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China's Culture Distorted by Western Translations

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It's shengren, stupid!
It's shengren, stupid!
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It's shengren, stupid! by Thorsten Pattberg/Open Source

The Western imperialists left China, but the damage was done: China's socio-cultural originality has been largely replaced with Western biblical and philosophical translations.


"As to the foreign or Unteutsch words, the biggest question existeth whether to tolerate them-- - Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 1677


BEIJING - The shengren is the single most important concept in Chinese history.

Since the Europeans never had anything like it, but refused to hold the candle to China ; instead they omitted the shengren and talked about some lesser versions of Greek "philosophers" or Christian "holy men".

The English soon found a slightly better translation; they called the shengren "sages".

The Germans however, the descendants of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, never had a concept for sages or sagehood. In their effort to christen China, the Germans called the shengren "Heilige" (saints).

The shengren is the highest member in the East-Asian family-value based tradition and has the highest moral standards, called de. He applies the principles of ren, li, yi, zhi and xin, and connects between all the people as if they were, metaphorically speaking, his family.

Calling the shengren of East Asia "philosophers", "saints", or any other familiar names is the greatest historical blunder since Christopher Columbus's discovery of "the Indians" in North America .

The shengren of Confucianism are just as clearly defined and non-European as the buddhas of Buddhism are. Yet, the Western public is kept ignorant about the former. As the historian Howard Zinn once put it: "If something is omitted from history, you have no way of knowing it is omitted."

Our schools preach that there are "philosophers" and "saints" all over Asia; yet, upon reflection, evidently there isn't a single buddha, bodhisattva, or shengren in Europe. Think. What is that probability?

The word for "philosopher" doesn't appear in the Chinese classics. Our so-called "Chinese Philosophy" departments in the West are reminiscences of the Imperial age. In fact, the Chinese word for philosophy, zhexuejia, came to China via Japan not before 1874, where it is pronounced tetsugakusha.

What happened to accurate scholarship? The original shengren is permanent -- buried in the Chinese texts, beneath all Western power charade and suspiciously convenient translations.

Since European languages cannot render many important Chinese concepts, the solution may be not to try to translate them at all but to adopt them.

China is a living shengren culture.

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Dr. Thorsten J. Pattberg (è å æ Pei Desi) is a German philosopher and cultural critic.
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