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Land of Longing – Romance scholar Ottmar Ette takes Humboldt to China – to a place that the natural and cultural scientist never traveled to himself

Humboldt expert Prof. Dr. Ottmar Ette
Cover of the first Chinese translation of Humboldt's “Kosmos” (1st volume, translated by GAO Hong, Beijing 2023)
Photo : Dr. Jana Scholz
Humboldt expert Prof. Dr. Ottmar Ette
Photo : Ottmar Ette
Cover of the first Chinese translation of Humboldt's “Kosmos” (1st volume, translated by GAO Hong, Beijing 2023)

Ottmar Ette is freezing; he walked through the snow-covered Sanssouci Park to the university. "I've just come back from Cuba, where we had 31 degrees Celsius," he says. The emeritus professor from Potsdam gave a lecture on the Cuban author José Martí, whose work was the subject of his doctoral thesis decades ago. A nostalgic experience for the Romance scholar, who visited Cuba for the first time 42 years ago. Ottmar Ette is used to moving between climate zones and continents, between worlds and centuries. Since 2015, he has been leading the long-term project “Traveling Humboldt – Science on the Move” at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, which will run until 2033. He is on the track of the natural and cultural researcher, not only from his desk – like Humboldt himself, he is always on the move. But Ette is now drawn to a region Humboldt himself never set foot in, even though he explored it from Europe: China. The scholar set off on his Russian-Siberian journey from Berlin in 1829, traveling via the Baltic states, St. Petersburg, and Moscow through Siberia to the Altai Mountains. There, contrary to the Russian Tsar's instructions, he made a detour to the Chinese border, met Chinese officials and traveled on to the Southern Urals, the Caspian Sea, and back to St. Petersburg. Ottmar Ette was so fascinated by the researcher's connections with the Chinese Empire that he founded the “Humboldt Center for Transdisciplinary Studies (HCTS)” at Hunan Normal University in Changsha three years ago. Dr. Jana Scholz interviewed him with regard to Humboldt's longing for China, his early findings on climate change, and the fascination for science that Ette probably has in common with the explorer.

Alexander von Humboldt never visited China. What connections did he nevertheless have to the Chinese Empire?

After returning from his trip to the American tropics in 1804, Humboldt's lifelong dream was to explore Central Asia. He subsequently contacted the British on several occasions. But they were wary of letting him into British India, as he had heavily criticized Spanish colonialism in the past. He now lived in Paris for almost a quarter of a century and prepared for his journey to Asia from there: The scholar was in contact with sinologists and gathered information about Chinese mining, mythology, festivals, and customs of the empire, but also about China's geographical knowledge, which was far more advanced than that of the Greeks or Romans and the European world until the Middle Ages. When he reached the Chinese border in 1829, he exchanged gifts with officials of the Qing dynasty, including one of the classic novels of Chinese literature, "History of the Three Kingdoms", which has even been preserved.

What significance does his Russian-Siberian journey have for us today?

Today, the focus is on his American journey. But Humboldt's decades-long involvement with Asia is important for us to understand how he develops global visions – such as predictions on climate change. Our understanding of isotherms, which are used to mark areas of equal temperature on meteorological weather maps, goes back to the natural scientist. Today, our world climate maps are based on his ideas. Humboldt had already campaigned for the establishment of worldwide measuring stations in his time. The texts from the Russian-Siberian journey also speak of the changes in the climate caused by soil erosion, similar to the American journey, when he observed the industrial gases released into the atmosphere. And he recognized that people's interaction with nature is determined by culture. During his American travels, the researcher reported on attempts to drain large areas in Mexico and Venezuela. He realized that the drought around the Venezuelan Lake Valencia was also caused by the Spaniards' handling of water, who channeled it away – because they apparently did not value it enough. As a result, less water vapor was released into the atmosphere and the area surrounding the lake became drier. The impact of humans on the region's nature is still clearly visible today. The scholar also linked the colonial powers' timber industry to the drought in the region. He was able to perceive such connections precisely because he thought about culture and nature in connection. We are slowly getting back to that constellation, since it turned out to be a mistake to separate them as western scholars did. To tackle the climate crisis, we need to draw on cultural studies. Today, just as in Humboldt's time, the aim is to convince the different cultures that they must confront climate change.

How did the idea of making Alexander von Humboldt known in China come about?

The research center was founded just over three years ago, exclusively with Chinese funds. German research politics are increasingly influenced by crises and I wanted to create something that was independent of German-Chinese relations. I initially established contacts with German studies departments at universities in Shanghai, Beijing, and Chongqing and tried to introduce people to Humboldt in lectures and workshops. His American journey was received in China in 1832, but he played no role in the 20th century. All my Chinese colleagues have therefore advised me not to set up a research center: The German explorer was of no interest to the country, they said. An assessment like that spurs me on, because it is a clear sign that there are interesting things to explore. And in October 2023, we celebrated the first Humboldt Day – with three lectures from Germany and five from China. We were able to set up three doctoral scholarships, and one doctoral student is currently here in Potsdam. I recently took her to the disputation of my last doctoral student at the University of Potsdam – a cycle of over 50 supervised dissertations and habilitations over the last few decades has been completed. In the meantime, translator Gao Hong has translated Humboldt's work “Kosmos". It looks like seven to eight of his other works will be translated into Chinese. This is a wonderful situation.

By turning your attention to China, would you say you have left the usual terrain of a Romance philologist?

I have developed the concept of transareal studies, which explore literature in the context of globalization. As a comparatist, I still feel at home with this Chinese research center. I have now given a lecture on Chinese literature for the first time, which was very special for me. I am also observing the growing links between Latin America, China, and Europe. South America has become very important for China’s economy, and vice versa. In the People's Republic, an increasing number of people are now learning German, French, and Spanish instead of English. A whole new hemisphere becomes available. We have already co-organized two virtual conferences between the three continents. I spend two months in the Far East twice a year and learn a lot about Europe from this perspective.

You mentioned the difficult scholarly relations between Germany and China. Do you sometimes worry about being caught in the middle?

The political disputes have such a direct impact on scholarly activity that it is enough to make your blood run cold. Conflicts are increasingly being fought out on a political and economic level. This problem has also existed with regard to my scholarly relations with Cuba from the beginning. However, I am not afraid at all about being caught in the middle. Humboldt is a safe haven in this regard. And the Chinese have a huge interest in European partners. However, it is not always easy for German academics to come to China, and vice versa, the application for a research stay in Germany takes at least nine months. Germany has a disastrous foreign cultural policy, as the recent closure of nine Goethe Institutes shows. Compared to Alexander von Humboldt's or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's knowledge of the Chinese empire, our knowledge of the country in today's digital age is very limited.

After so many years of scholarly debate, is there a chance that you will one day become tired of Humboldt?

I feel the same way about Humboldt as I do about Martí: There is always something new to discover! Science is simply fascinating. If I become unable to do research at some point, I know that there are many other people to whom I could pass on my enthusiasm for science. And as long as I live, my fascination for research will remain. My aim is to strengthen the connection between Potsdam and China, and by now, interest in Humboldt in the Far East no longer depends on me. There are enough Chinese researchers that will keep the flame alive.

Thank you very much for the interview!


This text will appear in the upcoming university magazine Portal - Eins 2024.