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Richard Wilhelm


Richard Wilhelm

The sinologist Richard Wilhelm was born in Germany in 1879. He was ordained as a protestant minister in 1895, and arrived in China in 1899 to serve as a pastor in the German colonial city of Tsingtao. He soon found that he had a natural gift for the Chinese language, and he began to immerse himself in Chinese culture and religious texts. In 1911, he met the man who would have a profound effect on his life, the Chinese sage Lao Nai-hsuan (1843-1921). Wilhelm wrote in the introduction to his translation of the ancient Chinese 'Book of Changes', the I Ching: 'After the Chinese revolution, when Tsingtao became the residence of a number of the most eminent scholars of the old school, I met among them my honored teacher Lao Nai-hsua.'

In the ten years from 1913, Wilhelm worked with Lao to translate the I Ching from Chinese into German, and this translation proved to be the most influential Western translation of this ancient text, translated in turn into many other languages itself. Wilhelm wrote of the process: 'Lao first opened my mind to the wonders of the Book of Changes. Under his experienced guidance I wandered entranced through this strange yet familiar world. The translation of the text was made after detailed discussion. Then the German version was retranslated into Chinese and it was only after the meaning of the text had been fully brought out that we considered our version to be truly a translation.' Lao died in 1921, and Wilhelm's translation and commentary was finally concluded in 1923.

Wilhelm returned to Germany in 1924, taking a post as Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Frankfurt, and he founded the China Institute in 1925. He became a good friend of Carl Gustav Jung, and not only did Jung provide introductions to Wilhelm's two most important translations, I Ching: Book of Changes and the Taoist alchemical treatise The Secret of the Golden Flower, but these works also had a vital influence on Jung's own theories and writings.

Wilhelm held the belief that Christians should look to find God in China rather than attempt to proselytize, and he told Jung that during the whole of his time in China, he never baptized a single Chinese. He felt that his mission was to form a bridge between Western and Eastern spirituality. Jung wrote in his memoirs: 'Wilhelm had been the perfect disciple of the Chinese sage, Lau Nai-hsuan, the fulfillment of the wish dream of the sage. Wilhelm seemed completely Chinese in outward manner as much as in his way of writing and speaking. The point of view of ancient Chinese culture had penetrated him through and through.'

This Chinese identity was a source of internal conflict that caused difficulties after his return to Europe. Jung felt that Wilhelm 'seemed to feel the pressure of the European spirit', and the psychological conflict between his Eastern and Western sides took its toll. Richard Wilhelm died in 1930, aged 57.

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