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Why the West shuts out subtle Chinese concepts

By Thorsten Pattberg   (Shanghai Daily)

08:41, September 19, 2012

(Shanghai Daily / Illustration by Zhou Tao)

Sept.28 marks the 2563rd anniversary of the birth of Confucius.

Few people realize that the Bible discourages people from studying foreign languages. The story of the tower of Babel informs us that there is one humanity (God's one), only that "our languages are confused."

From a European historical perspective, that has always meant that, say, any German philosopher could know exactly what the Chinese people were thinking, only that he couldn't understand them. So instead of learning the foreign language, he demanded a translation.

Coincidentally, or maybe not quite so, History with a capital "H" followed the Bible. At the time of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, when German scholars still spoke Latin, the German logician Christian Wolff (1679-1754) got his hands on a Latin translation of the Confucian Classics.

His reaction is as funny as it is disturbing: He reads Kongzi (Confucius) in Latin and says something like "Great, that looks very familiar, I have the feeling that I totally understand this Confucius!" Wolff was so overjoyous with his new mental powers, that he went on to lecture about the Chinese as if he was the king of China.

Among his unforgettable findings were "the motives of the Chinese," "the final purpose of the Chinese," and so on. And, of course, when somebody occasionally asked master Wolff why he didn't visit China, the greatest sinologist of all time played out his greatest intellectual triumph. He replied that "the wisdom of the Chinese was generally not so highly valued that it was necessary to travel there for its sake."

It's thus pretty much established that History stopped with this Wolff, or at least got too tired and too cynical.

He sufficiently demonstrated that just about any European could become a "China expert" without knowing a single Chinese terminology.

'End of all things'

Since this was true for just about any foreign language, now we know why the German philosopher Immanuel Kant could reasonably announce the "End of All Things," and Georg Hegel could proclaim the "End of History." Both learned men knew very well that they hadn't mastered any non-European language in their lifetime; and they simply assumed that History was a bit like that too.

This attitude in the Western hemisphere has never changed, with the effect that we live in a crazy world today. Most American and European scholars believe that the Chinese "speak their (Western)languages," only that they "talk" in Chinese.

Take the case of "democracy" and "human rights." You may have considered this, but those are European words. Imagine China would return a favor and demand from Europe more wenming and tian ren he yi.

The European attitude is reflected in its translations. Most Westerners simply translate every Chinese key concept into convenient biblical or philosophical terminology. As a result, Germany in the year 2012 of the Lord Jesus Christ, is virtually Chinese-free.

Translation, of course, is an old human habit. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't question it. It was our habit to slay our opponents in battle, but we don't do that any more (except in Afghanistan and Iraq and etc.). Why do we still destroy foreign key vocabulary?

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