Shengren – Chapter 4.12 – Language Imperialism

“The vocabularies of all languages add up, they don’t not overlap. Translation is something else”

This book was originally written in Germany during the author’s time of study in Berlin; but every one will understand, why it is now published in English, as that is the more widely read language.[1]

– Wang Ching-Dao, Confucius and New China

Berlin 1912, the German speaker Wang Ching-Dao had written a book in Berlin but published it in Shanghai. That book was written in English, which amounted, during his time, to a blatant betrayal of his German patrons. Wang informed his readers in the foreword that English was the more widely read language, thus he decided against a German language publication. Wang, in the Anglo-American fashion, called Confucius “The Chinese sage”.[2] If he had stayed in Berlin, would his supervisors have coerced him to reconsider the sage a “Heiliger” or “philosopher”? Very likely so. A doctorate in Germany in Asian Studies was always more Glaubensbekenntnis (confession of faith) to the German brotherhood (publications outside the Western ideological framework, as Noam Chomsky once remarked, were almost unheard of) than unconditional love for the foreign.

In 1931, two Americans (one husband and one wife, actually) made an effort, sat down, and translated Richard Wilhelm’s Kung-Tse – Leben und Werk (1925), a monumental book that had blown like a storm over Germany and Europe (and still dominates Chinese-German dictionaries). George H. Danton and Annina P. Danton made a discovery of epic proportions: Richard Wilhelm had made stupendous errors in his translations. Here is a part of their verdict:

As far as we know, there is no English translation of this book, but there is a French rendering by Chavannes. Wilhelm translated directly from the Chinese, but used Chavannes, including the latter’s vast learned apparatus, which often completely swamps the actual text. […] we discovered that to treat Wilhelm’s text without reference to the Chinese original would result in English rendering which was very apt to be long removed from what Sse-Ma had said.[3]

The Dantons refused to translate Wilhelm’s “Heilige” into saints or holy men. Holy Confucius was absurd. Instead they decided to disabuse him from his German faith and called Confucius “the Sage” and the shengren “sages”[4] – a convention that contested Wilhelm’s mirror world of Heilige or göttlichen Wesen. The two Americans published their “translation” of Wilhelm’s work under the new title Confucius and Confucianism by Richard Wilhelm (1931), which was really an entirely new book because so much of Wilhelm’s original humbug had to be corrected: “extremely simply and paratactically, consciously archaistic, with a certain naïve warmth”.[5] One example: In the Lun Yu chapter two verse three two key concepts were discussed: 德de and 耻chi, which James Legge translated as virtue and shame.[6] Wilhelm on the other hand called the former the Kraft des Wesens (force of character) and the latter Gewissen (conscience). When it came to shengren and junzi, Wilhelm’s translations got confusing:

The Chinese ideogram which Wilhelm translates as der Edle, der höhere Mensch, or der Weise, and Chavannes as le sage, is translated by Legge as the superior man. It is the chün tze, which also has the idea of gentleman. The term is one of the most important in the Confucian canon. Its opposite, Hsiao jen, literally means the little man. […] In general, we have rendered Wilhelm’s der Edle by the Sage, his der höhere Mensch by the superior man, his der Weise by the Philosopher.[7]

For Wilhelm, the shengren was “der Edle” and the junzi was “der höhere Mensch”, yet even if that was interchanged, there still was no conception of a sage in Wilhelm’s writing. When he mentioned der Weise, he meant the wise (zhi), since it was clear that shengren and junzi had already been assigned other names. The table below showed the works of the author’s involved in Danton’s description (at least two editions by Wilhelm):


Author Translation for sheng(ren) Translation for junzi
Wilhelm (1914) Gott, iv; einer der dem Volke reiche Gnade spend, 60; göttlich, 60; zu einem Gott inspiriert mit göttlicher Autorität und Kraft des Geistes, 60 (in the notes); Genie, 88, 114; wenn der Himmel im Gelegenheit gibt, wird er sich als Genie beweisen, 88; die grossen Männer, 187 Der Weise, xx; der Edle (höherer Mensch), xxi, 75, 89, 169, 187
Wilhelm (1925) Die Heiligen, 165 Der Edle, 66
Legge (1893) Sages, 6.30; 7.26; 7.34; 9.6; 16.8; 19.12 The superior man, 6.24 ff.
Chavannes (1905) N/A Le sage
Danton (1931) N/A – mixed up with junzi The Sage (for Edle), 174-176;

Superior man (for höhere Mensch), [The Philosopher (for Der Weise), 42, 46 note: probably translated from zhi/knowing (18.6)]

For the Dantons, after having consulted Wilhelm, Legge, and Chavannes’s writings, shengren and junzi got out of hand. Chavannes did not mention shengren, but called the junzi “le sage”. Legge called shengren “sages” but Wilhelm called them everything but sages (saints, god-like etc.). For junzi, the Dantons had now various options: sages, superior men, noble men. When zhi-zhe (the wise man) needed a proper translation, the Dantons found that they had given “sages” to shengren, and thus translated zhi-zhe as “philosophers”.

Another German sinologist, Hans Stange, offered his “new translation from the original Chinese text”: Gedanken und Gespräche des Konfuzius (1953). He avoided calling “Konfuzius a philosopher in European sense” (not a philosopher in the European sense of the word): “An Stelle der logischen Argumentation der abendländischen Philosophie tritt in der chinesischen nämlich im Beweisverfahren das geschichtliche Beispiel als Beweismittel”[8] [In place of logical reasoning in Western philosophy, in China we have a proof process that involves historical examples as evidence]. Having declared in one sentence that Confucius was in no sense a (Hellenic) philosopher, in the next one Stange called the shengren (biblical) Heilige[9] or die grossen Männer.[10] Another passage, he translated the zhi-zhe (the wise men, the wise) as die Weisen,[11] and ren-zhe (the virtuous man) as ein Guter.[12] Again, the old pattern: German speaking authors imagined the divine and sacred, Heilige, while English speaking investigators preferred the sagacious and spiritual, sages.

[1] Wang, 1912, p. i

[2] Ibid., p. 6, 19

[3] Danton, 1931, p. iv

[4] Ibid., p. v

[5] Ibid., p. v

[6] Ibid., p. 157

[7] Ibid., p. 35

[8] Stange, 1953, Introduction

[9] Ibid., pp. 71, 79, 88, 180

[10] Ibid., p. 159

[11] Ibid., p. 159

[12] Ibid., p. 70