Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

The competition for Taoist terminologies

What's the contribution and limitation of James Legge in translating Chinese culture?What is Max Weber’s view on human civilization? Find answers here
James Legge, the Scottish sinologist and Oxford University professor, and a representative for the London Missionary Society, became the most famous ‘translator’ of Chinese works, perhaps of all time. His choice of words, of course, was Eurocentric. He translated ‘zi’ in the Confucian Analects as “philosopher”; he omittedthe ‘junzi’ and ‘shengren’, he categorically replaced them with “superior man” and “sage.” Thankfully, Legge decided against the translation of Tao. He transliterated it.
Legge writes: “The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.” The acclaimed sinologist does the right thing –adopting a foreign term in the same spirit as Indologists adopted countless Sanskrit terms such as Buddha, karma, yoga, in the Hindu tradition. Leggedidn’t have todo it. He could have called Tao the Way or “the Path.” Notable Taoist conceptions such as Bianhua or Hundun, however, were immediately rewritten as “change” and “chaos,” without elaborating, say, on why Tao was Tao, but Bianhua was change. It is easy of course to dismiss the importance of words, translation, or even just the spelling as completely arbitrary if you are a tourist or imperialist.
But if a scholar does it, he must have put some serious thought to it. Advocates of capitalism, the free market, and democracy might argue that “we Europeans can call the Chinese whatever we want,” and that, ultimately, the consumers will decide what’s terrific and what stinks. Others reply that the state universities must try to influence the market of ideas, just like everyone else. The problem is that markets are regulated, while the humanities are not. Everything goes in China Studies. So, instead of calling the shengren a shengren, European academicians have introduced no less than thirty-six translations for the shengren in the Confucian alone. Everyone wants to own ‘it’. And Europeans cannot own ‘it’, if ‘it’ is clearly Chinese cultural property.
So, they change ‘it’, the name. To rationalize the dominance of the West over the East, Max Weber, the German sociologist at Oxford University in the early 19th century, argued –and I simplify a complex story here that it was purely a matter of ‘objectivity’ to study the East from the distance, as an outside observer free of sentiments and conflicts of interest and values. This thinking had effectively disqualified all Orientals from contributing to Oriental studies, except of course as auxiliaries and translators and tropes.
That the opposite must also be true; that the Orientals would by definition automatically become the experts and authorities of all things Western… well, this was neither ethical nor economical, so Max Weber sat down again and penned his most famous work the Protestant Ethic and the spirit of Capitalism.
In this important work, he introduces a new social hierarchy into religions and nations, with the Germanic, Protestant people, because they work so hard and think so free. I am talking about the Germans, the Scandinavians, the North Americans, and the British. They are proved to be at the top of the pile. The basic notion wasn’t novel at all to think about; already German Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel had philosophized about ‘The End of All Things’ and ‘The End of History’. It means that the West was probably the final, most progressive civilization on earth… yet it was Max Weber who cut it out to be a ‘science’.

Many Western translators and scholars translated and interpreted Chinese works according to their own preferences as if they could act as consumers in the market of cultural ideas who could decide what’s terrific and what stinks. So, the Chinese term shengren was rendered into no less than thirty-six translations.

This article is from the free online

Taoism and Western Culture

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now