By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

On January 5th 2019 the internationally known Chinese German – Scholar and translator of German classical literature, Professor Dr. h.c. Zhang Yushu died in Beijing at the age of 84.  (  The obituary was written by Professor Karin Moser von Filseck.

Professor Zhang Yushu

Professor Zhang Yushuwas an extraordinary personality, who managed to inspire several generations of Chinese and German language scholars.  With his Chinese-German yearbook Literaturstraße (Literature Road – an allusion to the geographical Silk-Road) that he co-founded with the German scholar Professor Winfried Woesner in the year 2000, he created the forum for a very fruitful dialogue between German and Chinese German scholars as well as among German scholars from Asia. While the first two editions were published by the People’s Literature Publishing House in Beijing, in the following years Literaturstraße, with support from the German Fritz Thyssen Stiftung (until 2016) it was published by the German Publishing House Königshausen & Neumann (Würzburg).  Since 2017 the magazine has been published electronically on the website of the Heidelberg University. As Professor Zhang wrote in the preface of the first volume of Literaturstraße: “We want to export and import ideas from both countries and make them accessible to both peoples. With the Literaturstraße we want to build a bridge, between the hearts of the two people and at the same time fill a gap, because for the first time Chinese –German scholars now have a forum where they can express their opinions about German Literature in German.”

Among the members of the scientific advisory board of the magazine we find the world renowned expert from Japan, Professor Dr. Naoji Kimura, former professor at the Sophia University Tokyo who is known for his translations and commentaries of the works of J.W. Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt and Friedrich Schiller. In addition, there is Professor Walter Gebhard as well as the former chairman of the Alexander von Humboldt Society and chairman of the German Research Society (DFG), Professor Dr. Dr. Frühwald (Augsburg), who died in mid-January of this year. In the past Professor Frühwald did a lot to establish links between China and the German scientific community. The Magazine Literaturstraße along with the “German East-Asian Studies for intercultural Literature Science” (Tübingen), edited by the German Scholar Walter Gebhard and Naoji Kimura, are real treasures and a discovery for anybody who today wants to make an in-depth study between Chinese, Asian and German culture and literature.

China and Germany – An Encounter between Two Cultures

In the year 1992,  almost 27 years ago,  the author of this article had the opportunity to meet Dr. Zhang Yushu at the University of Bayreuth where he was lecturing as a guest professor (1991-1993). A small column in “China Daily” had made reference to the Chinese German Scholar in Bayreuth, who was portrayed as a well- known translator of Schiller, Heine and Stefan Zweig. The interview which the author conducted with Dr. Zhang (together with Mary Burdmann) for the Quarterly magazine “Ibykus” (Magazine for Poetry, Science and Statecraft, vol. 40, 1992) was a delightful discovery of China, its culture and language.

“China and Germany. An Encounter between Two Cultures” was the title of the interview.  What impressed the author was Professor Zhang’s personality as well as his beautiful pronunciation and poetical use of the German language.  He described his first encounter with German culture, which occurred when he read Romain Rolland’s book “Jean Christophe” that portrays the life and struggle of a musical artist (in the preface of the novel originally written in French, as Zhang noted, the translator had stated that in reality this was the portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven.)  “I knew the music of Beethoven and I thought that I had to learn the language of the country where such music had been composed.” Another novel which he read was by Turgenev, and it takes place in Baden- Baden. The narrator (Ich-Erzähler), a young Russian nobleman, visits Baden-Baden and makes an evening walk to the well.  On his way he meets some German girls who greet him with a friendly “Guten Abend” (good evening).  Zhang thought that he had to learn the language of this beautiful country. Since it was not possible at the time to study German at school in China, he began to study German in the year 1953 at the University of Beijing. He became acquainted with the poetry of Heinrich Heine, his beautiful puns and ironies, which laid the basis for Zhang’s interest in a more in-depth study of the German language. Heinrich Heine had always been critical about the so called Tendenzpoesie  (current  tendentious poetry) of the “Junges Deutschland”, as Zhang stated in the interview.

