Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Civilization Cessation, Wenming Winning?

Forum Romanum
Photo by Foeke Noppert
May 2005

In an article titled "Western translations distort China's reality" (Korea Herald, May 1, 2012), Thorsten Pattberg informs fellow Westerners of how seriously they have misunderstood Chinese terms by mistranslating them into Western languages, e.g., the use of "civilization" to translate the Chinese term "wenming":
Wenming is often translated as "civilization," but that is misleading. In a recent lecture at Peking University, the renowned linguist Gu Zhengkun explained that "wenming" describes a high level of ethics and gentleness of a people, while the English word "civilization" derives from a city people's mastery over materials and technology. Think about rockets and architecture.

The implication here seems to be that the Chinese term "wenming" is intrinsically more refined than the English term "civilization." I suppose there are a number of points to make in response.

First, etymology is a never-ending game. There's always a deeper hole to dig excavating the past, where the deeper roots of "wenming" might appear less refined than Professor Gu notes. Everything depends upon where one stops digging.

Second, no word is limited by its etymology, and the term "civilization" does not refers only, or even centrally, to "a city people's mastery over materials and technology."

Third, I have not yet found evidence that Professor Gu is correct about his etymology of "civilization." From various dictionaries, one can learn that the word derives from the Latin civilis, meaning "civil," related to civis, meaning "citizen," and civitas, meaning "city." Let's at least check the Online Etymological Dictionary on the term "civil":
late 14c., "relating to civil law or life," from Fr. civil (13c.) and directly from L. civilis "relating to a citizen, relating to public life, befitting a citizen," hence "popular, affable, courteous;" alternative adj. derivation of civis "townsman" . . . . The sense of "polite" was in the Latin, from the courteous manners of citizens, as opposed to those of soldiers.

I see no hint of "mastery over materials and technology." Rather, I see evidence of refined courtesy. This doesn't mean that Professor Gu is wrong. He is, after all, a "renowned linguist."

Are any knowledgeable readers willing to add to this search?

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At 4:54 AM, Blogger dhr said...

"wenming" describes a high level of ethics and gentleness of a people

As it was the case with "cortesia" in Medieval Italian, from "corte" i.e. royal court. In fact, in modern Italian the original meaning is difficult to grasp, the word now simply referring to "kindness."

At 5:01 AM, Blogger dhr said...

P.S. as to "civilization," it is a modern term, but you are right about the deeper meaning of "civis" etc. We say, "Un po' di civiltà!" meaning "Some more politeness, respect for human rights, etc., please!"

At 6:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not helpful particularly, just wondering 'cause it's been said at the War College, "It's from Rome we get the concept of 'citizen soldier' though it's not the same as a volunteer force."

Of course the Legions built roads and other sorts of stuff. I'm curious though whether the Chinese guy might be conflating military and "civilian" lines.

Hilda D.

At 6:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Dario. In searching for more on civis, I was surprised to find to little. I'm probably just not doing my search correctly.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

HD, who knows what Professor Gu was talking about? Your guess is as good as mine.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:42 AM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Sounds like a German trying to explain that while the West was civilized, the Germans were cultured.

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe it's that 19th-century dichotomy between the German "Kultur" and the French "Civilisation," but the German scholar also seems to have 'gone native' from steeping himself in Chinese studies.

Jeffery Hodges

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