Shengren – Chapter 4.4 – Earliest Translations

Was die Einbürgerung betrifft, ist solche bey guter Gelegenheit nicht auszuschlagen, und den Sprachen so nützlich als den Völkern. Rom ist durch Aufnehmung der Fremden groß und mächtig geworden, Holland ist durch Zulauf der Leute, wie durch den Zufluss seiner Ströhme aufgeschwollen; die Englische Sprache hat Alles angenommen […] [As for naturalization, if there is a good opportunity for it then it should not be refused, as it benefits the language as well as the people. Rome became great and powerful because it took in the foreign, and Holland by the constant inflow of people like fresh water gushing it currents; the English language adopted it all.]

– Gottfried. W. Leibniz, Grundlegung der Philosophie[1]

One of the first Latin translations from a Chinese copy of Confucius’ 论语Lun Yu or “The Analects, that “piece of Morality”,[2] was published in Europe by the French Jesuits Prospero Intorcetta and Philippe Couplet under the title Confucius Sinarum philosophus in 1689 or 1690. Subsequent scholarship on Confucius made use of Intorcetta’s interpretation of Confucianism. An English translation of Intorcetta’s Latin The Analects was published by Randal Taylor in London 1691 under the long title The morals of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher who flourished above five hundred years before the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: being one of the most choicest pieces of learning remaining of that nation (1691). As with all discoveries, the first encounter with a foreign culture was crucial: the new and unknown had to be named and categorized. Although it had not been India that Christopher Columbus had discovered, yet the name “Indians” had been applied to the natives of Northern America ever since. A blunder of epic proportions. Columbus could not tell the difference, because Europe had no Indians. Intorcetta’s title “Confucius Sinarum philosophus already advertised Confucius as “philosopher”. One supposed that the (new) names Intorcetta and other missionaries gave to Chinese concepts would have a great and lasting impact on later European Chinese scholarship, and we would expect them to be positive and religious ones since the first Europeans were still impressed by Confucius’ moral teaching, even if it was deemed inferior:

Thus the Rules which he Prescribes [sic], and the Duties to which he Exhorts, are such, that there is no Person which does not immediately give his Approbation thereunto. There is nothing of Falsity in his Reasoning, nothing Extreme, none of those frightful Subtleties, which are observed in the Moral Treatises of most Modern Metaphysicians, that is to say, in Discourses where Simplicity, Clearness, and Perspicuity ought to prevail throughout, and make it self Sensible to Minds of the lowest Rank.[3]

Intorcetta believed that shangdi, the Emperor, had his temple erected in honor of God, for which the Chinese, to his mind, had no other name but universe or heaven:

It is here requisite, for the Reader’s Satisfaction, to declare, That the Chinese, from the beginning of their Origins to the times of Confucius, have not been Idolaters; that they have not had neither false Gods nor Images; that they have paid Adoration only to the Creator of the Vniverse [sic], whom they have always called Xam-ti […], the Sovereign Lord of the World.[4]

Intorcetta did not offer a transliteration for Chinese shengren and junzi, nor did he pay attention to their significance; instead he explained the general relationship of kings and the princes or “Illustrious personages”.[5] He realized that there was a way (Giantao) that lead to the first Perfection, and thereafter the highest perfection. His first interpretation of shengren was not a person but an abstract: highest perfection or the “State of the Saint”:

[…] he (a person with his Heart in good posture, govern himself according to the Lights of Reasons and the Rules of Virtue) will Infallibly [sic] arrive at the highest Virtue. This last State, saith Cusu, this State of the Wise is called Giantao that is to say, The Road and the Reason of Man, or rather, the way which leads to the Origin of the first Perfection. And the State of the Saint.[6]

From Intorcetta and Taylor’s translation it could be seen that “Lights of Reasons” was a “philosophical aspect of Confucius”, while “Rules of Virtue” was a religious one. The first impression of Confucius was a philosopher and saint.[7]

In 1835, the New Yorker publisher William Gowan re-published The Morals of Confucius based on Intorcetta’s Confucius Sinarum philosophus (1690); and that was how Intorcetta was usually read: in English Gowan’s voice, since hardly anyone could read Latin any more. The translation could be found in The Phenix – A Collection of Old and Rare Fragments (1835). Faithful to the 1691 fragment, Confucius was called a “Chinese Philosopher” and “The Illustrious King of the Learned”, while the translation of shengren and junzi (from Chinese into Latin into English) remained ambiguous: “The State of the Saint”, “The first Perfection”, “The perfect Man”, “the Good Man”, or just “the Philosophers”.[8] For now, Greco-philosophical and Judaic-biblical names had sufficed to describe Confucianism just the way the Jesuits and Protestants had imagined and envisioned it. About the earliest idea of (Confucian) sagehood, Intorcetta and Gowan translated the concept of zhong yong as “Mediocrity”, which can be understood as “Mediocrity principle”, after Copernicus. It was the notion that humans had no greater importance once the greater order of things was taken into consideration. Thus Intorcetta and Gowan: “the perfect Man always keeps a just Mean”.[9]

[1] Leibniz, 1677, p. 542

[2] Ibid., p. 7

[3] Intorcetta, 1690, p. 6

[4] Ibid., p. 8

[5] Ibid., p. 32-37

[6] Ibid., p. 88

[7] Ibid., p. 1 ff, 27, 88, 110

[8] see Gowan, 1835

[9] Ibid., p. 68