Zhang drew parallels between the Tendenzpoesie which had neither artistic nor lasting value, and what he personally had experienced during the “Cultural Revolution” in China. “For ten years we only admired eight pieces of the so called modern revolutionary Beijing Opera. The Chinese suffered the most during this time. All Chinese literature was rejected as feudal, bourgeois or revisionist. Nothing good was said about the poets (…) There were only eight works that were offered in revolutionary style at the Beijing Opera for a billion people. Television, radio, cinema everywhere and every day, these eight songs were repeated.”

The author also asked Professor Zhang what relationship he saw between the Christian and Chinese image of man. He answered by referring to Matteo Ricci (1552 – 1610), an Italian Jesuit, who had spent most of his life in China learning Chinese and translating the classical canonized works of Confucius. He laid the basis for a fascinating dialogue between Jesuit missionaries and the imperial court of the Qing Dynasty. At the end of the interview, Zhang Yushu was asked about his perspectives for China and his response was quite optimistic, underlining that if the policy of openness was continued, “we can certainly make great progress in the next century.”

“When Friends Come from Faraway Places”

Wenn Freunde aus der Fremde kommen, eine west – östliche Freundschaftsgabe für Zhang Yushu zum 70.sten Geburtstag (When friends come from faraway places. A gift of friendship by Naoji Kimura und Horst Thomé Hrsg. Deutsch- Ostasiatische Studien zur interkulturellen Literaturwissenschaft, Bd 3, Peter Lang, Bern 2005.) This jubilee publication was dedicated to Zhang Yushus 70th birthday and  includes some excellent  contributions, among others  a preface by Erwin Wickert, former German Ambassador to Beijing, as well as essays written by Professor Walter Gebhard, Bayreuth; Professor Horst Thomé, Stuttgart, Professor Karin Moser von Filseck, Tübingen; Leilian Zhao, and Naoji Kimura. In the preface Erwin Wickert presented an interesting insight into the biography of Zhang Yushu.

Zhang Yushu was born on the 7th April 1934 as the son of a Catholic family in Shanghai. His father, who came from a peasant background, founded after his apprenticeship, a business firm which expanded to Wuhan and Chongqing. The father died very early leaving his son (young Zhang Yushu) who had just reached school age. His mother continued the business in Chongqing, but during the Japanese war and under Japanese occupation she lost everything and returned totally impoverished to Shanghai after the end of the war. There Zhang attended a Catholic Secondary school, which was then nationalized under Mao Zedong. Because of his family background, as Wickert wrote, Zhang began to suffer a lot, as he was the son of a capitalist. Given his good relations with his spiritual teachers, he was considered a “dangerous element” and he was called a “trouble maker” because of his independent mind which he showed in the communist youth organization.

When he left school in 1953, he wasn’t sure which profession to choose.  He had read the Chinese translations of many western works, but the inspiration to study German was given to him when he read a novel by Romain Rolland “Jean Christophe”, a novel about a famous German musician, which described the struggle of the artist and his work in the context of a beautifully depicted Rhineland landscape.  He decided to study German and passed the entrance exam in 1953 for the University of Beijing. He became the student of the famous and well known lyric poet and Dean of the Western European Faculty, Fang Zhi.  Zhang’s first contact with German poetry was also facilitated by his music classes, where he listened to the famous Schubert / Heine song, “Loreley” and “Auf den Flügeln des Gesangs” (Heine/Mendelssohn). He was so enthusiastic about this, that he began translating Heinrich Heine. Already at that time the family of Zhang was targeted politically. In 1959, as Wickert reported, he was sent to a mountain village where he was forced to work all day long with the peasants. The aim was not to teach science to the students but to transmit revolutionary consciousness. It was forbidden to read expert books and learn foreign languages.  At that time Zhang Yushu began to recite by heart some of the Heine poems in which he found spiritual strength. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), together with his teacher Feng Zhi he was denounced on wall murals as “reactionary” and was forced to work like millions of other Chinese, in the province Jiangxi to cultivate rice with the peasants. Two years later he was able to return. With the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution a new epoch began for Zhang under Deng Xiaoping. He started giving lectures about 19th century German literature and became a teacher and Dean of the German Department of the University of Beijing.

