Dr. Thorsten Pattberg [裴德思] (PhD, Peking University), the German philosopher, sinologist and buddhologist from the Department of Oriental Languages, Peking University, on "Language Imperialism", and the Chinese concepts of wenming, shengren, and minzhu.
cultuRe Language Imperialism – Democracy in China By THORSTEN PATTBERG I 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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