Civilization Cessation, Wenming Winning?
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?