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Speech of Prof. Klaus Lehmann:

Chinas Cultural Potential in the View of a western Friend

on the presentation of my book „Teaching Design – Design Teaching“ at Jiangsu Phoenix Fine Arts Publishing House

in Nanjing on Oct 29th 2016

  1. Grateful for being here

Yes, it has been a great enrichment in my life, to be invited to China and being welcomed everywhere.

It all goes back to a very early student of mine, it was Liu Guanzhong, who on his return to China, opened the first Industrial Design Course in Beijing.

About his importance , I don’t have to tell you, you know him

and his presence is felt everywhere

He and his students, now already Profs all over China, have opened so many doors to me.

So I came to China for the first time in 1985 and kept returning almost every year until now. That is more than 30 years.

  1. Who I am

I am a designer and a Design-educator at the State Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart, where I have bee teaching for over 30years.

I there established the Design Course , teaching many foreign students with many of whom I am still in contact.

Now I am retired.

  1. About my work in China

I have been invited to many Universities, because Industrial Design was considered an important subject for the up and coming Chinese industry.

I have done many workshops there.

And the book we are presenting today , reflects the workshops,

dealing mainly with design fundamentals.

They have been my main research, my educational contribution and I have been asked in China.

to put it down in a book, encouraging me to write it in English

for a Chinese audience. And now we are presenting its

bilingual result.

I also see myself as a matchmaker, introducing and creating contact to the ideologies of young western thinking.

  4. Not about Art and Design

No, I don’t , want to talk about art and design, which actually is my profession, and about which I have talked on many occasions,

about what is usually called design, about its technology and methods, to make products acceptable to the consumer,

No, neither do I want to talk about its economic importance, nor about its moral. where its code becomes a national or global dimension.

  5. Should Chinas copying-attitude be my topic?

Yes, it’s a violently discussed topic in the western world,

because it has its economic implications.

I know, that this is a obvious case of two different cultures.

I have thought about this in great length, often lectured and written about it, but feel, it should not be my topic today.

I dare to take a very large view, and the occasion today challenges me, to look at China and its cultural potential,

telling you about what I have learned in China in my own words.

I would like you to consider it as a contribution to Chinas self confidence.

  6. What China taught me:

---its economic power,

---its craft tradition,

---its adaptability,

---its different thinking strategies

---its learning culture

---its economic power.

There is no doubt, that Chinas economy is very powerful.

It has become the worlds factory. And the recent five year plan aims to develop China into the “leading innovation power”,

meaning not only “made in China, but also designed in China,”

  • a very wise and ambitious intention.

---its craft tradition.

China has a long tradition, and numerous objects show great skill and art in handling materials and tools. Just think of porcelain, the white gold, which in English language is rightly called “China”.

Craft products are the evolutionary result of generations of craftsmen, mostly anonymous, who contributed to its improvement.

Maybe you think, that crafts have no value in a modern industrial society.

But I want you to recognize, that the crafts are the basics for all industrial inventions.

Not because of its past tradition nor because of its beauty,

but because of its heuristic potential for the future.

(Heuristic meaning the art of invention)

---its adaptability

The Chinese, so I feel, have always been able, to adopt new ideas, their adaptability has made you very flexible, you have been able to react to any new impulse.

That’s not easy, when you are proud of your own tradition. conserving it, but want to meet a new challenge, opening yourself.

In the world of permanent global change, I am convinced,

adaptability is the strategy to survive.

And you have the genes!

---its different thinking strategies

Besides short term tactics and long term strategies, the chinese posses , in the view of Harro von Senger, (the most read Researcher on Chinese matters) another level of thinking, Moulüe, which goes back to master Suns scripts “the Art of War”, probably the first military tactic, 2500 years before our our time (Zeitrechnung), and stating, that “the best war is the one never done”.

Moulüe is a thinking strategy, mostly unknown in the western world, which shows to me, that ways of thinking have their culture and their history.

And China is rich on it!

---its learning culture

I know of no country where learning is considered as important as in China.

I have seen parents with their children in front of Tsing hua University, telling them what a wonderful achievement it would be, to study there, and I know, that when a child has successfully passed exams, the whole family would financially support it.

I also know of the civil servant entrance examination, the examination which opens you a career in public service.

It was open to everybody. Its criteria and its examiners have been known and held in every province in China, annually.

Some of the examination places can still be seen today:

One thousand boxes surrounded by walls for the annual two day Beamtenprüfung, which, and this is remarkable, started around 400 ! (and was finished 1905)

It was the effort to furnish civil servants with knowledge, national history, poetry and language and may be pride.

  7. My final thoughts.

One of the frequent questions after my lectures from students has been:

How can we marry western technology with Chinese values.”

Of course I didn’t have a recipe but the question made me think. I felt, that there was a uncertainty about the historical value of their cultural heritage, about which they all seem to be proud of. But obviously there was a missing link, a gap to a modern industrial society.

I remembered that Japan succeeded to translate its tradition into a modern society, where as China was more

engaged in demonstrating its tradition and conserving it.

I therefore feel, that China, though economically strong, is still searching for its cultural identity.

My talk therefore wants to encourage you:

- to think about the wonderful heritage of your ancestors,

  • to encourage you, to bring it alive, renew and modernise it,

  • to strive, becoming a valuable member of a global

community, where each nation contributes its values,

(…….. in peace, I want to add)

And China has a lot to contribute.!

