The English word "philosopher" comes from the Greek, and literally means "lover of wisdom." But what is the literal translation of the analogous term in Chinese?

(There's more to this question than idle curiosity --I'm interested in how other cultures conceptualize philosophy, a notoriously difficult discipline to define.)

I 'd also be interested in terms from other languages, as long as they don't descend from the Greek term.

  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nishi_Amane
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 18, 2019 at 1:25
  • 1
    In India Darshan means 1. (ordinary colloquial use) vision as in to see the deity in the temple or more publicly when he/she comes out on festivals 2. (mysticism) vision of God 3. Systems of philosophy. IOW religion, mysticism and philosophy are all cognate with seeing the truth
    – Rushi
    Commented Jun 18, 2019 at 1:54
  • They call it Zhéxué jiā. Zhéxué is philosophy, with Zhé character standing for wisdom, and Xué for study. Jiā stands for home/family. So something like "familiar to the study of wisdom", "scholar of wisdom".
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 18, 2019 at 4:06
  • jia here would mean expert -- not family (same character though).
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 18, 2019 at 4:11
  • 1
    By the way, there are two types of metaphysics in Daoist philosophy : Xing Er Shang Xue (形而上学 meaning something like 'the study of what is above the form' or 'the study of the form and beyond') and (形而下学 xing er xia xue = the study of what lies under the form'..etc). I do not personally know why there are two words for metaphysics, but I know that the western word 'metaphysics' is translated to 形而上学
    – SmootQ
    Commented Jun 18, 2019 at 13:43

2 Answers 2


The introduction to Jeniffer Liu's 2016 thesis The Problem of Philosophy in Classical Chinese Thought goes in depth into the genesis of Chinese terms associated with philosophy, and shades of meaning surrounding them. The older term that referred to the works of classical masters was zǐ shū, but its identification with philosophy is controversial:

"A recent study by Wiebke Denecke has proposed to view the works of the pre-Qin “masters” (諸子 zhūzǐ) as ‘literature.’ She rightly notes that ‘Chinese philosophy’ was first and foremost a Jesuit invention stemming from their pioneering efforts to translate the Chinese Classics. Denecke then takes pains to illustrate the problematics of translating the zhūzǐ as ‘philosophy’ (mostly by a somewhat superficial and at times misleading understanding of the history of philosophy as well as a rather outdated knowledge of the field of philosophy today) advocating instead for viewing “Masters literature” as a “discursive space.” In explaining why “literature” is a more fitting designation than “philosophy,” she gives two reasons: “because it [i.e. zǐ shū 子書 ‘masters literature’] was coined relatively soon after the pre-Qin period in the Han and because it was an indigenous label rather than one developed in comparison to and competition with the vastly different Greco-Roman heritage…” While her desire to break free of labels is commendable, and while it is perfectly acceptable to want to open up new ways of looking at the zhūzǐ, it is never entirely clear how Denecke wishes to define the genre of “literature,” nor does she give convincing arguments as to why “Masters literature” is more suitable than “Masters philosophy.”"

As mentioned in the comments, the modern term is Zhéxué jiā:

"As a noun, the word zhé means “illuminated wisdom; the possession of wisdom,” and in definition (2) meaning “one who is worthy and perceptive/clear-sighted.” Taken together with 學 xué “learning, study,” we can understand it as “the study of illuminated wisdom”, or “the study of the worthy/wise person”— study here meaning to learn by observing and imitating."

But its origins are recent and influenced by Europeans. Zhéxué is the translation of Japanese tetsugaku coined by Nishi Amane, and promoted by Meiji Period intellectuals, who sought to modernize Japan in the Western direction. By the late 19th century the term was used at the Tokyo university as the translation of "philosophy". Huáng Zūnxiàn (1848-1905), a Chinese diplomat in Japan, rendered tetsugaku as zhéxué after observing its use there. Peking University offered zhéxué courses since 1918, and the older masters, like Confucius, were subsumed under the term:

"The role of the Meiji intellectuals in shaping the Chinese view of ‘Chinese philosophy’ cannot be underestimated. Yet what was initially a Japanese translation of the Western term ultimately evolved into a larger question of what kinds of thought could be subsumed into a somewhat abstract understanding of ‘philosophy’... Many Meiji scholars had studied abroad in European countries, and were exposed to the philosophy curriculum therefrom. This meant exposure to philosophy as an academic discipline, which included subjects such as logic, epistemology, methodology, et cetera.

