Shengren – Chapter 4.15 – East-Asia Evangelized

“Real men cry when sages die”

Das einfache Melkvieh glaubt ja an den heilbringenden Westen und den bösen Osten.[1] [Even the simple milk-cows do believe in the West our savior and the evil East.]

– DieWelle (anonymous user), Zeit

Christopher Columbus once famously remarked: “I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion”.[2] He went on and christened the first few islands he conquered Los Santos (The Saints), Saint Kitts, Saint Fustativs, Saint Martin, and Saint Croix (Holy cross). Of course, Columbus had not found India, as he intended, but had landed in the New World, the Bahamas and Cuba, to be exact. Yet, the way the famous discoverer arbitrary gave Christian names to foreign things and declared all people potential Christians repeated itself all over the world, in particular in China. In 1691, Randal Taylor in his The Morals of Confucius made the following crucial observation:

Most of the missionaries who relate this are firmly persuaded, that CONFUCIUS foresaw the coming of the MESSIAH.[3]

English scholarship has since asked the question who exactly started this Confucian-Messiah rumor, although after 300 years – many Germans still called shengren Heilige, a reminiscence of that good holy China – the question was trivial. The English blamed the French; the French thought they were right; the Germans were always right – so in the end it suffices to know that the Europeans jointly brought down cultural China, just as they were up in each other’s arms when they burned down the Summer Palace at the turn of the 20th century. European powers agitated collectively when they pursued a common cause, namely to spread European values to China, and any success of one player was a success for the whole team. Take, for example, the British tendency to translate junzi as gentleman.[4] A gentleman in China was translated 先生 xiansheng, so no reciprocity here; still, the original Chinese term was compromised. Although there was little value for Germany to call junzi a gentleman, traditionally a British title, the point made was that junzi was up for survival. The Germans translated him as Edle, the aristocratic noble man. All those translations, of course, were nowhere near the imperialist brilliancy of calling Confucius a philosopher and the shengren Heilige.

The first European translation of Confucius’ The Analects might not have been the words that set the course, yet the nature of scholarship had it that translations are handed down to one’s peers and the next generations and to one’s neighbors in Europe, until finally everyone one who dared to know could read Confucius. Those first translations of the Lun Yu which circulated in Europe where almost certainly written in Latin and French by people of God whose mission it was to bring “the True Religion and the Correct Sciences to the rest of humankind”.[5] The True Religion was Christianity and the Correct Sciences were European science, and the way that knowledge had been accumulated was by the philosophical approach. Before the missionaries travelled the lands, there was no Greco-Hellenic philosophy in China, but there was 教jiao (teachings); and there was no Bible but 经jing (sutras or writings); and there was no God but 天tian and 地di (heaven and earth, nature). China had been a sage culture since Yao and Shun, and because sage culture had vanished in Europe with the rise of the Greek philosophers and Christianity, the missionaries could not remember how Greek looked like before Socrates. Technically, the comparison between the thriving and developed sage tradition before them and the threadbare and infant sage tradition in Greece was impossible, since 2500 years have passed between them. Some Europeans felt puzzled, in disbelieve, and sometimes angry. How could China not have advanced into a European-style culture? The very fact that China existed, without Christianity, and did so well economically and culturally caused quite a controversy.

Especially the Germans thought they had seen a living fairy tale, and angrily rejected Chinese reality:

Die astronomisch hohen Zahlen über das Alter Chinas, mit denen die biblische Weltschöpfung weit überboten wurde, erschienen zu unglaubwürdig, dass sie ebenso wie die schon bekannten Chronologien der altorientalischen Völker als märchenhaft zurückgewiesen wurden.[6] [The astronomically high figures over the age of China, that far outdated the Biblical creation story, seemed so implausible that those figures were dismissed as fairy tale, just like other Oriental cultures.]

In a thought-scenario when China had send missionaries to Europe, some of European greatest philosophers might as well be called shengren today, and the Bible could be another jing among many others. The Chinese at least were curious about Western philosophers and called them 哲学家zhexue jia. About Jesus Christ, that seemed easy, he sounded like a good shengren, and the missionaries wanted Jesus Christ to be named a sheng, because it was the highest possible status and rank in the history and tradition of China. If Jesus Christ was one of their shengren, than China was religious. But then the problem started, because the Europeans had no interest in mutual exchange, they wanted to Christianize the people of foreign lands. When it turned out, in 1704, that many Jesuits who had spent many years learning Chinese and began to like and appreciate Chinese culture, Pope Clement XI issued his notorious Papal bull, condemning all Chinese beliefs and rites, and urged the missionaries to convert more Chinamen. It took the British another 150 years before they thought they had found hard evidences from textual studies, that China had no God, no religion, and that Confucius was no saint. James Legge (1867) said of Confucius that he was “unreligious”,[7] and that he “gave no impulse to religion”.[8] Herbert Giles (1926) confirmed that view: “The Chinese are not, and, so far as we can judge from their history, never have been, what we understand by the term “a religious people”,[9] and “Translators of Chinese texts have indeed generally tried to shirk the use of the world ‘God’ as an equivalent for T’ien, and have adopted the vaguer word “Heaven”.[10] An intellectual battle in the West began not so much over returning cultural China back to China, but more over defending the good name of (now proven erroneous) European Oriental scholarship. Herrlee Glessner Creel, a Puritan and American sinologist from the University of Chicago who lived from 1905 to 1994 in his Essay Was Confucius Agnostic? (1932), Creel argued that “Confucius could not have developed deep knowledge of the human nature without believing in God”.[11] Even Giles, as said previously, notoriously contradicted himself when he first said that “the Chinese are not a religious people”, and next that “the word ‘God’ has been familiar in China from time immemorial:”[12]

