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L'action Culturelle Allemande en Chine Review


The European great powers at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century made great efforts to extend and promote their diplomatic, political, and economic influence throughout the world. Culture was a realm like the rest, and the promotion of one’s culture and language, beyond pride and prestige, was thought to aid the development of one’s trade, industry, and commerce in foreign lands. Trade follows the language, as the French sometimes proclaimed. But while the French were some of the more enthusiastic promoters of cultural imperialism, others did it as well: one of the comparable nations was Germany, which pursued a program of German schools, newspapers, cultural exchanges, etc. L’action culturelle allemande en Chine De la fin du XIXe siècle à la Seconde Guerre mondiale (German cultural action in China, from the end of the 19th century to the Second World War) by Françoise Kreissler is technically well done in covering these programs of admittedly modest scale, but it lacks greatly for a description of what, if any, impact they had, as well as other mechanisms of German cultural influence such as missionaries.

There have been comparable works published on the subject for other nations, even in France as well: La France en Chine, 1843-1943 is a good example. These analyze the cultural policy of France, but it is notable in having a much larger look at French actions: a good example was French missionary activity. Of course, Germany, unlike France, enjoyed no protectorate over Chinese Protestants like France did over Chinese Catholics, but the Germans did have missionaries - they suffered attacks after all, by Boxers during the Boxer Uprising. What role did the missionaries play in spreading German culture and language? This is not covered at all in the book.

There is also the physical attempt to impress the Chinese: The Germans spent much effort and money on building a German style city in Tsingtao/Tsingtau. The French built their French-style architecture in the French concession in Shanghai, out of an interest in promoting French prestige, influence, and ultimately commerce. This failed and although the Chinese elites made their home in Shanghai, such as Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Did the Germans have the same idea of promotion of their culture through their model city of Europe? Or their schools: did they attempt to impress and overawe through them? There are a few handsome photos within the book, but no discussion of Germany’s policy of prestige.

A very German looking city in China

A very German looking city in China

The most apparent lack however, is the impact of the German actions. La france en Chine lists some of the French-trained or educated leaders and individuals, graduates of French schools or French universities - including some of the most highly placed figures in Chinese 20th century history, such as Deng Xiaoping, who discovered communism during his time of studies in France. There are a few influential graduates mentioned, but not how their course through German education changed them and influenced their future. And there is nothing about the path of the admittedly few students who went to Germany, unlike the extensive qualitative and quantitative studies of the French Chinese university students.

What does the book get right? It is perhaps very stereotypically German (even if written in French by a French woman): a good overview of the structural elements, organizations, and objectives. It also has some interesting sections on German Jewish refugees in China, particularly Shanghai, where massive numbers congregated and faced some anti-Semitic assaults. But examples such as this seem to not be directly about German cultural action in China. Indeed, the education section, the mainstay of the book, seems to be as a whole more devoted to the education of Germans in China rather than German educational action among the Chinese. It does delve a bit into the ideological side of things, such as the changes in Nazi educational policy which removed Chinese students from German schools, but no more.

This makes it an interesting look into one facet of the Sino-German relationship, but very limited, which fails to explore its meaning and depth. The one thing it shows conclusively is how the Germans were throughout mostly concerned with the advantages they could accrue commercial from activities in China, but it is a shame that it only manages to prove such a narrow point.

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