Professor Schäfer, where did your personal interest in China originate?
At the beginning of my studies – in Sinology, Japanology, and political science – I spent almost two years in China. At the time I had to suspend my studies to do so because coursework was hardly recognized in the early 1990s and China wasn’t as open as it is today. I originally went to pursue journalism. However once I was there, I developed a deep interest in Chinese history.
You have been involved in research and teaching at TU Berlin and the TU China Center for more than ten years. What attracted you?
TU Berlin places special value on the connection between the technical and literary sciences – and there is the China Center. It offers top-level competence with not only historical but also linguistic and technical awareness. It is a place where all disciplines come together to gain a comprehensive overview. The student body is diverse, international, and comes with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences and language skills. The flood of information we experience in the present day requires increased methodological skills in research. Berlin and its international population and concentration of research institutions offers unique opportunities.
China’s economic and scientific presence is growing. Has the West taken proper notice of this?
No, China is hugely underestimated. Although modern development already began 30 years ago, it is still observed with much trepidation because it is so difficult to assess. After all, very few institutions in Germany are concerned with how China has developed scientifically and technically, focusing rather on how a system developed in the 20th century that was, and remains, based on a planned economy. What the West is also slow to understand is that China’s development as an economic and scientific “superpower” is no longer a pipe dream, but has long been fact.
Even if many people argue that Chinese scholars are not as creative and innovative as we are, you have to consider this: Though the percentage of the population who are researchers and highly educated is significantly lower than in Germany, the actual number is much higher. The Chinese closely observe what happens here and understand us better than we understand them. We should spend less time worrying about a potential “danger” and accept that networking is unavoidable. We can no longer continue to disregard Chinese researchers. The same applies to researchers from countries in South America or Africa.
In your view, what is the best way to do that?
Scientists in particular should not let themselves be guided by short-term political developments but instead think long term: long-lasting commitment, exchange, and networking. They should concentrate on their topic and find suitable partners rather than institutions. China has been sending people abroad for years now to find possible development partners. Centers for the study of the sociology and history of science in the West are being established at Chinese universities. One can network very well in China for such topics. Above all: It is never too early to start networking, including as a student. It becomes more difficult later on. I know the language is a bit of a deterrent but those who persevere benefit greatly in the end. There are excellent career opportunities available.
Which research objectives do you intend to pursue with the Leibniz Prize?
I would like to broaden the scientific perspective for international developments, expanding exchange with many cultures. The Chinese science system is so large and boasts so many important publications that go unnoticed in the West due to the language barrier. We must ask ourselves whether we can afford to insist with an almost colonial attitude on English as the “lingua franca” and restrict our view to our own scientific organization as the only model. The narrow public perception of knowledge as given or of science as only a modern episode rather than as a global and diverse phenomenon does not only pertain to China’s research.
I would also like to strengthen the long-term perspective and consider different periods and eras. Even though research on the history of science is quite strong for the 20th century, it needs support for the study of early periods to identify where knowledge in its diversity originates. For the reasons mentioned already, Western research has so far had little grasp of this. An additional focus on the history of technology will be placed on research into the intersections and boundaries between animals, plants, and materials. Silkworm factories play a role here, for instance, or the preoccupation with material that has changed from animal to subject, such as book covers made of leather, or the development of plastics such as polymers. My team will also include natural scientists for this research.
Interviewer: Patricia Pätzold