FREELY China: Lost in translation
II By Thorsten Pattberg
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This concludes a
two-part report.Part 1:China:
Lost in translation I saw the Emperor -
this world-soul - riding out of the city on
reconnaissance - George Wilhelm Friedrich
BEIJING - Many Western
observers remain blissfully ignorant about the
Chinese language and refuse to adopt Chinese
terminologies into their China reports. They
instead describe and interpret Chinese culture on
the back of their own Western
taxonomies and concepts.
As if the West was the end of history.
don't believe it? Read the recent New York Times
article "A Confucian Constitution for China" by
"Confucian philosopher" Daniel A Bell. It's about
China but it doesn't include a single piece of
Chinese terminology. As if the New York Times
ordered Professor Bell to keep his China text
clean of Chinese, so to speak. He is not alone.
You may not be aware of this, but
powerhouses like Germany require all its "China
experts" to be German, and all its books written
about China to be written in clean German diction,
as if the Chinese people, their lexicon and their
socio-cultural originality, did not serve any
purpose at all in the history of thought. The
Germans call it Chinabild or China-image,
but it really is this "a China without Chinese".
The Germans wouldn't doubt for a moment
the fact that the German language was essential to
understanding their own culture. Yet, for foreign
cultures it's exactly the opposite: as far as the
German media and academia are concerned, foreign
cultures precisely cannot be understood unless
translated into familiar German.
that the billions of East Asians in the world
throughout history were thinking and giving names
to their inventions all the time. Why is that
European countries, which barely hold 0.8-1.2% of
the world's population, are blending out all of
that Eastern originality?
What is wrong,
for example, with Europe adapting Chinese concepts
like wenming, shengren, or
junzi; or Hindu concepts like
dharma, karma, and prajna?
Why do Europeans fearfully gatekeep their cultures
from an inflow of Eastern originality?
Some commentators have argued with me,
that the West is full. Full as in "no more
capacity to learn". It is true that exotic Chinese
concepts like kung fu, yin and yang,
fengshui, and Tao have already made Western
historians feel weary and insecure. How to
"Westernize" so many Asians who have so many
non-Western ideas in their heads?
Meanwhile, Hindi concepts like atman,
avatar, yoga, nirvana and pundit make the United
States look less Christian by the day. But wasn't
Christianity supposed to be superior to all? There
are tens of thousands of Eastern concepts that are
censored out of the Western system just to keep
the illusion of a universal Judeo-Christian
manifest destiny alive.
Germany is case in
point, where the ruling class controls the general
public to live in an artificial German world
(except for English loan-words, which are forced
upon the Germans for historical reasons), and
demand all immigrants to express "knowledge"
solely in the form of German language. Knowledge
in Germany exists only if it's known in German.
As a result, German scholars, submerged in
clean German culture, are destined to
misappropriate China's history, etymologies,
experiences, ideas and originality and, most
importantly, they will intuitively omit the
"correct Chinese names" of decisively non-German
concepts and hide them from the German public.
German China scholarship behaves like an organized
syndicate - dealing with ideas and protecting
their language turf.
Not a day passes in
North American and European media in which
politicians, feuilletonists, and journalists do
not lecture China on "democracy" and "human
rights", words that are, you may have considered
this, Western vocabularies and therefore cannot
exist in China. Imagine if China would return such
a favor and demand from the West more datong
or tian ren he yi.
imperialists do not come to be taught. They call
things the way they call things at home.
Most Western academics, existentially
dependent on their nation states (they are
state-employees), frequently replace Chinese
originality with Western biblical or philosophical
translations, or choose Western words and simply
annotate them with "Chinese", and thus present
exactly the image of China they want to see: a
place of zero originality.
There are now
"Chinese religions", "Chinese saints", "Chinese
gods", and "Chinese universities", and so on. Yet,
you will find that what these scholars
"translated" from - presumably the words
jiao, shengren, shen, and
daxue - do not bear any historical or
meaningful resemblances to those Western
Confucius once said: If the
names are not correct, speech is not in accordance
with the truth of things. What we see in Western
"China Studies" is a fraud. It's absurd to talk
about "Chinese philosophers" when 95% of the
Chinese population have never heard or read about
such a word. They have shengren in China.
We may call late 20th-21st Western "China
Studies" the greatest intellectual property theft
of all time. In world history, it should rank as
another Western impostor besides the evils of
17th-19th centuries' Western missions to
We call our age the
"Age of Knowledge"; but ask the average American
or European to name a single Chinese concept: the
answer will be "none". They will talk about
Chinese religion, Chinese food, Chinese culture
... they don't know a single correct taxonomy.
Human nature is not like this; nature has
made people curious and inquisitive. The Western
public would love to know what a shengren
is, if only the media would print this Chinese
word, ever. I believe it is the nature of their
nation states, their language policies and their
propaganda education systems, that keep the
Western public in the dark about foreign cultures.
Human knowledge is the combined
originality and inventiveness of the human race
expressed in all its traditions and languages.
But the truth is some people would rather
see your language die.
Pattberg is a German linguist and cultural
critic from Peking University, and the author of
The East-West dichotomy(2009) and
Shengren (2011). He publishes widely on
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