Zhang Yushu : Mein Weg zur “Literaturstraße” 

Mein Weg zur “Literaturstraße” (My Way to the “Literature Road”, selected works of a Chinese German Scholar – Verlag Königshausen &Neumann 2009). This interesting book contains a collection of essays that were written over the span of 30 years by Zhang Yushu. It is inspiring to read the book, since it shows how from the perspective of his personal experience during the time of the dark years of Chinese Cultural Revolution, the author discovered in himself the necessary mental strength to study the poetry of Heine and translate the German classics.  He was among the first who were able to travel during the period of Deng Xiaoping to Germany, in order to lay the basis for a deeper cultural dialogue between China and Germany. Zhang Yushu was editor and translator of the four-volume Chinese “Heine Works”.  In cooperation with a translation team, he published in 2005 a six-volume edition of the works of Friedrich Schiller. Already during the Cultural Revolution he had begun to translate the works of Stefan Zweig which he also kept working on in the last years of his life. In the year 2000, on his initiative, he published together with the German scholar Professor Winfried Woesler from the University of Osnabrück the first volume of the Magazine Literaturstraße (Chinese- German Yearbook for language, culture and literature.) It was the first of that kind since the 19th century. The title of the magazine was chosen in reference to the famous “Silk Road” which had come into being 2000 years ago. With support from the German Fritz Thyssen-Stiftung and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Zhang Yushu was able to organize many high level Symposia for German and Chinese Scholars over recent years, including an international Schiller Symposium  in Beijing in 2005, and in 2006 a German-Chinese colloquium  in Weimar, followed by various Symposia in Shanghai.

Studying the German Educational System 

Zhang Yushu’s personal contact with Germany began at the end of November 1979. With the opening of China, reforms began there after the ten-year “Winter tale” (Zhang), the traumatic Cultural Revolution. As he said in the 1992 interview, at that time many translations were made in China, including the translation of contemporary German literature, including Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, Max von der Grün.  On the initiative of the Goethe Institute, he travelled in 1979 with a delegation of Chinese German scholars to Germany. They were hospitably received and Professor Zhang was offered the opportunity to give speeches at different German universities, among others in Düsseldorf and Berlin, about Heinrich Heine and the role of German Philology in China. During his six-month stay in Germany an intensive cultural dialogue began between Zhang Yushu und German scholars as well as with cultural representatives. Through this he made the acquaintance of the German writer Günther Grass; he also had a close friendship with the German Ambassador to Beijing. Zhang also made the acquaintance of the Swiss author Max Frisch in 1979 in Beijing. In 1979 Frisch published an article about lectures of Professor Zhang he attended at the Beijing University in “Der Spiegel”.

After the first trip to Germany, there were more invitations. In May 1980 Zhang Yushu was asked by the Chinese Education Minister Jiang Nanxiang to accompany him as a translator together with a Chinese delegation to Germany. At that time close contacts were made with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and different universities, out of which new forms of cooperation were developed. By the end of the 1980s Zhang was again sent by the Chinese Education Minister to Germany, to the Munich Ministry of Education, in order to study the German educational system for six months. In 1984 he got a scholarship from the Alexander von Humboldt- Foundation, which was followed by a stay of several months at the Bonn University.  This was followed by an invitation to the University of Bayreuth as Guest Professor (1991-93). In 1982 the first Association of German Scholars in China (Germanistenverband) was founded, with Zhang being elected as Vice-Chairman. In the year 1985 for the first time a Chinese-German scholar delegation had the chance to participate in an IVG (International Association of German Scholars) congress in Göttingen. At that time Zhang Yushu made the acquaintance of the Japanese Professor Naoji Kimura and the South Korean German scholar, Professor Kim Byong Ock, out of which a deep friendship – a “trilateral association of friends ” was  born. From 1990 to 2017 he was a member of the board of trustees of the East Asian Science Forum e. V. Tübingen and in 2002 he was given an Honorary Doctorate by the New Philology Department of the Eberhard Karl University Tübingen, given his tremendous engagement as Chinese German Scholar.