The name T’ien or “Heaven” (tian) is, indeed, constantly interchanged in Confucianism with Ti or “God;” […] when our revealed Scriptures come to be familiar books in the country, the impersonal “Heaven” will more and more give place to the personal name, and the fear and reverences of God that are now inculcated will have superadded to them the loving regard and childlike trust that are due to our Father in heaven, the God of salvation.[13]

New German sinologists held on to old Imperial conviction and predicament about China, understandably: Academia and old boy school was everything to them. Hegel’s theories and Wilhelm’s research gave them confidence and security, writing a philosophical piece on Immanuel Kant and Max Weber made them proud. There is a church-top pointing to the sky in the centers of every German town or district, and most businesses close on Sunday, the day the Lord’s rests. Unsurprisingly, the whole of Chinese history shall be re-invented if only that makes Confucius “our holy man in China”.

The historian Brian Brown once said: “In considering the nature and organization of human society it is necessary for him [Confucius] to understand the laws of God”.[14] No missionary could avoid biblical interpretation; and some interest groups followed up on Confucian biblical interpretation well into the 21st century. For example, The Culture & Civilization of China series, published by Yale University Press and chaired by George H. W. Bush, former President of the United States (and devoted Christian), read as follows: “God/Sky – ‘Heaven’ is an important concept in ancient Chinese philosophy. It comprises two aspects: on one hand it is an objective infinite reality, the ‘sky’; on the other it is ‘God’, or the supreme concept”.[15] More intriguing, shengren and junzi had not entries in the book at all. Instead, Confucius was called philosopher, the Chinese thinkers were named philosophers and tian now was “Heaven and God”. How did the author(s) justify that? The book said: “The character for heaven is probably derived from that for big man. This is one reason why a human element has always been present in the Chinese conception of heaven as God”.[16] Since they are pictograms, the Chinese character for heaven, 天, surely looked like the combination of big大and man人. That big fellow in heaven, that’s the Almighty.

Another philosopher-interpretation of Confucius was given by Karyn L. Lai in her textbook Introduction to Chinese Philosophy (2008) published by Cambridge University Press. She called the title “Chinese Philosophy”, Confucius a “philosopher” and his teachings “philosophy”. What was Cambridge Press thinking? “Philosophy” was everywhere in that book, in contrast to Chinese history and scriptures which were void of the word philosophy, 哲学zhexue. Shengren was omitted in the index of her book, which is rather careless for an introduction to Chinese thought. The word “sage”[17] was in the book, thanks to the author citing a translation by Chan from his The Way of Lao Tzu (1979).[18]

Back in the 19th century, James Legge could not avoid using Judea-Christian terminology in some of his writings. While his early 1867 manuscript carefully avoided a purely Christian interpretation of the Lun Yu, in his 1877 paper read before the Missionary Conference in Shanghai he defaulted before his superiors: In it he recalled tian as bearing “striking similarities to the Christian notion of Heaven and God”.[19] He never abandoned his shengren/sage translation though; and in his 1893 text Life and Teachings he – at the age of 78 – reconciled Confucian and Christian faith by saying “his [Confucian] teachings suggest important lessons to ourselves who profess to belong to the school of Christ”.[20] Today, the question of Confucius’ faith, a man who just turned 2561 years on September, 28th, seemed trivial. In Richard Wilhelm’s and James Legge’s time however it meant everything: winning or losing over China’s faith. Herbert A. Giles, the eminent Professor of Chinese at The University of Cambridge, and also a British diplomat, made no secrets about his Anglican faith. He was a Christian fanatic and he made no attempts to discuss Confucian and Taoist China any other way than in strict comparison to his own Christian faith. After all, the emperor of heaven – how could he not be the “son of God”[21] and how could the great leaders of China not have been instructed by God?

