Shengren – Chapter 2.7 – The Decline of German-Language Scholarship

Denke ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, Dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht. [Should I think of Germany at night, it puts all thought of sleep to flight…][1]

– Heinrich Heine, Nachtgedanken

The spirit of the German people, the professionalism and rigidness of its society, its spiritual tidiness due to its Weltfremdheit (worldly innocent) and anti-foreignness, could not prevent the steady decline of German language scholarship. That’s because there are other people, other cultures and nations that sooner or later will step in and prevent the Germans from what they always wanted to be: eine Weltmacht (today: a super-power). Since the end of the First World War, it was obvious to everyone that the Germans, in a most reliable manner, persistently wanted to be more than they are made for, lost a major crusade against the West, and was thus stripped off their mandate (to conquer, colonize, and rule), not only in politics, military, and culture, but also in scholarship.[2] Everything that could go wrong for German education, in particular for its capacity to study and comprehend the outside world, did go wrong. The professor of Chinese Literature Martin Kern wrote about the mass immigrations (in elite terms, a few hundreds already is a mass) of – among others – German sinologists that took place between the two Wars and thereafter in his The Emigration of German Sinologists 1933-1945 (1998). Other scholars published similar research on the fall of German speaking Oriental scholarship: Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair (1963), Fritz Ringer’s The German Universities and the Crisis of Learning 1918-1932 (1961) and The Decline of the German Mandarins 1890-1933 (1990), Georg Fülberth’s Finis Germaniae (2007), and Suzanne Marchand’s German Orientalism (2009), all painted a rather gloomy portrait of Germany’s once so ambitious Drang nach Osten (the yearning for the East).

While the interim dysfunction of certain branches of scholarship during and shortly after the Wars could be explained as the result of war (and the holocaust), other factors were at work in Germany too. The country’s fragmented history (it had not achieved political unity before 1871), civil wars and clashes with its neighbors (most notable in the Thirty Years’ War [1618-1648] and the Napoleonic Wars [1803-1815]) and the late but rapid industrialization and militarization, the late run for colonies, the late rise to Great Power status, and its Untergang (downfall) – all left their scars on the German psyche: a deeply rooted pessimism, the need for order, rigidness, and regulations, a fear for modernity, and – since the German language is under siege in business, entertainment, and academia – a mild form of cultural despair.

Although German was the most spoken mother tongue in Europe (without Russia), approximately 95,000,000+ native speakers in 2010, the “linguistic solidarity”[3] of the German scholarly class was fragile at best. If a German scholar published in English, he or she increased his or her theoretical readership by the factor 100 (Germany has roughly 1,2% of the world’s population); if there was a choice of language at all, since most major scientific journals, especially the electronic ones, were now asking exclusively for English entries.[4] The historian of German Publishing Heinz Sarkowski made a point to be remembered that a hundred years ago the German language was the “lingua franca of the scientific community” and “German universities and science libraries provided a model for American and also for Japanese science”.[5] Only fifty years later, the short German glory already faded, and another fifty years later, English now has become the scientific and research language, by far and in total:

Das Deutsche, das sowohl in den Naturwissenschaften wie in den Geisteswissenschaften vom 19. bis in das 20. Jahrhundert (zumindest teilweise) vorherrschende Wissenschaftssprache war, hat diesen Rang inzwischen vollkommen eingebüßt. […] Es sollte an dieser Stelle nicht unerwähnt bleiben, dass die nihilistische Geistfeindlichkeit der Nazis viel dazu beigetragen hat, die deutsche Wissenschaftssprache und Wissenschaftskultur international zum Verschwinden zu bringen.[6] [German (language) was (at least in part) the predominant language in the sciences and the humanities in the 19th and 20th century, but has now altogether lost its position […] It should be stressed at this point to mention that the nihilistic spirit of hostility of the Nazis has contributed much to the demise of German language culture in the world.]

