Shengren – Chapter 4 – The Sheng(ren) in The Analects

名不正,則言不順;言不順,則事不成. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.[1]

– Confucius, The Analects

The Chinese term 聖sheng (simplified: 圣) appeared 260 times in 156 paragraphs of the Huainanzi, 48/18 in Mengzi, 132/62 in the Chun Qiu Fan Lu, 157/94 in Xunzi 33/27 in Laozi, 149/77 in Zhuangzi, 81/22 in the He Guang Zi, 40/22 in the Yi Qing, 8/6 in the Lun Yu, and 185/134 in the Shiji etc. – All texts can be found at the Chinese Text Project.[2]

The Importance of Sheng(ren) in the Chinese Classics

Source Text

Paragraphs/number of sheng (圣)

Huainanzi – The Masters of Huainan淮南子 (2nd century BC) [Confucianism and Taoism]


Mengzi 孟子 (4th – 2nd century BC) [Confucianism]


Chun Qiu Fan Lu 春秋繁露 (2nd century – 10 BC) by Dong Zhongshu, [Confucianism]


Xunzi 荀子(4th – 2nd century BC)


Laozi 道德经 (Daoism) (5th – 2nd century BC)


Zhuangzi 庄子 (Daoism) (4th –1st century BC)


He Guang Zi 鶡冠子(4th – 2nd century BC) (Daoism)


Yi Jing 易经 – Book of Changes (10th – 7th century BC) (Ancient Chinese Classic)


Shiji 史書 – Book of History (1st century BC)


The Analects 论语by Confucius (5th – 2nd century BC)


The all-time champion of English translations for sheng(ren) was “sage'”. Since聖sheng was one of the most important, if not the most important key concept in the history of Chinese thought, accordingly, when one read the Chinese Wikipedia entry on Confucius, the introductory paragraph mentioned 聖sheng exactly 4 times[3]. In striking contrast to the Chinese entry, the English, French, and German entries all called Confucius just that: a “philosopher”. There was no mentioning of the sheng or sage. That was no mere coincidence; as important as China was to the world, the term sheng(ren) seemed to be little known to the general Western readership, and certainly not to the self-declared “Chinese experts” that administered and edited those cultural-specific articles on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is mirrored everywhere in the web and is trusted by hundreds of millions “users” weekly (the full entries can be found in the appendix):

English Wikipedia: Chinese thinker and social philosopher

German Wikipedia:     chinesischer Philosoph

Chinese Wikipedia:     思想家和教育家聖,孔聖人,

French Wikipedia:       le premier «éducateur» de la Chine

The European public was unaware of the sheng(ren), the single most important concept in Chinese Classical thought. In contrast the public was well aware of buddhas and bodhisattvas in Indian traditions. So what exactly happened in India that did not repeat itself in China? The Sanskrit tradition has kept Buddhas, bodhisattvas and arhats etc. in European writings, but the Chinese tradition has lost shengren and junzi etc. in exchange for rather dull and overused European terminology. When that European terminology was translated back into Chinese, China essentially looked Westernized, and certainly felt Christianized: The Bible was sheng jing, the Holy Spirit was sheng ling, and Christmas was sheng dan jie, and so on. Yet, whatever false names the European thinker translated or invented, technically the original Chinese text never changed, with the awkward consequence that – especially in the case of Germany – not much what the German thinkers speculated is supported by textual evidence.

The German orientalists had a tendency to re-invent and re-write history as they pleased, the biblical scheme was always preferred; that is, if they could get away with it; in case of Richard Wilhelm, he got away with it for a hundred years. And although the academic community, especially those scholars who read English translations, knew that Wilhelm, Conrady, Gützlaff, Haas, Stange, Jaspers’s “Heiligen”-translation was poor and all-too-convenient, they never dared to drop it: “The word ‘Heiliger’ bears religious and spiritual connotations that a Sheng ren lacks,” noted Gregor Paul, in his Philosophie in Japan (1993).[4] Yet, the German tradition is overwhelmingly in favor of an obsolete and outdated messianic interpretation of the world that was never updated since the heydays of the Empire.

The philosophers needed no actual experience of the East to re-invent its history, and the orientalists only needed to translate certain key words incorrectly – or to misread the foreign culture purposely as a matter of great gesture and patronage – in order to achieve their goal to make China look like a second cradle for Christianity and Greek philosophy. The missionaries certainly promoted their own cause.[5] China and India were particularly vulnerable to heteronomy not only as prey for physical coercion and humiliation by the European imperialists and colonialists but ever more so very vulnerable to psychological and intellectual abuse by the orientalist writers. As the historian of German orientalism, Kamakshi Murti, lamented on the rotten logic of European expansionism: “Once the inferiority of a race had been essentialized and naturalized, the European scientists could indulge in the most unethical, outrageous behaviors.”[6]Among the Europeans, no matter of their inner-European disagreements, there had been a silent consensus: what happened in Asia, stayed in Asia. Only their books, sometimes written between the lines, revealed their intentions and desires. The Germans – as demonstrated in the following sections – were (not always but) often well aware that they systematically ruined the old names and concepts of China.

[1] Legge, 1891, 13.3

[2] Chinese Text Project, 2001-2010

[3] For all Wikipedia quotes: last date of access: 06/2010

[4] Paul, 1993, p. 201

[5] Engelfried & Jami, p. 63 ff.

[6] Murtie, 2001, p. 52/53