I am looking for a more concrete definition of what an eastern sage is and an explanation of the background of the eastern sage.

Many translations of eastern martial arts feature sages. They are generally people who have "transcended" humanity, possessing supernatural powers, and very long lifespans, but short of godhood.

This is opposed to the traditional western definition of a sage, which is a very wise and knowledgeable person, with connotations of great age, but still very much human. I am not looking for more information on this type of sage.

I've tagged this as Chinese, but I've seen references to sages in many Asian cultures including Japanese and Korean as well.

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    In its current form this question is too broad: I'm very sure that the meaning of sage is different between Asian cultures, and even between different Asian myths (i.e. one myth describes a sage differently from another). What is your source for "They are generally people who have 'transcended' humanity, possessing supernatural powers, and very long lifespans"? This question would be much better if it was about a specific story or portrayal of a "sage".
    – user62
    Jul 18, 2015 at 20:34
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    This is question #300.
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 18, 2015 at 20:47
  • @Christofian "Many translations of eastern martial arts feature sages" -> my sources are martial arts novels I've read, including chinese, japanese, and korean. The most recent one that I came across is the manhwa "chronicles of the cursed sword" (Yeo Beop Ryong, Park Hui Jin).
    – anon
    Jul 19, 2015 at 0:02
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    I realize that the portrayal will be different depending on the specific myth, but there should be common themes. That statement that particular aspects will be different in different myths is in itself "too broad", as you can apply that to any story, myth or otherwise, for example, vampires. A specific portrayal of a sage would render the question moot. For example, if we take "Heaven Rivaling Great Sage", the sage is a title, it means something, describing the monkey king as a sage is different then describing a sage and attributing certain traits as why he has the title of sage.
    – anon
    Jul 19, 2015 at 0:05
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    @Christofian Please define culture/tradition. From a top down view, Eastern, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, as posted in the OP. And yes, I agree that the MA novels are not accurate, which is why I'm asking for clarification. If I could read chinese, japanese, or korean, i would research it myself. Unfortunately, any english searches I do results in western (original) definitions and entomology of the word "sage".
    – anon
    Jul 21, 2015 at 2:48

4 Answers 4


Before we can derive the meaning behind the word, we need to first understand where the term originates. These sages can be considered philosophers that use their wisdom to help shape the foundation of Chinese culture, society, and even politics. But is that all?

Because much of Eastern Asian culture, language, and philosophy were borrowed from the Chinese to some extent, (I understand there are exceptions), for brevity I will focus mostly on its Chinese origin.

There is a work originating from before the Xia Dynasty concerning the "Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors" (三皇五帝, Sānhuáng wǔdì) (who they are differ depending on the source [see link]. I will not attempt to name them in order to avoid confusion). In it, there are three figures regarded as "Three Sovereigns," who are hailed as "god kings," and are considered the ultimate cultural heroes (and regarded as demi-gods in the myths) of Chinese history. They are said to have had magical powers and are credited with the basic technological inventions, social structure, and political norms of the time. During despotic times these figures are said to have been invoked as paragons of leadership.

The "Five Emperors" subsequently were regarded as legendary figures,"sages kings" depicted with perfect moral character. These figure were more worldly but historically intangible figures, like a mythical tribe leader, compared to the "Three Sovereigns," who were considered divine beings.

In essence these can be considered the first "sages" of Chinese legend.

Confucius is known to have revered these figures, Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun (two of the Five Emperors, according to some sources), Yu the Great (described to be a decendant of the Yellow Emperor, one of the Three Soverigns by some sources) the three true sages 聖(人) (Shèng[rén]), as the pinnacle of human perfection, the equivalent of a saint in some regards.

In Taoism the equivalent would be "" (Xiān), (the character itself can mean hermit or rather literally "mountain person"[人+山]), related to Eight Immortal Scholars of the Han, but the meaning has changed quite a bit over time. Thus the meaning of those two titles by themselves are the equivalent of the Buddhist term for the "enlightened/awakened one" (Buddha, which is a title, not a name).

