Caixin
Aug 08, 2020 11:06 AM

Giraffes, Pandas and the Temple of Heaven: How Should China Live With the Rest of the World?

Photo: IC
Photo: IC

Wang Jing is a writer and cross-culture consultant based in Hamburg, Germany.

In November 2019, 67-year-old Johnny Erling retired from his job as a Beijing correspondent for German newspaper Die Welt and moved back to his hometown of Frankfurt. Several major German newspapers published articles commemorating his retirement, calling him a “Reporter's Reporter” ― there is perhaps no higher praise than that from your peers.

Since 1997, Johnny had worked in Beijing for 22 years. He came to China as a student at Peking University in 1975 and worked as an editor at the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau in the early 1980s. In the mid-1990s he was in charge of developing the sister-city ties between Duisburg and Wuhan. Almost no one else in Germany can match him in Chinese experience. In the German media joint office in Sanlitun, Beijing, he had answered countless questions about China from young journalists. The entire German press should have paid him a training fee.

Two years ago, a German think tank conducted a survey and found that the ability of German people to deal with China-related affairs was generally weak. China is already Germany's second-largest partner in the field of science and technology, only the United States is larger. But German scientists know little about China’s culture, history and present conditions. Is it that China is growing too fast for the Germans to fully understand the country? Or is the lack of understanding due to China being inherently so complex and different in the global landscape and culture?

Whatever the reason, Johnny Erling, as an old China hand, became sought-after immediately upon returning home, and has been invited by German broadcasters, universities and many other institutions. Johnny told them that China is no longer what it was two or three decades ago, but a big power whose every move has consequences to the world. It may help explain why Germany feels the need to understand China.

But sometimes, I also ask myself ― do Chinese people understand Germany?

Johnny once ran a blockbuster animal exchange program when he was helping establish the sister-city partnerships between Duisburg and Wuhan. In the mid-1990s, zoos in Wuhan had never had a giraffe, and Wuhaners had to visit Beijing or see the amazing animal in picture books.

Knowing that a pair of giraffe twins had been born in Duisburg, Johnny Erling helped the zoos in both cities make a deal ― Wuhan gave Duisburg baby pandas while Duisburg gave Wuhan giraffe cubs. The German airline Lufthansa agreed to airlift the giraffes as long as they were no taller than two meters. After a race against the growth speed of the cubs, the pair finally arrived at Shanghai airport.

Wuhan authorities then chartered a boat from Sichuan province, on which the giraffes and the director of the Duisburg Zoo sailed up the Yangtze River for five days and nights. The German staff almost went crazy as they were offered only noodles mixed with chili oil on the local boat ― To make it to Wuhan, the zoo director had no choice but to “steal” giraffes’ carrots.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic spread in Germany in mid-March, Johnny can only introduce China to the rest of the world via Zoom, the video communication platform. I was fortunate enough to see his latest TV show. I was in the kitchen making dinner that day when I was told my old friend Johnny was on TV. I immediately turned off what I was cooking and rushed to the living room to watch it. The host asked Johnny to talk about Wuhan as the whole world was watching the city at the time. Johnny’s answer was concise and to the point – Wuhan is a central city in China with its own characteristics and an important transportation hub. The people in Wuhan have a human touch.

“Are the Chinese tougher than us?” then asked the host. By that time, Wuhan had been sealed off for nearly two months while German people were full of complaints just one week into their own lockdown. “Let’s put it this way,” Johnny replied. “The Chinese have strong family bonds and they support each other a bit more than we do.”

Before the next question, a huge picture of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing appeared on TV. The host asked Johnny, “the Temple of Heaven is a place you really like to visit, why?” Johnny smiled, “I was inspired by Henry Kissinger.”

I have read a story about the Temple of Heaven by Johnny, who lovingly described the elderly people doing morning exercises in the park, the parents arranging blind dates for their children, the natives playing chess and erhu, and the bustle of tourists. Then Johnny wrote about the German-American diplomat Kissinger’s special affection for the Temple of Heaven. Kissinger has visited China over 80 times, including 18 trips to the Temple of Heaven, and even took his grandson there once in his 90s. For a politician busy with international relations, it is unusual.

During the ice-breaking negotiations between China and the U.S. in 1973, Kissinger and his counterpart, China’s foreign minister Qiao Guanhua together went to the Temple of Heaven for a walk when their talks had reached a deadlock. The two diplomats were 60 meters apart, each standing at opposite ends of the Echo Wall, but could actually understand each other clearly. Kissinger even wished to bring a brick from the Echo Wall back to the U.S. as a “hotline” with Chinese foreign minister.

Johnny believed what Kissinger was looking for in the Temple of Heaven was a key to understanding China. The square base and dome of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvesting in the temple perfectly illustrate the traditional Chinese philosophy of “round heaven and square earth” in architectural language. The relationship between the heaven and emperors is also hinted in the emptiness of the Circular Mound Altar.

Kissinger, as a believer in the Westphalian principle, has committed to upholding the spirit of that contract between national states, especially the principle of peace and balance of power in the international system. The architecture of the Temple of Heaven with its old pines and cypresses has led him to contemplate ― What kind of role does a big power like China actually play in the international order? What should the relationships between China and the rest of the world be based on? Will China fit into the world order, or does China want to convey its own concept of order to the world?

“Has Kissinger found the answer?” asked the host. "That's a good question," Johnny said.

Translated by intern reporter Ingrid Luan.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of Caixin Media.

Caixin Global publishes a diverse range of opinions as letters to the editor on our blog. We'd like to hear what you are thinking or experiencing around the globe. Please submit your thoughts in publishable format to our email: blogen@caixin.com


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