[...] The first person officially known to coin the term using the two Chinese graphs 哲學 was the Japanese scholar Nishi Amane 西周 (1829-1897)... he seemed ambivalent as to whether what he ultimately called tetsugaku should be restricted to the Western discourses, or if it should entail Eastern thought as well. Initially, Nishi had referred to “philosophy” as the Western tradition of “the study of human nature and the principles of things” (seiri no gaku 生理之學), the terminology reminiscent of Neo-Ruism. Around the same time, in the Hyakugaku renkan 百学連環 he called it kitetsugaku きてつがく [希哲学]and hirosohi ヒロソヒvariously, in the sense of to love and seek wisdom. Elsewhere, he seems to want to equate it with the Western branch of logic. By 1874 he refers to ‘philosophy’ consistently as tetsugaku throughout his works...

Nishi identifies philosophy with a specific school of thought in China, Ruism, and this appears to be what he has in mind here when comparing the two traditions. Ostensibly for Nishi, the Japanese version of Ruisim would be the Eastern counterpart to Western philosophy... As part of the academic curriculum, we see that by the late nineteenth century the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University 東京帝國大學 had included Shina tetsugaku 支那哲學 (Chinese philosophy) as a distinct discipline, belonging to the department of Japanese and Chinese Literature and Philosophy.

[...] The first Chinese scholar to bring back the concept of tetsugaku, now uttered as zhéxué in Chinese, was Huáng Zūnxiàn 黃遵憲 (1848-1905), a diplomat sent to Japan where he had observed the academic divisions of Tokyo Imperial University. One such division of relevance was the Faculty of Letters 文學部, which was further divided into three sections 科, tetsugaku being one section. Huáng explained zhéxué as that which explicated the “norms of the way” 道 義. China soon followed suit, with Peking University being the first to establish a zhéxué xì 哲 學系 in 1918...

Compilations of the history of a Chinese philosophy began in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century, and were picked up and modeled after by the Chinese.34 We see this convention of designating the Masters as ‘philosophers’ beginning with at least Hu Shih, Fung Yu-lan, and others from the early twentieth century. It is interesting to note that the zhūzǐ seem to more often be considered as philosophical whereas the jīngdiǎn less so, with the exception of the Lúnyǔ 論語 and the Mēngzǐ 孟子,the latter of which can be considered to belong to the Masters".

  • There were two mistakes (possibly in the original?) with the Chinese characters for Japanese.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 18, 2019 at 5:15
  • @virmaior I think we were editing at the same time, I am not sure if your correction was saved.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 18, 2019 at 5:17

Conifold's answer is correct in relation to Modern China. But from my understanding, Ancient China uses a variety of words to describe their "philosophers".

For example, in the Spring and Autumn Period (春秋), philosophers are addressed by their last name followed by the word "子”. So, Confucius is called "孔子”, or Master Kong. Mencius is addressed as "孟子", or Master Meng, and so on.

However, as China progresses to the age corresponding to the Middle Ages in Europe, the ”子” address seems to have fallen out of favour.

In the transition to Modern China, the most common title I have heard is "古圣先贤” or "圣人” or "贤人”, loosely translated as Ancient Sages, Virtuous Men. A quick Baidu search reveals that 古圣先贤 has its origins in Dream of the Red Chamber, which is a work that dates back to the Qing Dynasty. I have also seen the phrase being used in Republican China (now, Taiwan)

But in Modern China, all these terms have fallen out of favour. "Philosophers" are addressed as 哲学家, which is a very academic term, as seen in Conifold's answer.

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