Five reasons why I came to Beijing

Speech given on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the foundation of Tsing Hua University in Beijing, May 2001

When I was asked to deliver a brief statement at this event, I decided not to cover issues specific to my profession, to industrial design, or to discuss the general topic of “Art and Science” because I have spoken about these matters at a number of occasions here in Beijing, and will continue to do so.

Instead, I wish to ask a question, a personal one: why have I come to this event and what does China mean to me. In this way, I hope to touch upon thoughts which I hope will also concern my Chinese partners and friends. And perhaps some of the many foreign guests here will also recognize themselves in what I express. I wish to look at what my visits to China mean for me personally. I also will consider the benefit of cooperation between China and Germany, what opportunities it opens up, and how this cooperation can be best developed:

(1) Cooperation between countries and cultures only works via individual people:

I have been privileged because, within the scope of a German Academic Exchange Scholarship, Prof. Liu Guan-Zhong studied at the Stuttgart Academy. He then returned to Beijing, where he established the first Design Department, and subsequently invited me to this country to give lectures.

It was the first time I had ever been confronted with Chinese thinking and the Chinese way of life. That was, in the seventies and eighties, something very special to me, something new, even exotic, and it aroused my curiosity. On my first visit in 1985, I met many of Prof. Liu Guan-Zhong’s colleagues, worked with students and made many contacts. I observed their way of life, visited museums, and took an interest in the local crafts. I read my “China Daily” and western newspaper reports about China. I knew a lot about Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, and I frequently read works by Confucius and Laotse, whom my Art teacher in Germany used to quote.

But it was always the personal comments of my friends who corrected my western picture of China. A now long-retired Professor of what was then the Academy in Beijing, Prof. Pan, once said in a memorable speech that we have to cultivate a humane and personal relationship as the heart of our common undertakings. I can only confirm his sentiment – it became the guiding principle of my activities here.

(2) The Silk Road is still a model for exchange:

The Silk Road was a trade route between Orient and Occident, east and west. It not only enabled the exchange of goods, it also promoted spiritual and artistic exchange. The results can be found in many places in Europe, including the writings of my country’s most famous writer and poet, Goethe, in his “Poems of the West and East”, which has a firm place in classical German literature.

The exchange between cultures does not mean a loss of identity, as often is said. Instead, it challenges us to critically evaluate our own identity and its structures in direct comparison with another identity. Exchange is of cultural benefit. It causes us to reflect on our own culture, it serves to increase understanding between nations, it encourages peace, can be of great personal satisfaction and, not to be forgotten, can be of tremendous economic value.

(3) Who are the activists in this exchange?

In the educational field, it is the European students we send here and the Chinese students who study in Germany. Both groups have been confronted with a different culture, quite often they have undergone a cultural shock. When they have been open enough, eager to learn about their guest country, they have acquired, besides scientific knowledge and artistic skills, an experience on which they will draw for the whole of their lives. They are the “trespassers” who cross frontiers, they are the go-betweens of the two cultures. They have in times of globalisation, of ethnic wars, of political and economic rivalries, a social function, which should not be underestimatd. That is why it is the policy of my institution to welcome students from China and other countries. Because we know that great political and social changes will take place here, which will influence global development and will be felt in Europe. It is always good to have friends here.

(4) The opportunities of modern communications technology:

Never has communication and exchange been so easy. The modern incarnation of the Silk Road is the World Wide Web and the Internet. Today, we can communicate scientific, artistic or personal information via the Net. We can establish virtual communities in a way that in the past was only possible by complicated, time-consuming travel. We can hold workshops via the Internet, we can walk through far-away laboratories and museums, we can exchange blueprints or just chat. But exchange with the help of modern communication technologies needs, that is my experience, personal, face-to-face interaction and partnership as its backbone. And that is why I am here: to establish new partnerships.

(5) China, generally, and very personally:

I have found friends who think in a different way, yet feel the same. I have tried to understand their way of thinking and I often had to, and did, change my views and my picture of the world. I received great hospitality, have come to appreciate Chinese cooking and found appreciation for my activities in and for China. I have been privileged to draw from the great wealth of Chinese culture, and with every visit I have discovered something new; Chinese ceramics, for instance, has become a passion of mine because it is a vital element of Chinese culture and left its marks worldwide; Chinese prints, which I collect, and whose manufacture and history I study; traditional folk art, which has always been in the shadow of “high art”, and does not, in my view, receive the appreciation it deserves, or the traditional crafts, which in many areas seem to be in danger of dying out or of being reduced to mass-produced tourist souvenirs. This makes me sad.

I have noticed that, in the course of modernisation, many traditional quarters have been pulled down and traces of the old Beijing have become rare. I do not mean the tourist sights, but authentic places of everyday life. My concern comes from my own experience, and is expressed as a friend of China. After the Second World War, we pulled down the ruins of our architectural heritage in the course of radical modernisation. Now, with great effort and expense, we seek to conserve what is left. For every step into the future needs a strong foundation in the past – we draw our values from that past. In the course of rapid modernisation, appreciation of cultural heritage does not come easily. It requires intellectual effort and, perhaps, appreciation from outside.

It is my hope and aim that my 15-year-old relationship with the Academy of Arts and Design will continue and can be extended. I hope that integration into the famous Tsing Hua University will reinforce its international standing, and that the scientific and artistic exchange will continue to be governed by mutual understanding, respect and friendship.

Last but not least, I want to thank all those who, during my visits to China, looked after me and made my time here so memorable.

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