Shengren – Chapter 4.11 – Wilhelm, Hesse, Jung, The Mission to Re-Invent China

“How to kill a shengren: Ignore 2500 years of written evidence”

[…] ist es Wilhelm, der, wie er kam von der Seele Europas, uns ein neues Licht von Osten bringt. Dies ist die Kulturaufgabe, die Wilhelm gefühlt hat. […] Was nützt uns die Weisheit der Upanishaden, was die Einsichten des chinesischen Yoga, wenn wir unsere eigenen Fundamente wie überlebte Irrtümer verlassen und uns wie heimatlose Seeräuber an fremden Küsten diebisch niederlassen? […] Unser Weg beginnt bei der europäischen Wirklichkeit und nicht bei Yogaübungen, die uns ueber unsere Wirklichkeit hinwegtäuschen sollen.[1] [it is {Richard} Wilhelm who came from the soul of Europe to bring us new light from the east. He felt this was his cultural mission. {…} What use is the wisdom of the Upanishads, which insight offers Chinese yoga, if we leave our own foundations and the errors we survived and drift like homeless pirates and dwell on foreign shores like thieves? {…} Our approach starts with the European reality and not with yoga exercises, which would delude us over our own reality.]

– Carl Gustav Jung, Zum Gedächtnis Richard Wilhelms

In the above quote by Carl Gustav Jung, the psychiatrist praised the sinologist Richard Wilhelm for having done what the sociologist Max Weber already believed in: taking the European eye as the all-seeing medium of objectivity. Getting lost in foreign cultures was seen detrimental to objectively analyzing them. It was Richard Wilhelm’s translation of Confucius’ Lun Yu that dominated the German speaking academic world throughout the 20th century and inspired Kulturmeister (masters of culture, ford makers) such as Hermann Hesse, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Gustav Jung and Karl Jaspers to further develop their own ideas about the Far East.[2] The Germans eulogized Wilhelm for his great cultural work of bringing Confucius China to the German people. At the same time, as could be seen from Jung’s quotation above, Wilhelm never “drifted away from European reality”, which was – for a Protestant missionary – his Western values and Christianity. Wilhelm made no attempt to leave the wrong impressions: he never wanted to become Chinese, and in return he took away tradition from the Chinese; he dependably translated all Chinese terms into European biblical and philosophical words. Carl G. Jung encouraged such a one-sided approach, as it was good for the life-force of the nation:

Wir müssen Wilhelms Űbersetzungsarbeit in weiterem Sinne fortsetzen, sollen wir uns als würdige Schüler des Meisters erweisen. Wie er östliches Geistesgut in europäischen Sinn übersetzte, so sollen wir wohl diesen Sinn in Leben übersetzen.[3] [We must continue Wilhelms’ translation works even more broadly if we want to prove worthy students to the master. As he translated the Eastern spiritual property in the European sense, so we should bring that meaning into life.]

Europe should always be at the basis, and European terminology should always be used in dealing with the East, “sonst sind wir verloren”[4] (otherwise we are lost). It went so far that even entire languages were Romanized (transliterated into the Latin alphabet) in order to exercise European control over philology, phonetics and linguistics. The German philosophers Leibniz, Wolff, Kant and Hegel relentlessly produced German words for foreign terms; in particular they all thought that Chinese thinkers were philosophers and/or Heilige. And when the German orientalists Schott, Grube, Wilhelm, Haas and Biallas actually translated die Heiligen, that Heiligen-image became the all-favored German synonym for China’s shengren right until the “exodus of German sinology” between the World Wars, when a large number of sinologists immigrated to the United States[5]. In the New World the German sinologists learned that China had a living sage culture, and they learned how vibrant the cultural exchange between the English-speaking world and Asia really was. For most Germans who had been in contact with English accounts on the shengren, it became clear that shengren were sages and die Weisen – not saints and die Heiligen. “The Ancient Indians and Chinese were Saints and Kings” said Hermann Hesse, only to relativize his knowledge that if he “had studied Sanskrit or Chinese” he would not have needed to “invent the Glass Bead Game”[6] (his novel of the same name, in which the actual “game” remains just as illusive as Hesse’s understanding of those foreign languages).

Invention here was the key word. What philosophy was not an invention? What theory about things one had never experienced was not an invention? The great reformer Humboldt encouraged the inventing of entire new academic disciplines, and Carl G. Jung encouraged the inventing of new cultural theories. And swiftly, because for now the Orients stood still:

Western society was created to change; this is the principle of its structure and organization. The so-called “primitive” societies […] had been constructed to endure.[7]

Richard Wilhelm’s translation die Heiligen made the shengren or sage disappear; the Chinese meaning had to disappear, because sages were essentially non-German. Those who wanted to write about Confucius’ thought called the sage einen Philosophen, only to feel disappointed when Confucius felt short of their expectations:

Metaphysik wird man nicht finden, überhaupt keine ‘Philosophie’, nicht einmal Materialismus in seiner einfachsten Form, doch… eine praktisch-moralische Einsicht in die Natur des Menschen, die so tief ist, wie die von Confucius flach.[8] [Metaphysics will not be found, no ‘philosophy’ at all, not even materialism in its simplest form, but… a practical-moral understanding of human nature that is as deep as Confucius is shallow.]

The Germans missionaries created the Chinese in their own image: God at the top, and lots of Holy Men in the image of the biblical Barlaam and Josphat. And what could the Chinese do about it? Haas felt the power[9] that the Western mission had bestowed upon the orientalists: Confucius could be the “Gemütsmensch”, the “tiefsinniger Philosoph”, the “hausbackenen Rationalist”, the “chinesischer Geistesheroe”, the “ungekrönte König”, the “Heilige”. And why not an entirely “new title for Confucius”: “Und ist uns ‘Praeceptor Germaniae’ ein Ruhmesname, wie sollte nicht auch ‘Praeceptor Sinarum’ als solcher gelten dürfen?”[10]It meant why shouldn’t the Chinese be good enough for holding the same titles as we Germans? For a change, why not stop inventing new titles and instead call Confucius what he was: a sage? No, why? Because there were no sages in Germany.

[1] Jung, 1939, p. xiiii

[2] see Zotz, 2008

[3] Jung, 1939, p. xiv

[4]Hesse, 1921

[5] see Kern, 1998, 1999; Ringer, 1961, 1990

[6] Hesse, 1970, III, p. 282

[7] Lévi-Strauss, 1975, back cover

[8] Haas, 1920b, p. 9

[9] Ibid., p. 8

[10] Ibid., p. 12