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    Greater China
     Aug 1, 2012


SPEAKING FREELY
China: Lost in translation II
By Thorsten Pattberg

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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 Hegel

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.

You 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.

We know 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.

Tourists and 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 terminologies.

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 Christianize China.

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.

Dr Thorsten 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 language imperialism.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

(Copyright 2012 Thorsten Pattberg)





China: Lost in translation
(Jul 24, '12)

Perpetuating a skewed view of Chinese history
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