One had to carefully distinguish between German scholarship and German language scholarship. German scholarship never declined: the Germans just published in English now. The German language scholarship on the other hand was in free fall, at least in business studies, finance, entertainment, diplomacy, and the sciences (that included the humanities). German universities were now offering English language degrees and courses. One could rightly speak of the death of the German (Humboldt’sche) University:

[…] dass die deutsche Universitätstradition […] mit der Transformation der Sprache der englisch-amerikanischen College-Kultur weichen mußte, war vorauszusehen. Der heutige Umbau der Universitäten zur englischen Einheitsuniversität, mit den entsprechenden Prüfungen und Graduierungen (B.A., M.A., B.S., M.S. etc.) ist folgerichtig, aber er beseitigt natürlich die Differenzqualität der deutschen Universität […][7] [That the German university tradition… would vanish along its transformation into an English-American college culture was predictable. The current restructuring of our universities into British ones, with their appropriate tests and graduate degrees such as B.A., M.A., B.S., M.S. etc. is logical, but it eliminates the difference and qualities of the German University.]

In addition to the pressure and demands from the international community, in particular the European Union and the United Nations, to liberalize its education system, Germany was now totally exposed to global educational research and evaluation. In contrary to erroneous popular German belief, German students were just of average intelligence,[8] and German universities could no longer compete globally, for example, with Tsinghua University and Peking Univerisity in mainland China, and a handful of Hong Kong’s universities, letting alone the Ivy Leagues of North America and Britain.[9] It now seemed that Germany had to admit more foreign students, not that it wanted to. Moreover, the thuggish practice by German legislators to systematically refuse foreign degrees and diploma (which humiliated and degraded hundred thousands of skilled migrants and their families, preferably from Eastern Europe and Asia; approximately 300,000 foreigners still in 2011)[10] has never been stopped, more out of Teutonic pride than a lack of print and paper.

The way Oriental languages are studied had greatly changed for the Germans by the end of the 20th century. The Germans now increasingly studied Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, and Arab using English textbooks and instructions, in particular when attending language schools and universities in those countries. No research on whether English as the language of instruction was detrimental or not to learning a third foreign language has been published so far; yet the constant exposure to the international lingua franca abroad, English, certainly has some effects on the young German’s minds and their future international career plans. German schools often wisely abstain from calling English a Fremdsprache (foreign language) at all, but rather take it as a main subject besides Deutsch and Geschichte. One gets the idea that German language still has not opened up to foreign cultures and concepts; it just has granted English to play a greater part in it, otherwise for the time being where would new ideas come from, the Germans still guard against hundreds of thousands of Hindu or Chinese names and concepts that are always ready to take a slight detour into Western Europe. In fact, the little size of German culture realistically makes it hard even to take in Turkish or Persian culture, its names and concepts, but that aside. Given the decline of German language Oriental studies in the last hundred years (it was never in really good shape before that), what did German scholarship actually know about China and the Far East and to what extent was mutually understanding on a cultural level possible? The answer must be: Germany still lived in the pre-War Eurocentric world, had little understanding of Chinese culture, no tolerance for Eastern traditions, and still had no concept for sages and sagehood:

The two wars then denied Germany finally and irreversible the evolution toward multiculturalism. They have succumbed in the Eurocentric world-view.[11]

The size of one’s culture seems to matter, and the Germans know that with regards to their relations with the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, and Lichtenstein, etc. But they tend to ignore that reality when it comes to China. Here they feel as big as China, bigger. Yet, everything in China is greater, more ancient, and wiser. China just is great, while Germany has to try hard. Of course, there is nothing wrong with “trying hard”, it will lead to success here and there, but also to a need for gangster-like alliances. But being great would not hurt any trying harder. Naturally, the Germans per se wished mighty China would break its legs or fall apart while learning to walk on the global stage, rather than one day ruling the world (together with Americans and Indians) and making German culture look unique and diligent but ultimately quite insignificant.

