Shengren – Chapter 4.1 – Shengren in German Online Sources

“The West persistently uses philosophers to kill the shengren”

“Die Sprache der Wissenschaft ist Englisch” was a sobering statement that could be heard all over Germany: “The language of the sciences is English”. There was an even deeper profundity to it, too: In Germany, the humanities were Wissenschaften, sciences, too. Hence, one could say: “The language of the academic world is English”. The breath of the German language in Germany’s academia was already so thin that by the year 2006, German academics now had to apply in English to German institutions for German grants.[1] In many disciplines, the English language seemed to function just as a convenient international medium through which communication with other people was made possible, for example in the natural sciences, engineering, and technology. In some disciplines, however, the change to English language – or at least a rich set of English terminology – was simply a matter of survival. The language of business, media, and entertainment in Germany was poor and underdeveloped. In politics, cultural and social sciences, it was still corrupted by irritating vocabularies from the Nazi language,[2] and in the case of Eastern Germany, had been converted into a socialist propaganda tool.[3] For historical reasons, apart from being the international lingua franca, English was intuitively seen as having more authority on all things that Germany for historical reasons could have little knowledge or experience about: moon-landing, base-ball, rock’n roll, dot-com, cinema and music, and, it must be said, foreign cultures. It means that if there are two textbooks of equal quality written on the same topic, one in English, the other in German, it was always adviced to buy the English one. Now, does this mean that German scholars will now read English translations of the Lun Yu, see “the sages” instead of “the saints” [Heilige, in German], and will faithfully adopt the Anglo-Saxon view, thus calling the shengren “die Weisen”? The answer is No. No, because Germany has no concept for sages, and calling the Chinese thinkers “die Weisen” sounds awkward and a misfit.

The German Ursula Gräfe, a graduate of Japanese language and English literature, translated Annping Chin’s Konfuzius – The Story of his Life (2009) from English into German, the way it was usually done in Germany, as most Japanese and Chinese best-sellers nowadays – contrary to public belief – were not translated from the original but from the English translation instead. Whether she did or did not read the Chinese original text, she – as matter of course – translated the English “sage” into German der Weise.[4] That was a clear break from the German Imperialist tradition. She had not much choice, though, as the correct German translation of “the sage” was indeed der Weise. If she had translated the sage as “der Heilige”, or worse “Göttlicher” or “Philosoph”, the entire profession would have cried murder.

Yet when not translating from the English, but from the Chinese instead shengren, almost all other Germans did always exactly do that: they translated Heiliger, or Göttlicher or Philosoph etc. (as seen in the following tables). Evidently, in today’s Sinologie, the authority of the English language greatly outweighs the authority of the Chinese language. German scholars seemed to have huge respect for the English language, but still resist or even show contempt for the Chinese. Yes, a shengren could finally become “a Weiser, but only indirectly, only after he had been an English “sage” before; but a sheng(ren) directly out of the Chinese texts could only be a Heiliger, Göttlicher or Philosoph. Who would have thought that Cultural sciences are no different administered than Social policies?

The Chinese-English-German translation triangle was inherently broken, in a semantic way, and the reason why was because the Germans did not have a concept for sages and sagehood, therefore could not translate the sheng(ren) correctly by themselves. The Germans needed the confirmation of holiness. The Chinese side, from its view meanwhile, was the most stable factor in all of this, because China historically owned the shengren (like the West owned the philosopher), and could not care less about foreign denotations or venerable titles as long as they were positive and respectful. As a result, to put it into political language: only bilateral agreements with China on meaning could be reached, not a global one. This could be stopped, for example, if the Germans restrained from “selling” China their story of holiness and some holy cause, but such resolutions are not in sight today.

