Shengren – Chapter 4.3 – Shengren Translations in The Analects from 1649 to 2009

“The quiet death of the unknown shengren is a great cultural loss”

In his book Orientalism (1976), Edward Said made some general remarks on man’s tendency to always fall back on one’s own culture when trying to explain another’s. Such carelessness may have caused the exodus of hundreds of thousands unique names and concepts already, and only our shengren and junzi hang on bare threads still for the sole reason that they are too obvious and important to be ignored and forgotten that easily. If only Western people knew about the correct Chinese names. Because as long as they don’t, the quiet death of the unknown shengren is becoming a sad reality:

[…] when a human being confronts at close quarters something relatively unknown and threatening and previously distant […] one has recourse not only to what in one’s previous experience the novelty resembles but also to what one has read about it. [… ] precisely because of this human tendency to fall back on a text when the uncertainties of travel in strange parts seem to threaten one’s equanimity.[1]

When reading through the following list, one should keep in mind that most of those authors re-named the shengren into philosophers, saints, holy men, etc. the minute they encountered it. The list includes the translations or, if no direct translation was given, the paraphrasing of shengren by Author/Year that have been discovered during the study of the major translations of The Analects from 1649 to 2009. A more detailed table can be found in the appendices. Usually, if an author had not given a translation of sheng(ren), then the name for Confucius is stated instead. If an author had presented many translations for sheng(ren), then the most common or representative one has been picked. No translation given here has any statistical value, only historical and philological importance. Comparative studies are not so much an exact science as they are concerned with some striking circumstances:

The study included the major Latin, English and German language sheng(ren)-translations (and one or two French and Dutch ones) of Confucius’ 论语Lun Yu, also known as The Analects. The word sheng(ren) appeared exactly 8 times in 6 paragraphs of the original Chinese text, and thus invited concise and exact comparison. In addition to the translation of sheng(ren), the study also compares the given title for Confucius, and the translation of jun(zi) and is attached to this book as appendix. For the sources’ translation of sheng(ren) and junzi, I was mainly conferring to the passages 6.30; 7.26; 7.34; 9.6; 16.8; 19.12 of The Analects. Sheng(ren) appeared eight times in six paragraphs altogether. The exact passage-numbers may vary in different versions. If no direct translation for sheng(ren) [and jun(zi)] had been given, for example if the translator only paraphrased or described, other text passages have been taken into consideration as well. Page numbers were stated accordingly (see appendix).

For the authors’ title for “Confucius”, I am mainly conferring to either the title of the book, the chapter heading, or the author’s main idea about Confucius in the introductory paragraphs respectively. All the works listed here I reviewed in the original. The German books are marked: the most common German translation of sheng(ren) were “Philosophen” (Roetz, 1994), “Genie” (1914), “Edler” (Haas, 1920), “Berufener” [appointee] (Simson, 2000), “Heiliger” (Wilhelm, 1974; Jaspers, 1957, 1964, 1971; von Wedemeyer, 1986), “Kulturheroe” (Lee, 2008), “Gottmensch” (Wilhelm, 1974), and “heiliger Staatsmann” (Schott, 1826). The German Karl-Heinz Pohl (1999) published in English, thus translated sheng(ren) as sages, holy sages, or model-philosophers. The vast majority of English language translations featured sheng(ren) as “sages”, and by that called all existing German translations into question.

No single theory that was known to the author could entirely explain the varieties and eccentricities of shengren translations found in those books, as all authors had their own ideas and impressions. Although the list embraces 360 years of sheng(ren)-translation history, nevertheless it offers one very consistent element: early one, Confucius had been called a “philosopher” (in most languages), and the shengren had been fairly regularly translated “sage” in Latin, French and English, but not so in German language In order to do justice to the complexities of histories and cultures involved, over a dozen sections following this table were dedicated each to one important instance, regularity, or theme discovered during this research. For example, one section described the perceived competition between the most common German and English (e. g. Richard Wilhelm vs. James Legge) shengren-translation; and another section analyzed the utopian aspect of shengren, etc.

The idea behind most of the given translation, the impact as well as the history of the various European names for Confucius and the shengren will be partly discussed in the sections following the list:

Translation for sheng(ren)


