Shengren – Foreword

The idea for this work came to me while reading Ji Xianlin’s essay on思想家与哲学家 (Thinkers and Philosophers)[1] in which the linguistic sage expressed doubts about the over-reliance on philosophical system-building in the West. No philosophical system seemed to last very long. By “thinkers”, I believe, Mr. Ji meant those intellectuals who instruct the world about the facts of life by scholarship. They do not pretend – unlike most philosophers – that there are supernatural philosophical mechanism at work.

Philosophers use the philosophical approach to knowledge by means of a logical argument preceding a sound conclusion. Germany, where Mr. Ji has spent 10 years of his life, is a country for philosophers. It has institutionalized philosophy and nurtured the philosophical approach early on in its history as the only other way – besides the scientific way – to seek knowledge and to prosper. All other ways, in particular the sagacious approach to wisdom that relies on self-cultivation and wisdom through experience, had been condemned or neglected.

Germany had not cultivated any meaningful concept for sages or sagehood that was a required for sagely traditions such Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, or Hinduism, for example. As a result Germany lacked sages (Weisen).

Mr. Ji concluded that philosophers will be philosophers, but that more attention should be paid to (other) thinkers in the future. I have undertaken in this book – with the silent encouragement of my patrons and teachers – to take a step in that direction and studied the sages, in the particular the shengren,  in the German context.

To draw a historical analogy: When Christopher Columbus searched for India, based on his preconceptions he erroneously called the natives he found in North America “Indians”. For hundreds of years now, German philosophers and missionaries, based on their expectations, have christened Confucius and the shengren of China all kinds of wrong names: “Philosophen“, “Heilige” (saints), “Göttliche” (god-like). The truth is, two thousand five-hundred years of Chinese writings give proof that they were mistaken.

The removal of the shengrenfrom the European public mind and thus world history is by far the biggest stunt the West has ever pulled off.


[1] Ji, 2009