Prof. Dr. Barbara Mittler - Chinese Cultural Studies
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Welcome to this website which shall provide you with information on my life (curriculum vitae), works (publications), my research (papers and talks | research projects) as well as my favourite pastimes teaching and engaging with students.
Once upon a time, I really wanted to become a practicing musician, which is one of the reasons why I wrote a dissertation dealing with Chinese music (Dangerous Tunes: The Politics of Music in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People's Republic of China since 1949), catalogued and copied a huge collection of New Chinese Music for the library of our Institute (C. C. Liu Collection, Liu Yuan Collection) and continue to organize talks, concerts and conferences featuring music from greater China (e.g. Chime-Conference, Creative Couples - Transcultural Media, Creative Dissonances, Von fremden Ländern und Menschen, Music from greater China). Lately I have started a very fruitful cooperation with Klangforum Heidelberg (e.g. Neue Klänge aus dem Reich der Mitte, 1968 Global [more...]) which most recently even enabled us to stage a contemporary Chinese opera by Lam Bun-Ching: WENJI (see ZERRISSEN—Auf der Suche nach Heimat [Youtube]).
One of my current book projects, too, “And there is only one Lang Lang…”—Chinese Musicians on the Global Stage: a Transcultural Perspective takes up on this interest of mine: reading the fate of classical music in China and considering a variety of different “Chinese” musical practices, in the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan and among American-born Chinese, also touching upon some of the more unexpected faces that classical music has taken—as revolutionary music, classical jazz, and music for the Chinese orchestra, for example—the book will uncover the tensions inherent in this dynamic process of re-creating classical music à la Chinoise, and suggest new ways of interpreting it. For as Chinese musicians are making their inroads on concert stages all over the world, coupled with admiration for their incredible skills and accomplishments is often resignation or even fear. The heated reactions to the publication of Amy Chua’s Battle hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) which caused a long debate on proper ways of educating children in the US (and music in the hands of China as an “Olympic Discipline”) are only one example (see “Wagner goes East”).
All throughout, not just in my work on music, I have attempted to consider different parts of greater China. This interest of mine has led to an engagement for the teaching of the history, society, language and culture of greater China which has been generously supported for many years from many different sources and which has enabled the institute to host the Taiwan Lecture Series devoted to Taiwan and Greater China, inviting prominent scholars, artists and activists to share their work and experience with Heidelberg colleagues and students.
Next to my interest in music in greater China, it is the early Chinese print media that I have focused on in my research: a variation of my Habilitation Thesis (A Newspaper for China? Power, Identity and Change in Shanghai's News Media (1872-1912)) is based on an analysis of articles taken from a Shanghai newspaper, the Shenbao 申報, founded in 1872 by a British businessman, Ernest Major. This study attempts to show how the foreign medium newspaper was transformed to fit the taste of its Chinese readerships, by incorporating the Chinese court gazette on its pages, by using authoritative citations from the Chinese Classics, and by adapting Chinese literary forms such as zhiguai 志怪 (records of the strange) or the examination essay (baguwen 八股文). The book also addresses the question of the implied readerships of this newspaper by surveying the role of women and of the inhabitants of Shanghai. Finally, it asks whether or not this particular Shanghai newspaper, and many of the newspapers that followed in its wake, were indeed responsible for the development of a Chinese nationalism in Shanghai. The book thus questions the fundamental assumption reiterated since the publication of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities that newspapers were indeed powerful agents in the formation of (Chinese) nationalism and the (Chinese) public sphere.
One of the larger projects that I have been involved in since 2008, is a study of women's and entertainment magazines in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan from their beginnings in the final years of the 19th century to the present day. This project was accompanied by a number of research seminars introducing and reading Chinese (women's) magazines, co-taught with Zhu Junzhou, Joan Judge, Lien Lingling, Paola Zamperini and Louise Edwards. One of the outcomes of the project is an edited volume (Hockx, M., Judge, J., & Mittler, B. (Eds.). (2018). Women and the Periodical Press in China's Long Twentieth Century: A Space of their Own? Cambridge) which elaborates our new methodology of reading the early Chinese printing press through vertical, horizontal, situated and integrated approaches. Using the same methodology, I am currently finalizing a book Portrait(s) of a Trope: New Women and New Men in Chinese Women’s Magazines, 1898-2008. The book traces the historical development of women’s magazines in China, their global interactions as circulating media constantly reproducing from other media, and their translations into action by and through the opening up of new readerships. It discusses in particular, their powers in the making and the remaking of a particular trope, the figure of the New (Wo)Man, and its inscription into Chinese cultural memory.
In cooperation with Joan Judge at York University and the Heidelberg Research Architecture at the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies (HCTS, formerly the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a global Context”), the project has, in addition, also built a substantive database of women’s magazines (WOMAG) which, more recently has been expanded to include entertainment and literary magazines as well (ECPO Early Chinese Periodicals Online).
