Compared to issues connected to trade and the economy, cultural exchange between Germany and China happens more on a superficial level. An event in Cologne, however, showed how 'critical dialogue' works.
People often speak of the exchange of cultures. But such an exchange hardly every works as well as it did at a conference in mid-September in Cologne. The Literaturhaus Köln ("Literature house of Cologne") and the Akademie der Künste der Welt (World arts academy), which was founded last year, invited people to participate in the "China Festival" which was titled "Unheard - China in critical dialogue." Scientists, bloggers, journalists from China were invited to talk to their German counterparts.
There were many eye-opening moments, for example, when the blogger Li Chengpeng - laureate of a DW prize for blogs, spoke with the German Internet activist Anne Roth about the difference between Germany and China. He said, "In Germany, people take up the pen after a bad experience. In China, it is the other way around. When people start writing, that's when bad things happen."
Climate of uncertainty
Working under censorship was a recurring topic at the event. No wonder: of the nine Chinese panelists present at the event, five had spent time in jail at least once. The event took place at a time when China's censors have been tightening their grip on the Internet. A new campaign against bloggers has been circulating throughout Chinese media for around a month now. And new laws against "spreading rumors" on the Internet has spread fear among the country's netizens.
Blogger Ran Yanfei said fear in an atmosphere of uncertainty was a constant companion. Ran, whose microblog has over 40,000 followers, was under house arrest shortly before his trip to the festival in Cologne.
Chinese society today and in the past is filled with taboos. This was underlined recently with the so-called Decree No. 9, which prohibits teachers at schools and colleges and journalists, among others, from addressing mistakes made in the past by China's party leadership. At a panel focusing on remembering and overcoming the past it became obvious that the famine caused by the so-called "Great Leap Forward" between 1958 and 1960 and the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 can be talked about in China, but only in a scientific context.
China's stumbling block?
The writers read from their own works. Ye Fu suggested building a literary bridge between Germany and China. Currently, the author is living in a guest room at the art academy in Cologne. Since he has been in Germany, he has come across so-called Stolpersteine [stumbling blocks], which are memorials to the victims of persecution and oppression in Nazi Germany, created by the artist Gunter Demnig. They are embossed brass-plated cobblestones and can be found scattered about on the ground in city centers.
The Stolpersteine project inspired Ye Fu to write an essay on reconciling with the past which he read at the China Festival. Ye Fu feels personally connected to the topic; his grandfather, father and brother all became victims of various "clean up" campaigns. He said he owed thanks for his literary talent to his grandmother, who had to endure the Cultural Revolution. During those years, she secretly read classic Chinese literature.
The China Festival played a double role - it was an event in which there was much to talk about and much to listen to.