Shengren – Summary and Conclusion


Germany has no concept for sages and sagehood, and it has no sage culture. The main reasons discussed in the previous chapters are summarized as following:

  • Greek antiquity and Christianity: Sages and sagehood in the lands that are today’s Germany had been removed from their central role in Ancient Greece and pushed to the fringes of society during the rise of Christianity. Today, sageness has been left to the realms of the un-scientific and romantic, to fairy tales, folk legends, and charlatanry. In many Asian societies however, sage culture was a highly developed, living culture.
  • Stubbornness: A Teutonic refusal to acknowledge sages and sagehood in Asian culture; in particular a denial about the Chinese concept of sheng(ren). Chinese sages were called Philosophen or biblical Heilige (saints) or other familiar names. Nothing new could be learned from this.
  • Rationalism and Soullessness: An over-reliance of German society on philosophers and philosophy (institutionalization of Philosophy) that coincidences with the total rationalization and scientification of the civil society and all branches of learning that led to material wealth but spiritual emptiness or “soullessness”. An emptiness that culminated into the hatred of everything non-German, the worship of totalities, and the Holocaust.
  • The Oriental Other: The rage of the materialist against the moralist, as essentialized by German soul-searching, its Faustian nature, and the longing for Eastern spirituality; but the fear to become “Oriental” (e. g. Sinophobia).
  • Cultural Selection: German orientalists (Schott, Grube, Wilhelm, Haas, etc.) created their own version of China which intentionally diverged from the Anglo-Saxon version of China, in order to show their national prowess and superiority of Lutheran Protestantism. The British orientalists on the other hand had their Empire and were more benevolent in “giving back” Asian traditions to the Asians; hence Scottish James Legge’s translation of sheng(ren) as non-biblical sages.
  • Values and Priorities: German society – and in a greater sense Western society – had differed priorities and promoted different traditions and values. Some Eastern values that corresponded favorably to the nurturing and maintenance of sage-culture such as filial piety, love for learning, ancestor worship, harmoniousness, self-cultivation etc. were not of high priority in Germany and the West.
  • Meaning and Pejorative: Die Weisen, the (linguistically) only acceptable translation of sheng(ren) and sages, was not a proper title or name in German society. Goethe was called a shengren in China and Japan and in the English-speaking world and literature, but he was not defined as “Weiser” in the German-speaking world. Common names for him were “Dichter” (poet), or “Schriftsteller” (writer), two proper occupations in Germany. What is more, the greatest German philosopher of all time, Immanuel Kant, once remarked: “Weisheit ist Philosophie in ihrer höchsten Form”[1] and the greatest German poet and writer of all time, said that “der Philosoph, der sich in die Mittel stellt… und nur in diesem Mittelzustand verdient er den Namen des Weisens”.[2] In essence, that meant if such “Weisen” existed in Germany, they would be ranked higher than philosophers. But since no German has ever been called a Weiser before, Jesus Christ, Kant and Goethe included, therefore calling Chinese shengren “die Weisen” would at once devalue all German philosophers who would then – according to Kant and Goethe – rank far below the Weisen. An impossible order, since in European tradition no one was above the philosophers.
  • Unique, not universal: For linguistic reasons, Germany’s modern word “Sage” meant legend or folk tale and was not, like in English “sage”, a synonym for “a wise man”. The original meaning of the Latin sapientia which later influenced the formation of words like “sage”, “sagacity”, “sageness”, and “sagehood” had been lost in the German language. Because of this conventional limitation in German culture and language, instead of translating shengren at all, the German writers thus picked up some aspect of Confucius they liked best, for example the wisdom-aspect (智zhi), moral-aspect (德de), knowledge-aspect (知zhi), socio-political aspect (士shi), educational aspect (教jiao), etc., and accordingly translated the shengren as one-dimensional and situational as they pleased.

German writers published extensively on the supposed Chinese lack of (Western) philosophers and philosophy and a lack of (Western) notions like individualism, freedom, privacy, love, independent thought, and morality. That those systematic accusations work both ways, that China in turn had something else instead of (Western) philosophy, and (Western) individualism, freedom, etc., was only a logical consequence. However, literature on what the West and in particular Germany lacked in the cultural department was suspiciously absent in Comparative Studies. Germany lacked any advanced concept about sages and sagehood, and this research hopefully threw more light on German sagelessness and the consequences of Germany having neglected sages and sagehood for a thousand years. The notion of 圣无所依 ‘No Country for Sages’ and its antecedent ‘Sage Cultures’ will be relevant in cultural anthropology and further research on Germany’s mindful relations with the rising nations of the East.

German ideas about the sheng(ren) differed considerably from the Anglo-American one; the different translations of sheng(ren) demonstrated that convincingly. Was the West really the universal culture it pretended to be? It was certainly not as universal as it claimed to be in the field of Oriental studies, where Germany fell behind the English world in the 19th and 20th centuries. And further, was it not true that scholarship obeyed the laws of economics? The comparison with economics was forthcoming because Schott and Wilhelm and Gützlaff knew precisely what they did: they described Confucianism in biblical terms because they were aware that German missionaries were among the European pioneers in China and that therefore whatever the missionaries published had greater chance to form a first impression, win a readership, and form a flattering and innovative image on Germany’s China scholarship. Truth was not an issue for Christianity. The Chinese Classics could be bent so that the Chinese looked like the lost children of God and Confucius their prophet. The Germans invented China (and India) and sold their creative product – a book, a translation, a philosophical thesis about Confucius – to the European consumers who wanted to hear that China was culturally backward but not quite so backward that it was not worth a second look or that the Chinese would never receive the word of God. German scholarship after Grube continued to translate sheng(ren) as die Heiligen, despite the Anglo-American world ever since Legge heavily protested to any biblical interpretation. No international sinologist today would call Confucius a saint or holy man, except the Germans. Especially the popular and very different translations of the Confucius’ Analects by the German Richard Wilhelm and the Scottish James Legge looked like a classic example of socio-economic competition between the German-speaking world and the English-speaking world in miniature. As a result German dictionaries today translated sheng(ren) as (Wilhelm’s) die Heiligen and English dictionaries translated sheng(ren) as (Legge’s) sages, both translations now having a monopoly in their respective German-Chinese and English-Chinese home markets. Wilhelm and Legge both knew what their real “mission” was: to produce. And the product of the missions to China was nothing less than the “invention of China”. There was only one true translation of 圣人: Shengren – not to translate it at all. The English term sage was an acceptable alternative. Any book or translation however that called Confucius and the shengren “philosophers” or “saints” was a case for the wastepaper bin.


This research will contribute to the revitalization – hopefully globally – of the shengren, this word and concept, to relinquish all other European translations with the possible exception of “the sage”, and to re-connect to Chinese tradition without using biblical terminology to render it.

Limitations and Suggestions

If the sages are reality now in Europe, they have been with China and other sage cultures for thousands of years, they must thus be extraordinary powerful and resilient. How regulated Germany will try to keep them out and away remains to be seen. As for the English-speaking world and others, the concept of sages and sagehood should be, as it is, welcomed and studied in ever greater depth. As to the shengren, there is no need to translate them any other than sages, or not translate it at all, just like we have become used to say Buddha or bodhisattva to the Indian/Buddhist sages. Sages are above the philosophers. That even Kant and Goethe knew and said. Only because sagehood had been suppressed for so long in Europe and the Orient still had them, the self-righteous Germans refused to cooperate with Asia whose humanism never seemed quite good enough and inferior. If history has taught us anything, it is that it needs to be written.

[1] Kant in Trawny, 2008

[2] Goethe, 1981, p. 605