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Elisabeth Kaske – professor and observer of Chinese history

Elisabeth Kaske

“As a person, history has two attractions for me,” says Elisabeth Kaske, Professor of Society and Culture of Modern China at the University of Leipzig. On the one hand, it lies in the past and you can look at it as an outsider. Also, you know the outcome and can still play with other potential outcomes. “That gives you a great freedom that you don’t have in the present, because you’re always chasing events.”

The second attraction for the historian is that history can be seen as a broken house. “Of the once three million stones, 100,000 are still there, and you have to rebuild the house from them. But you don’t build the whole story, only build part of it. And to build that house, you have to make well-founded assumptions. Analogies from other houses, drawing comparisons. And then you build a hypothesis of what that house might have looked like.” This is how Kaske sums up her view of history as a scientist, but also as a person interested in history.

Double alienation in research

The focus of Kaske’s research is the history of China. Dealing with the past of a foreign country holds great fascination for her. The big difference between someone who studies the history of their home country and someone who, like herself, is a foreigner who studies Chinese history, is primarily one of alienation. The general rule, however, is that “the past is another country,” which means that one researches each history as if it were another land. If it is an entirely different land at that, it’s a kind of “double alienation,” as Kaske calls it. “I find that intellectually very appealing, even though it’s difficult.”

For instance, a historian would have to familiarize herself with the foreign language and, in the case of China, learn classical Chinese as well. Even as a schoolgirl, Kaske was interested in everything foreign and used her linguistic aptitude to learn classical Chinese as a young adult. It consists, for example, of many more monosyllabic words that also consist of only a single character representing the meaning of the word. Thus began Kaske’s journey, first as a student and later as a scholar, through the history of China. She spent her first extended academic stay in the early nineties – at first with a scholarship from the GDR, and after 1990 financed by student loans.

Focus on the 19th century

Over the years, Kaske’s stays in the People’s Republic have tended to be relatively short. Nevertheless, she has been a globetrotter since 2005, when her scientific career took off. In the past decade and a half, she has worked in Boston, Pittsburgh, Princeton and Taipei, among other places. Her scientific focus is primarily on the 19th century.

But one of Kaske’s new projects also centers on the twentieth century. In it, she explores how new professional elites, particularly engineers, visualized the Chinese nation in the twentieth century. “We always think that China is just China. We have this map in mind. But this map is a modern projection, which is the People’s Republic,” she explains. China, she says, has traditionally been bad at cartography. As late as the 19th century, for example, some maps resembled those from the Roman Empire. “They look like children’s drawings. And also the internal idea of the country was really more one of routes. To get from A to B, you have to go through these stations, and it takes so and so many days,” Kaske said.

A new form of territorialization

This changed in the 20th century thanks to modern technology, railroads, roads and telegraph lines. For road planning, it was necessary to accurately survey the land. “Then come these modern ideas that the state must penetrate the territory. You have to reach even the last village,” the professor says. This form of territorialization also helped China increasingly constitute itself as a cohesive nation.

Transposed to today, a different trend of territorialization can be observed. China no longer needs to measure every mountain and valley accurately to build roads. Instead, it now wants to bridge territories transnationally or even transcontinentally. That, at least, is one idea behind the New Silk Road project. “You then suddenly have a world domination vision,” Kaske says. But she expects that project to suffer a setback for now. “I suspect that China thoroughly alienated Eastern Europe. But you never know at the end of the day,” Kaske says. And this uncertainty, or rather chasing after current events, is precisely what the historian loathes. She looks at events when they are already in the past. Constantin Eckner

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