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Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer: How can Europe and China commit to two-way efforts?
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Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer: How can Europe and China commit to two-way efforts?

The World Dialogue on China Studies • Belgium Forum with the theme "China Studies and the European Understanding Of China" will be held on June 20th in Brussels. European Sinology is one of the topics in the academic salon during the forum.

How has Sinology developed in Europe? What are the core topics in China Studies that European scholars focus on? How does the mainstream understand China? To enhance mutual understanding, how should Europe and China make efforts? In addressing these topics, renowned scholar and German Sinologist, Professor Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer accepted an exclusive interview with "W.E. Talk" from CNS before the forum.

Here are excepts from the interview:

CNS: How has Sinology study developed in Europe?

Schmidt-Glintzer: This is a very long and complex story. Initially, European missionaries, merchants, and others showed interest in China. The timing of this interest varied among different European countries, with some of the earliest dating back to the 15th century when the modern concept of nation-states did not yet exist. As France and Britain gradually embarked on the path of world conquest, they certainly wanted to learn about China. Therefore, the study of what can be called "Sinology" appeared in France earlier than elsewhere.

In Germany, the study of Sinology was relatively late. In Germany, Sinology began as a part of Oriental studies and did not become an independent academic discipline until the beginning of the 20th century. Before that, related scholars were usually Orientalists who were interested in China but also studied other languages. For instance, early German Sinologist Otto Franke originally studied Indian language and culture before becoming an expert on China. The development of Sinology in Europe is intertwined with the establishment of European countries and their conquests around the world.

CNS: What is the current state of Sinology studies in Germany? How is the status and representation of German Sinology in Europe?

Schmidt-Glintzer: The study of Sinology in Germany has developed along with the development of China. Today, although there are still German Sinologists studying oracle bones, Han Dynasty history, and Song Dynasty cultural history, more people are focusing on contemporary China, such as its social sciences, and other cultural research aspects. These professional researchers will pay attention to European and American studies, English studies, and also Chinese studies. From this point of view, German Sinology is part of the world Sinology, and also part of European Sinology, Western European Sinology, and has an important position.

Many German Sinologists write articles in English instead of German, which poses a problem since the German public, only consume more understandable information. However, there are now excellent German works introducing China and its diversity.

CNS: What core topics are European China Studies focusing on? How does the mainstream understand China?

Schmidt-Glintzer: Currently, many European scholars are dedicated to researching China's diversity, including Chinese Buddhism, natural sciences, history, etc. But there is also a tendency to look at China from a more critical perspective.

Since the emergence of European Sinology, Europeans have studied Chinese thoughts and political changes. Otto Franke published a book in the early 20th century titled Ostasiatische Neubildungen (The New Face of East Asia). In his book he discussed the process by which East Asian countries began to change and modernize. This process is still ongoing. To understand it, one must study the people and ideas of East Asian countries, which is what Sinology does. Unfortunately, for various reasons, related research has decreased compared to the past. However, this is understandable as social research is always complex.

Regarding how to understand China, different positions exist in Europe. Currently, some people wish to continue trade with China, while others are concerned about China undermining the European market with cheap products, leading to discussions about imposing tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles. I believe such discussions are normal but also potentially dangerous as they might prioritize a confrontational attitude over mutual understanding.

CNS: Western media and politicians, including those in Germany, seem to invariably view China from a critical perspective. What causes this? How should Europe and China view each other constructively?

Schmidt-Glintzer: One-sidedness has always existed throughout history. However, upon closer inspection, people may find more common ground than differences, which is my experience. But for those who have never been to China, the situation might differ. They often believe media reports about China, even though these reports are often very one-sided.

Among China researchers, different positions usually exist. These positions to some extent influence academic work. Naturally, the political aspect also tries to exert influence over academics. In my view, current discussions in Germany, such as those about China's capabilities, are closely related to this. Politicians aim to shape a certain image of China, tending to see China as a force to guard against. I think this notion is wrong, but this is what prevails at the moment.

In China, some German literature scholars can read works written by Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich von Schiller, but may not know Kang Youwei, Tan Sitong, Confucius, Mozi, or Zhuangzi. In Germany, some Sinologists focus on China but may not be well-versed in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hölderlin, or even Karl Marx. I don't think either situation is ideal. When discussing issues as a European, I must consider the historical context I am in. Moreover, there are various conflicts between different countries and regions today. In the face of complex situations such as these, it is important to look at them from a pluralistic perspective.

CNS: What are the factors affecting mutual understand between Europe and China? How should China and Europe make efforts to enhance mutual understanding?

Schmidt-Glintzer: I believe that it's highly related to the respective stances. In Europe, for example, China has long been seen as a cheap producer. But all of a sudden, China is innovating and making better electric cars than anyone else. So Europeans said, China, instead of us, is dominating export market. This is how China is seen by some Europeans as a threat.

But in reality, it should be celebrated. European countries and China face common problems in the process of modernization, such as water, air quality, climate change, etc. Now that China is becoming more modern, many people demand that it must conserve resources, etc. This expectation is normal to some extent, but it is also partly due to the fact that some political parties in Western European countries use China as an election issue to serve their political needs, because those who are critical of China will be supported by the majority of voters, leading to a less objective view of China, which is a trend I have observed.

To enhance mutual understanding, China has made a lot of efforts. Many Chinese people go abroad, learn foreign languages, and can speak German, English, French, Italian and other languages, while the rest of Europe does not learn Chinese the way the Chinese learn European languages. This is unbalanced. We need to learn more Chinese.

In addition, both Europe and China need to expand their horizons to some extent. There are many things to discuss on both sides, and both sides have some taboos. I think things could be simpler if both sides could distance themselves from their positions. China is seeking its own path to modernization, and this is a good opportunity for us to observe and ponder with curiosity. I think it is almost impossible and even worrying to make all countries follow suit with the United States, France or Germany. For a vast human population of 8 billion people, we must clearly recognize the need to find new ways of living, new forms of social organization, new ways of resolving conflicts, and new solutions to climate change. We must find new paths, and it is wonderful that China is taking its own path.

Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, German Sinologist, is a professor emeritus of East Asian Literature and Culture at the University of Göttingen.

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