In Conversation: “A symbol of the transatlantic and the transpacific relations.”

Thomas Mann Fellow Stefan Keppler-Tasaki, a German Studies scholar at the University of Tokyo, met Chunjie Zhang at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles to look into the transpacific relationships of the House and discuss the connective potential of an Asian-German perspective. Professor Zhang (University of California, Davis) is considered one of the co-founders of the emerging field of Asian German Studies.

Thomas Mann House
8 min readFeb 6, 2020


Stefan Keppler-Tasaki and Chunjie Zhang at the Thomas Mann House, Los Angeles. Photo: Nikolai Blaumer

Stefan Keppler-Tasaki: Chunjie, you have been very active in the emerging research field of Asian German Studies, a subdiscipline of German Studies with a focus on Asian-German relations. What potential do you see at the Thomas Mann House for Asian German Studies?

Chunjie Zhang: For one, I was very intrigued by an anecdote you told me. In the kitchen, there is a picture of Katia Mann cooking, but, like you said, she had kitchen help in the form of a Japanese-American cook. Her Japanese-American husband was in charge of the garden. The Mann household, both inside and out, was therefore taken care of by a couple with Japanese heritage.

SKT: This is a good example of potential subjects for Asian German Studies, as well as of something I call “proletarian cosmopolitanism.” Thomas Mann’s life involved cosmopolitanism as a bourgeois prestige attitude, as an “art of living,” which very much took its cues from Goethe — with the individual opening up to the world and developing as a person as much as possible. But this lifestyle — in general, the freedom to have time for personal development, writing, and socializing in Los Angeles — was only made possible by the fact that a Japanese couple did the chores around the house. That Thomas Mann literally lived with Japanese also shows how German exiles in California inevitably encountered other (in this case, Asian) minorities and communities.

CZ: From what I understand, the two were survivors of the Japanese American internment camps and came to the Manns through a kind of job agency…

SKT: That is right. Thomas Mann experienced the history of violence of the twentieth century also in the sense that this Japanese-American couple was interned from 1942 until 1945 and that the Pacific War ended with the atomic bombings in August 1945. He himself worked hard to integrate into American society and he wanted to help the reintegration of the Japanese-Americans. The woman, Koto, had serious mental problems, and Thomas Mann was very well aware of that. In his diaries, you can find comments on her mental breakdowns.

CZ: Before I came here, I thought that the Thomas Mann House was primarily conceived as a house of transatlantic friendship. But now that I have heard this story from you, the Thomas Mann House has also become a symbol of transpacific relations.

SKT: This brings us back to the opening question of what potential you see for Asian German Studies at this house.

CZ: This anecdote very well shows the entanglements and connections among Germany, Asia, and the United States. I am currently working on a book project entitled “World as Method,” in which I am looking at early twentieth-century German and Chinese thinkers who engaged with different visions of the global. For example, Max Weber, the famous German sociologist, in his later years dealt with world religions, focusing on Chinese Confucianism and Daoism. He, for instance, compares Protestantism and Confucianism und considers Confucianism to be the better rationalism — that is, Confucianism for him is less radical and did not completely exclude the joy of living but also tolerates magical thinking and the supernatural in Daoism. Weber thus considers Confucianism to be the best form of rationalism as a kind of political philosophy to tolerate and accept different ways of being in a society while still leading a rational life. I am saying this to point out the strong reception of East Asian culture in twentieth-century Europe. The example of Weber also shows how East Asia frequently served as a kind of surface onto which all kinds of things are projected. At the same time, there were, interestingly, thinkers in East Asia that envisioned a New-Confucian world culture combining East Asian and Western cultures, which would turn out to be a third way besides communism and imperialism.

© ETH-Library Zürich, Thomas Mann Archive / Photographer: Unknown

SKT: I would like to add to your example of Max Weber’s reception of Confucianism the example of Alfred Döblin who, only a few years after Weber, also brought high expectations to Confucianism. In the early 1940s, Döblin was strongly guided by his vision of Confucianism as a humane model of order. Amidst the historical chaos of the Second World War, he delved into Confucius in Paris and compiled an anthology entitled The Living Thoughts of Confucius. This serves only as another example of the expectations one brought to Confucianism in the West, both as political philosophy and public ethics. This includes — as is often the case with German exiles — elements of a critique of modernity; the aim was to confront the historical disruptions with strong models of order. In addition, there is a large corpus of German-language observations of transpacific relations. Thomas Mann and other West Coast exiles contributed to that. Also, journalists, writers, and academics in the German-speaking world itself did not fail to notice the modernization dynamics developing among the United States, China, and Japan. Travel distances shortened; the early 1930s saw the first transpacific flights. Add to this the fact that the Americans were partly repulsed by the post-WWI misery in Europe. The Central Europeans especially, who felt a missionary responsibility for the whole of Europe, observed that the United States might have a much more attractive partner in East Asia. These transpacific relations among China, Japan, and the United States were extensively described in the German-speaking world. Chunjie, what did such transcultural relations look like before the twentieth century? You also did a lot of work on the eighteenth century.