Philosopher (Confucius) Bernhardo Varenio (1649)
Philosopher; le grand maistre, un Sage Roy des Lettres, Magno, Magistro, Illustri Literatum Regi (Confucius) Melchisedec Thevenot (1669)
Philosopher (Confucius), onimentisque Priscorum Sapientum (the ancient sage) Ludovico Magno, et. al. (1687)
Saints, the Perfection, Philosophers Randal Taylor (1691)
Philosophers, The First Perfection, The State of the Saint Prospero Intorcetta et. al. (1691)
Saint Héros, les Sages Laertius Diogenes (1761)
Staatsmann (statesman), heiliger Mann (holy man) Wilhelm Schott (1826)
Philosophers, The first Perfection, the State of the Saint William Gowan (1835, 1889)
Un saint M. G. Pauthier (1858)
Sages James Legge (1861-1872, 1877, 1893)
Sages A. W. Loomis (1867)
Sages T. Watters (1879)
Sages Oscar Wilde (1890)
Sages, legendary beings, sentient heroes, the great sages Herbert A. Giles (1898, 1926)
Ideal eines Mannes von höchster Bildung und vollendeten Umgangsformen, Herrscherideale (Yao and Shun), vorbildliche Person, Höchstheilige im Reiche, Höchstwahrhaftige Wilhelm Grube (1902)
A divine man, supernatural beings, philosopher, divine prophet, a Prophet, so richly has he been endowed by God L. Cranmer-Byng & S. A. Kapadia (1910)
Sage Wang Ching-Dao (1912)
Sages, the being inspired E. Soothill (1913, 1937)
Die Heiligen, Gott, einer der dem Volke reiche Gnade spendend, Göttlich, zu einem Gott inspiriert mit göttlicher Autorität und Kraft des Geistes, Genie, wenn der Himmel im Gelegenheit gibt, wird er sich als Genie beweisen, die großen Männer, Ein Gottmensch, Genie, die Heiligen (der Vorzeit) Richard Wilhelm (1914, 1920, 1974)
Die Heiligen, der Edle, Wesen der Edlen (he does not make the distinction between shengren and junzi) Hans Haas (1920)
Holiness, holy man, the holy Leonard A. Lyall (1925)
Sages, the man with the most perfect divine moral nature, He is the equal of God Brian Brown (1927)
Sage, sage man Ezra Pound (1928, 1970)
Die Heiligen Franz Xaver Biallas (1928)
The sage Frederick Starr (1930)
Holy men of antiquity

Philosopher (Confucius)

George H. & Annina Danton (1931)
Ancient sages, social geniuses, holy or sainted men Leonard Shihlien Hsü (1932)
Sage (Confucius) Herrlee Glessner Creel (1932)
Les Sages, les Saints, Saints par nature Henri S. J. Bernard (1935)
The sage Reginald F. Johnston (1935)
The sage (Confucius) Tehyi Hsieh (1936)
The sage, the true man, true manhood, saint Lin Yutang (1938)
Sage (Confucius) Stephen C. Y. Pan (1938)
The great Chinese sage (Confucius) Carl Crow (1938)
Philosoph, Begründer einer auf Sittenlehre gegründete Gotteslehre (Confucius) R. Walther Darré (1944)
The First Holy One (Confucius), Divine sage Maurice Collis (1948)
Sage Edward Herbert (1950)
Sages and philosophers Leo Sherley-Price (1951)
Ein Heiliger, große Männer Hans O. H. Stange (1953)
Sage, democratic thinker, founder of Ju philosophy (Confucius), Sage-kings Liu Wu-Chi (1955)
Philosoph (Confucius), Heilige, Heilige und Weise, (calls Taoist shengren: Asketen, Beschwörer, Alchemisten, Lebensverlängerer, Zauberer und Gaukler) Karl Jaspers (1957, 1964, 1971)
Sage Chai Ch’u (1965)
The highest state of magical potency Herbert Fingarette (1972)
The Sage, the highest sage Chen Lifu (1972)
Sagehood Lau Dim-cheuk (1979)
Sheng, sage, the Confucian sage, the highest form of an authentic human being, sagehood Tu Weiming (1979, 1987, 1988)
Sages Sarah Allan (1981)
Philosoph (but not a Western philosopher), Heiliger (but not a Western holy man) Eugen Feifel (1982)
Weiser von großer Heiligkeit, wahrlich Weisen, vollkommener Weiser, Weiser Ernst Schwarz (1985)
Heilige Inge Von Wedemeyer (1986)
Philosoph (Confucius) Roger Goepper (1988)
Sages, sheng (sage), sheng (saint) Rodney L. Taylor (1990)
Heilige, Weise Wei Yuqing (1993)
Die grossen Denker, Philosophen, Genius, Heiliger Heiner Roetz (1994)
Sageliness, sages Liu Shu-hsien (1998)
Sheng, sage, holy sages, model-philosopher Karl-Heinz Pohl (1999)
Sages S. Shankman & S. Durrant (2000)
Shengren, Weiser Gregor Paul (2001)
Sages (Shengren) Guo Xuezhi (2002)
Philosophers Zhang Dainian (2002)
Die Berufenen Wojciech Jan Simson (2002)
Confucian sage, sage Antonio S. Cua, (2003)
Sage king, sage Karyn L. Lai (2008)
Shengren, Kulturheroen, halblegendäre Könige der früheren Dynastien ähnlich wie Philosophenkönige Lee Eun-Jeung (2008)
Sheng, sagacity, god-like human beings Wen Haiming (2009)
The Sage (sheng) Stephen C. Angle (2009)

The following sections will discuss particularities of the study’s findings, and provide some information about the authors, their works and individual translations of the word shengren.

[1] Said, 1979, p. 93