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New book about odyssey captures author's experiences in landscapes

China Daily | Updated: 2017-10-26 07:04

Schomann began to write in both languages, inspired by brilliance of Lin Yutang

For the outsider to learn about and truly understand China can take a lifetime of patience and commitment - slowly working through and absorbing an ever-evolving mosaic of experiences - according to a veteran German writer who has written extensively on the country he has grown to love passionately.

Born in 1962, Stefan Schomann, has been a frequent visitor to China for almost 20 years.

He has published four books on China in German and Chinese, and written numerous articles based in China for leading German media.

Despite all that, he says understanding China is not at all an easy task for a Westerner.

New book about odyssey captures author's experiences in landscapes

"I think it's impossible to perceive (China) as a whole, or to judge (it) as a whole, or to make statements about (it) as a whole. It will just lead to sweeping simplifications and generalizations," he said.

He compared forming an image of China to piecing together mosaics: "The big image is composed of many little images - pieces of the mosaic. And you are always working on one piece."

His perspectives on China is best illustrated in his new book released in June, China - Strolls Through an Empire.

It features 10 individual travel stories covering trips to a diversity of Chinese landscapes.

These range from wild deserts in the northwest to modern cities in the coastal east, as well as landlocked cities with ancient history and precious cultural heritage.

Schomann cited an article in the book to illustrate the concept of the mosaic.

He wrote about the two-day annual traditional storytelling festival in central Henan province, where "the whole universe of Chinese culture, mentality and entertainment" was present and he tried to present "the essence of this culture" in a 2500-word narrative.

"As a journalist you take something quite limited, but then you open up a whole world within this topic," he said.

Schomann began to write in both languages inspired by Lin Yutang, the Chinese author who lived between 1895 and 1976 and wrote in a polished style in both Chinese and English.

The German author said it was Lin who introduced China to him to a degree.

"It was absolutely fascinating to encounter such a bright mind from China, who was writing with such (ease)," he said. Schomann called Lin a fascinating writer, philosopher, thinker and cultural activist, saying.

"His books have a lot to (contribute) to a better understanding of Chinese culture and history and the Chinese mentality," he said.

The German deems himself to be a peer of Chinese storytellers. One who, by using a different medium, shares his experiences, thinking, and observations over the years "to create a comparatively easy access to China." He calls it a personal access.

"People are intimidated by China. It's such a big country and such a complex subject," he said, explaining how the language with its system of characters instead of an alphabet is alien to Westerners. And that is just one factor.

His aim is to help readers to overcome this intimidation of China, basically by telling people that you don't have to understand everything.

"Just... make the first step, and the second, and the third. Then you will be able to get somewhere."

To create a real-life impression of China and its people, Schomann resorts to other media besides writing.

While researching the German and Austrian jewish refugees - who streamed into Shanghai in their thousands to escape the Nazi persecution in the 1930s - he came across historical footage taken by German photographer Eugen Flegler (1897-1981).

Flegler went on excursions to take photos of the countryside and the peasants in and beyond Shanghai from 1936 to 1938. Very few people took pictures of China's rural areas in those years.

Schomann put together an exhibition with these images, which was held eight times in Germany and China.

Covering China for years, Schomann has his own understanding of the Chinese Dream.

He describes it as China "becoming a well-respected member of the global community, and to increase China's importance and significance on an international level."

Within two decades, China has made great progress towards that aim, he said.

"China became more international, more cosmopolitan and more respected on (the) international stage."

Cross-border love

With its long history, China has always been a treasure trove of soul-touching sagas of epic proportions.

A haunting intercultural love story of a Jewish young man and a Chinese woman in war-torn Shanghai is one of them.

It was discovered by Schomann and became the subject of his book Last Refuge in Shanghai.

Schomann calls it "a crazy story that happened in a crazy time" in an exotic location.

In 1939, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, Robert Reuven Sokal fled his country with his family.

He joined a band of around 20,000 Jews who embarked on an odyssey that took them from central and eastern Europe to the foreign concessions in Shanghai, one of the few places that didn't require Jewish refugees seeking sanctuary to have a visa.

In Shanghai, while studying at St. John's University, Sokal, the son of a Viennese paint factory owner, met Julie Chenchu Yang, who was born into a wealthy Chinese family.

By then, Shanghai was experiencing the pain of the Japanese invasion and Shanghai's Chinese and Jewish communities shared a common sorrow.

"I was looking for a story that tells more than just this epic story of Jewish immigration to China, to Shanghai," he said.

"I wanted to tell how China experienced the war ... what happened in China."

To combine a Euro-centric perspective with a Chinese one, which is rarely seen in earlier books on the Jewish community in Shanghai, Schomann talked to the Chinese neighbors of the refugees, aside from Jewish survivors.

Since very few people know what really happened in Shanghai in 1937, he thinks his book may serve to fi ll in the gaps in history.

"It was ... important to me to tell this (story)," he explained.

The young lovers supported each other through countless challenges, including the turmoil and the cruelty of war, opposition from Yang's family, and other obstacles in their intercultural marriage, eventually embracing a happy ending.

Xinhua

(China Daily 10/26/2017 page12)

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