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Richard Trappl: Why do we need to know Chinese history to understand today’s China?
China Minutes
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Richard Trappl: Why do we need to know Chinese history to understand today’s China?

In 1975, Austrian college student Xiade Li (Richard Trappel) set foot on a train in Vienna bound for Beijing via Moscow, a journey which lasted for more than ten days. The long-distance study visit opened the door for him to understand China. In the following decades, Xiade Li continued to focus on Chinese culture and became a sinologist who studied both ancient and modern Chinese literature, history, and philosophy.

Since the establishment of the Confucius Institute at the University of Vienna in 2006, Xiade Li has been the director of the Austrian branch, dedicated to promoting local Chinese education and cross-cultural exchanges. Recently, in an exclusive interview with China News’ East Meets West, he said that China’s achievements today benefit from thousands of years of ideological accumulation. To understand today's China, we must comprehensively study Chinese history and culture.

As the first generation of students studying at the Sinology Department of the University of Vienna, what kind of bond do you have with China? What motivated you to dedicate yourself to the study of Chinese culture for nearly 50 years?

I grew my interest in Chinese characters when I was a teenager, but unfortunately, there was no way to learn Chinese in Europe in the 1950s or 1960s. In October 1973, the University of Vienna established the Sinology Department, and I was one of the first generations of students. By chance, I applied for a Chinese government scholarship, took a train across Siberia to Beijing which took more than ten days, and studied at the Beijing Language Institute (now Beijing Language and Culture University) for two semesters.

In my spare time, I rode a bicycle through the streets and alleys of Beijing, accumulating a total mileage of more than 2,000 kilometers. At that time, there were few vehicles on the streets of Beijing, and the city was very quiet at night. Today, the only thing that has changed in Beijing is the street names. The streets and alleys I cycled through in those days have become wide urban expressways, and the single-story buildings I passed have also been replaced by high-rise buildings. After I finished my studies, I began to travel around China, at that time Pudong was still farmland.

In the past 50 years, I have witnessed the vicissitudes of life in China. What impresses me is that Chinese people have become more open-minded and developed. In the 1970s, if foreign students wanted to make a phone call home, they had to go to the telephone building on Chang’an Avenue and wait for about an hour before it was their turn to make a call for a few minutes. Now, whether in China or Austria, we can use social media to contact friends at any time.

I have always been very interested in Chinese and Chinese characters. After I went to China, in addition to Chinese, I developed a strong interest in literature, philosophy, culture, and various aspects of Chinese history, Later, I returned to the Faculty of Sinology at the University of Vienna as a teacher. Although I am retired now, still insist on teaching Chinese literature.

From studying in the Department of Sinology to becoming a Sinologist and Director of the Confucius Institute, how did you develop your Sinology studies, especially the study of ancient Chinese literature, and what inspiration did this process bring to you?

As my research on Chinese literature became more and more in-depth, I began to think, how can I better help the world understand China’s intellectual history through the study of Chinese literature? How could people better understand China's social history through the study of Chinese classical philosophy? I think it is necessary to study Chinese traditional culture and pay attention to the key literature of the 20th and 21st centuries at the same time. We should strive to have a comprehensive and systematic understanding of Chinese culture and literary history.

To do so, I often compare Chinese scientists and writers of 2500 years ago with the philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries by focusing on their understandings of society, the relationships between individuals and society, and how they viewed the relationship between China and the West.
Many ideas contained in Chinese culture have inspired me. My post-doctoral dissertation was titled “Literary Theory of Wei, Jin, Southern, and Northern Dynasties”, for which I mainly studied the important document The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons (Pronounced Wen Xin Jiao Long in Chinese), which taught me how to look at the world: to appreciate and respect life with a humble heart. Especially in today’s world, it is more important to respect everyone, and all ethics and recognize the development of history. In order to pay tribute to this, I also named the journal of the Confucius Institute at the University of Vienna in Austria, Wen Xin.

When I began to look at the world from the distant universe through the wisdom of the ancient Chinese in The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, I found that the existence of each life form seems so short to the age of the universe, no matter how hard we try to cherish its existence. If people can realize this, they should treat themselves and others, cultural and social diversity more rationally and fairly, and deal with the relationship between humans and nature from this objective perspective.

How has your Western understanding and research on Sinology changed over the years? What do you think of this change? How should we promote cultural exchanges between China and the West in the future?

In the 1970s, Western Sinology mainly studied Chinese classical literature, classical philosophy, and classical society. After China’s reform and opening up, Western Sinology research has increasingly focused on contemporary China, especially when observing China from the perspective of political, economic, and social development. The research direction of the Department of Sinology has also shifted from literature and philosophy to sociology and political science. Now, sinologists especially like to study China from the perspective of sociology and politics.

In my opinion, with the development of China, it is natural for Western Sinologists to change their perspectives on it. However, China’s achievements are not accidental but benefit from thousands of years of ideology. If the West wants to understand China well, there must be a comprehensive study, not just classical studies, nor just contemporary China.

If we want to understand the present China, we must study the history of China for at least 2,500 years, including the history of Chinese culture and ideas. The study of China should not only look at one stage but should be a comprehensive study throughout history, which requires continuous and in-depth research.
It should be noted that, because of the different historical origins between China and the West, there may be obstacles brought about by various cross-language, cross-cultural, and even different systems in the process of cultural exchange. While these differences also constitute the start of a friendly dialogue between China and foreign countries. In the process, both sides will try to find commonalities in each other’s cultures. We should strengthen the study of each other’s history and culture through exchanges, build bridges for people of all ages to communicate, and pay special attention to cultivating an international perspective in education.

As the representative of the University of Vienna to China, what efforts have you made to promote exchanges between the University of Vienna and Chinese universities, as well as cultural exchanges between China and Austria? How do you think the world should start to understand Chinese culture today?

From the late 1970s, at first, I visited China once a year, then it became three or five times a year, and then I visited China almost every month. My footprints covered almost all provinces in China, from Changchun in the north to Hainan in the south and from the east in Shanhaiguanto the west to Xinjiang. Rich experience in communication shows that not only is cooperation between institutions important, but so too is the contact and friendship between people.

I have been teaching Chinese in Austria for many years, and I have been the Austrian Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Vienna for 16 years. I not only communicated with Chinese teachers at the Confucius Institute but have also kept close contact with Chinese friends by phone. I hope that more people will have the opportunity to visit China to see its development and the work done by people to know China with their own hearts and eyes. Of course, I also very much welcome Chinese experts, friends, and all Chinese people to have the opportunity to come to Austria.

Taking into account the differences between Chinese and Western language systems, and starting from personal long-term experience, I believe that learning Chinese can provide people with an opportunity to understand China more deeply. I suggest that the West learn about China from first-hand materials because first-hand materials truly introduce the history of China and avoid the distortion and possible misunderstanding of the culture in the process of communication.

China MinutesKailun Sui

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