The End of the Cultural Revolution

On the 6th of October 1976 the Chinese “Cultural Revolution” ended with the overthrow of the “Gang of Four”. The ruling despots were thrown out of power and jailed. Zhang Yushu described this period as a period of “Cultural nihilism” and “Cultural despotism,” a ten-year “nightmare,” during which almost everything was turned upside down:  “Artists of great merit, communists and veterans, progressive poets and well-known artists  were labelled renegades, revisionists and reactionary authorities, condemned to death and tortured. Even the deceased were not spared. Almost all great minds of world literature, from Homer to Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe were mercilessly expelled from the Pantheon. The only exceptions were the French Eugen Pottier and the German Georg Werth, the first being the author of the Internationale and the last a friend of Marx and Engels.”

Already at the end of the 50s Zhang Yuhsu had been sent to a specialist training unit in a mountain village in order to get re-educated by working among the peasants. During this cadre school he invented a survival technique, which consisted of reciting out loud every morning the poems of Heinrich Heine that he had learned by heart. “I always worked together with the peasants in fields far away. When the peasants took a smoking break, I went to a remote place to be able to recite out loud my memorized poems. Besides memorizing poems, I could also talk to myself, using simple sentences but sufficient for me, to exercise German phonetics and grammar. So every day I did my exercises with these poems and soliloquizing.”

What Connects China with the German Classics

Friedrich Schiller is one of the first German classical poets, as Zhang wrote in the essay, “Why and how I translate Schiller,” (Literaturstraße  Vol 6 2005) whom he made accessible to many Chinese readers.  After the Cultural Revolution, the works of Schiller were re-translated in 1976. “I always felt involved with Schiller,” Zhang stated in his essay, “not only because my first recognized translation had been the translation of two Schiller articles,  Über den Grund des Vergnügens an tragischen Gegenständen and Die Schaubühne als moralische Anstalt betrachtet, which had  been translated in 1964. But the reason for my deep involvement with Schiller had to do with his constant fight with fate, his uncompromising character and lastly with his incredible diligence, which brought this poet close to me. A poet who has always remained an example for me.”

Schiller had not only been an example for him personally but also for many Chinese, Zhang stated at one point. People were enthusiastic about the way in which he presented his female characters like Maria Stuart and Luise Millerin – a pleasant personality, which the Chinese feel familiar with. “A young girl finds herself in deep emotional distress, in a dilemma between the love for her father and the love for her beloved Ferdinand. She decides to sacrifice herself for the love of the father and renounce her private joy of love that seems to be very Chinese. Because in Chinese history there have been so many daughters making sacrifices,” Zhang wrote. The audience gained strength from the will power of Wilhelm Tell, who rebelled against a tyrant; while the first translator of Wallenstein Guo Moro (1934) had called him (during the anti-Japanese war) a ‘traitor’ to his country, this qualification changed years later. The brighter tones in this drama, Zhang Yushu wrote, were the “desire for peace” after the mass-killings, a desire for humanity, the condemnation of the abuse of power and of the indifference against the well- being of the people.

World Literature – On the Technique of Translation

A cultural dialogue with a foreign country is only possible if one becomes familiar with the spiritual character of the country and this can come about through translation, Zhang Yushu writes in a fascinating essay, “World literature and the technique of translation.”  “It is only possible to get beyond the superficial knowledge of a foreign culture, if one tries to capture the inner character of a foreign culture and nation,” Zhang Yushu wrote. He referred to the example of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who not only studied English language, but also Greek, Latin, French and Italian.  “With the help of these languages he could concentrate on the literature of these countries. Goethe also translated a lot. He not only translated Byron from English, Voltaire, Mme de Stael, Diderot from French, Cellini and Manzoni from Italian into German, but also Homer, the Koran, Euripides and last but not least, he also translated four Chinese poems from English into German.”  Goethe not only read the reports by the missionaries, but also the Chinese novels and poems of Li Bai (701-762), the most important poet of Chinese literature, and other Chinese classics. He translated poems by Li Bai into German and was motivated by Chinese poetry, using Chinese motives. This way Goethe gave a definition of what is called “World literature.” In a conversation with Eckermann Goethe, according to Zhang, had commented: “I see more and more that poetry is a common good of mankind and that it is emerging everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of human beings. If we Germans don’t look beyond the narrow view of our own environment, we easily become pedantic and arrogant. That is why I like to study other nations and I advise everybody to do the same. National literature at present does not mean much; it is time for an epoch of world literature and everybody should act in such a way as to promote this epoch.” Goethe thought that the “Humane” would be the mediating element for world literature.

