Shengren – Chapter 4.6 – Germany said: Holy Confucius!

Gottes ist der Orient! Gottes ist der Occident! [The Orient is God's! The Occident is God's!]

– Goethe, West-östlicher Divan

If you cannot own it – destroy it; if you cannot control it – sabotage it. The German Christian Schulz did not translate The Analects, but he wrote about the teachings and wisdom of Confucius. In 1794 in his Aphorismen, oder Sentenzen des Konfuz. Enthaltend Lehren der Weisheit, Ermunterungen zur Tugend, und Trostgründe für Leidende, wie auch mancherley Erfahrungen und gute Grundsätze, Schulz estimated that Confucius – although preceding Jesus Christ by roughly 500 years – had borrowed heavily from Christianity.[1] Likewise, Wilhelm Schott, the first German translator of the Lun Yu from the Chinese with his Werke des tschinesischen Weisen KUNG-FU-DSU und seiner Schüler (1826), proudly subtitled “aus der Ursprache ins Deutsche übersetzt” [from the protolanguage translated into German] (1826): Although is “Kung-Fu-DSU” was ein Weiser, his shengren was only a Staatsmann (statesman) or heiliger Mann[2] (a holy man) while his junzi became the Achtungswerther Mann[3] (a remarkable/noble man). Wilhelm Schott, although he called the shengren holy men, his Confucius remained a “Weiser”. Unfortunately, his work has been largely discredited, and his person was distrusted. Schott never became influential. Although his Lun Yu translation was the first German translation from the Chinese, Schott was criticized for being an autodidact. An autodidact was someone who had acquired knowledge about his subject by self-study. That was hardly a crime for any German thinker, and if dilettantism really had been the true and sole reason of the German academia rejecting Schott’s life-work, the Germans had all the reason to reject the works of Georg Hegel, the world philosopher, who had never been outside Germany. After all, it had always been the defining characteristics of philosophy to be remote of actual experience and full of reason, logic and rationality instead. As explained earlier, the German orientalists were the class of German thinkers that were expected to work re-creative, exact and particular. They were not expected – like the philosophers – to produce works of creative, abstract and universal content. Schott’s fellow orientalists were accustomed to exactness and professionalism of the highest standards in Sanskrit and Semitic language studies, and Schott clearly did not show sufficient learning in Chinese studies. He was not one of them. Wilhelm Lauterbach, under the pseudonym “Heinrich Julius von Klaproth” defamed Dr. Wilhelm Schott’s vergebliche Űbersetzung der Werke des Confuzius aus der Ursprache, eine literarische Betrügerei (1828) in which he accused Schott of “humbuggery and deception”.[4] This all meant that the first German translation of the Lun Yu was humbug and a deceit. Not a good start for sinology, but things only got worse.

After Wilhelm Schott came Wilhelm Grube. He only translated parts of the Lun Yu. In his Geschichte der chinesischen Litteratur (1902), he called Confucius a Philosoph, and the sages Yao and Shun Höchstheilige, Höchstwahrhaftige, or Herrscherideale (highest holymen, highest veritable, or ruler’s ideal) – all clearly forms of pleonasm, the use of more words than is required to translate sheng. For comparison: by the time of Grube’s publication James Legge (1861), A. W. Loomis (1867) H. M. Watters (1879), John MacGowan (1889), Herbert Giles (1898), even Oscar Wilde (1890) and Arthur Smith (1900),[5] all had used “sage” to describe and define Confucius and other Chinese shengren. Two people, German and Anglo-Saxon, two interpretations of Confucianism: Sages was gentle and pleasant to the ear; Höchstheilige, Höchstwahrhaftige, and Herrscherideale sounded attention-getting, pompous, and silly.

