SPEAKING FREELY Language imperialism - 'democracy' in China
By Thorsten Pattberg
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If you are an American or European citizen, chances are you've never heard
about shengren, minzhu and wenming. If one day you promote
them, you might even be accused of culture treason.
That's because these are Chinese concepts. They are often conveniently
translated as "philosophers", "democracy" and "civilization". In fact, they are
none of those. They are something else. Something the West lacks in turn. But
that is irritating for most monolingual speakers, so in the past foreign
quickly removed from the books and records and, if possible, from the history
of the world, which is a world controlled by the West. As the philosopher Hegel
once remarked, the East plays no part in the formation of the history of
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?
I estimate that there are over 35,000 Chinese words or phrases that cannot
properly be translated into the English language. Words like yin and yang,
kung-fu and fengshui. Add to this another 35,000 Sanskrit
terminology, mainly from India and Buddhism. Words like buddha, bodhisattva and
In a recent lecture at Peking University, the linguist Gu Zhengkun explained
that wenming describes a high level of ethics and gentleness of a people
(not by God's grace, by the way), while the English word "civilization" derives
from a city people's mastery over materials and technology.
The correct Chinese translation of civilization should be chengshijishu-zhu.
Wenming is better, but untranslatable. It has been around for some
thousand years, too, while Europe's notion of "civilization" is a late 18th
Tourists and imperialists do not come to be taught. They call things the way
they call things at home. Then they realize that the names are not correct: Oh,
they have no concepts for "privacy" or "love" in China! Incidentally, I know
some Anglo-Saxon professors who made excellent careers by just researching
They will never run out of material because it is a trick, a language trick:
China does indeed have no concepts for "privacy" or "love". Why, because those
are Western words, entirely wrought of Western history. On the other hand,
Chinese tradition has the concepts of siren and ren'ai that in
turn have no exact correspondences in the Western languages either.
In many countries, adopting Chinese terminology is a taboo. Even the most
noble-minded thinkers, such as the Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse, warned the
Germans that "we must not become Chinese [...], otherwise we'd adhere to a
Next is "democracy", 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, uninterruptedly so, after 5,000 years. "Democracy" originally had
few things to do with letting the mob vote, lesser even so for the mob to rule
the country; on the contrary, it meant that various, powerful interest groups
should fight over the resources, each by mobilizing their supporters of
influential city dwellers.
While in China we still see a family-value based social order, in the West we
find an interest-group based social order. When in your family you do not apply
strict laws or make contracts; instead you induce a moral code. When among
strangers who fight against other interest groups, you simply cannot trust them
like your own family, so you need laws.
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" because it lacked filial piety, tolerance, human
gentleness, and so on.
Finally, the shengren is the ideal personality and highest member in
that family-based Chinese value tradition, a sage that has the highest moral
standards, called de, who applies the principles of ren, li,
yi, zhi and xin (and 10 more), 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 our highly subsidized China scholarship, that Confucius is a
"philosopher" and that Confucian thought is "philosophy".
On reason for this is the nature of Western institutions like the Cambridge or
Oxford University Presses of this world, for example. They happily sacrifice
accurate scholarship for the benefits of being celebrated as world leading
universities and publishers. To draw an analogy to contemporary economics, the
University Presses sole alliance is not with the people in street, but rather
with its ideological share-holder: the spirit of Western imperialism.
Britain, after losing its empire, became tiny and insignificant, so those
presses can only play above their league, if they can successfully propagate
that the Chinese tradition is merely an extension of Greek antiquity and the
Western world order. Confucius must be a "philosopher" and Chinese thought must
be "philosophy", and China must be a "civilization" that lacks "democracy".
As Slavoj Zizek once said: "The true victory (the true 'negation of the
negation') occurs when the enemy talks your language." The West would be
irrational to adopt Asian concepts. That would be like holding the candle to
China. Moreover, the Middle Kingdom is notorious for assimilating all invading
cultures in the past. Why queuing?
The "barbarians" always had superior weapons and technology, but, as Gu
Hongming in 1920 noted, lacked true humane intelligence. How's that? Well, it's
a bit like Star Trek wisdom: if prehistoric humanity evolved from the beasts,
then the most advanced human societies would be the least physically aggressive
In 1697, the German philosopher Leibniz famously argued that the Chinese were
far more advanced in the humanities than "we are". He never specified, but, I
think, it is all revealed when he urged all Germans that they must not use
foreign words, but use their own language instead (German is a compound
language, so itís an infinite source), in order to build and enlarge the
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 to
not 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 to help America's transition into a
descent wenming. Maybe the West just lacks shengren after all.
Thorsten Pattberg is a German scholar at the Institute of World
Literature of Peking University. He is the author of The East-West
dichotomy (2009) and Shengren - Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion (2011).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
(Copyright 2011 Thorsten Pattberg.)
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