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Dominic Sachsenmaier – A plea for more knowledge on China

Dominic Sachsenmaier – Professor at the East Asian Seminar of the University of Göttingen

It was curiosity that prompted student Dominic Sachsenmaier to apply for a scholarship in the early 1990s: a year of learning Chinese in Taipei. Up to this point, his studies had been strongly focused on Europe. Ee studied European history, philosophy and classical philology in Freiburg. After he returned from Taiwan a year later, Sachsenmaier not only had a solid grasp of the language but his interest in Chinese culture had also been awakened.

One doctorate and many more stays abroad later, the 51-year-old is now a professor at the East Asian Department of the University of Göttingen. The name of his professorship: Modern China with a focus on global historical perspectives. A global view of China allows for new approaches, says Sachsenmaier. “It’s about understanding China better through the lens of globalization. At the same time, the question is: How much do we need to focus on China to understand globalization?

The need to catch up in dealing with the People’s Republic is immense: “Knowledge about China is still underdeveloped in our country,” says Sachsenmaier. It stems from a time when China was not nearly as economically relevant as it is today. “I would say that we are not prepared for the new age.”

Sachsenmaier is currently occupied with two major projects: He is writing a book on the global history of China in the 20th century. He is also involved in the research project “World Generation”, in which he and his team are analyzing ideas of world order in China and other countries. In doing so, he is not only focusing on China from a European perspective but also aims to bring Chinese scholars and China specialists with experts on Latin America, Africa and the Arab world, at one table.

Sachsenmaier studied in Nanjing and maintains close contacts with universities in China, especially Tsinghua University in Beijing. He spent a large part of his time abroad, a total of over eleven years in the USA: at Harvard and universities in California and North Carolina. Research on China is much more widespread in the US than in our country: “Two to three of the larger American universities have the same capacities that we have in the whole of Germany,” he says. As a result, research is highly specialized. In Germany, we have fewer professorships but more points of interdisciplinary contact, which is an advantage.

In recent years, Sachsenmaier has observed a shift in the U.S. on its stance towards China. “On a broad social basis, attitudes toward China have become more negative. What’s remarkable about this is that it applies to both political factions.” At US universities, one senses increasing pressure to reduce collaborations with China. Sachsenmaier is also concerned that freedom of expression in China is becoming increasingly restricted. “But I believe that this is precisely why we need to maintain and intensify our contacts with China.” Sarah Schaefer

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