The Chinese scholar in Berlin, Wang Ching-Dao, could have helped the Germans to enlighten German orientalism about sages and sagehood. But he did not, instead he wrote an English book that was later published in Shanghai: Confucius and New China, Confucius’ Idea of the State and its Relation to the Constitutional Government (1912), which was political science in nature and not a direct translation of the Lun Yu. Wang did not mention the shengren at all, one time he even called the shi (master) a “sage”,[6] although elsewhere he called Confucius a “politician”[7] and somewhere, correctly: “sage”.[8]

Then came the German Protestant and sinologist Richard Wilhelm, the James Legge of Germany. Religion meant everything to Wilhelm, and, accordingly, he sprinkled his translation with the most outrageous biblical terminology.[9] Wilhelm Schott and Wilhelm Grube saw Heilige everywhere, but Richard Wilhelm blew the story of Holy Confucius into the bullhorn. Holy and Confucius are contradictory terms, holy Confucius an oxymoron – like dark light or Christian atheist. Willhelm made the Lun Yu read like the Book of Revelation and apparently he was successful in marketing his translations and becoming Germany’s greatest sinologist during his lifetime. According to Wilhelm, Confucius saw God in Heaven, and his people sent their prayers to Him. Since Wilhelm was as influential in the German speaking world as Legge was in the English speaking one, a comparison seemed appropriate: Here is what both men made of the verse 7:22 in the Lun Yu: 子曰:“天生德於予:

James Legge:

The Master said: Heaven produced the virtue that is in me.[10]

Richard Wilhelm:

Der Meister sprach: “Gott hat den Geist in mir gezeugt.[11]

Wilhelm translated 天tian as “Gott” (God) and 德de as “Geist” ([Holy] Spirit). While the Chinese-English and the Chinese-German communication may work, the German-English communication broke down. There was no plausible explanation why Legge’s “Heaven” should be back-translated as German “Gott” and “virtue” as “Geist”. Adding a third language in cross-translations really was a third dimension: Legge and Wilhelm could both be right when translating from the Chinese, but not if translating from each other. The diagram below shows how shengren translated in German as “Heiliger” (Wilhelm) and English (Legge) as “sage”; however, if cross-checked with a standard German-English/English-German dictionaries, a “Heiliger” was a “saint”, and a “sage” was a “Weiser”:

Shengren translated in German as "Heiliger" (Wilhelm) and English (Legge) as "sage"; however, if cross-checked with a standard German-English/English-German dictionaries, a "Heiliger" was a "saint", and a "sage" was a "Weiser".

Chinese – English: yes, why not

Chinese – German: yes, why not

German – English: broken

Richard Wilhelm was a nutcase and a genius. According to him, Confucius prayed to Gods and earthly spirits: “Wir beten zu euch, ihr Götter oben und ihr Erdgeister unten. Der Meister sprach: Ich habe lange schon gebetet”.[12] And this translation of certain Confucian key terminology became a classic that filled German dictionaries ever since:

Meister Kung sprach: “Der Edle hat eine (heilige) Scheu vor dreierlei: Er steht in Scheu vor dem Willen Gottes, er steht in Scheu vor großen Männer, er steht in Scheu vor den Worten der Heiligen (der Vorzeit). Der Gemeine kennt den Willen Gottes nicht und scheut sich nicht vor ihm, er ist frech gegen große Männer und verspottet die Worte der Heiligen.”[13] [Master Kung said: “The noble man has a (divine/holy) timidness for three things: He stands in awe of God’s will, he stands in awe of great men, he stands in awe before the words of the saints (of the past). The low man does not know the will of God and is not afraid of it, he is bold to great men and mocks the words of the saints.]

In the original, there was no “God”, “will of God”, “saints” or “holiness”. Wilhelm invented those. In his first edition of Kungfutse – Gespräche in 1914, he translated sheng(ren) as “Gott”, “einer der dem Volke reiche Gnade spendend” (one by whom given rich grace was given to the people), “göttlich” (godlike, divine) “zu einem Gott inspiriert mit göttlicher Autorität und Kraft des Geistes” (one who was inspired to be a God with divine authority and power of the mind), or “wenn der Himmel ihm Gelegenheit gibt, wird er sich als Genie beweisen” (if Heaven grant him with the opportunity he will prove himself a genius).[14] Here was another example of Wilhelm’s extreme carelessness; first the German sinologist invented the title “god” for Yao and Shun, marveled at his own creation, and in the next sentence expressed contempt for it by suggesting how worrisome it was that the Chinese worship their leaders as gods:

