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Germany and China: Transnational Encounters since the Eighteenth Century

0 Comments 🕔10.Sep 2015

Although the relationship between Germany and China dates back more than four centuries, German Studies scholars have been slow to delve into discussions of the various and multi-faceted ties between these two nations. Thanks largely to the efforts of a new generation of scholars, however, the field of German-Chinese studies has become quite robust. Despite this increased attention, there have been relatively few edited volumes on Sino-German relations, and even fewer that cover the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in any real detail. Into this milieu steps Joanne Miyang Cho and David Crowe’s edited collection, Germany and China: Transnational Encounters since the Eighteenth Century, which rises to the challenge of presenting the best scholarship currently being done in German-Chinese studies. Cho and Crowe’s volume provides a series of lively essays that seek to provide “a more comprehensive presentation and broader analysis of Sino-German relations from the eighteenth to the twentieth century than any existing volume on this topic…while also presenting the most recent scholarship on these topics and transnational history” (15). Cho and Crowe succeed admirably in their efforts, providing a timely English language volume that will be an extremely valuable resource for Sino-German as well as Asian-European studies for years to come.

Divided into three chronological sections of five essays each, the pieces in Germany and China cover a broad range of topics that reveal the various and multi-faceted ways in which Germany and China have engaged with each other. The first section, which covers the eighteenth century until the end of World War I, presents a series of essays that explores the rise of German interest in China and some of the ways in which this increased interest came to manifest itself once Germany unified in 1871. The first three chapters examine several of the great thinkers and literary minds of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Leibniz, Christian Wolff, Hegel, and Karl Gützlaff), providing new, insightful analysis and readings of these authors’ works on China.  The following chapter, written by co-editor David Crowe, provides an excellent overview of the nature of Sino-German relations during the German Empire.

While many of the topics covered in this volume look at some aspect of the ties between China and the various states of Germany since the eighteenth century, many also look at the more personal interactions that occurred ‘on the ground’ between the Germans and the Chinese. In Lydia Gerber’s chapter, we see how different conceptions of hygiene and medical treatment between a German and (western-trained) Chinese doctor within the German sphere of influence in Shandong directly impacted German attempts to extend its influence in the region. Not only is Gerber’s work valuable due to its contribution to the study of early twentieth century medicine, but also because it examines the impact of the colonized on the colonizer and vice-versa. This has become a major trend in colonial studies, which, for a long time, saw such encounters as rigid polarizing exchanges between West and East.

Following the end of World War I, both Germany and China underwent a series of internal changes that dramatically affected the relationship between the two states. During the interwar years, China was particularly focused on rebuilding its relationship with the Weimar Republic, before then trying to secure this privileged position with the Third Reich, even as the conflict with Japan grew direr. Part II of this volume leads off with a chapter co-written by Christine Swanson and David Crowe that provides an excellent overview of the historical background on the evolution of Sino-German relations. The remaining four chapters explore places of cultural, geographical, and intellectual exchange between Germany and China. These essays reveal profound transcultural exchanges between Germany and China by delving into diverse topics such as the founding of a distinctly Chinese school of geopolitical thought by Chinese intellectuals drawing on the works of German geographers, the influence of Chinese religion and philosophy on the texts of Herman Hesse, and the privileged place of Chinese thought in the ethical and moral thinking of Albert Schweitzer. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these chapters is Lee Roberts’s on the experience of the nearly 20,000 Jews who sought refuge from the Third Reich in Shanghai. While scholars have grown more familiar with this remarkable story, Roberts’s examination of contemporary literature and the Shanghailanders’ memoirs highlights the durable and long-standing legacy of the ‘Yellow Peril’ and its impact on the Shanghailanders’ experiences.

The final section of this volume covers the post-1945 period. The chapters in this section focus more on encounters between Germany and China at official levels, particularly focusing on the shifting view of China in both East and West Germany, and the effect that China’s emergence as a major player on the world stage affected policies in the divided German states. The notable exception among these chapters is Min Zhou’s chapter on travel writings in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. This chapter describes how three authors (Max Frisch, Günther Grass, and Adolf Muschg) altered the relationship between self and other, prompting a deeper examination of modernity and its perils in a world where past, present, and future are omnipresent (vergegenkunft).