The end


On culture and design 

Is corporate culture the guidance for design?

What is the impact of modern design on cultural exchange?

How shall designers and companies deal with cultural issues at present time?



I mentioned in last article the responsibilities of designer to the society. That theme also has to do with the purpose of modern movement leading to the birth of  industrial design . Design is neither technology nor a branch of arts; instead it's a typical hybrid discipline or a border area of disciplines. The most comparable is architecture, or let's say industrial design is actually a branch of modern architecture, because it shares with the latter the ideologies and masters at the early age. The biggest difference between the two lies in scales and building methods. One is bigger and the other smaller; while one is build in small quantity and the other large or even in mass production.

But in the end they are both for one purpose, namely enabling people to live more comfortably and work more easily. Another factor to be noticed is time, buildings normally exist much longer than products from modern factories, and the difference is still increasing .


Modern design is imported

I believe that the design we have is imported from west Europe, and they are part of the western culture. Included are the whole thinking, practices and the formalities accumulated in modern design history. Very often  we are not aware of the presence of design, since we are accustomed to the surroundings without questioning the origin of the buildings and products around us as human creation. But I was stunned when I first saw the apartment building by Mies van de Roh in Weissenhof Colony in Stuttgart, Germany, then suddenly I was clear what is the example of so many followers all over the world of one century, and how poorly many followers really are copying the master indeed !  

The fact is that the design ideology and thinking since Bauhaus is the common wealth of us all, which has gone through experiments and practices. And we still need to select and develop these values even today.

Through using products we experience modern western living and make enrichments or changes to it, sometimes unconsciously.


Globalization and design

The commercial life today has been experiencing many a change. The trend of globalization is however an inevitable tendency.

And the world leader in commerce is following the design ideology of western world, or they are pioneers in those areas. The evidences are their attitude towards environment protection and the supports to creative activities in corporate culture. In other words, the leading companies are those, which lead also in the design areas; while the design here includes tangible and intangible, the latter is the so-called commercial creation, or business paradigm design, the newly established branch of design professions.

In this respect the corporate culture needs to be merged in the design culture of the world; hence CI could not be the only guide to the design activities of any corporation  intending to join the global competitions.

Since design belongs to western culture, can we take for granted that the western culture is really one culture? No, I should point out that the so-called globalization is in fact Americanization; that tendency is also questioned and negatively responded in the west, mostly in Western Europe. The opposition is made of socialists, nationalists and other people fearing the aggressive culture of the USA. As a contrast the East Asians are the people who are welcoming the globalization to the most extent.

Well in the creative profession, including design, there is room for national and individual spirits to play a role. Although designers are making use of non-lingual expressions and unlike the architects they do not have much heritage from ancient time to follow. Hence we need to get rid of formalistic barriers and understand the real heritage of spiritual fields like philosophy and religions.


Modern designers in China

As designers, firstly they are designers, and then persons of cultural tradition and personality. It means they are professionals in working, namely following certain procedures and pursuit objectives of clarity. These habits also guarantee their design to be practice acceptable to the world standard. At the same time, the specialty as part of regional culture they express themselves naturally, since they are living where they are. China is a big country with a huge population; it is of big differences between lives in the north and down south. The stereotype of great wall and dumplings or red lampion as symbols of China is but only for northern provinces right. Southern provinces of the country are providing very different art of living. Of course in recent years it witnesses more forms of mixtures and the city  Shenzhen exists where the majority of inhabitants are migrants.

The European culture in the other hand is divided too. German design, Italian design, British design are all vigorous phenomena of regional and cultural differences; the design figures are firstly European and then national, or multi-national, like Richard Sapper.

Modern designers are all world citizens, and also carriers of regional cultures. If they have national culture and distinct personalities, they will expose those qualities in their works; it is not necessary to express through presenting certain symbols to be themselves. One should has his contents, for it's the decisive forces in the reigns of creativities. To be better one needs to study great cultures of the whole world, including those of his own nation.

Designers tasks are to create and to lift, to create new form of material world and lift the value of the old. The former is real creation while the latter commercial act. Also they need to convince, like the vicars, to convince people accept their beliefs.


Design as culture in China

Recently ID has aroused the interests of society as either local governments or commercial institutions organize many events and activities. These will no doubt promote design as title and attract attention from both government and society. But seen as profession it is still young and needs time to become mature. Any culture needs time to be enriched that explains why industrial design grows slowly in China. Many people there would accept this fact easier, if they could think about the cultural properties of design at all.

In China it has just begun to introduce the design culture as one of the ingredients of consumerism, during the modernization of the coast and big cities. Modernism as style in interior design and architecture is widely accepted, as imported examples. But trendy life styles are more popular among young people focussing in personal electronics like mobile phones and portable music players etc.

Fashion is more important than personalities, this is the depiction of a culture of mass followers. In a world viewing culture as business, it is necessary to support the young culture of design. Let design be culture, is a new attempt. I mean to let design be more meaningful and worthy to be talked about. For this purpose designers are encouraged to pay more attention to the society and real people, not just the clients' intention and market analysis.


The society needs culture; people need to talk about something.