Die Heroen der Vergangenheit, die Schöpfer der chinesischen Kultur, die Kung vor Augen stehen, sind sieben an der Zahl: Gott Yau (Erhaben), Gott Schun (Gütig), der Grosse Yu, der Vollkommene Tang, ferner die drei Begründer der Dschou-dynastie: König Wen und dessen zwei Söhne König Wu und der Fürst von Dschou. […] Schon dass Yau und Schun den Titel „Gott“ tragen – denn die gewöhnliche Stellung des Wortes vor dem Namen ausgeschlossen – macht bedenklich. [The heroes of the past, the creators of Chinese culture, those who Confucius faces eyes with, the God Yau (the Elevated), the God Shun (the Compassionated), the Great Yu, the Perfect Tang, also the three founders of the Chou dynasty: King Wen and his two sons King Wu and the Duke of Chou. {…} The mere thought that Yau and shun carry the title “God” – the more so as that word precedes the names and is not, as usual, suffixed – makes {one feel} uneasy.]

For the second edition of his book in 1925, Richard Wilhelm decided that shengren were no longer “Götter” (gods), but true “Heilige” (holy men, saints).[15] Shortly before he died, he changed his translation again, not for the better though: A post-mortem edition Die Philosophie Chinas (1974) – translated sheng(ren): Gottmenschen (god-men), Genies (geniuses), and Heiligen der Vorzeit (holy men from time immemorial).[16] There was no doubt that Wilhelm throughout his life thought of the Confucian Classics as primordial myth, and the ancient sages as primordial gods, not as a living tradition of sages and sagehood in China.

In between Wilhelm’s publications came Hans Haas with his Konfuzius in Worten aus seinem eigenen Mund (1920) and Lao-tsze und Konfuzius (1920). Haas objected to calling Confucius a philosopher because he was not a philosopher – at least “not in the European sense” of that word;[17] only on one occasion Haas called the sage a Morallehrer (teacher of morals).[18] As to shengren: Haas unfortunately did not make a clear-cut distinction between shengren and junzi; both could be der Edle, or Heilige,[19] or even objectified sheng as der edle Pfad or das Wesen der Edlen. From his translation “Heilige” it could be seen that he fully supported Richard Wilhelm’s views on China as a holy place. However, Haas objected to that holiness being a European holiness. Despite using biblical vocabulary on most occasions, Haas accused the Scottish James Legge and “most other Europeans” of misinterpreting Confucius. That was because Legge, although himself a missionary, had also tried before to compare Confucianism to the likings of Christianity. Haas was probably conferring to Legge’s 1877 paper Confucianism in Relation to Christianity which he read before the Missionary Conference in Shanghai and in which the Scot made some comments on the similarities between Christian beliefs and Confucius’ teachings. Haas accusation was unfounded. Legge’s massive translations The Chinese Classics (1893) clearly steered away from any biblical reading, while on the contrary the German elite lead by the pen and ink of Gützlaff, Wilhelm, and Haas continued the old argument that Confucius and his disciples – like all good Christians – prayed to God or maybe not, but prayed. The Germans never discussed sages and sagehood in China, because they could not conceive it. Instead they discussed the existence of things like God and saints in the Chinese Classics that were not there. Haas translated a passage of the Lun Yu and then explained his ideas as follows:

Durch das Gebet wenden wir uns an die himmlischen Geister droben und an die Erdgeister hinieden. Darauf Konfuzius: Dass ich gebetet, ist lange. Legge und nach ihm die meisten europäischen Ausleger gehen wohl fehl, wenn ihnen diese, freilich nicht weniger als eindeutigen, Worte als des Konfuzius eigene Erklärung gelten wollen, dass er wirklich gebetet […][20] [Through prayer, we turn to the heavenly spirits up there and below to the earthly spirits. Thereupon Confucius said: That I have prayed, is long. {James} Legge and after him most Europeans may be wrong when they truly believe that Confucius had explained himself to be praying {to God} based on that vague and ambiguous wording of his.]

