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Seeing the self more clearly through the lens of a different culture

By Yang Min | 2013-08-29 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Wolfgang Kubin is a noted German sinologist, translator and writer. Currently, he is a professor at University of Bonn’s Institute for Oriental and Asian Studies. He is a member of the German Translators’ Association and the German Writers’ Association. His research focuses on classical Chinese literature, modern Chinese literature and Chinese intellectual history. He has authored numerous books in multiple languages.

WAN: How has your interest in literature influenced your sinology career?
Kubin: I didn’t start out studying to be a sinologist. I actually studied philosophy and theology first, and the imprint this left affects my approach still today. When I come to China to teach for instance, I also introduce German contemporary theology to my students, or interpret Tang poems from the angle of German contemporary philosophy.


I started writing at the age of 16, and I haven’t “put down the pen” ever since. In the early 1980s, I began translating contemporary Chinese literary works. Personally, I enjoy reading a broad spectrum of Chinese literature, from the classics of ancient Chinese philosophy to Tang poetry and Song and Ming prose to Dream of the Red Chamber from the Qing Dynasty. In particular, Dream of the Red Chamber, Lu Xun and the post-1979 “Misty Poets” affected me a lot both in terms of my research interest and my perspective on writing.

WAN: What are the criteria by which you judge literature?

Kubin: I appreciate elite literature that remains aloof from the market—works that show deep reflection and insight and use beautiful language and unique structures, for example, Chinese poetry. Literature of this sort stimulates me and helps me continue to think. Unfortunately, elite literature is not in line with the current fiction market. Nowadays, the market is flooded with light litterateurs who only write for money. Their works bow to the desires of mass audiences, lacking unique and striking plot structures. Typically their language is also pedestrian—neither polished nor beautiful.


WAN: In 1989, you and your wife initiated a German language Sinology-Minima Sinica. Would you tell us more about this mini magazine?

Kubin: The purpose behind the name was twofold. In part, we chose it to express our admiration for the German sinology master Richard Wilhelm. He had founded a magazine called Sinology just two years before his death in 1930. The name was also chosen for reading convenience. There are two issues per year; the contributors are German sinologists and scholars. I am also a chief editor of Orientations: Journal of Asian Culture, another magazine primarily introducing Chinese and Indonesian contemporary literature, but also including some literary works from Japan and South Korea. I hope to bring these publications to China when there is a future opportunity.


WAN: What plans do you have for future research and publications?

Kubin: Apart from translating, I have recently been working on an article about Lu Xun. Meanwhile, I am writing a series entitled Review of Chinese Ancient Thinkers (ten volumes), which will take about two to three years to complete. After that’s done, I plan to publish a series on ancient Chinese poets, also totaling ten volumes.

WAN: You have criticized Chinese writers for lacking skills in a foreign language. How can these skills facilitate both composing fiction and research?

Kubin: When we talk about language, we have to regard it as more than simply a tool by which we communicate; language has the ability to extend humans’ thought. In trying to define a Chinese word, one needs to dig the unique aspects of Chinese words from other languages; if one doesn’t know any foreign language, it would be hard to grasp the uniqueness of one’s own language. The sinologist is the ambassador who disseminates culture. If the translation is imprecise, it will lose both efficacy and readers. I’ve also confronted language difficulties in the course of my career. Although I generally understand the meaning of ancient Chinese literature, I am still uncertain about its position and role in the time it was written. For this puzzle, Japanese translation materials are particularly helpful; they facilitate our understanding of ancient Chinese.

WAN: What advice would you give aspiring sinologists?

Kubin: First and foremost, sinologists need a good command of ancient Chinese language. The language is really the foundation of the culture. At the same time, sinologists should have a good grounding in modern Chinese too. Another important thing to consider is the research process: sinology research requires a precise approach, tailored to the subject. It goes beyond listing, sorting and summarizing facts—the sinologist needs to analyze the facts. At a broader level, a true scholar views every culture with a critical awareness.


WAN: How has Germany sinology changed since its inception as a field?

Kubin: A timeline of sinology in Germany could be divided into four distinct periods. During the first and second periods, from 1909 to 1933, and 1945 to 1970, respectively, very few sinologists actually knew Chinese. Around the end of the 1970s to the beginning of 1980s, German sinology underwent a big shift in focus, transitioning from ancient China to modern and contemporary China, especially its politics, economics and language. I would say the fourth period started several years ago, and has been marked by the profusion of female sinologists in German-speaking countries. These scholars study Chinese issues from the woman’s perspective. It is unclear how long this current phase will last.


In general, German sinologists particularly enjoy studying Han history, Zhou philosophy, Tang poetry and operas from the Ming and Qing dynasties.

WAN: Some argue that China is a “mirror” helping Europeans see themselves; some think China stands as an opposite to what is European. What’s your take?
Kubin: Generally, Europeans in the field of sinology are going to be friendly to China. A few critics cannot be taken to represent the majority. However, we have to admit that Western sinologists inevitably struggle to detach themselves from the environment they grew up in and their historical culture. Given these roots, they will inevitably follow their own ethical standards when examining phenomena in China. As for your question though, I think the Europeans find something inherently agreeable in Chinese culture exactly because of this feeling of “opposition” that you mentioned.  We don’t have to hail something because it is the same as ourselves; rather, we yearn to find thought in China that differs from European intellectual history. Otherwise, studying ancient Chinese and modern Chinese would be fruitless.


Translated by Feng Daimei

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 429, March 20, 2013.