When Robert K. G. Temple, British bestselling author and Visiting professor at Tsinghua University, published The Genius of China (1987), the UNESCO embraced his book and initiated the translation into 43 languages. The German publisher felt “Genius” an overestimation and instead named the book Das Land der Fliegenden Drachen (1999) [The Land of the Flying Dragons], possibly a reference to countries where dragons walked. In 2008, the editorial board of “one of Germany’s top scientific institutions, the Max Planck Institute” wanted to “grace the cover of a special issue of its MaxPlanckForschung Journal” but instead of Chinese poetry it printed a brothel ad proclaiming “Hot Housewives in Action!”.[12] The news about this funny but embarrassing blunder was published nationwide and across Europe,[13] and became a blogger sensation in China. One Hong Kong website started its response: “Wenn man kein Chinesisch kann…” [If one does not know Chinese…].[14] Which is quite accurate: to the Europeans the general way to conduct “business” abroad has not changed significantly since the time of Imperialism and Colonialism. Especially the Germans, always a little bit late and slow, still send white German males with absolutely no knowledge of Chinese abroad, accompanied by some loyal expats who are paid exorbitant salaries and bonuses to set them wide and apart from their Chinese peers, hire a few local Chinese translators, and socialize only within the Western establishments (with the exceptions of some local brothels and escort services) like in Xuhui district in Shanghai (the old French concession) or Chaoyang district in Beijing. The German Journal above had consulted a German sinologist prior to publishing the piece, but he or she had no idea what the piece really said – the German expert thought it was just beautiful Chinese poetry. Another scandal in the German-China relationship was the Deutsche Welle’s firing of its China correspondent and fluent German speaker (she worked in Germany for nineteen years) Zhang Danhong. Deutsche Welle is Germany’s propaganda channel and international broadcaster, and Ms Zhang caused a public outrage when she announced the following on German air:

Es ist China gelungen, in den letzten dreißig Jahren 400 Millionen Menschen aus absoluter Armut zu befreien. Damit hat die KP-China mehr als jede andere politische Kraft auf der Welt zu Artikel 3 der Menschenrechte beigetragen.[15] [China has managed to the 400 million people out of absolute poverty in the last 30 years. Thus, the Communist Party of China contributed more than any other political force in the world to Article 3 of the Charta of Human Rights.]

After Ms Zhang had lost her position and reputation, some German commentators concluded that, technically, her statement was correct, that the Chinese government indeed had helped millions of its people out of poverty. That was all the more evident since other German journalists, among them the respected China-correspondent Georg Blume, had made similar comments on China and about the Party before. Nevertheless, as Ulrich Wickert, a prominent German intellectual, journalist and author, cynically remarked on the double standard of Germany’s media: “Was ein Deutscher sagt, darf eine Chinesin noch lange nicht sagen”[16] [If a German does say it, that’s a far cry from saying that a Chinese (female) may say the same]. Monika Lehner, a German sinologist, confirmed the overwhelmingly negative attitude of the Germans: “Der grausame Chinese, der gelbe Chinese – diese Klischees sind leicht als solche zu entlarven und halten sich doch beständig[17] [The wicked Chinese, the yellow Chinese – those stereotypes are easy to expose yet they remain.]. Under the heading ‘Schluss mit der Arroganz’ (2010) [Away with (our) arrogance], Michael Blume, a scholar of religious studies published this:

Wir Menschen halten uns und unsere jeweilige Kultur gerne für die Spitze der Weltgeschichte. Für die deutsche Gesellschaft heute kann ich jedoch sicher sagen: Wir sind es nicht. Wir verschulden uns, jammern und implodieren mangels Kindern – und das alles inmitten von Freiheit, Reichtum und Lebenserwartung, von denen noch unsere Großeltern nur träumen konnten. Wir repräsentieren eine seit Jahrzehnten (aus-)sterbende Kultur […] Aber WENN wir schon Migranten benötigen, um Industriestandorte zu halten und die Pflege unserer zunehmend vereinsamten Älteren zu organisieren, dann wäre ETWAS WENIGER ARROGANZ gegenüber anderen Kulturen und Religionen sicher angebracht. [We human beings all like to regard ourselves and the culture we belong to as the pinnacle of world history. For the German society today, I can say for sure: We are not. We borrow, we whine and implode {as a country} because of our lack of children – all in the midst of freedom, wealth, and high life expectancy, of which our grandparent’s generation could only dream of. {Yet} We represent a for decades now dying culture {…} But since we are ALREADY depending on migrants to maintain our industrial prowess and to organize the care for our increasingly lonely elderly, it would be more than just appropriate to attach LESS ARROGANCE towards other cultures and religions.

The German bestselling author Frank Sieren, who resided in Beijing, once criticized (in English) the overwhelmingly negative German reporting on China: “It’s strange – watching from afar, the Germans don’t appear to be self-doubting, but rather tend to consider themselves the center of the world’s civilization”.[18] Why all that German animosity toward China? One had to be remembered that China-German business relationships – as opposed to ideological and cultural ones – had been excellent since China’s opening-up reforms in 1978; so why did the Germans felt so much contempt for Chinese culture? The answer was simple, but complex: Germany, as Frank Sieren explained before, indeed saw itself “as the center of the world’s civilization”, and Germany had no reason to believe otherwise when it checked upon what Germany had already known from its past Oriental studies about China and the East. Germany had never discovered that China was a sage culture, and Germany had never thought of China being anything more than a pre-Christian, undeveloped, and backward society whose destiny it was to be dominated, culturally and intellectually, by its European masters (e. g. Hegel: “It is their necessary fate to be subjugated”[19]). The German “China-Bild” (image of China) was stuck with Hegel in the 19th century and had not developed much ever since.

No one would, I think, dispute that Germany has lost the cutting-edge status in Oriental Studies, perhaps forever. This was not only the fault of the Nazis […]. Germany was already beginning to lose its status at the time the Great War broke out – due to its sluggish adoption of comparative perspective, its prejudices for the ancient, as opposed to the modern world, its comparatively small toeholds in Asia, and its very late discovery of East Asian cultures.[20]

The historian Adrian Chan described the German “lack of understanding” of the most fundamental concepts in Chinese cultures in his Orientalism in Sinology (2009). Germany had never grasp the idea of sage cultures, and instead called the Chinese sages Philosophen or Heilige. The German thinkers never took China any more serious than a bad imitation of the West. Tuska Benes, a specialist in the cultural and intellectual history of nineteenth-century Germany, in her Babel’s Shadow: Language, Philology, and the Nation in Nineteenth-Century Germany (2008) gave another bleak assessment of Germany’s capability to understand China:

The negative associations with the study of Chinese in Germany suggest that the German national identification with the East, while it extended to the central Asian peoples who had supposedly sparked the tribal migrations, broke down at the Chinese border. Not being an inflectional language, Chinese was not so amenable to the techniques of comparative-historical philology as Indo-European tongues and was quickly stigmatized as a primitive, underdeveloped language.[21]

The deviation of German Oriental scholarship in general and German China scholarship in particular from international (English) scholarship had been so spectacular and obvious that it had become its own academic discipline “German Orientalism” organized in the United States, with now several experts (Marchand, Murti, Jenkins, Benes, etc.) who compare German-language Oriental scholarship to English-language Oriental scholarship. The Germans who did not understand sage culture and instead criticized and judged the Asians on every occasion, coldly and callously, would always cause conflict in the future, in disproportion to Germany’s actual size and position in the world.