Back to the authority of the English language: the evidence is that once sheng(ren) was translated English “sage”, the Germans had to obey established linguistic norms and categories and thus were obliged to translate sage as Weiser.[5] It did not mean that all of a sudden German culture saw the Weisen in China: only the logic and rationality behind English-German dictionary conventions forced them to write Weisen down. Even to this day, the Germans were unable to see the sages, and they still lacked any adequate concept for sages and sagehood, and despite sheng(ren) being the most important concept in the history of Chinese thought, the average German had never heard about sheng(ren), as the following text from Die Kulturzeitung aus Mitteldeutschland (2009) demonstrated [marked by the author]; the “philosopher Confucius” was doing quite “un-philosophical philosophy”, no less:

Rein rationales Philosophieren wie in der abendländischen Philosophie ist dem Konfuzianismus völlig fremd, er ist praktische, moralische Philosophie. In der Arbeit werden zunächst die wichtigsten biographischen Daten des Konfuzius näher vorgestellt. Danach wird auf die neun klassischen Bücher eingegangen, die die Grundlage seiner Philosophie bilden. Dann geht es um den besonderen Charakter der konfuzianischen Philosophie, woran Erörterungen über Ethik sowie Staat und Gesellschaft anschließen.[6] [Purely rational philosophy as in Western philosophy is completely foreign to Confucianism; it is practical, moral philosophy. In that work the main biographical data of Confucius are presented in more detail. Then it deals with the nine Classic books that form the basis of his philosophy. Then is deals with the special character of the Confucian philosophy, followed by a discussion about ethics, state, and society.

If it looks like ideology, it probably is ideology. Michael Lausberg used the word “philosophy” in that paragraph five times, the one word that was never used in any of the mentioned nine Classics. He had the right idea that Confucius was not a (Western) philosopher, but had not the right word for what Confucius was – a shengren or sage. Mr. Lausberg is not alone. The following are excerpts from the German Kirchenlexicon, the dictionary of the Church, the German Duden (the most renowned German dictionary), and the German Die Zeit newspaper (the German ‘Times’):

Kirchenlexicon Der Duden Die Zeit
KONFUZIUS (Kung-fu-tse = »Meister aus dem Geschlechte Kung«), neben Lao-Tse der bedeutendste Philosoph Chinas, * 27.8. 551 v. Chr.


Kon|fu|zi|a|nis|mus, der; -: auf der Lehre des chinesischen Philosophen Konfuzius (551-479 v. Chr.) u. seiner Schüler.


Doch Konfuzius, der chinesische Philosoph, der vor 2500 Jahren lebte und auf den die Lehre zurückgeht, hat sehr wohl die Welt erklärt und normative Verhaltens- und Denkweisen aufgestellt.[7]

The term “philosophy” is not backed by Chinese textual tradition. Yet, the West imports “philosophers” and shelves the shengren. If Cultural Studies were exact sciences, European scholarship would fall apart right here. There was no adequate excuse for the entire German-speaking world to speak of “Philosophen” when China had sages instead, with one exception: they truly didn’t know sages and sagehood exist – we recall: to the Germans the sages were legends and myths.

And there is – always – more: The Chinafokus, a popular webpage about Chinese culture, said: “Konfuzius: Der große chinesische Philosoph”. Here, too, there was no mentioning of the shengren or sage (Weiser).[8] The editors of the German online authority, didn’t have to read the Chinese Classics either. Instead, they faithfully advertised Richard Wilhelm’s incorrect translations into web space. In addition to the many sinologists who learned their profession from Richard Wilhelm, the missionary’s lifework was available to the intellectual public everywhere (just as Legge’s is to the English-speaking world), for example on, the “Largest German Open Library Online”. Wilhelm was the master theologian and missionary for whom religion was everything, and to whom “Heilige” had to replace the sages. For example, the Kirchenlexicon mentioned above was a German online source meant for students of divinity. One would assume that Germany’s students of divinity were largely incompetent in Chinese language and thus had to rely on the translations they found. That the Kirchenlexicon had no mentioning of the shengren or sages (Weise) was outrageous. The German Duden, of all, omitted sheng and Weiser and said “Philosoph“; yet who could blame the editors for that? With Richard Wilhelm’s translations at hand, they wouldn’t know any better.