The missionary and China-expert Franz Xaver Biallas, who lived in Peking during the publication of his book Konfuzius und Sein Kult (1928) [Confucius and his Cult], started his German translation of The Analects with the promise of a new departure: “Bei Űbersetzung der chinesischen Texte und Inschriften ist vor allem die wortgetreue Wiedergabe des Sinnes versucht worden”[21] [In this translation of the Chinese text and inscription emphasize has been given to the verbatim reproduction of the meaning.] A wortgetreue Wiedergabe is a translation verbatim. Biallas called Confucianism “einen Kult” (cult) and Confucius “den Alten” (the Old one).[22] His verbatim translations of shengren and junzi were here:

Der Himmel hatte einst der Welt die ‘Heiligen’ geschenkt, die von Natur alles waren, was die Vollendung eines Gliedes der Gesellschaft ausmacht. Wer das Ideal durch eignes Streben erreicht, der ist dem ‚Heiligen‘ am nächsten, er ist der Adelige, der ‚Edle‘ Gün-dsi. [Heaven once had given the saints to the world who by nature had all those qualities that constitute the perfection that could ever be achieved by a member of society. Who ever achieved that ideal through his own deeds is close to ‘holiness’, he is the nobleman, the noble junzi.]

Franz X. Biallas’s promise of “verbatim translation” was not a new departure nor a confession (of past misinterpretations) but a threat: The German sinologist stubbornly continued the German tradition of translating shengren as “Heilige” with ever greater compassion and linguistic pomp. So, they did it again: the German missionaries Biallas, Gützlaff, Schott, Wilhelm, Grube, Conrady and Haas, translated sheng(ren) as Heilige, as if jointly opposing the “sage”-camp led by the English Legge, MacGowan, Smith, Soothill, and Giles. Biallas for his part at least realized the dichotomy between English and French “sage”-translation on the one side, and German “Heilige”-translations on the other. The idea that the Germany had great difficulties in understanding China, sages and sagehood, did not come to him. In an effort of self-defense, Biallas tried to trivialize the sheng(ren)-problematic as philological trifle:

Das chinesische Wort scheng [sic] wird gewöhnlich in europäischen Sprachen mit “heilig, Heiligkeit” wiedergegeben, wie auch der christliche Begriff „heilig“ im Chinesischen von Missionaren mit scheng übersetzt wird. Es ist überflüssig zu sagen, dass der Inhalt des chinesischen und christlichen Begriffen sich natürlich nicht deckt […] Es wird noch etwas dauern, bis die lexikalisch-philologische Sinologie soweit gekommen [ist], in etwa die chinesischen Begriffe richtig zu bestimmen, und ihre Wortformen genau wiederzugeben.[23]. [The Chinese word scheng is usually translated as “holy, holiness” in European languages, just as the concept of “holy/sacred” is translated as scheng. Needless to say that the meanings of the Chinese and Christian terms are not the same […] It will take some time for the lexical and philological sinology to correctly determine the terminology in order to find the exact wordings.]

Biallas’ assessment that scheng (now sheng, according to pin yin) was usually translated as “heilig, Heiligkeit” in Europe was untrue, at least in the case of translating the sheng in Confucius’ The Analects. While Prospero Intorcetta indeed translated “saint” and “state of saint”,[24] Schneider “Saint Heros”,[25] William Gowan “saints” and “state of saint”,[26] Randal Taylor “saints”,[27] M. G. Pauthier “Un saint”,[28] and Leonard Lyall “Holiness” and “holy men”;[29] most other (non-German) translators of The Analects translated sheng(ren) as “sage”, certainly after Legge’s publication of The Chinese Classics (1861-1872). That included Loomis, Watters, MacGowan, Wilde, Giles, Smith, Wang, and Soothill until 1925, and Brown, Pound, Starr, Hsü, Bernard, Johnston, Hsieh and dozens more after 1925 (see table). One of the main reasons for the sheng-sage formula was: Confucius and the sages were associated with sagacity/sageness, a term that had come to the English and French via Latin language: sapientia [as in Priscorum Sapientum, the Ancient Sage] (wisdom), therefore it was opportune and suitable to continue the Latin tradition. By the year of Biallas translation, 1928, the “correct terminology” had already been determined and the “exact wording” for sheng(ren) had been found: the sage.