But we are left entirely in the dark as to how and when and where King Wen received these communications from God; whether he saw Him in person, or whether, as in the case of Moses, he did his face, afraid to look upon the divine glory.[22]

Giles called Confucius the “divinest of men”, and thought “it was certain that he believed firmly in a higher Power – the God of his fathers”.[23] Giles’ Confucius said: “God implanted the virtue in me; what can this man do to me?” In another passage, the master said: “I do not murmur against God, nor do I grumble against man. My studies lie low, but they reach high, and there is God – He knows me. If my doctrines are to prevail, it is so ordered of God; if they are to fail, it is so ordered of God”. Mark Larrimore, Associate Professor in Religious Studies in New York, explained the possible underlying logic behind Giles and other missionaries’ efforts to abuse Confucius for their Christian cause in his paper ‘On Christian Wolff‘s Oratio de Sinarum Philosophia Practica‘ (2000):

China was also an ethical provocation for European thinkers. The apparent antiquity of the Chinese histories posed the disturbing question: Was China not affected by the flood? If not, was China spared because its people had not fallen into sin? Parallel to speculation that the Chinese language preserved the Adamic language was the belief that the ethics of Adam lived on in China – or, if not the ethics of Adam, at least that of Noah, or Enoch, or the lawgiver of the prisca theologia.[24]

One could not deny that national and ethnical pride played an important role in cross-cultural translations, especially now in Comparative Cultural Studies, where one culture usually fell short of another. The Germans objected a Shengren in the German vocabulary, because China would become an authority, a teacher to Germany.

Despite all this, having consulted with Legge’s translations, Giles was ready to adopt “great sages” for shengren and “superior men” for junzi.[25] He could have opted for Richard Wilhelm’s saints (Heilige), but did not. One could only speculate why. Perhaps Giles realized that wisdom played more into the concept of shengren than religion. Reverend A. W. Loomis once wrote in a chapter entitled Remarks on the Doctrines Taught by the Chinese Sages (1867):

We notice that they fall short of the high standard of morality which we find in the Bible. In several places we find that which at first sight may seem to read almost like the precept, “love they neighbor as thyself”, but nowhere do we find the commandment, “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.[26]

Indeed, a sage by any definition of the word needed no religion. Confucius himself said he did not believe in the supernatural and ghosts. Moreover, his acquired wisdom had little to do with religion. Arthur Schopenhauer once said:

Wisdom proper is something intuitive, not something abstract. It does not consist in principles and ideas which a person carries round ready in his head, as results of his own or others’ investigation; it is the whole way in which the world presents itself in his head.[27]

In contrast, a Heiliger or holy man was a religious man by the very definition of that word “heilig”, “holy” or “saint”.

Chan Wing-tsit (1963), Lau Dim-cheuk (1979), Tu Weiming (1987) all successively translated shengren as the sages, and Professor Tu, eloquently summarized the Confucian conviction that “virtue can be learned and that the highest exemplification of virtue, sagehood, is attainable” and that “sagehood is an authentic manifestations of humanity and the paradigmatic sage, Confucius, is a case in point”.[28] With more and more Chinese scholars flocking into the Anglo-Saxon education system, they may well bring the old English misdemeanor of calling Confucius a saint to an end. They will call the shengren sages. It was simply not longer appropriate to supplant the Chinese Classics with unnecessary biblical vocabulary. Besides, the difference between saints and sages has been discussed extensively, for example in Hawley, John S. (1987), Saints and Virtues or Rodney L. Taylor’s, The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism – The Sage as Saint (1990), or Robert C. Neville’s Soldier, Sage, Saint (1978). To recall a crucial definition, Rodney L. Taylor wrote: “The technical definition of saint in its Christian historical context has little or no meaning whatsoever in the Confucian tradition”,[29]although Taylor also warned his reader that religious people or people who grew up in Christian traditions may always want to refer to Confucius as “a holy person of the Chinese tradition”, no matter what.

[1] Anonymous user, in Zeit, 2011, JUN 19th

[2] Fuson, 1992

[3]Taylor, 1691, p. 45

[4] Cranmer-Byng (1910), p. 56; Lyall (1925), p. 1 ff.; Brown (1972), p. 84; Pound (1928), p. 229; Starr (1930), p. 37; Johnston (1935), p. 207; Lin (1938), pp. 154, 179; Collis (1948), pp. 11 ff.; Herbert (1950), p. 26; Creel (1951), pp. 67, 86, 91, 97, Liu (1955), p. 92, etc.

[5] Pfister, 2003, On Translation and Its Problems, p. 734

[6] Albrecht, 1985, p. xi

[7] Legge, 1867, p. 99

[8] Ibid., p. 115

[9] Giles, 1926, p. 1

[10] Ibid., p. 9

[11] Creel, 1932, p. 57

[12] Giles, 1926, p. 1

[13] Lette, 1877, p. 4

[14] Brown, 1927, p. 152

[15] see Zhang, 2002

[16] Zhang, 2002, p. 3

[17] In Lai, 2008, p. 101

[18] see Chan, 1979, p. 101

[19] Legge, 1877, A Paper Read Before the Missionary Conference inShanghai

[20] Legge, 1893, pp. 114-115

[21] Giles, 1925, p. 21

[22] Ibid., 67-68

[23] Ibid., p. 67

[24] Larrymore, 2000, p. 190

[25] Giles, 1926, p. 73

[26] Loomis, 1867, p. 394

[27] Payne, 1958, p. 75

[28] Tu, 1987, p. 73

[29]Taylor, 1990, p. 47