With the rise of the “Asian Tiger” nations to global power, Eastern and Western scholars have been re-evaluating elements of East Asia’s moral and literary heritage that were once viewed as obstacles to modernization. Efforts by these scholars to transmit this heritage to non-Asian audiences are welcome not only because of its intrinsic merits, but also because of the contributions that it can make to human self-understanding.

In his May 5 Japan Times article, “How Western translations distort China’s reality, Thorsten Pattberg is pessimistic about these efforts. He believes that Western scholars, who “prefer European terminology,” have produced distorted translations of important Chinese concepts that ignore deep cultural differences between China and the West.

One example is the mistranslation of wenming as “civilization.” Wenming, Pattberg tells us, “describes a high level of gentleness and ethics in a people” whereas the word “civilization” “derives from a city people’s mastery over materials and technology.” Another example is the mistranslation of daxue, the word for the highest Chinese educational institution, as “university.” While the daxue aims “to cultivate an ideal character,” the university aims “to produce a skilled expert.”

Finally, Pattberg thinks that poor, outdated translations of Chinese classics have left Westerners ignorant of Chinese moral concepts.

There are scholars of Chinese thought in the West such as Tu Weiming, William de Bary, Herbert Fingarette, Roger Ames and Yao Xinzhong who are trying to provide updated explanations of Chinese moral concepts to Western readers. Yet it is true that much of the Western reading public remains ignorant of the ideas of the cultivated, morally excellent persons known as junzi and shengren, or of their virtues such as ren (humaneness), li (ritual propriety), yi (righteousness) and zhi (wisdom/foresight). Surely one explanation for this is that studies of difficult moral ideas from any culture are not popular reading choices outside of academia!

It is certainly also difficult to translate into English a word like wenming, or indeed the Japanese term bunmei, from which modern Chinese understandings of wenming developed. This is because, like “civilization,” these words have acquired quite fuzzy, ideologically loaded meanings since the late 19th century. There is a way of finding common ground between wenming and “civilization,” however. It lies in an intriguing historical analysis of the origins of ancient moral and political thinking in rather similar intellectual conditions in the East and the West.

Scholars like Robert Bellah, Karen Armstrong and Tu Weiming agree that starting around 2,800 years ago, there were separate spiritual and intellectual awakenings in the then rapidly changing societies of China, India, the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe. This period saw the rise of salvation religions such as Judaism and Buddhism. In very different cultures ranging from China to Greece, small groups of people also began asking “big questions” about morality and politics. They asked about what the good human life is and how moral goodness or humaneness is possible. They also asked what righteousness in government is, and how rulers can become righteous. A few even dared to ask whether unrighteous rulers can be rightly deposed.

Accompanying these questions was a growing conviction that moral and political behavior had to measure up to ideals determined somewhere beyond the ordinary world. Such ideals were set by the will of Heaven, or by God’s law, or could be discovered in an immaterial or spiritual world.

From the point of view of this analysis, over 2,500 years of thinking about big questions should ensure that the English word “civilization” includes a good deal of what some people mean by wenming. For “civilization” encompasses ideas about moral cultivation, virtue and duty contributed to it by ancient sages such as Socrates and Plato, or medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, or modern philosophers such as Immanuel Kant or Alasdair Macintyre.

“Civilization” also encompasses educational traditions such as the liberal arts, which counts the cultivation of moral character among its aims.

In Chinese culture, over 2,500 years of thinking about big questions should also ensure that wenming includes much of what some people mean by “civilization.” Certainly Mozi, a practical, utilitarian-minded thinker and critic of the early Confucians in the 5th century B.C., would have thought so. But early Confucians such as Mengzi (Mencius) would probably have agreed.

To understand why, we can read what book 3 of the Mengzi says about the semi-legendary achievements of the ministers employed by the sage emperor Yao, at “a time when the world had not been perfectly reduced to order.” They cleared the wilderness for agriculture, drove out the wild animals, dammed, dredged or changed the courses of rivers, introduced new cultivation methods and taught their newly contented subjects moral rectitude in their relationships.

In other words, they mastered “materials and technology” in the service of ren or humaneness: they creatively altered physical and human nature in order to improve human well-being. In doing so they showed they were governing in accordance with the will of Heaven.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, as historian Lilian Lee points out, generations of technically minded Chinese bureaucrats were living up to this ideal. They undertook dam and irrigation schemes, famine and disaster relief projects and agricultural innovations that helped produce the prosperous, powerful, well-ordered Chinese society that so impressed faraway Enlightenment thinkers in Europe.

There are naturally deep differences between, say, the moral and political ideas of Confucianism and of Western liberalism that scholars and translators cannot ignore. Many modern Confucians are quite taken by the idea of ziyou (freedom). But they are aghast at how this idea translates into the language of modern political and market liberalism: the freedom of all mentally capable adults, no matter how immoral or uneducated, to do or say what they like, so long as they don’t harm others.

Such differences notwithstanding, what’s needed today are efforts to develop sympathetic and deep understandings of both Eastern and Western moral traditions. Then we can ask of those traditions together how they can address the big questions of our times and advance human self-understanding. For those efforts to succeed, there needs to be a striving for the wisdom of the Confucian junzi who, as Kongzi (Confucius) said, is “catholic and impartial.”

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University. He has published articles on Confucianism in journals such as Philosophy East and West and Humanitas Asiatica.

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