Shengren – Chapter 4.10 – Supernatural and Utopian Sages

Eun-Jeung Lee, a German speaking Professor for Korean Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, saw utopian elements in the Lun Yu. This was how she described the utopian shengren:

Aber gerade die idealisierte Vergangenheit übernimmt bei ihm (Confucius) die Rolle einer Utopie. Dies schlägt sich insbesondere in seiner Vorstellung von Kulturheroen, den shengren, den ersten beziehungsweisen halblegendären Königen der früheren Dynastien nieder. Sie gelten ihm als Personifizierung geistiger und moralischer Größe und der Befähigung zur idealen Herrschaft, ähnlich wie Platons Philosophenkönige.[1] [Yet it is the very idealized past that in Confucius takes the form of an utopia. This is especially reflected in his conception of culture heroes, the shengren, the first semi-legendary kings of the earlier dynasties. They are regarded by him as the personification of spiritual and moral greatness and the ability to ideal rulership, much like Plato’s philosopher-kings.]

Professor Lee actually used this word “shengren” throughout her writings. Yet, German culture did not allow her to correct hundreds of years of German misconceptions about Oriental sages: she still had to – as expected from Eingedeutsche (the Germanized) – periphrases die Weisen so that the translation would compliment German ears and flatter their expectations, much like with Kulturheroen, or halblegendäre Könige, and the synonym Philosophenkönige. One could only speculate at what would happen if the Germans – over the time – had to adopt Chinese concepts like shengren or junzi or li, ren, qi, dao (also: tao). Here another shengren-translation of hers:

子曰:”何事於仁,必也聖乎!堯舜其猶病諸!夫仁者,己欲立而立人,己欲達而達人.能近取譬,可謂仁之方也已”. ”Der Meister sagte: Was hätte das allein mit Menschlichkeit zu tun! Ein solcher wäre sicher ein shengren. Selbst Yao und Shun waren hierin wohl noch nicht ohne Fehl.[2]

Professor Lee frequently used the Chinese concepts of junzi and shengren and explained how in her view both came about:

Konfuzius glaubt allerdings nicht, dass es jeder schaffen kann, junzi zu werden, da es unterschiedliche Kategorien von Menschen gibt: Zu einer gehören die, die von Geburt an über Wissen verfügen, eben shengren, zu einer anderen diejenigen, die durch Lernen nach dem Wissen streben [..].[3] [Confucius however believed that not everyone could become a junzi, because there are different categories of people: One consists of people who have wisdom from birth, the shengren, and another consists of people who strive for knowledge by learning.]

Here we found (again) the classical distinction between a philosopher, one who seeks wisdom, and a sage, one who has wisdom, although it could be argued whether the sage’s wisdom was handed to them at birth or acquired through he process of visible self-cultivation. Buddha, Confucius, Laozi all attained sagehood through experience later in life; although it was true that the concepts Buddha, Confucius, and Laozi meant pure and timeless sagacity indeed. Hence, Ames and Rosemont’s suggestion on “cosmic beings”.[4] If Professor Lee had thought that Confucius was talking about Heilige or Philosophen, she would have translated shengren the old way; yet she chose to leave shengren as it is – to promote and make visible an important concept that was un-German and un-European. Some German sinologists already agreed in theory: “Wie bei Gautama and Sokrates wird keine systematische Philosophie präsentiert”.[5] Others agreed not quite.[6]

While the English missionaries like James Legge and A. W. Loomis as early as 1861 and 1871 already translated shengren as “the sages”: “When a sage shall again rise, he will certainly follow my words”;[7] the German missionary Richard Wilhelm in 1910-14 translated shengren as “Gott”, “Genie”, or “einem zum Gott inspirierten mit göttlicher Autorität und Kraft des Geistes”.[8] He revised his translations in 1925, from now one using exclusively the biblical term “die Heiligen”, that filled most dictionaries in the German lands till today. Scholars like Lee have to better that.

[1] Lee, 2008, p. 49

[2] Lee, 2008, p. 50

[3] Ibid., p. 57

[4] Rosemont, 2009

[5] Zotz, 2000

[6] Roetz, 1994, pp. 7, 9, 19, 43, 104

[7] Loomis, 1867, p. 208

[8] Wilhelm, 1914, pp. 60, 88, 114