Western colonialism has many devastating stories to tell that still are not part of the public memory. One such story is the destruction of a center of Chinese learning in the 19th century under German occupation that dates back to the year of 1898, when the Germans occupied a bay in Shandong province.

At that time, the leasing contract included the right to build railways, mine and maintain troops so that the bay would serve as a repair dock and coal station for the German Navy. In addition, the colonial government also established a large trading port, which soon became the second largest trading port in northern China.

Picture Book on Heroes of China and Japan” by Katsushika Hokusai/ CC0 1.0

However, a number of uprisings soon broke out nearby, leading to a major international crisis between China and eight European powers, including Germany. Germany pushed ahead with the construction of the railways using land that had not yet been acquired, which led to protests from farmers.

As a result, the Germans stormed three villages and killed 25 people, then occupied the town of Gaomi, a center of Chinese literature, where for two weeks they settled in the local academy (书院 shūyuàn). On leaving the academy, the German soldiers destroyed the academy and burned its famous library.

According to historian Klaus Mühlhahn, this was not simply an act of random destruction of property, but an expression of a widespread Western belief that the enlightened, progressive West must crush a supposed backward Confucian civilization. In 1900, the German governor Jaeschke cabled to Berlin:

In China there is currently a fierce struggle between two different ideologies: the national Chinese world view, which is based on centuries-old traditions, and the cosmopolitan Western world view.

The sad truth is, that even noble ideas such as cosmopolitanism and the Enlightenment are not immune to being misused for committing heinous crimes like the destruction of a library in an attempt to erase out a nation’s cultural identity.


Klaus Mühlhahn, 2022. Geschichte des modernen China: Von der Qing-Dynastie bis zur Gegenwart. Munich: C.H. Beck, pp. 198-200.