Tilman Spengler: Itching Powder and Historical Lessons

East and West: access denied (March 2011)

East and West: access denied (March 2011)

Tilman Spengler, a sinologist and novellist, has been refused an entry visa by the Chinese authorities. He was scheduled to travel as a member of a German delegation led by German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle. An exhibition under the auspices of German and Chinese presidents Christian Wulff and Hu Jintao, “The Art of Enlightenment”, opened at Beijing’s National Museum of China today. According to Spengler himself, he had been told that he was “no friend of the Chinese people”. Last September, Spengler lauded Liu Xiaobo, on a Hermann-Kesten Award ceremony for the Chinese dissident.

In an interview published by German weekly Die Zeit today, Spengler said that

[The following are excerpts from the interview. Main link: http://www.zeit.de/kultur/2011-03/china-tilman-spengler – links within blockquotes added during translation – JR]

No effort to carry at least a sparkle of of enlightenment spirit there can be completely wrong. This carries more weight than running the risk of giving the regime some legitimatory luster. That there is a controversy, a small scandalon, will get around in China, too, and provoke one or another bit of thought. The effort of change through rapprochement is better than a moral drive  to show the Chinese the ropes. The situation isn’t fundamentally different from Germany divided, thirty years ago. Also, the National Museums in Berlin’s, The Governmental Collection of Art Dresden’s, and the Bavarian Staatsgemäldesammlung’s exhibition is quite costly…

Q: … the ten-million-Euro budget comes from Germany…

A: … and usually, the side where it is organized will pay, not those who provide the exhibits. It’s the other way round here. Frank-Walter Steinmeier pushed it four years ago. You can’t slam on the brakes last-minute, make an example of it and cancel your attendance as foreign minister.

Q: Why not, actually? Is there still a way to act correctly at all, given the tightened situation, in which the exhibition is held – no matter if you are a politician, or a museum director like Michael Eissenhauer or Martin Roth?

A: Repression mechanisms have certainly tightened in China. But art is innocent, a painting by Henry Raeburn, or a sextant. It’s a message in a bottle, to quote Adorno. Explanations add meaning to the exhibits. You will look at the painting of a beautiful woman, and the explanation may be about the womens’ role at the time, about emancipation. That’s where things become problematic in China, particularly for the gatherings which are scheduled in addition.

Concerning a question about what foreign cultural policies could do to show that China’s identity went beyond the Tian An Men’s architecture, Spengler suggested that

Chinese culture is in a state where critical reflections on its own society hardly happens any more. The intellectual climate is lacking oxygen. There isn’t only the party, there is also a self-inflicted immaturity among the Chinese citizens who don’t push for a right to reflect.

Q: That sounds evangelistic. How can you reflect without freedom of opinion?

A: What I mean is that it won’t hurt to spread some intellectual itching powder. The Chinese are fed up with politics, because they had to talk politics for too long. The elder think of the cultural revolution and cruelties they lived through. Now they may be only too prepared to be no longer allowed to talk about politics. Anyway, you can’t proselytize in China. The affluent American Bible Mission came to Canton with shiploads of bibles in 1902. They wanted to give them away there and further up the Pearl River delta for free. Nobody wanted to have them. But once they gave them a price of two dollars, they flew off the shelves like blazes – a historial lesson for cultural politics.


Censor Yourself, or Keep out, March 1, 2010
GFOTCP, October 26, 2008


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