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Barbara Mittler – sinologist with a passion for music

Barbara Mittler is a Professor of Sinology at the University of Heidelberg

“Actually, I wanted to become a musician, like my mother,” says Barbara Mittler. But her father, who worked in China, encouraged her to learn Mandarin while she was still attending school. Then she got a spot at Oxford, where she took private lessons, including history under Mark Elvin and classical Chinese under Raymond Dawson. “We had to write and read an essay every week. We received criticism right away, left and right,” recalls the 54-year-old, who is now a professor of sinology herself at the University of Heidelberg.

Her passion for music is one reason why Barbara Mittler has always closely combined teaching, research and the transfer of knowledge to society in her own work. The musical contact between Europe and Asia was the subject of her first dissertation and later in the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context,” which eventually evolved into the “Center for Asian Studies and Transcultural Studies” (CATS) in Heidelberg. From the old to the new Silk Road, from old empires to the new colonialism: “Here, we studied the asymmetries in cultural flows – which, for example, went primarily from West to East in the last two hundred years, but are now reversing once again,” she explains. For two centuries now, knowledge has flowed from Europe to Asia. Today, China would know much more about Europe than Europe about China.

In her work, the sinology professor always takes Chinese perspectives into account – even if she sometimes has the feeling of being criticized for it. “China is not an easy subject of study and not an easy dialogue partner. But when I try to understand China in its diversity, which includes very different voices from Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas, as well as the present and the past. That doesn’t mean I’m selling out to ‘China,’” she stresses.

Barbara Mittler also repeatedly arranges exhibitions, concerts or theater performances related to China and accompanies them academically. A prominent example was the event series “1968 Global – China and the World,” which placed Mao’s Cultural Revolution in a global context using movies, lectures, exhibitions and concerts, and a chamber opera. With her scientific findings, she wants to reach out to people – in art and culture, but also in school education, for example.

The project “China in Schools” has been running since the 2000s, and Heidelberg offers a Chinese teacher training program. Today, the professor heads the China School Academy, which develops teaching materials for specialized classes on China and offers advanced training for teachers as well as a certificate in “China Competence for Schools“.

In her personal life, Barbara Mittler is motivated by both her fascination with China and her passion for music. Like herself, her husband and children also pursue music. One of her sons wants to become a horn player – and puts his mother in her place: “When we play music together, I realize: he’s the pro.” Jana Degener-Storr


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