Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Language hegemony: It's shengren, stupid!

By Thorsten Pattberg (China Daily) Updated: 2011-11-25 08:08

If you are an American or European, chances are you've never heard about shengren, minzhu and wenming. If one day you promote them, you might even be accused of cultural treason. That's because they are Chinese concepts.

They are often conveniently translated as "philosophers", "democracy" and "civilization". But they are none of those. They are something else. Something the West lacks. And since foreign concepts were irritating for most Westerners, they were quickly removed from the books and records in the past and, if possible, from the history of the world dominated by the West. In fact, German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel once remarked that the East plays no part in the formation of the history of thought.

But let us step back a bit. Remember what school told us about the humanities? They are not the sciences! If the humanities were science, the vocabularies of the world's languages would add up, not overlap. Does that surprise you?

There are more than 35,000 Chinese words or phrases that cannot be properly translated into the English language. Words like yin and yang, kungfu and fengshui. Add to this another 35,000 Sanskrit terminology, mainly from India. Words like buddha, bodhisattva and guru.

At a recent lecture at Peking University, renowned linguist Gu Zhengkun explained that wenming describes a high level of ethics and gentleness of a people, while the English word "civilization" derives from urban people's mastery over materials and technology.

The correct Chinese translation of civilization should be chengshi jishu zhuyi. Wenming is better, but untranslatable. It has been around for some thousand years, while Europe's notion of "civilization" is a late 18th century "invention".

Tourists and imperialists do not come to be taught. They never run out of material because it is a trick, a language trick: China indeed has no concept of "privacy" or "love". Why? Because those are Western words, steeped in Western history. On the other hand, Chinese tradition has the concepts of siren and ren'ai, which have no corresponding words in Western languages.

"Democracy" is a concept of Greek origin. The Hellenic "civilization" failed a long time ago, of course. It's gone, while China's wenming is still here, uninterrupted, after 5,000 years. "Democracy" originally had little to do with letting the mob vote, even less so for the mob to rule the country. On the contrary, it meant that various, powerful interest groups should fight over the resources, each mobilizing its supporters of influential city dwellers.

While in China we still see a family-value based social order, in the West the order is based on interest groups. You do not apply strict laws or make contracts in your family, instead you induce a moral code. Laws are needed for strangers, interest groups that fight against other interest groups and cannot be trusted like family members.

Up to the 20th century, the Europeans believed China was not a proper "civilization", because it had no police force, while China accused Europe of being without wenming, for it lacked of filial piety, tolerance, human gentleness and other human traits.

And Shengren is the ideal personality and highest member in family-based Chinese value tradition, a sage that has the highest moral standards, called de, who applies the principles of ren, yi, li, zhi and xin, and connects between all the people as if they were, metaphorically speaking, his family.

The modern Chinese word for philosopher, zhexuejia, is nowhere to be found in any of the Chinese classics. Yet the Western public is constantly told, through the highly subsidized China scholarship, that Confucius is a "philosopher" and that Confucian thought is "philosophy".

The "barbarians" always had superior weapons and technology, but, as Gu Hongming noted in 1920, lacked true humane intelligence. How's that? Well, it's a bit like Star Trek wisdom: If prehistoric humanity evolved from beasts, wouldn't the most advanced human societies be the least physically aggressive ones?

In 1697, German philosopher G.W. Leibniz famously argued that the Chinese were far more advanced in the humanities than "we are". He never specified. But, I think, it was clear when he urged Germans not to use foreign words but their own language instead (German is a compound language, so it's an infinite source) to build and enlarge the German-speaking world.

And so they did. And so the Germans rose to the top. As expected, the Germans, the descendants of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, called Confucius a heiliger (a saint or holy man). Now, that's convenient. But is it correct scholarship?

Since the European languages have their own histories and traditions, they cannot sufficiently render Chinese concepts. The solution, I think, would be not to translate the most important foreign concepts at all, but adopt them - so that next time, in international relations, we could discuss how we're going to improve minzhu in Europe and how we can help the United States' transition into a decent wenming.

Maybe the West just lacks shengren after all.

The author is a German scholar at the Institute of World Literature of Peking University. He is the author of The East-West Dichotomy and Shengren - Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion.

(China Daily 11/25/2011 page9)

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