Sparked by my readings of the eclectic and all-encompassing print media and magazines of the late 19th and early 20th century, I have paid a lot of attention to visual materials. From a joint research project on Asian Satire with colleagues studying India, the Middle East and East Asia under the auspices of the Heidelberg Cluster Asia and Europe in a Global Context, stems a study on Asian Punches: A Transcultural Affair (Hans Harder & Barbara Mittler eds.) Heidelberg: Springer 2013.
All the while, I had been absorbed in a project of rewriting of the history of cultural production during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the results of which became a book entitled A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture (with online database). While it is often (and officially) stated that the Cultural Revolution was nothing but a period of cultural stagnation and as the 8 so-called model works (yangbanxi 样板戏)—of which, indeed, there were 18 (cf. list of the 18 yangbanxi)—are taken as paradigmatic for the entirety of Cultural Revolution Culture, they are condemned as an aberration in terms of cultural development. The comfortable assumption, however, that the Cultural Revolution was simply a distorted and atypical phase of political extremism, distinct from the years before and after that “unfortunate period,” is misleading. The yangbanxi are everything else but the product of an iconoclastic, and xenophobic era as which the Cultural Revolution is so often described. Instead, they are manifestations of a hybrid taste which calls for the transformation of Chinese tradition according to once-foreign standards, a taste which for a century has led to the creation of a Chinese culture of foreign imprint. The model works are thus not to be considered the perversion of the Maoist experiment of re-inventing a new, Chinese but revolutionary, culture, but have an important place in a long series of attempted syntheses of foreign and Chinese heritage. It is one of the aims of this book, as well as the conference-cum-exhibition Rethinking Cultural Revolution Culture to show that the model works and other cultural products (such as poetry, short stories, novels, posters, songs, music, paintings, film) (re-)created during the Cultural Revolution are indeed much less a deviant than the norm of orthodox cultural production in revolutionary China and, what is more important, to explain that and how they remain significant (and even popular) in China today (see e.g. Mao Zedong – Pop-Ikone und YouTube-Star, Maos Kulturrevolution in der Karaoke-Bar and Living the Cultural Revolution. More recently, we have also reconsidered the global trajectory of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in a large-scale retrospective, including an exhibition, a film festival, and a lecture and concert series ( Facetten des Erinnerns:1968 global—China und die Welt).
See also: All Current Projects
My interest in privileging visual sources in the writing of history has been sparked in a number of joint projects on Visual Cultures in East Asia originally conceived by Christian Henriot. It is our contention that images are constitutive rather than merely reflective or illustrative of the histories that produce them. In these projects, therefore, we attempt to use images in order to interrupt the flow of text-based historical narratives, to ask new questions, and thus to produce new theoretical and conceptual arguments and narratives. Along these lines, I am currently engaged in writing a visual history of Mao (Reading Mao: The Making of a Global Icon) which continues my earlier work on MaoArt in A Continuous Revolution.
My interest in Mao as a Global Icon has been sparked and invigorated by a transregional dialogue with a historian of India from Duke University, Sumathi Ramaswamy. In our collaborative project No Parallel? The Fatherly Bodies of Gandhi and Mao, we interrogate how these two paradigmatic “peasant” nationalists have been transformed into hyper-visible “bio-icons.” Consciously adopting a dialogic and somewhat counterintuitive approach (something I have called Transcultural Comparison) that draws together within a single frame two “Asian” life trajectories that have more often than not been kept apart (No Parallel!), the project considers how critical images and signature image-events have contributed to a complex interplay between the iconization and the demonization of these two men in their own countries and on a global scale.
Our joint project builds on a number of forays in this field dedicated to understanding the transcultural travels and reach of images and art practices across Asia and Europe (Archiving Mothers and Fathers of the Nation in Europe and Asia: Developing a Digitized Prototype of Braided Pictorial Histories, Transcultural Visuality culminating in a summer school Seeing Matters). We have over the years also co-organized a number of workshops (e.g. Spectacle & Sovereignty: Stately Bodies on Display, Stanford Humanities Center and Artful Bodies: Charisma and the Aesthetics of Power, Heidelberg Center for Transcultural Studies) and an Association of Asian Studies Double Panel in March 2017 “Death Becomes Them: The Posthumous Lives of Fatherly Bodies”. At all of these occasions, we have broadened our comparative scope even further and discussed Gandhi and Mao in the context of many other “Fathers of the Nation”—from George Washington to Chiang Kaishek, from Charlemagne to Jinnah and Nelson Mandela.
Finally, in 2019, for the opening of the Center of Asian and Transcultural Studies CATS, we organized an exhibition featuring the Swiss photojournalist Walter Bosshard and his work on Gandhi and Mao in the 1930s: Envisioning Asia: Gandhi and Mao in the photographs of Walter Bosshard.