On the other hand, Biallas was right in that missionary work in China had led to the philological reality that now the Chinese themselves (after dictionaries had been written and translations of the Bible had been initiated with the help of the European missionaries) translated the biblical holy and sacred as 圣sheng (or 神圣shen-sheng). For all Franz Xaver Biallas knew, Germany was the most civilized nation of Europe, all Germans used biblical terminology, and China had been accommodating in lending its most precious Confucian vocabulary to Western Christianity (see section: East-Asia Evangelized). Biallas did not know of sage cultures; he probably thought he – like the other sinologists – did China a favor to Christianize it. He did not rule out a better translation for sheng(ren) as the biblical Heilige in the future; yet for now the sheng(ren) were Heilige in Europe, and Heilige were sheng(ren) in China. Meanwhile, more English translators continued to translate shengren as “sage”; because a sage was a sage and not a saint. For the time being, the European orientalists did not know who, the German speaking world or the English-speaking world, would be victorious in naming Chinese sages. They all had agreed and decided that China was not to keep the shengren, for reasons of dominance and power:

Eine Wissenschaft gehört einem Volke wahrhaft an, wenn sie in seiner eigenen Sprache geschrieben ist, und dies ist bei der Philosophie am notwendigsten zu fordern.[30] [A science belongs truly to its people only if it is written in that people’s language, and this demand is absolutely necessary in the case of philosophy.

 On an intellectual level, according to Hegel at least, Chinese thinkers were granted a place in world history as moral philosophers, at best. Most Europeans silently agreed. On a spiritual level, the German and English conceptions of shengren were still competing; they could not be both right (but both wrong, of course): Sages did not correspond to Heiligeand vice versa – the last word in sinology was not yet spoken.

[1] Schulz, 1794

[2] Schott, 1826, pp. 55, 69

[3] Ibid., pp. 41, 44

[4] Lauterbach, 1828

[5] Legge, 1861, pp. 42, 48, 50, 59, 133; Loomis, 1867, pp. 56, 60, 61, 73, 146 ff.; Watters, 1879, pp. vii ff.; MacGowan, 1889, pp. 18, 74, 91, 201; Wilde, 1890, pp. 3, 17, 20; Giles, 1898, pp. 398-401; Smith, 1900, pp. 254, 255, 267, 309, 311

[6] Wang, 1912, p. 31

[7] Ibid., p. 22

[8] Ibid., p. 6, 19

[9] see Breymayer, 1999

[10] Legge, 1893, 7.22

[11] Wilhelm, 1914, 7.22

[12] Ibid., 7.14

[13] Ibid., 16.8

[14] Wilhelm, 1914, pp. 60, 88, 114

[15] Wilhelm, 1925, p. 165

[16] Wilhelm, 1974, pp. 80, 87, 98, 167

[17] Haas, 1920, p. 64

[18] Ibid, p. 30

[19] Ibid., p. 48

[20] Ibid., p. 1920, p. 21

[21] Biallas, 1928

[22] Ibid., p. 11 ff.

[23] Biallas, 1928, p. 120

[24] Intorcetta, 1691, pp. 27, 88

[25] in Diogenes Laertius, 1761, p. 109

[26] Gowan, 1835, pp. 27, 88

[27]Taylor, 1691, p. 30, 41, 42, 118

[28] Pauthier, 1858, pp. 134, 138, 146

[29] Lyall, 1925, pp. 26, 31, 30, 79

[30] Hegel, 1952, p. 138