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Richard Wilhelm's Reception of Confucianism in Comparison with James Legge's and Max Weber's

By Hsia, Adrian | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Richard Wilhelm's Reception of Confucianism in Comparison with James Legge's and Max Weber's


Hsia, Adrian, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


I. Background

Like many of his predecessors, Richard Wilhelm was a Protestant missionary and a sinologue. In modern history, however, Catholic missionaries were the first to enter China, and the first translation of the Confucian canon was published by Pere Philippe Couplet, Confucius Sinarum Philosophus. (1) However, the Catholic reception of Confucianism practically ceased with the Chinese Rites Controversy, which ended in 1742. The dissolution of the Jesuit Order forty years later did not help the matter either, and so the Western world had to wait for more than a century before the Protestant reception occurred. In 1861, the first volume of James Legge's The Chinese Classics was published in Hong Kong. (2) The last volume came out in 1872. It was the first time that the complete Chinese classical canonical works were rendered into a European language and, consequently, set the standard for all subsequent renditions. Legge was a Protestant missionary who pursued sinological studies, while as "le Legge francais," (3) Seraphin Couvreur, who translated and published Les Quatre Livres, was a Catholic missionary. (4)

Translation involves interpretation, which is more an art than an exact science. The subject--that is, the translator--interprets a given text and renders it into his or her own language. The farther apart the linguistic and cultural background of the two entities are, the more subjective the process of interpretation. After all, we all interpret the world, ourselves and the others, from our own acquired perspectives, be they conditioned by our personal experiences or our cultural heritage. Perfect objectivity is as elusive as beauty, existing only in the eyes of the beholder. Invariably, value judgment based on our own view slips in. Similarly, there is no perfect balance between a missionary and a sinologue. One element becomes predominant. In the case of Legge, he was a Protestant missionary first and judged Confucianism from the Christian perspective, as we shall see. He, of course, thought he was objective, taking the middle position between extreme panegyrics (for example, Jean-Pierre-Guillaume Pauthier) and negative critique (that is, the position taken in the Chinese Repository). (5)

Richard Wilhelm can be considered a "German Legge." Michael Lackner seemed to entertain this idea when he wrote, "In terms of quantity" Wilhelm's "work can only be compared to the accomplishments of James Legge." Although Lackner did not compare the quality of their respective translations, he did point out the major difference: "Legge, however, did not feel compelled to 'love China' (he maintained a good deal of sometimes rather malevolent skepticism), whereas Richard Wilhelm displayed a commitment to China that was almost without reserve." (6) This comparison merits substantiation. Therefore, in the present essay, we shall first present Legge's position before studying Wilhelm's reception of Confucianism. As a conclusion, we shall compare and contrast Wilhelm's concept with Max Weber's critique of Confucianism. Thus, we may get a clear picture of Wilhelm's (1873-1930) position in light of his time, for Legge (1815-97) and Weber (1864-1920) are both his predecessors and his contemporaries.

II James Legge

Let us first examine Legge's fundamental position toward Confucianism. He commented:

   Confucianism is not antagonistic to Christianity, as Buddhism and
   Brah-manism are. It is not atheistic like the former, nor
   pantheistic like the lat-ter. It is, however, a system whose issues
   are bounded by the East and by time; and though missionaries try to
   acknowledge what is good in it, and to use it as not abusing it,
   they cannot avoid sometimes seeming to pull down Confucius from his
   elevation. They cannot set forth the Gospel as the wisdom of God
   and the power of God unto salvation, and proclaim the supreme love
   of God and of Christ, without deploring the want of any deep sense
   of sin, and of any glow of piety in the followers of the Chinese
   sage. 

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