In 1990 Zhang Yushu decided to re-translate Schiller. The translation of Schiller’s works in six volumes was the result of teamwork and was presented in September 2005 at an international Schiller Symposium in Beijing. The kind of difficulty which the translator of Schiller’s works had to confront, was illustrated in Zhang Yushu’s essay “Why and how I translate Schiller,” (Literaturstraße Vol 6 2005). For a translation to be good, in Zhang Yushu’s view, it must be 1. True to the original; 2. It should be comprehensible; 3. It should be elegant, following the principle of A.W. Schlegel “whereby only that which is reproduced with the same or almost the same dignity, power and beauty can be called a translation.”  The first difficulty for the translator is the huge difference between the German and Chinese language. “According to A.W. Schlegel the European languages are like cousins among each other. Unfortunately, the Chinese language has no cousins in the large European family of languages. We belong to a different family originating from a different cultural space with a different cultural origin and a different cultural and historical development. Therefore, it is particularly difficult for the Chinese translators to translate a literary work from a European language into the Chinese language. What is important is the order of words and the logical connection. It seems that there is a series of independent phrases, but they express a complex purpose. Thus, the Chinese language, given the lack of relative pronouns, will avoid forming long and complicated relative clauses.  The reason is that it is difficult for the Chinese to analyze sentences that are constructed in a typical German way, for example, the convoluted sentences which we find in von Kleist and the long periodic sentences used by Thomas Mann. Similarly, it is not easy to understand the language used by Schiller, or we should better say, the languages used by him, since the language in which the young Schiller wrote is not the same as the language that he used in his late dramas. In order to unravel the construction of sentences, as well as assimilate them mentally and understand the content, it is necessary to have a profound   knowledge of history and of  western culture,” Zhang commented.

It is also necessary to have clear access to the historical context, as is the case with Schiller’s Wallenstein, and the need to understand what caused the Thirty Years War: another difficulty which the Chinese translator has to face, according to Zhang, is the task to “find the Chinese equivalent.” To master these difficulties in translating Schiller, Zhang Yushu during this work began to learn by heart the poems of the Tang- dynasty and (618-907) and the Song –dynasty (960-1279). “Every morning I learnt, like a pupil, poems by heart for twenty minutes.” Additionally, he studied ancient annals or classical novels. After having translated the text word by word into modern Chinese, a few months later, as he recalls, he compared the first version with the original text, in order to find out whether he had understood it correctly.” When I then saw that my translation had reproduced the meaning of the text, or better said, that I had grasped (“erfasst”) the text and hence translated it correctly, the real work begins.”  The impulse to re-translate Schiller, was “reacting to a tendency,” Zhang stated at one point. He refers to a tendency that rejects Schiller’s idealism, by worshipping matter and money as God. “This tendency itself is a reaction to our recent past, to the false hypocritical puritanism, where the mind or more precisely, the false doctrines were worshipped like omnipotent Gods, while the basic material needs of the masses were ignored,” Zhang Yushu wrote. Thus he was convinced of the purifying Idealism of Schiller who, with his Karl Moor, had polemicized against the century of impotent eunuchs and corrupt officials.

Zhang Yushu also dedicated part of his life to the study of Heinrich Heine, the “Good soldier in the liberation war of mankind.” During the Cultural Revolution Heine was labelled as a “Bourgeois,” because in his works Geständnisse (Confessions) and Lutetia he had expressed his fears about communism. However, after the end of the Chinese “Winter fairy tale” his works were re- translated and published, among them Zhang Yushu’s translation of Heinrich Heines Romantische Schule in 1979. In 1985 the second volume of the Chinese Heine Selection was published, including a new translation of the Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs, translator Zhang Yushu) and a preface by the editor entitled, “The Poet Heinrich Heine,” in which the artistic efforts of Heine’s “Love poetry” were analyzed.  As he stated in the 1992 interview, a key person to judge that quality of his translations was his daughter. “I used to read each translated poem to my daughter who was a student at the time. When she said that the poem sounded too stiff, I refined my translation. Only when she said that it sounded very well, did I decide to present it that way.”


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