CZ: Yes, I wrote a book entitled Transculturality and German Discourse in the Age of European Colonialism, Transpacific relations were documented very early by world travelers. Georg Forster, for example, worked as a naturalist during Captain James Cook’s second voyage around the world in 1776, and during this trip he was, in fact, most impressed by the Pacific Islands, which, at the time, were admired in Europe as a “new discovery.” Forster intended to write a scientific travel report and to present things as objectively as possible. For this reason, he does not get to know individual Islanders more closely and describes them accordingly. Some fifty years later, the German-French writer Adelbert von Chamisso, however, deliberately wrote a subjective travel essay, describing at great length his friendship with the Islander Kadu. So just by looking at the development of the genre of travel writing, you can see the changes in the German attitude to the Pacific from objective description to subjective empathy. As early as 1800, you can therefore find many transpacific connections in the German-language discourse — not just travel descriptions but also literary works around 1800 that strongly engaged with East Asia and transcultural relations. Goethe is a prominent example, on which you did a lot of work.

SKT: Thank you for mentioning that. Goethe was treated in Germany as a national author and he contributed greatly to fact that there emerged, in the nineteenth century, a national canon of texts. But literature could also enhance nation-building if the author was from a different culture. Shakespeare, for example, was appropriated by the Germans. There was a “nostrification” of authors, of the “he [sic] is ours” kind. A similar thing happened in Japan with Goethe. Around 1900 Japan felt the desire for a national literature and national authors, and so this kind of Japanese national authorship was created very much using the model of Goethe. This is especially true for Mori Ogai, one of the two most important Japanese authors at the time. He lived for five years in Germany, was very Germanophile, and made his career in the Japanese military. For him, being a man of letters and a military man was no contradiction, but it only showed how literature was able to bolster national and political purposes. This nostrification of Goethe in Japan also included attempts to discover all kinds of Japanese characteristics in Goethe. Basically, it was argued that Goethe’s best traits were Japanese traits. In Goethe, the Japanese discovered their own values. This worked especially well in Zen Buddhism, by seeing Goethe as an embodiment of the Buddha-nature. It was said that Goethe’s thinking epitomized the depth of Eastern culture, the notion of balance and harmony, the culture of the “middle” or his calm and serenity, standing above good and evil… This way, many Zen Buddhist values were discovered in Goethe, which was then also seen as a kind of self-affirmation. It also helped the discussion of what part East Asian culture should play in world culture. Here, Goethe has always been a bridge.

CZ: Exactly, Goethe does not belong to one world or one literature but connects worlds and literatures. Goethe has been widely received, re-interpreted, and even re-created in different historical and cultural contexts. It is projects and perspectives such as these that we want to support through our new book series “Asia, Europe, and Global Connections,” providing the opportunities of publication for these kinds of studies. We very much look forward to book proposals and new ideas. The goal is to give voice and agency to the transpacific and transatlantic relations — that is, to study and explore not just bilateral but also trilateral connections and relations.

SKT: I believe that here you can once again learn from Thomas Mann and other German exiles in California, who conceived of and thought in terms of a world culture and who, like Kant, had expectations of a world state, seeing it as something that we today have fallen behind. This idea of a German-American friendship on the one hand and a Japanese-American friendship on the other hand quickly leads to a kind of global competitive logic: Who is a better friend? Which culture is more important — the Atlantic or the Pacific culture? Therefore, to me, this triangulation seems very important to break free from such competitive logics.

CZ: Yes, this kind of triangulation also generates a kind of relativization and avoids conflicts! It reminds us how deeply and for how long the different parts of the world have been connected with and benefited from each other. The Thomas Mann House, too, is a symbol of that. A symbol of the transatlantic and the transpacific — a place where today we met in the middle.

Translation: Manuela Thurner

Chunjie Zhang is Associate Professor of German at the University of California, Davis, and the author of Transculturality and German Discourse in the Age of European Colonialism (Northwestern UP, 2017). She is the editor of Composing Modernist Connections in China and Europe (Routledge, 2019) and co-editor of “Goethe, Worlds, and Literatures,” a special issue of Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies (2018). Together with Stefan Keppler-Tasaki and Reto Hofmann (University of Western Australia), Zhang launched the book series “Asia, Europe, and Global Connections” (Routledge).

Stefan Keppler-Tasaki is Thomas Mann Fellow and Associate Professor of Modern German Literature at the University of Tokyo. His books include Grenzen des Ich. Die Verfassung des Subjekts in Goethes Roman und Erzählungen (De Gruyter, 2006), Alfred Döblin. Massen, Medien, Metropolen (Königshausen & Neumann, 2018), and Wie Goethe Japaner wurde (Iudicium, 2020). He is the founding co-editor of the book series “WeltLiteraturen” (De Gruyter), “Rezeptionskulturen” (Königshausen & Neumann) and, together with Chunjie Zhang, of “Asia, Europe, and Global Connections” (Routledge).



Thomas Mann House
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