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Language Imperialism – Democracy in China


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 cultural treason.

That's because these are Chinese concepts. They are often conveniently translated as "philosopher," "democracy" and "civilization." In fact, they are none of these. They are something else. Something the West lacks in turn.

But that is irritating to most Westerners, so in the past foreign concepts were quickly removed from books and records and, if possible, from the history of the world, which is a world dominated by Western culture. As the philosopher Hegel once remarked, 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?

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 terminologies, mainly from India and Buddhism, that include words like Buddha, bodhisattva and guru.

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

Tourists and imperialists do not come to be taught. They call things the same as they do at home. Then they realize that the names are not correct.

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 fetish."

Next is "democracy," a concept of Greek origin. "Democracy" originally had little to do with letting the mob vote, and even less with letting it rule the country; on the contrary, it meant that various powerful interest groups should fight over the resources, each by mobilizing their influential supporters from the City.

While in China we still see a family value-based social order, in the West we find an interest group-based social order. 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, shengren is one of the most important concepts in Chinese tradition. Since the Europeans never had anything like it, but refused to acknowledge this to China, they instead omitted mention of shengren when talking about certain lesser versions of Greek "philosophers" or Christian "holy men."

The English soon found a slightly better translation; they called shengren "sages," from Latin sapientia – being wise.

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

Because of the many confusing translations, Confucius is said to be a paradox. He is not/ he is a shengren.

As the ideal human being, shengren is the highest member in the East-Asian family-based value tradition, a wise person that has the highest moral standards, called de, who applies the principles of ren (benevolence), li (propriety), yi (righteousness), zhi (wisdom) and xin (fidelity), and connects between all people as if they were, metaphorically speaking, his family.

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VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us