Culture Article

Tom Zhixin Qu
/ Categories: News, Literature, Philosophy

Mechthild Leutner: my interest in China has remained unwavering all my life

Mechthild Leutner, the Dean of the Confucious Institute in Freie Universität Berlin and famous sinologist, is one of the German students who studied in China since the establishment of the PRC. Since 1974, when she first landed in China, her ties with China have continued for nearly 50 years. She said she enjoyed studying in China.

Located from tens of thousands of miles away, how did it start its relationship with China? What did Freie Universität Berlin contribute to enhanced understanding between China and Germany?

China News Service Reporter: Would you please share your stories with Sinology? What sparked your strong interest in China?

Mechthild Leutner: I received a book about Jesuit priest Johann Adam Schall von Bell as a present on my 15th birthday. His description of life in China fascinated me. Since then, I started reading more books about China, including Chinese history and philosophy and paid attention to China's modern development. Driven by such enthusiasm, I enrolled in two courses, Sinology and History, and began to learn Chinese. After Germany established diplomatic ties with the PRC, I applied for and received a Chinese scholarship from DAAD in 1973. I studied Chinese at the Beijing Language Institute (Beijing Language and Culture University) and contemporary China at Peking University.

Mechthild Leutner in Beijing in 1974. Photo by the Interviewer.

In 1978, I got a position as a teaching assistant at Freie Universität Berlin and began to help professors with Chinese national and sociology courses. In 1990, I was promoted to professor of sinology at the university. In 1981, Freie Universität Berlin signed cooperation agreements with Peking University, the first direct cooperation agreement between two universities. Based on this agreement, scholars were able to conduct research and teach at each other's universities. Around 2004, the German research centre was jointly established by Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt University and Peking University. In 2006, Peking University and Freie Universität Berlin cooperated to establish the Confucius Institute.

My interest in China has been unwavering all my life. As a scholar, I always focus on the contemporary history of China and the current situation. Studying China is more than my daily routine.

China News Service Reporter: What did you gain from Chinese Studies?

Mechthild Leutner: I have been very lucky because I have been focusing on the development of China, which I have been interested in throughout my studies and career. Through studying China, I have taught this knowledge to interested students and the general public. At the same time, I talked and worked with Chinese professors, students and people from all walks of life, enriching my career and personal life.

Mechthild Leutner joined an event in Beijing in 1974.

China News Service Reporter: You have witnessed the changes and developments in China over the past five decades. What is the logic behind these changes and developments?

Mechthild Leutner: China was developed into a modern industrialized country in 50 years. In many parts of China, the agricultural life and production seen in the 1970s have been replaced by industrialization and, more recently, digitalization. These major reforms, especially economic development in recent decades, have been reflected in urbanization, huge technological achievements and the development of innovative culture. These developments combined national tradition with international trends.

This development can also be seen in universities. For example, the study and living environment were shabby when I first came to Peking University in 1974. Although there were many ancient books and periodicals in the library, there were few new publications and no advanced facilities. At present, Peking University is one of the world's leading universities with excellent libraries and laboratories, as well as outstanding scholars. It also takes the lead in technology and digitalisation.

When it comes to the logic behind development, I believe that university is the same as society, as people devote themselves to improving their living and working conditions, developing a society into a modern society. No matter in the past or at present, all of us have made great efforts to build such a modern society.

On the evening of September 3rd, 2023. Peking University organised the running event at the beginning of the new semester, a classical program for newly enrolled students. Photo by Yi Haifei.

China News Service Reporter: As the first Confucious Institute in Germany, what did Freie Universität Berlin contribute to the mutual understanding of China and Germany since the founding of the university? How do you see the misunderstanding of the Confucious Institute from Western Media?

Mechthild Leutner: Since the establishment of the Confucious Institute, Freie Universität Berlin carried out numerous projects in language, teacher training, culture and academics. Freie Universität Berlin jointly established the Confucious Institute with Peking University, and we have benefited greatly from the fruitful cooperation between the two sides. Both universities are excellent in their respective countries, and jointly organize many seminars and lectures on historical and modern topics, providing a platform for knowledge exchange and dialogue among all those interested in China inside and outside the university. In recent years, we have organized several seminars and published papers on German-Chinese relations.

Recently, we organized the 'China Day' event in collaboration with primary and elementary schools in Berlin. We can see that students are more and more interested in China. For many years, further training of Chinese teachers has also been our main concern. In this regard, we have received valuable professional support from our colleagues at Peking University. We also started a joint program with individuals or institutions in Germany so that more people are more aware of interesting topics about China. For example, we used to hold an exhibition on John Rabe, and exhibitions on Hermann Breuer, a Bremen businessman who worked in Shanghai from 1906 to 1952 and dedicated himself to developing German-Chinese economic ties.

Opening ceremony of the Hermann Breuer, a Bremen Businessman.

Over the past few years, we have introduced Chinese artists who have lived in Berlin more frequently, and who have demonstrated their work through exhibitions or concerts. A Chinese calligrapher presented Chinese calligraphy using the core concept of German philosophy. These works have received wide attention, including in the German press, due to their cross-cultural nature. The events we hold are in high demand and have a large number of participants. We believe that we have made an important contribution to cultural and academic exchanges, and these activities have made it clear that some media misconceptions about Confucius Institutes are unfounded.

Students experience calligraphy classes at the Confucious Institute in Freie Universität Berlin.

China News Service Reporter: How do you see the relationship between China and Germany? What roles does sinology play in promoting the relationship between two countries?

Mechthild Leutner: At present, the Sino-German relationship is readjusting politically. Such a readjustment took place against the backdrop of a global crisis and challenges. Compared with the past, these crises and challenges will affect the development of Sino-German relations. In this context, different interests and perspectives emerge. In this period of transition, it is all the more important to conduct a rational analysis of the current situation and try to find solutions that will promote the development of German-Chinese relations. Scholars of Sinology and Chinese Studies, as well as cultural and academic exchanges between Germany and China, can play a particularly important role in this regard.

Under great uncertainty, it is particularly important to maintain and strengthen cultural and academic exchanges. Culture and academics have special attributes and should be somewhat independent of politics. Especially in terms of academic development, it is no longer possible to produce purely national knowledge in today's society. Knowledge production and innovation have global characteristics and require international exchange to be able to solve the major problems facing humanity today. Scholars studying China can play a unique role as a bridge between Germany and China.

Guest Profile:

Mechthild Leutner is the famous sinologist and the Dean of the Confucious Institute in Freie Universität Berlin. The main research areas are the transformation of Chinese politics, societies and ideologies in the 19th century. She published a huge number of papers on the history of the China-German relationship and Chinese image in Germany etc., and committed to promoting Chinese teaching, Chinese culture and exchange between China and Germany in German.

Tom Zhixin QuKailun Sui

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