Focus topics

Michael Kahn-Ackermann – Founding Director of the first Goethe-Institut in Beijing

Michael Kahn-Ackermann has actually been retired for almost ten years, but the soon-to-be 75-year-old is far from “retired”. Just a few months ago, he was hit by a wave of Chinese indignation after he translated the “Wuhan Diary” by writer Fang Fang into German. The book about the experience of the Corona crisis became a bestseller in Germany. Kahn-Ackermann finds it “completely harebrained” that he is being approached as a translator for the content of the text. But he knows, “The dynamics behind such cases are highly complex.”

Kahn-Ackermann knows China’s approach to culture better than anyone, having advised the Confucius Institute headquarters for eight years until 2019. “China has very little experience in foreign cultural policy.” However, China also seemed to care particularly about changing that, which is why the cooperation was moderately successful, Kahn-Ackermann said. At the same time, he has been working as a “China Special Representative” for the Mercator Foundation since 2011. There he primarily helps with contacts, because he has a “relatively large network of connections”, as he says himself.

That’s not surprising, because he already had contacts in China when the country was still little regarded in the West. In 1970, Kahn-Ackermann decided to study Sinology: “The pretty much most useless thing on offer at Munich University at the time.” In 1974, still on scholarship during the Cultural Revolution, he traveled to China as one of ten students. In the two years at Beijing University, he learned Chinese – and in the years that followed, studying sinology turned out to be not so useless.

The first Goethe-Institut in China was officially opened at the end of 1988 – with Kahn-Ackermann as founding director. The early years were difficult, “until they realised that we were not there for espionage purposes. It was not until 1993 that the Beijing Goethe-Institut was allowed to offer cultural programmes as well as language teaching. For 16 years it was the only foreign institution in the fields of culture and education in China. At that time, the Goethe-Institut was “a very important window to the outside world for the Chinese.” From 1994 to 2006, Kahn-Ackermann made professional stops at the Goethe Institutes in Moscow and Rome. In 2006 he returned to Beijing to the Goethe-Institut. Even though its function has changed in the meantime, Kahn-Ackermann is convinced: “The Goethe-Institut is still a place where you can try out something that would not be so easy to try out in other institutions.”

He is particularly fascinated by the “acceleration” he has witnessed in China. When he was there for the first time, China was still a developing country. Now it is a world power. He himself describes his relationship with China as having “an emotional scale from love to anger, from joy to pain”. In contrast, he experiences an “unrealistic” image of China among many Europeans and in the Western media. He finds it very difficult to change this.

In the meantime, Kahn-Ackermann lives in Nanjing “because of love“. His circle of friends consists mainly of Chinese. For some time now he has been curating art exhibitions, he still doesn’t get bored. In April 2021, Fang Fang’s novel “Soft Burial” was published in German – translated by Kahn-Ackermann. Paula Faul


    Yaqiu Wang – a voice for justice
    Philipp Niemietz – cinema for a more diverse image of China
    François Chimits – ‘Do your job!’
    Deborah Brautigam – an expert on China’s debt in Africa