel Prize Laureate Hermann Hesse made his point when he lamented:

[…] der fernste Osten ist willig, uns kennen zu lernen, auf unsre Gedanken und Spiele einzugehen, von uns zu lernen, mit uns geisten Tauschhandel zu treiben. Leider kann ich nicht sagen, dass die abendländische Intelligenz ebenso bereit und begierig wäre, sich mit dem Geist des Ostens zu befreunden und vertraut zu machen.[17] [The Far East is willing to get to know us, to respond to our thoughts and games and to learn from us, and to engage with us in a spiritual exchange. Unfortunately I can not say that {our} Western intelligence would be ready and eager to reconcile and become familiar with the spirit of the East.]

Germany is not China. It is closely linked to Greek civilization and Christianity; China is not. Germany and China did not experience the same history; in fact, they were often on the opposite sides of it. Germany had no Han, Tang, Ming or Qing Dynasties. Germany colonized a small part of China. Germany produced hundreds of philosophers, yet it lacked sages and sagehood. Buddhism and Confucianism alone had produced hundreds, perhaps thousands of sagely individuals and leaders that were recognized as such.

Since the Greek sages had been expelled from antiquity, Europeans thought of sages as ancient and a personage of the past. However, the sage cultures of Asia had produced ever new sages and new forms of sagehood. It was difficult and awkward for the materialistic and progressive German thinkers to meet the sentient and gentle sages. Some sages in Asia were ancient, mythical, or fictional like the Monkey-King Sun Wukong; others were real persons and psychologically more accessible. The Sixteen Arhats in Buddhism were often referred to as sages (sheng), their names were: Ajita, Subinda, Pindola Bharadvaja, Panthaka, Nakula, Vajraputra, Bhadra, Kanakavatsa, Rahula, Kanaka Bhadra, Chudapanthaka, Angaja, Jivaka, Nagasena, Vanavasin and Kalika. Each of them had many stories woven around their lives and teachings. Other great sages were Prince Shōtoku of Japan who lived in 573 to 621; or the Tibetan Buddhist Miarepa who livid in 1052-1135. Most Europeans have heard one or more of the following sages (although in Europe they are propagated as philosophers, which is incorrect): Confucius, Laozi, Xunzi, Si Maqian, the King of Zhou [Zhou Wu Wang], Cai Lun. The great poets of China often were called sages, too: Li Bai and Du Fu of the Tang dynasty, or the author of the Dream of the Red Chamber: Cao Xueqin. Just as the Europeans had categorized their philosophers according to the fields they had contributed – e. g. Moral philosophy, Political philosophy, Philosophy of the mind, etc. – so did the Chinese distinguish between 史圣shi-sheng (sages of history), 诗圣shi-sheng (sages of poetry), 医圣yi-sheng (sages of medicine), 武圣wu-sheng (sages of military), 书圣shu-sheng (sages of letters), 草圣cao-sheng (sages of calligraphy), 画圣hua-sheng (sages of painting), 茶圣cha-sheng (sages of the arts of tea), and even 酒圣jiu-sheng (sages of the spirits [the liquid ones]) or 兵圣bing-sheng (sages of soldiery), each of those categories including countless individuals. Yes, that whole tradition of sages and sagehood had been ruined by the ignorant Germans who wanted to see Christianity and Greek antiquity in China when they called those shengren “Philosophen” or “Heilige”.

Modern sages existed, too. The leaders in the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement between 1915 to 1921 were called sheng(ren), for example Lu Xun or Hu Shi. The Chairman Mao Zedong, on the other hand, had not been referred to as sheng(ren). He notoriously oppressed Confucianism and Chinese tradition in general.

In order to exercise authority over Chinese history, the Europeans – in particular the Germans who fell short of geopolitical control in Asia – used European biblical and philosophical terminology, erased the Chinese terminology, and thus effectively administered the Chinese tradition from now on.

[1] Cha Zidian, 2010

[2] Liao, 1939

[3] Leibniz, 1697, §3

[4] Russell, 1922, Chapter 1

[5] Gu, 1915, p. 21 ff.

[6] Legge, 1891, The Doctrine of the Mean, XXXI

[7] Genesis, 11;1-9

[8] Lévi-Strauss, 1967

[9] Wilhelm, 1922, pp. 11, 12

[10] Schopenhauer, 1819, p. 777

[11] – Chinesisch-deutsches Wort- und Satzlexikon

[12] Wilhelm, 1922, p. 6

[13] Ibid., p. 47

[14] Kaltenmark, 1996, p. 29

[15] Von Strauss, 1924, p. LXXX

[16] Ibid

[17]Hesse, 1955, quoted in Hsia, 1976, p. 172