Shengren – Chapter 4.8 – Confucius, Non-Religious and Non-Philosophical

The inference is that sage and saint are separate categories in terms of a typology of religious functionaries; the saint is a religious figure, the sage perhaps more of a wise man who may even preclude the question of religious dimension. We know already that the sage is a figure of extraordinary importance to the Confucian tradition.[1]

– Rodney L. Taylor, The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism

Most English authors, if they were able to read Chinese, would realize soon that there was no “Holy Men”, “gods”, “religions” or word for “philosophy” in the classical Chinese canon. Some got so excited about it, that they translated exactly what they believed Confucius had not said right back into the text, like the Jesuit Brian Brown in his The Story of Confucius (1927):

Confucius remarked: There are men who seek for some abstruse meaning in religion and philosophy, and live a life singular in order that they may leave a name to posterity. This is what I never do.[2]

In the original passage of the Lun Yu, Confucian talked about “supernatural things”, not “religion and philosophy”. But now that Brown had made Confucius say that he objected to “abstruse meaning in religion”, he could use Confucius to Christianity’s end, because the true religion was not abstruse at all: “For God in giving life to all created things is surely bountiful to them according to their qualities. Hence the tree that is full of Life. He (God) fosters and sustains, while that which is ready to fall He cuts off and destroys”,[3] and “It is only the man with the most perfect divine moral nature […]. He is the equal of God”.[4]

The co-founder of the Chinese Romanization system ‘Wade-Giles’, Herbert A. Giles’s, in his A Chinese Bibliographic Dictionary (1898) introduced Confucius “the Philosopher K’ung”.[5] It was unknown from where (which word) Giles had translated the word “philosopher”; a Philosopher (ch: 哲学家zhexue jia) was nowhere to be found in the Confucian Canon. It was reasonable to conclude that Giles invented Confucius the philosopher as a nod to Western philosophers. He needed to present the religious aspect of Confucianism as well: “He [Confucius] may indeed be pronounced the Divinest of men”, to please his readership. After all that was done, Giles then correctly referred to Confucius as “sage”, and listed other Chinese titles as well, in some of which the character sheng was also present.

Various titles have at various times been posthumously bestowed upon Confucius. The chief oft these are 宣圣尼父 (A.D. 640), 太师 (666), 文宣王 (739), 大成至圣 (1308), and 至圣先师孔子 (1530).[6]

The evidences for shengren being “sages”, and not “philosophers” or “saints” were overwhelming, but never impressed those orientalists with a Christian mission, and certainly – from the many data gathered – had no great impact on philosophers. The American sinologist Heerlee Glessner Creel carefully suggested, in 1932, that Confucius might have been, yes, agnostic. Even the Sinophobe Arthur H. Smith – although he did not mention shengren in his Chinese Characteristics (1900) – called Confucius on several occasion “the sage”.[7] And in his 1922 edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings wrote that “the sage rather than the saint was paradigmatic of Chinese religious traditions”.[8]

[1]Taylor, 1990

[2] Brown, 1927, p. 148

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 1927, pp. 158, 169-170

[5] Giles, 1898

[6] Giles, 1898, p. 401

[7] Smith, 1900, pp. 254, 255, 267, 309, 311

[8] Hastings, 1922, Vol. II, p. 51