Liquid bread, global circuses and China’s German heritage

Qingdao Old TownDr Oleg Benesch is Lecturer in East Asian History at the University of York.

As a historian of East Asia, I often travel to China. In 2014, I spent the summer there, mainly in order to do some intensive language work in the coastal city of Qingdao. I chose Qingdao also because of its deserved reputation as one of the most pleasant places to spend the summer in China, as much of the country can be oppressively hot. Qingdao lies on the southern coast of the Shandong Peninsula, with convenient links to other cities in North China, as well as Korea and Japan. There was also a historical reason for choosing Qingdao as my base, as it was a German colony from 1898 to 1914, and I was keen to explore the remnants and portrayal of this heritage. My timing was fortuitous for several reasons. One was that it was the centenary of the Fall of Qingdao, when the Japanese took the territory from the Germans after the outbreak of the First World War, permanently ending German colonial involvement in Asia.

The second reason, which was less foreseeable, was that 2014 was the year of the World Cup in Brazil, which Germany would go on to win. In spite (or perhaps because) of the terrible time difference, with kick-off times in the middle of the night, the streets of Qingdao were packed with football fans watching on screens set up in front of many restaurants. As China was not represented at the tournament, Chinese Central Television dedicated its round-the-clock coverage primarily to the glamorous Brazilian team. In Qingdao, however, the mood was decidedly more in favour of Germany, especially after they defeated hosts Brazil 7-1 in a historic semi-final. I must confess that, as a German, I was not an entirely unbiased observer of these events, nor was I wholly averse to basking in (very distantly) reflected glory when the locals would raise their glasses after inquiring about my background. This, it must be said, is not the reaction Germans traditionally expect when traveling abroad.

Today, almost nine million people live in Qingdao, and the surrounding Shandong region is one of China’s major industrial centres. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, it was little more than a rural fishing village and minor naval outpost when its fortunes changed dramatically due to much larger events. China ceded the Shandong Peninsula to Japan following the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, but Germany joined Russia and France in intervening immediately after this, forcing Japan to hand over the territory. China was in no position to resist and reluctantly leased Shandong to the German Empire for 99 years in 1898. An influx of German colonists soon set about transforming the sleepy backwater of Qingdao into a thriving port city boasting many of the comforts of home. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Qingdao had over 50,000 residents and was the primary trading port in the region, as well as the base for the Far East Fleet of the Imperial German Navy. Japan quickly seized on the opportunity of the war to ‘take back’ Qingdao and the other Chinese territories that Germany had taken from them at the end of the previous century.

Although brief, the sixteen-year period of German colonial rule has become a defining characteristic of Qingdao identity. The pride in this German heritage radiates from the carefully preserved colonial villas, churches, schools, and government buildings in the old town, centred on a market square that would not be out of place back in Germany. This narrative is especially pronounced in the expansive Qingdao Municipal Museum, which dedicates a considerable amount of its floor space to the history of the German colonial period. Photographs depict interactions between the city’s German and Chinese elites, and Chinese children studying in the German schools. One of the most surprising exhibits in this context is a two-metre cutaway section of the sewer pipe that the Germans laid beneath the city. This infrastructure is something of which Qingdao residents are most proud, and the visitor frequently hears that this German engineering is the reason that the streets of Qingdao don’t flood during heavy rain, unlike other Chinese cities. While the accuracy of this claim is debatable, it reflects the largely positive portrayals of Germany in Qingdao today.

The most prominent symbol of the German presence is not a structure, however, but one of China’s truly global brands: Tsingtao Beer. Tsingtao, another spelling of Qingdao, has its origins in the Germania Brauerei founded by an Anglo-German investment team in 1903. The brewery remained under the direction of German brewmasters until it was taken over by the Japanese Dai Nippon Beer Co. during the First World War. Although the city of Qingdao was returned to Chinese control in 1922, the brewery remained in Japanese hands through the re-occupation of Qingdao by Japanese troops in 1938. This situation continued until 1945, when the brewery was briefly under the control of the Nationalist Government before being nationalized following the Communist victory in 1949.

The brewery was privatized again in the wake of economic reform in the 1990s, and rapidly expanded to become a multi-national corporation exporting throughout the world. In spite of its turbulent history, it is the German heritage that is most celebrated in the Tsingtao Brewery Museum on the site of the original brewery. It is also very publicly on display at the annual Qingdao International Beer Festival, first held by the brewery in 1991. Modelled on the Oktoberfest, this beer festival attracted a reported four million visitors in 2015 alone, making it roughly two thirds the size of the Munich original.

The very public pride and celebration of Qingdao’s German heritage typically takes an idealistic view of this colonial interval, which was a relatively brief, if important, episode in the city’s history. In many museums and other displays, however, it becomes clear that this idealism is also driven by a simultaneous desire to discredit the periods of Japanese rule that followed. For the German visitor, the feeling that positivity towards Germany in Qingdao is at least partially constructed on far older and more immediate East Asian rivalries cannot but induce a slight sense of disillusionment. Fortunately, this disappointment is most fleeting when one can watch the World Cup with an ice-cold lager on the neon streets of Qingdao.