Shengren – Chapter 1.4.2 – The Orientalists

The size of the investment on the part of the German state in Indological studies throughout the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries and the volume of the production of German Orientalist knowledge […] almost certainly surpassed all the rest of Europe and America combined.

– Sheldon Pollock, Deep Orientalism

Orientalism is closely linked to Colonialism and Imperialism, all three want to dominate – intellectually, physically, and historically – the people of the East. The European nations practiced Orientalism in different ways and with different degrees of intensity. Sheldon Pollock, Edward Said, Kamakshi Murti, and Suzanne Marchand have already successfully argued that German orientalism was very different from British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, or American orientalism. Germany (it was really a collection of German nations, headed by Prussia), a nation of poets and thinkers [Land der Dichter und Denker], started very late with colonialism and had little physical presence in China, and none in India. Nevertheless, German orientalism was no less violent and abusive, just more psychological:

German interest in ancient India developed because it was useful for widely varying German projects, including Romanticism and nationalism. German Indologists made successful arguments about the cultural and intellectual relevance of ancient India for modern Germany, leaving an ambiguous legacy including a deeper appreciation of South Asian culture as well as scholarly justifications for the warlike image of a Swastika-bearing Aryan ‘master race’.[1]

Germany had its own unique sense of mission: Sendungsbewusstsein. Combined with its Teutonic stubbornness and brutality, and German self-righteousness, the orientalists believed – with all their power of rationality – in Germanic authority over human history and human thought. There was no intention to relate to others, when the thinking subject was always the German and the rest of the world’s cultures were merely the objects of that German exquisite mind. Such unrestricted treatment, egoism, and independence appear dominant and full of self-confidence, and are thus very attractive, in nature just as in culture. The Germans would not argue with an Asian and consider his strange rituals and etiquette, attitude, tactfulness, respect for personal, emotional and cultural matters, respect for elders, but will say without delay what (they think) is right. Today, artists see this as an amusing example of cultural differences and a funny German stereotype. But until German culture was finally put into place and left toothless by the Allied Forces after the World Wars, the German cultural intolerance for others was not funny at all, it was a great problem.

Heinrich Heine, a famous German poet, believed that the German war-soul needed to be restraint:

Christianity – and this is its fairest merit – subdued to a certain extent the brutal warrior ardor of the Germans, but it could not entirely quench it; and when the Cross, that restraining talisman, falls to pieces, then will break forth again the ferocity of the old combatants, the frantic Berserker rage whereof Northern poets have said and sung so much.

And Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Ecce homo (1988) noted:

Where Germany spreads she corrupts culture… […] Every great crime against culture committed during the last four hundred years lies in the German conscience.

The German Hugo Preuß, a political theorist, wrote in his Das Deutsche Volk und die Politik (1915) about what he called the “grave German defect” in that country’s psyche that needed to be fixed at all costs – otherwise war was inevitable. Preuß further described the “eagerness of the German [spirit] to penetrate into all cultures”. Sometimes, in defense of German “intellectual barbarism” (Preuß) and the “blonde Biest” (Nietzsche), historians blamed the unfavorable geographic location of the German lands in the center of Europe, surrounded by opponent, ill-willed cultures. German orientalists, for example, could excuse German assertiveness with the rise of Social Darwinism in Europe. The biological view on social life had caused the brutal competition among races, and cultures. Oswald Spengler, the German historian and author of Der Untergang des Abendlandes [The Decline of the West] (1926), reminded Germany that: “A nation or an individual may die and leave no gap!”; and Heinrich von Treitschke, another German historian, urged unified Germany to show no restraints and use every possible means to beat its rivals: “Every virile people has established colonial power. All great nations in the fullness of their strength have desired to set their mark upon barbarian lands and those who fail to participate in the great rivalry will play a pitiable role in time to come”. Driven at home by social forces of the German Cult (e. g. German: rationalism, German romanticism, German idealism etc.), the rise of Germanism (blind worship of everything German), and various ideas of racial superiority (e. g. Ariosophie of Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels), Germany set out – much later than its rivals Great Britain and France – not to appreciate foreign cultures, but to explain them before others do.

Germany did not want to become Chinese or Indian. The German orientalists wanted to be in the position to explain Chinese and Indian cultures (and all cultures), not to emulate any of them. The Germans could not be the leaders or managers of the world which had fallen into the hands of the Anglo-Saxons. The Western alpha culture, the Anglo-Saxon world (now led by the United States), was always more generous than beta cultures such as France and Germany. Their prominence in the world let them have more, thus they could give more back. German historians instead concentrated on other tasks: they understood themselves as the analysts of the world. A leader or manager has to work with the people he leads and manages; Cultural Germany could not relate, and had little contact and experience with the people of Asia. Yet, an analyst only needed to look at data, with little concern for real people. Most German orientalists were analysts – they tried to make sense of what they read and explained the overall Western strategy in form of a monologue.

Explanatory power leads to authority. Authority means influence and command. With the Humboldt university reform in place, the Bildungsbürgertum, the historical sense of mission, and a remarkable self-confidence of one’s culture, race and ability, Germany explained the East.