In short, the title of "sage" is what you would call an "enlightened one," in a philosophical and/or spiritual sense. While the names may differ their end destinations are the same. Both Confucianism and Taoism walk the same path, but their ideals about it are different. Taoism seeks to free itself from worldly desires (as a hermit would live, confronting problems through the way of nature), but Confucianism is more about being a man of action, upholding the established hierarchy and fulfilling their given role as best they can (i.e. conquering problems through cultivating intellect and morals).


The term sage usually seems to be a translation of the character: 聖 (simplified: 圣, Pinyin: shèng)

Or a combination of it with other characters.

Sun Wukong's title in Journey to the West, for instance, is 齊天大聖, and is translated "Great Sage, Equal of Heaven" (or similar), where 大聖 is the "Great Sage" bit (大 for large, great).

So, what does the character 聖 mean:

The Chinese character 聖 (shèng) refers to a sage or a saint, or the quality of being holy, sacred, or revered.
聖 (shèng) is an ideogrammic (associative) compound, created from the combination of three other characters.
壬 (rén) on the bottom depicts a scholar, gentleman, or soldier (士, shì/shi) carrying a load on a pole (丿, piě). 口 (koǔ/kou) on the top-right is the character for mouth, and 耳 (ěr) on the top-left is the character for ear. Together they depict a person with superior speaking and listening skills.
Chinese Character for Saint, Sage: Shèng (聖)

The character, in this context, certainly seems to refer to a wise teacher or authority, and seems to imply holiness or divinity. The precise meaning would likely depend on context:

圣贤 - Might refer to a wise holy man
圣人 - Might be used to refer to Confucius or the Emperor
圣手 - A sage/divine doctor

A number of other usage examples can be found:

  • This answer is something along the lines of what I'm looking for. Do you know when the implied divinity got added?
    – anon
    Jul 23, 2015 at 21:22
  • @ton.yeung No, I wouldn't be comfortable with even guessing it's meaning involving holiness was a late addition. Given that the character can refer directly to that quality, I'd be more inclined to guess the opposite might be true, but that's speculation.
    – femtoRgon
    Jul 23, 2015 at 21:33
  • I actually found the answer to my question after digging a bit more and playing around with some chinese translators, not sure if i should make it an answer, though. The translations conflated two different concepts and called them sages, when they're actually immortals.
    – anon
    Jul 23, 2015 at 21:34

I can see this topic hasn’t been touched upon recently, so this may me void of any purpose, for you all may have already found this out for yourselves.

I would like to point out that TimLymington has a good point. There’s a certain connotation of context, and what your intention of the meaning you seek of the word.

I believe the actual term you are looking for is 仙人, which is apparently a middle-Chinese loanword borrowed by the Japanese. It specifies, someone who is generally considered a hermit, wise, sage-like, and more often than not immortal (transcending dozens of generations). English transliteration is Sēnnin.

These different terms encompass the epitome of what we all imagine a “sage-like” figure to be. Generally old in appearance, hermitical, knowledgeable in multiple disciplines if not also archaic and esoteric arts, and more often than not the immortality often associated with being a “sage.” Many of these sages can also perform unique feats outside their “divinity” or “enlightenment” like manipulation of elements, the transmutation of substance, teleportation, astroprojection, flight, and increased various physical capabilities that would otherwise be considered “immortal” as in not of mortal quality/standards/parameters.


Great sage of the Lin family states that the term great sage refers to a sage that has transcended normal sage stature and ontol the realm of godliness. This transition is natural given the premise sage into great sage; or; sage < great sage. However that is not to disrespect the sage. For little sage > great sage in some respects. Rather, the differences must be appreciated. Suppose the great sage is at the vanguard of humanity and whimming away as it pleases him.

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