For a volume that seeks to present the ever-growing depth and breadth of German-Chinese studies, Germany and China succeeds admirably in doing so. The reader is exposed to a variety of topics across multiple disciplines that clearly fit with recent historical trends to look at transnational and transcultural encounters. Indeed, depending one’s interests, many of the essays in this volume will provide valuable insights into new topics and raise a host of probing questions for future study. Part I of this volume is particularly valuable in this respect, as German-Chinese interactions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have tended to be less studied than those of the twentieth century, a point the editors themselves raise in their introduction to this volume. It is refreshing, then, to see one-third of Germany and China devoted to the period prior to World War I. Although aspects of German colonialism and the German missionary presence tend to be the areas of greatest focus in studies of Sino-German encounters in the nineteenth century, there remain many promising avenues to explore, as the inclusion of the essays by Lydia Gerber and Martin Rosenstock clearly reveal. David Crowe’s overview of Sino-German relations in the nineteenth century is also especially valuable, as it provides a concise and easy to understand analysis of the changing relationship between the two states during a period in which European interest in China was at its peak and interactions between German and China were ever-changing. Crowe’s chapter (and its sequel on Sino-German relations during the interwar years that leads off Part II) stands to become a valuable reference for German-Chinese and German-Asian scholars for years to come.

While all of the essays collected in this volume are exceptional, several stood out in particular due to the nature of their topics and the probing questions and insights they raised. The works of Lydia Gerber and Lee Roberts (discussed above) have added fresh perspectives to two widely studied subject areas, German colonialism and the Holocaust, respectively. Martin Rosenstock’s chapter is also quite exceptional, as it provides a new way to examine the presence of German missionaries in China and their important roles as mediators of transcultural encounters and exchanges. Shellen Wu’s piece is a fascinating study of transnational intellectual networks and the rise of geopolitics as a field of inquiry. The interwar years have always been known for the rich intellectual exchanges that occurred as a result of Europe trying to find its way again after World War I, and Wu’s chapter demonstrates just how far-reaching this search for new truths was. Finally, while many of the contributions in Part III were exceptional, Michael Mayer’s chapter on the reaction of the two Germanies to Tiananmen Square and China’s response to the fall of the Berlin Wall and German Reunification stood out. Although many readers are likely aware that both of these signature events occurred in 1989 (barely five months apart), few have perhaps considered how closely linked these events are, especially in terms of how rapidly foreign policy had to shift in all three states. Mayer provides a succinct and compelling account of these events and their ramifications on reunification and China’s relationship with a newly reunited Germany.

Several of the works collected in this volume focus on the interactions between Germany and China in terms of literature and philosophy, although it would be interesting to see other ways in which the cultures of these two states intersected with each other. If anything, it would have been worthwhile to have seen greater internal balance within the three sections between chapters on intellectual and cultural exchanges ‘on the ground’ and political, economic, and diplomatic topics—Part I is heavy on the former, while Part III is quite heavy on the latter. Additionally, the essays in this volume focus primarily on interactions and exchanges between the Germans and Chinese that occur in China in one way or another, and only one chapter, Shellen Wu’s, addresses encounters and influences in Germany as well. It would certainly be interesting to see additional chapters devoted these types of exchanges. To be fair, this is perhaps the least studied aspect in German-Chinese studies currently, but some very promising work has recently been published. Sebastian Conrad, for example, produced an exceptionally intriguing chapter on the use of Chinese labor in nineteenth century Germany in his recent work, Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany (originally published in German in 2006; an English edition appeared in 2010). The only other element that seems to be missing in this volume is a chapter or two on topics in war and society. The experiences of World War I and II (not to mention other conflicts such as the Sino- and Russo-Japanese Wars, or the Korean and Vietnam Wars) and their impact on encounters between Germans and the Chinese would be particularly captivating and add a further dimension to an already rich collection of studies.

Overall, Cho and Crowe’s edited volume provides a fresh, engaging, and compelling look at the dynamic emerging field of German-Chinese studies. While there are some minor points to quibble with, Cho and Crowe have produced a thoughtful and diverse collection of essays.  Germany and China: Transnational Encounters since the Eighteenth Century is an excellent addition to the growing historiography in this field, and should find a lasting place in the collections of established and young scholars alike.

Reviewed by Matthew A. Yokell, Texas A&M University

Germany and China: Transnational Encounters since the Eighteenth Century
edited by Joanne Miyang Cho, David M. Crowe
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardcover / 304 pages / 2014
ISBN: 9781137438461

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