Ich bin ein Beijinger

Updated: 2010-12-24 11:05

By Patrick Whiteley (China Daily European Weekly)

Twitter Facebook Myspace Yahoo! Linkedin Mixx
Ich bin ein Beijinger

Michael Kahn-Ackermann was part of team, which set up the
first foreign cultural institute in China in 1985.
Provided to China Daily

German sinologist's lifelong connection with China is deeply rooted

Michael Kahn-Ackermann has been the director of the Goethe Institute in Beijing for 35 years and has been watching China's mighty transformation for a mighty long time. One of his strong beliefs is that it is very naive for Europeans to think China will one day become magically Westernized. Despite all its modern appearances, today's China is still deeply rooted in a tradition that spans thousands of years.

"You may see a beautiful 'it' girl on the street but when you talk to her she still has Confucian ideals in the way she relates to her family and her career and finding a husband," the 62-year-old says. "Except for a very small group of Westernized Chinese artists, intellectuals and white-collar workers, most of China has a social pattern that is not Westernized.

"It's a changing society and is becoming extremely money oriented and that's not a Western thing nor is it based on families, clans or kinship values.

"I don't think China will ever be Westernized, but I enjoy the difference. It would be horrible if the whole world would follow the same way."

Kahn-Ackermann has been watching China closely his entire adult life and after completing a master's in Sinology in Germany, was among the first group of foreign students permitted to study in China.

He arrived in Beijing in 1975 and as well as providing language, culture and history lessons, his university would take the budding young scholars on factory tours to show off New China's prowess in manufacturing.

It was before China's opening-up period and Kahn-Ackermann says the overseas students were grouped into three different buses, perhaps reflecting how China viewed the world at that time.

"The first bus carried the North Koreans and the Albanians, the second bus were the friends of developing nations, mainly Africans, and us Europeans were put on the third bus," he recalls.

"The following year the first bus carried the developing nations, the second carried the Europeans and the third the North Koreans.

"But in 1977, after (United States president Richard) Nixon's visit, the first bus carried the Americans, the second the Europeans and the third was the rest of the world," he smiles.

The tall and lanky sinologist, who has been leading Germany's cultural programs in the capital for more than three decades, plans to retire next year and despite being sometimes critical of some parts of modern Chinese society - namely the worsening traffic, pollution and greed - his love affair with the ancient kingdom is never-ending. "These times of change in any society are always exciting," he says.

The Chinese expression he uses to describe his lifelong connection with China is yuan fen, which means destiny or fate.

"Yuan fen means a sympathy for something or somebody and you can't just explain it," he says.

"Words cannot express what one means, but it's probably the most important feeling in you life."

Kahn-Ackerman's yuan fen with China began after school, when he completed a master's in Sinology and also a degree in economics.

In the 1980s, Kahn-Ackermann used his language skills to translate works of Chinese contemporary authors, including Dried River by Mo Yan, Leaden Wings by Zhang Jie, and Animal Ferocity by Wang Shuo.

The Chinese writers were part of a "wounded" genre that became popular in the 1970s, which Kahn-Ackerman compares to a person waking up after a long sleep.

But these new writers were not popular with his professors back home in Germany, who were more focused on classic Chinese studies such as the Analects of Confucius and Buddhist texts.

However, Ackermann says the writers were relaying messages, which were much more broader and richer than then news reports coming from the German media.

Kahn-Ackermann turned from translating to helping set up Beijing's Goethe Institute in 1985 and three years later became its first director.

It was the first foreign cultural institute in China (the French cultural center followed in 2004, then the Spanish cultural center in 2006).

Back in the 1980s, the institute offered German language classes and a library of German literature, as it does today, but at that time there was no Internet and the center had become a window into German society.

Today, thanks to the Web, information about anywhere and anyone in Germany is easily available, so the institute has become a platform for cultural cooperation.

On Kahn-Ackermann's office wall hangs a large scroll, which features four large Chinese characters: De Zhong Tong Qing (Germany, China Moving Ahead Together), the most wide-ranging event series ever implemented by Germany abroad.

The cultural program began in 2007 and was under the joint patronage of Germany's then federal president Horst Kohler and Chinese President Hu Jintao. It toured China for three years presenting Germany in all its cultural, economic, scientific and social diversity.

The program was led by Germany's Foreign Office, which cooperated with the Goethe Institute and was sponsored by a collection of German corporate heavyweights, including Allianz, BASF, Daimler, Deutsche Bank, DHL and Siemens.

Its central theme was dealing with urbanization and sustainable urban development.

Kahn-Ackermann says the best cultural programs are long-term efforts and just teaching the language is not enough.

"I doubt just teaching language is good enough. If you really want to create a sustainable image you must create trust and that takes a long time and a lot of energy," he says. "You don't just want just slogans and normal PR instruments.

"One of the lessons we have learnt is that cultural cooperation should never be a political instrument.

"As I said, cultural cooperation takes a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of brain power."


Ear We Go

China and the world set to embrace the merciful, peaceful year of rabbit

Preview of the coming issue
Carrefour finds the going tough in China
Maid to Order

European Edition


Mysteries written in blood

Historical records and Caucasian features of locals suggest link with Roman Empire.

Winning Charm

Coastal Yantai banks on little things that matter to grow

New rules to hit property market

The State Council launched a new round of measures to rein in property prices.

Top 10 of 2010
China Daily in Europe
The Confucius connection