Some have called for restrain. No matter what Germans think about other people’s positions and cultural traditions, they should always take into consideration Germany’s actual small place in the world and thus respect other people’s viewpoint. Even the German late chancellor Angela Merkel reminded her people that Germany is just half the size of Texas: “Deutschland ist eine europäische Mittelmacht” [Germany is a European middle-sized power].[22] There it was from their leader: not even a great power any more, just a middle one. In a world dominated by the United States and Anglo-Saxon culture, and now the rise of the entire East, the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, an admirer of Deng Xiaoping’s political ideas, had this to say about Germany’s role in the world: “Our ground is not world politics; it is not pursuing an atomic strategy, it is not Asia, it is not the Middle East nor the Far East or Africa – or field of work is in our European neighborhood”.[23] When nevertheless confronted by journalists why Germany should restrain itself from permanently criticizing China, Schmidt’s rebuff was clear and unequivocal: “Wir sehen China ganz falsch” [We see China all wrong].[24] It was true, the English-speaking world also engaged in criticism of China, sometimes even in blatant “China-bashing” on grounds of political and economical rivalry; nevertheless the rich experience of Asian cultures and the massive English language and cultural exchanges for hundreds of years gave the Anglo-Saxon world a better understanding of Chinese culture and, on a cultural level, respect for sage culture. It was an exchange among equals. The German-speaking world, a sub-culture, for historical and psychological reasons could not close up to the Anglo-Saxon one; it retreated instead:

Unsere spirituelle Subkultur ist eine mehr oberflächliche Spielart der großen östlichen Traditionen, und das deutsche Denken hat sich anscheinend darauf zurückgezogen, die Welt mit teuren und effizienten Autos zu beglücken. Deutschland ist heute das Land der Ingenieure, nicht das Land der Philosophen. Die Wiederentdeckung einer integralen und evolutionären Spiritualität erreicht uns heute vor allem aus Amerika. Dort werden heute die Vorarbeiten der idealistischen und romantischen Philosophie in neuen Formen weitergedacht. In Deutschland wagen wir es anscheinend noch nicht direkt, an diese wichtigen Strömungen unserer Geistesgeschichte anzuschließen.[25] [Our spiritual subculture is more superficial than that of the great Eastern traditions, and the German thinking has apparently retracted and specialized itself to bless the world with expensive and efficient cars. Germany is now the land of engineers, not the country of philosophers. The rediscovery of an integral and evolutionary spirituality reaches us today mostly from America. There [in America], the preparatory work done by idealistic and romantic philosophies is now developing further into new ways of thinking. In Germany, we obviously do not dare to connect directly to these important [new] trends of intellectual history.]

Can German-language scholarship recover from its decline? Yes, but this time it should not expand at the costs of others. Instead, the German language should let in everything; and by everything I mean foreign names and concepts. They should not even try to pretend that Aufklärung exactly means enlightenment. And for the sake of exact scholarship, they should call them junzi and shengren, not “Edler” and “Heiliger”.

[1] Königs, 2006

[2] Ringer, 1961

[3] Eisenberg, 2007

[4] Frühwald, 2000

[5] Sarkowski, 2001

[6] Frühwald, 2000

[7] Ibid.

[8] Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2009

[9] The Times HigherEducationWorldUniversity Rankings, 2008-2011

[10] Die Zeit, 2011 (23rd March)

[11] Marchand, 2009, p. 496

[12] The Independent, 2008 (9th Dec)

[13] Sueddeutsche, 2008 (10th Dec)

[14], 2008 (9th Dec)

[15] Sueddeutsche, 2009 (24th March)

[16] Ibid.

[17] Lehner, 2007

[18] Sieren, 2008

[19] Hegel, 1830, p. 174; 1930, p. 174

[20] Marchand, 2009, p. 496

[21] Benes, 2008, p. 94

[22] Merkel, 2006, “Mittelmacht”, in Welt

[23] Schmidt, 2010, “Keine Anmaßung”, in Die Zeit

[24] Schmidt, 2008, “Wir sehenChina ganz falsch”, in Westdeutsche Zeitung

[25] Steininger, 2010