The Orient in Frankfurt

I spent four entire days at the Frankfurt Book fair with China as the guest of honour; it is time to reflect.

Cultural exchange between China and Germany (or more generally the West) was the main theme of this year’s book fair. We were to learn more about China and China was to learn more about us. That this is much easier in theory than in practice is nothing new and was once more proven right during the lead-up to the fair when the German organisers and Chinese officials fought a verbal battle over the invitations of two “dissident” writers. The China Beat sarcastically refers to the chaos preceding the book fair as the “Frankfurt book mess”.

Despite all efforts to foster “cultural exchange” and mutual understanding between the two countries, the fair seemed predestined to be a breeding ground for scandals. In fact, people seemed to yearn for the big scandal. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung sounded almost disappointed when during the opening ceremony “the expected scandal did not occur” and provokingly asked: “is it a scandal that there was no scandal?” It felt typically “Western” to fly high the big flag of “cultural exchange” and simultaneously hope for nothing but scandals and heated political debates. For many of us in Germany and possibly for many in other “Western” countries, cultural exchange means telling the Chinese that their government is corrupt, authoritarian and spurning human rights. The Chinese, on the other hand, understand “cultural exchange” as a means to present their five thousand years of beautiful culture and history. Politics and other rather “sensitive” topics are rarely found on the “cultural exchange” agenda of the Chinese. The book fair could hardly reconcile those different understandings of “cultural exchange”. Whereas the Chinese entertained pavilions exhibiting “the beautiful essence of intangible cultural heritage” or showcasing in great detail the beauty of Chinese characters including exhibitions titled “charming China”, German organisers arranged events dealing with human rights, democracy, social unrest and other “hot topics”. It became apparent that simply within the realm of “cultural exchange” and the differing understandings of it, there actually exists a huge cultural gap between China and the West. How is cultural exchange possible if we cannot even agree on what cultural exchange means…

Nevertheless, I set out to investigate. I embarked upon a journey through the eight exhibition halls (three floors in each hall!!!) of the book fair looking for cultural exchange between China and Germany (or the West). A quick flick through the 707 pages long “events within the fair” brochure was enough to spot THE event, which, judging from its title would hold all the answers to my questions: “the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western Culture”. It was a podium discussion between the founder of the very first Goethe Institute in China, Michael Kahn-Ackermann and the vice-director of the Confucius Institute Hamburg, Mr. Wang Hongtu and turned out to be more about differences than similarities. Mr. Ackermann talked about Chinese women not at all being “gentle and sweet” (温柔可爱) as it is often falsely assumed in the West, but in fact quite determined and strong and he suggested that any man who wants a successful career and big money should marry a Chinese woman. Furthermore, he made it clear from the very beginning that in his view, cultural differences are good and natural and should never be fully overcome. He then also internalised his own claims giving Mr. Wang Hongtu little opportunity to express his views and when he did, it seemed rather out of context. Mr. Wang Hongtu and Mr. Ackermann pretty much talked passed each other for an entire hour. Not so much their words than their helpless behaviour in trying to practice “cultural exchange” revealed the deeply embedded differences between them. But the discussion did not help identify what those differences were.

Shortly after, I walked past the Chinese pavilion and what I saw was a group of young children shouting “Shan” (mountain) or “Zhongguo” (China) into microphones. It must have been one of these events promoting the Chinese language. Interestingly, the majority of people in the audience were Chinese…

Meanwhile, I practiced my very own “cultural exchange” by eating a good old Frankfurter Bratwurst with mustard while listening to a Beijing Opera performance on the very big exhibition square. Then I set out to attend the next highlight: “Sinology in Europe and Modern China”. And it did turn out to be a true highlight. Three sinologists from different countries gave an outlook on the subject sinology, which wasn’t anything new but pleasantly non-political in comparison to much I had been confronted with so far. I was already getting excited and thought I had finally found a platform that practiced “true” cultural exchange. But I was soon to be disappointed. It was remarkable that all three (non-Chinese!!!) speakers gave their talks in excellent Mandarin. Among them was the Dutch sinologist Kristofer Schipper, who is one of the directing editors of the recent “Wujing Project” funded by the Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing, which is working on a new translation of “The Five Classics” (五经) into English and other languages. Mr. Schipper was a truly fascinating person and his love and dedication for and knowledge of China and Chinese culture became highly visible. I was astounded, even shocked when after over an hour of highly intellectual and profound exchanges between Chinese and European scholars about translating “The Five Classics”, which in the eyes of many is regarded as the epitome of so-called traditional Chinese culture, for the very last question, a Chinese lady in the back row got up and asked: “since Westerners never understand China as much as the Chinese understand the West, what ways would there be to more profoundly introduce the West to Chinese culture?”

I felt empty… true cultural exchange seemed to be quite impossible. It almost felt like that people were trying hard to portray their differences so as to avoid having to admit that they are actually quite similar…

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