German Archives as Treasure Troves for the Study of 20th Century China

“Why are you going to German company archives? Aren’t you doing Chinese history?” After having to answer this question time and again, I was glad to learn that the new issue of the PRC History Review is devoted exactly to this topic: Why and how should we use material stored in archives outside of mainland China or Taiwan to study Chinese history?

Especially the contributions by Jennifer Altehenger and Nicolai Volland on archival sources related to Sino-German relations in GDR-files in Berlin and Leipzig are very illustrative and I can wholeheartedly agree with both of them:

“Foreign archives cannot replace Chinese archival documentation, but they offer corrective lenses to help alleviate distortions of the historical record.” N. Volland (p.20)
“One of the exciting developments in PRC history, often of course driven by problems of accessibility, has been the push to explore lower-level but also, where available, non-state archival holdings in China. That same principle is useful in any search for documents from other formerly socialist countries.” J. Altehenger (p. 5)
Of course, this does not only hold true for the history of the People’s Republic but is also valid for research on the Republican period.
The complete issue of the PRC History Review can be found here.
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One Modern Term, One Old Road

The silk road is in vogue again: Under the slogan “One Belt, One Road”(一帶一路 yi dai yi lu) China launched a new initiative to enhance the economic cooperation with its neighboring countries in Central Asia. These developments have not only received wide media attention but also caused foreign policy analysts from all over the world to wonder what this might mean for their own national economies and Eurasian economic development in general. (See for example Financial Times and P. Ferdinand)

At the same time, the study of the historical roots of the silk road is flourishing: The UC Berkeley just last month (April 2017) opened the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for Silk Road Studies. (See Berkeley News)

In all this silk road-frenzy, however, it is often forgotten, that the term “silk road” does not stem from the old caravan traders or Buddhist travelers but has its roots in modern, in fact, Colonial history. It was coined in the 19th century by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, who set out to provide the German government with geographical information needed to build a railway connecting Qingdao to Germany.

It is astonishing how this term with all its colonial implications is today reinvented as a symbol of a growing self-confidence of China as a regional power.

To read up on this fascinating history of this highly politicized term I recommend this article by Tamara Chin: The Invention of the Silk Road, 1877.

Ferdinand_von_Richthofen
Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905) Source

In memoriam: Prof. Wilhelm Matzat

I was very sorry to learn of the death of Prof. Wilhelm Matzat a few days ago. Prof. Matzat was born in Qingdao as the son of a missionary and spent his youth in China. Back in Germany, he became a professor of geography at the university in Bonn but never lost his fascination with China.

On the website tsingtau.org Matzat diligently collected biographical data of more than 120 Germans living in Qingdao between 1897-1953, among them many Jews who had fled Nazi Germany (see German Jews in Qingdao and Jewish Professors at Shandong University). Additionally, old maps and address-books of the city are available for download. Some parts of the website are in English, most biographies are, however, only available in German. Overall, the website is a treasure trove for all those interested in Sino-German relations.

Prof. Matzat also published part of his research in three books:

Matzat, Wilhelm (2001): Kurzgefasste Chronik der deutschen Schule in Tsingtau, 1924-1946. Bonn: W. Matzat.

Matzat, Wilhelm (1985): Die Tsingtauer Landordnung des Chinesenkommissars Wilhelm Schrameier. Bonn: W. Matzat.

Matzat, Wilhelm (1998): Neue Materialien zu den Aktivitäten des Chinesenkommissars Wilhelm Schrameier in Tsingtau. Bonn: W. Matzat.

Especially his work on the land reform plans drafted by Wilhelm Schrameier which inspired Sun Yatsen (孙中山) called attention to a previously neglected aspect of Sino-German intellectual exchange. (See also  王防; 熊金武 (2015):《中国近代化转型时期经济思想与经济制度的关系——以土地制度思想的演变为例》, 《中国经济史研究》, 第6期,第103-110页)

I recommend reading this interview with Prof. Matzat which was published by the German newspaper taz in February 2007.

German Studies Association: Panels & Seminar

Wie jeden Herbst kommen auch dieses Jahr wieder hunderte ProfessorInnen und NachwuschwissenschaftlerInnen aus der Literatur- und Geschichtswissenschaft bei der Konferenz der German Studies Association in Atlanta (USA) zusammen. Wie in den vergangenen Jahren wird es wieder ein Panel zu den “German-Asian Studies”geben und dazu zum ersten Mal auch ein Seminar mit dem Titel “Asian German Studies – New Approaches”, geleitet von Sebastian Gehrig (University of Oxford), Doug McGetchin (Florida Atlantic University), und Caroline Rupprecht (City University of New York).

Weitere Informationen können hier abgerufen werden: GSA Panels on “Asian German Studies” und GSA Panels 2017.


In October scholars both from the field of history and literary studies will come together again in several panels on “German-Asian Studies” at the annual conference of the Geman Studies Association in Atlanta, USA.

This year an additional seminar titled “Asian German Studies – New Approaches” was organized by Sebastian Gehrig (University of Oxford), Doug McGetchin (Florida Atlantic University), and Caroline Rupprecht (City University of New York).

For further information see GSA Panels on “Asian German Studies” and GSA Panels 2017.