Besides Philosoph, the all-favored German translation, based on Schott, Grube, Wilhelm, Haas, Biallas, Conrady and many others, was the biblical Heilige (saints, holy[men]). The Germans in particular were obsessed with finding philosophers and saints in the East and, if need be, invented them: “There was nothing, whether Greek philosophy or Christian morality, that was not supposed to have had its first origin among the sages of China”.[9] The evidence for Germany still not having any concept for sages and sagehood but instead continuing with great German rigidness the former missionary dream of a Holy China was overwhelming, and – given the current scientific knowledge[10] – a bit depressing:

Searching for “Shengren” in the following German online sources:
Das freie Chinesisch-Deutsche Wörterbuch “Exakter Treffer”

圣人 [聖人] (shèngrén)

1. S   Heiliger [Rel][11] – Die freie Enzyklopädie Der Artikel “Shengren” existiert nicht in diesem Wiki.[12]

[no result] – Meine Bibliothek […] heiligen Bräuche […]; Heiligen Buches […]; das heilige Erbe […]; das Heil von einem heiligen Fürsten […]; Heiligen auf dem Thron […]; heiligen Schriften […]; Prinzipien der heiligen Könige des Altertums […][13]
Dehanci[14] “圣人shèng rén – Heiliger (Philos)”[15]




[sage, the plant]

To be fair, a few recent alternative German online sources offered German “Weise” as shengren translation, yet that was the case precisely because the software also consulted English dictionaries, for example: ( is the same provider) said: “圣人shèng rén (pr.) heilige/Weise”.[17] But this is a rare incidence. The vast majority of German dictionaries still featured Heilige, while many authors like Stange, Fiederling, and Cordes (see table below) neither mentioned sheng(ren) nor offered a translation; in addition to that non-experts often confuse the shengren and the junzi, but more to that later. Here a list of some of the leading, popular German translations on the internet today: (the details can be found in the appendix):

Translation of shengren Source/Year
Philosoph, ein Edler – The Largest German Open Library Online (2011)
Philosoph und Religionslehrer […] Brockhaus Dictionary (1906-1911)
Chinas entthronter Heiliger Robert Paul Kramers (1979)
Konfuzius, der heilige Chinas […] Johann Flad (1904)
Konfuzius, der heilige Chinas […] Werner Schwanfelder (2006)
Der Edle Hans O. H. Stange (1965-2004)
Der Edle Johannes Fiederling (2009)
Chinesische Wandergelehrte,

Ideal des Edlen

Ulrike Cordes (2009)
Der Paedagoge, der verhinderte Politiker, der Philosoph, Moralische Person

[…] als Ziel, ein <sheng-ren>>, ein <Genius> bzw. <Heiliger> zu werden […]

Heiner Rötz (1994, 2006)

The majority translation in German online sources was and still is “Philosoph” and “Heiliger” – an extraordinary persistence in error over a hundred years. One may find that the timing of the internet revolution was impeccable: the erroneous translations could now spread globally, and the total penetration of Chinese tradition by Western biblical and philosophical readings now seemed permanent and irreversible.

[1] Unispiegel, 3rd Oct, 2006

[2] Doerr, 2002

[3] Craig, 1982, pp. 342 ff.

[4] Chin, 2009

[5] Pohl, 1999, pp 219, 291; Paul, 2001, pp. 35, 91, 108, 109, 114, 119; Chin, 2009;

[6] Lausberg, 2009

[7] see

[8] see

[9] Stone, 2002

[10] Ibid., pp. 105 ff.; Cheang, 2000

[11] – Das freie Chinesisch-Deutsche Wörterbuch (2001-2010), Chinesisch-Deutsche Gesellschaft e. V.Hamburg

[12] – Die freie Enzyklopädie

[13] – Meine Bibliothek, Kong Fu Zi (Konfuzius) – Lunyu – Einführung, source: Wilhem, Richard (1975), p. 13-30

[14] Dehanci, Chinesisch-deutsches Wort- und Satzlexikon, 2010

[15] – Chinesisch-deutsches Wort- und Satzlexikon

[16] – Google translate, Chinese to German translation of 圣人

[17], 2011