Thorsten Pattberg's Language Imperialism by chenlibao


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Language Imperialism
– Democracy in China

      F you are an American or                                                                      Tourists and imperialists do
      European citizen, chances                                                                  not come to be taught. They call
      are you’ve never heard about                                                               things the same as they do at
      shengren, minzhu and wen-                                                                  home. Then they realize that the
ming. If one day you promote them,                                                               names are not correct.
you might even be accused of cul-                                                                   In many countries, adopting
tural treason.                                                                                   Chinese terminology is a taboo.
                                                                                                 Even the most noble-minded
   That’s because these are Chinese
                                                                                                 thinkers, such as the Nobel laure-
concepts. They are often conve-
                                                                                                 ate Hermann Hesse, warned the
niently translated as “philosopher,”
                                                                                                 Germans that “we must not be-
“democracy” and “civilization.” In
                                                                                                 come Chinese [...], otherwise we’d
fact, they are none of these. They
                                                                                                 adhere to a fetish.”
are something else. Something the
                                                                                                    Next is “democracy,” a concept
West lacks in turn.
                                                                                                 of Greek origin. “Democracy”
   But that is irritating to most
                                                                                                 originally had little to do with let-
Westerners, so in the past foreign
                                                                                                 ting the mob vote, and even less
concepts were quickly removed from
                                                                                                 with letting it rule the country; on
books and records and, if possible,
                                                                                                 the contrary, it meant that various
from the history of the world, which                                                             powerful interest groups should
is a world dominated by Western                                                                  fight over the resources, each by
culture. As the philosopher Hegel                                                                mobilizing their influential sup-
once remarked, the East plays no                                                                 porters from the City.
part in the formation of the history                                                                While in China we still see a
of thought.                                                                                      family value-based social order,
   But let us step back a bit. Re-                                                               in the West we find an interest
member what school told us about                                                                 group-based social order. In your
the humanities? They are not the                                                                 family, you do not apply strict
sciences! If the humanities were sci-                                                            laws or make contracts; instead
ence, the vocabularies of the world’s    Thorsten Pattberg                                       you induce a moral code. When
languages would add up, not over-                                                                among strangers who fight against
lap. Does that surprise you?                                                                     other interest groups, you simply
   I estimate that there are over 35,000 Chinese words or          cannot trust them like your own family, so you need laws.
phrases that cannot properly be translated into the English           Up to the 20th century, the Europeans believed China was
language. Words like yin and yang, kung fu and fengshui.           not a proper “civilization,” because it had no police force,
Add to this another 35,000 Sanskrit terminologies, mainly          while China accused Europe of being without wenming be-
from India and Buddhism, that include words like Buddha,           cause it lacked filial piety, tolerance, human gentleness and
bodhisattva and guru.                                              so on.
   In a recent lecture at Peking University, celebrated linguist      Finally, shengren is one of the most important concepts in
Gu Zhengkun explained that wenming describes a high level          Chinese tradition. Since the Europeans never had anything
of ethics and gentleness of a people, while the English word       like it, but refused to acknowledge this to China, they instead
“civilization” derives from an urban people’s mastery over         omitted mention of shengren when talking about certain less-
materials and technology.                                          er versions of Greek “philosophers” or Christian “holy men.”

54                                                                                                                      chINa TODaY

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