Inspired by the inter- and transdisciplinary dialogues at the Heidelberg Center for Transcultural Studies, Transcultural Comparison and the development of alternative modes of writing histories, has become one of my primary occupations recently. Already now, many new and relativizing narratives (provincializing not just Europe, but men, the elites, the “West” etc.) have been written. My own attempts at writing history not just from text, but from image, music, matter, as well, goes in the same direction. The crucial task for the future will be, however, to establish these new narratives not as “alternative” narratives that, by implication, prescribe new orthodox norms, but instead, as “narratives-in-common.” Such narratives are radically more than alternative narratives. They are able to discard apologetic (catching-up) or triumphant (we have had it all along) modes of writing alternative histories that have been criticized frequently. These narratives no longer lead to “deficient” histories. Yet, to write them is not an easy task (see my discussion in All Things Transregional?).
In a recently published book co-written with Historian Thomas Maissen Why China did not have a Renaissance – and why that matters: An interdisciplinary Dialogue (Critical Readings in Global Intellectual History, Band 1, hrsg. von Susan Richter, Sebastian Meurer, De Gruyter: Oldenbourg, 2018 [Blog | Podcast]) I argue that while China may not have had “The Renaissance” it had something else, a “Chinese” Renaissance which happened according to its own rules. Thus moving toward greater differentiation, however, one realizes that Europe did not have a “The Renaissance”, either, it had but a “European” Renaissance. Read in a global context—and in interdisciplinary dialogue—all History thus becomes regional history and accordingly, there are many histories of Renaissance to tell, in this global context. On the other hand, if we are able to accept that actors all over the world may have been engaged equally in the writing of Renaissance, and if we make this the basis of our writing of a new and global history, which no longer takes the European case as unique and all other historical experiences as derivative, but instead, shows an interest in these other, as well as the European experiences, as regionally specific and thus “authentic” histories, yet part of one global experience, we can move from these specific histories back to writing History again: History-in-common.
This approach of viewing Chinese history in a global context has become crucial in envisaging a new project that is designed to introduce the teaching of History-in-common in secondary schools. The project, entitled China-Schul-Akademie—Mehr vom A/anderen w/Wissen: (Lehr- und Lern-)Dialoge mit China argues that since the rise of the global south can no longer be denied, it is visible everywhere—in commerce, finance, politics and education—and China undeniably plays a leading role at least some knowledge about and understanding of China is crucial for anyone engaged in politics, economics or the media. But this kind of understanding needs to be built, from the base, not just in our universities but, more importantly, in our schools where encounters with China still remain extremely rare. This is due to the fact that currently, German schools have only very few qualified personnel available able to teach China, or Asia more broadly, her history, politics, culture, or even her many languages. The project aims to create a program which will allow us to integrate the history, the politics, and the (im-material) cultural heritage (language, literature, religion, music, philosophy) of this important world region into the curricula of German schools at all levels.
To study China, as well as other regions of the global South, is to foster a curiosity and an openness toward the Other. We would argue that this is crucially important both for teachers (and for students) today as well as of the future, facing increasingly internationalized student generations. In intensive dialogue and exchange, we will try to begin to understand the respective other „in-parallel“ and „on-a-par“ and to use the perspective of others in order to test ourselves and our own epistemic encrustations: we hope to raise an understanding that by knowing more about the other, we are acquring another perspective on what we know ourselves...
The project can build on many years of experience and funding: in 2006 already, we started with our Schulteam and just a few AGs, in 2007 the team won the prize Geist begeistert (BMBF). We then moved on to creating a Beifach Chinesisch Lehramt ( GymPO since 2010), the earliest such offer in Baden-Württemberg. Ever since we have been lobbying also to offer a Hauptfach and have been able to do so since 2015, through the polyvalent BA Ostasienwissenschaften/Sinologie and the MEd Sinologie/Chinesisch (which started in 2018). Alongside these activities, we have also been regularly engaged in the Kinderuni and cooperated with the CATS Schülerlabor, and have created, over the years, an extensive and well-frequented database with online modules for teaching Chinese history, philosophy, politics, literature and society.
We are now at a point of moving up one step: having institutionalized teacher training for teaching Chinese language and culture in secondary schools, we now need to begin to institutionalize the teaching of Chinese contents to students of those disciplines taught in school, but primarily focused on Europe (e.g. Music, History, Politics (Gemeinschaftskunde), Philosophy, Philology and Literature). The project will also build a substantive digital platform Chinaperspektiven not only making available teaching and learning materials at various levels, but also MOOCs and other online tools and learning apps as well as a virtual classroom for direct communication with Chinese partners.
For more information, please take a look at the list of my current and past projects.