The history of 19th century East Asia may seem irrelevant to the crises facing contemporary Europe, but the sinologist Max Oidtmann argues that that is not necessarily the case. The sudden and unexpected defeat of China's centuries-old Qing dynasty in the 1840s reminds us of what happens to those who quickly adopt new forms of energy – and those that don't. In a recent conversation that drew connections between the war in Ukraine, Europe's energy crisis, and China, Oidtmann pointed out the revolutionary significance of coal power nearly 200 years ago. “During the Opium War in the first half of the 19th century, the British destroyed the Chinese junks with warships that were much faster and more agile because they were coal-fired,” he says. “Their engine power was equivalent only to a Honda Civic. For the English, however, that was enough to clinch victory in the war, establish their dominance in China and destabilize the country thanks to an unhindered opium trade.” The Ukraine crisis is also almost entirely unfolding within the envelope of this 19th-century, fossil-fuel-powered energy regime. "The only way out, for Europe, ultimately, is to shift to an alternative energy system; one that builds of some combination of atomic and solar-powered sources. And China's currently working on this too."
The Qing dynasty – from its inception in the 16th century to its end in the 19th century – is the object of Oidtmann’s research. Until his move to LMU, he had pursued these studies on the Qatar campus of Washington’s Georgetown University in Doha. In the Qing period, China reached the zenith of its geographical expansion, spreading as far as the steppes of Central Asia, Tibet and Mongolia, for example. “What interests me is how this huge empire managed to successfully govern the newly acquired territories with their plethora of different cultures, languages and religions, for such a long time,” Oidtmann says, outlining his specialism. What fascinates him is not only the administrative side, but also the legal, cultural and military aspects that played a role.
Diversity – A recipe for success
The rulers used coalitions to successfully integrate the various communities and peoples in its system of state. Although the state did attempt to regulate and modify indigenous traditions and sometimes violently suppressed groups it found threatening, more often it attempted to promote or incorporate diverse and previously foreign cultures. “The Qing rulers were actually able to make use of local conflicts, for example by siding with parties they found acceptable, thereby finding supporters and strengthening coalitions.” Oidtmann stresses that an awareness of diversity was a prominent characteristic of the Qing period. “Minorities were not treated as such, nor did they see themselves as such,” he explains. “Rather, they regarded themselves as lawful inhabitants of their respective regions. The Qing rulers worked not toward a homogeneous society, but toward a loyal one.”
Difficult conditions for research
An important factor in his research is always the present day, which cannot be understood without looking back into history. In modern China, Oidtmann sees huge differences to the Qing dynasty era in particular. “The consensus in China’s Communist Party is that diversity is dangerous. Ethnic minorities above all are a thorn in the flesh – as is evident from the treatment meted out to the Uyghurs, for instance.” They are also trying to largely harmonize society from a cultural perspective, the aim being to avoid certain dialects and varying traditions as far as possible. “The problem with the current government under Xi Jinping is that it uses a particular historical narrative to legitimate itself. It connects some legitimate complaints about China’s treatment in the past to a story about how the Communist Party and the Chinese people need to play a unique and special role in the world. That is a dangerous narrative – similar to the one the Russian government uses to justify its invasion of Ukraine.”
That is another reason why Oidtmann believes it is tremendously important to study China’s past and present. “In the USA, Canada and Europe, little is actually known about the different cultures in China. The picture we have is one of a homogeneous state that is very uniform in terms of its culture and politics.” Not just as a student, but also as the employee of a Hong Kong-based firm in the early 2000s, the sinologist was able to gather a wealth of first-hand experience about living conditions in western China. “The company I worked for was effectively an agency whose job was to bring businesspeople, local administrations and decision-makers together to raise economic development in the region up to the level of eastern China.”
De facto a closed country
He remains fascinated by the cultural diversity and complexity in the west of the country to this day: This was the reason why he ultimately decided to apply himself to intensive scientific study of the topic.
That said, the historian has in recent years noticed a dramatic change in Chinese politics – a change that, for foreign researchers in particular, makes it more difficult to go about their work unimpeded. “When I started working in this field in 2007, there were not many obstacles. It was not so difficult to collaborate with researchers in China. But in the last five, six years it has become a lot harder. Of late, the coronavirus pandemic above all has added to the ideologically motivated limits imposed by the regime.”
Oidtmann says that only a few Western scientists can now gain access to China. “De facto, it is a closed country.” The sinology professor believes that Chinese politicians see contact with the West as a lost cause: They are not finding the allies they had hoped to find here. Conversely, the Chinese model is growing increasingly unattractive for European countries. Scarcely any interest remains among Chinese officials for building bridges and welcoming students.
In contrast, Oidtmann is very upbeat about research conditions at LMU. He is thrilled at the “fantastic resources” placed at his disposal by the University. “I originally wanted to apply for an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship,” he recalls. “But after a visit to LMU to present my research, I was asked whether I might be interested in a professorship.” He is overjoyed that it all worked out, especially as he believes the German higher education landscape is heading in a good direction compared to, say, the UK and the USA. “The universities in Germany are developing a much sharper international profile. There are also opportunities to gain access and study – more equitable options than in the States – and find good jobs, too. In the UK, Brexit has done much to erode the appeal of the universities. And the US system is fragile and no longer as attractive as it once was, with the exception of places like Harvard and Yale.”
Right now, Max Oidtmann is learning German. His children already speak the language: For lack of vacancies at the American school in Doha, they instead attended the local German international school. “That obviously made a fresh start at the new school a little easier for them.”