Various German thinkers claimed mythological authority (in Herder, 1881; Zantrop, 1997), intellectual authority (in Said, 1979), historical authority (in Hegel, 1919), linguistic authority (in Humboldt, 1836), spiritual authority (in Mueller, 1833), moral authority [master and slave mentality] (in Nietzsche, 1888), even sexual authority (in Schlegel, 1808), and literary authority (in Hesse, 1922; Günther Grass, 1990). Edward Said, the Palestinian-American literary theorist, explained European authoritarian style in writing about the Orient in his Orientalism (1978):

There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it Is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces.

Every German thinker was a cell of that German network, and all cells were protected by Germany’s collective power. German thought was legitimized by the state through its common German language, institutions, regulations, and German military might that reserved itself the right to punishment and retaliation with violence and sanctions whenever German authority was challenged by foreign powers, such as during the Boxer rebellion in China around 1900. The Boxer rebellion was a Chinese uprising against the Western occupiers. Germany saw that as challenge to its legitimized authority, and thus an affront against the entire German and Western world order. German thinkers thought that the German world was Civilization. The difference between culture and civilization is this: a culture refers to the achievements of the human spirit; while a civilization refers to its material manifestations.[2] The West has managed to have everyone agree that all material manifestations of any culture are Western. A European visitor who sees a bridge or street in China will automatically assume that bridge or street has been brought to the Chinese by the West. The same is true of laws and regulations. The idea that there are laws and regulations independent from the West is absurd, and thinking otherwise is like thinking about a world without a creator – very hard to do for most people. Although there is only one Civilization left, the Western one, there are still many cultures living within that civilization. If one of those cultures, for example the Chinese one, touches upon the earth beneath it or lays its hands on material that no longer shall belong to a Western colonialist – that was considered an attack on the world’s Civilization. Therefore, the Chinese uprising against German authority was an affront against the entire world (even China, since China was to become part of the world). In 1900, Kaiser Wilhelm II sent the deutschen Ostasiatischen Expeditionskorps to Beijing. His instructions were precise and clear: “show no mercy”, “make no prisoners”, “avenge injustice” and “bring Civilization to China once and for all”.

The German orientalists denied China the authority over China’s own language and culture. Tens of thousand of Chinese terminology had to go, or were replaced with familiar German names, lest make mighty China seem as if it always belonged into tiny German encyclopedias.

It is dangerous for a conquering people to let the foreign tongue (of the conquered) be the vehicle for one’s own precious thought. That’s like reverse imperialism: the conqueror is slowly being assimilated. China might insist on ownership for Chinese thought, just like Europe insisted on its ownership of European thought traditions such as Greek philosophy or Christianity. Regardless, the Chinese concepts for now had to go. Junzi was bad, (British) “gentlemen” was better. Shengren was inacceptable, “Heilige” was understood. 2500 years of Chinese identity – the Europeans replaced it with European concepts in a matter of a few lazy, all-too-convenient translations.

German orientalists were explaining the Orient. Explaining another culture is an analytical process; it does not require experience [of that culture, language, literature etc.]; it only requires a systematic approach, a logical argument, and sound conclusion: It is the philosophical approach, again. Max Weber, the German historian, called the philosophical approach “Objectivity”. Weber’s “Objectivity”, used by all German orientalist I can think of (if they didn’t, they would not get a degree from any German university) meant that becoming an Oriental is not only undesirable but is in fact unhelpful to the successful German scholar and orientalist. Edward Said observed the following truism in German intellectual life:

There is some significance in the fact that the two most renowned German works on the Orient, Goethe’s Westöstlicher Divan and Friedrich Schlegel’s Űber die Sprache und Weisheit der Inder, were based respectively on a Rhine journey and on hours spent in Paris libraries.[3]

It is therefore evident that Germany never had the means nor the plan to understand Eastern cultures from an Eastern point of view. No matter how Indian one is and how many Indian languages one mastered, and no matter how native Chinese one is, it all will always have the exact opposite effect: it will degrade and compromise any individual’s real chance of becoming a German scholar on Indian or Chinese studies in Germany – ever. One has to be German, to speak German, to think and expressoneself in German language and thought (best after thirteen years of compulsory schooling and four to six years at a German university), in order to become a German orientalist. If it were any different, if Germany really wanted to understand Eastern cultures and experience Eastern traditions, the entire German scholarship of Asian Studies could and should be easily replaced by Asian scholars. The Germans are terrible afraid that foreigners might expose them, that their progressive dreams (Kant’s [biblical] End of all things; Hegel’s [philosophical] End of history) of German and Western cultural superiority over China and India are crushed by real life, that some Chinese or Indian experts who evidently grew up in it and mastered and experienced the Eastern traditions will show them their place. That is why the Germans – we will find this unspoken agreement throughout the German Christian and philosophic tradition – must ignore the true East. Instead they have to invent a German version of it that can only be discussed by their own scholars and those foreigners who were willing to be completely assimilated by German culture. Just like the physical borders of Germany are guarded against too many Eastern people, so are the cultural borders of Germany protected against too much Eastern mind.

[1] McGetchin, 2009

[2] Gu, 2011

[3] Said, 1976