Partner in China – Tongji University, Shanghai

Partner in China – Tongji University, Shanghai

TU Darmstadt has maintained a partnership with Tongji University in Shanghai since 1980. Image: TU Darmstadt archives
TU Darmstadt has maintained a partnership with Tongji University in Shanghai since 1980. Image: TU Darmstadt archives

On 21 November 1980, TH Darmstadt entered the annals of Sino-German relations when the President of TH Darmstadt and the Rector of Tongji University Shanghai signed a general agreement to promote science in research and teaching. It was the first partnership between a university in the People's Republic of China and a university of technology in the Federal Republic of Germany – and the launch of a wealth of new contacts and joint projects.

But the relationship between the two universities actually goes back a lot further. Between 1916 and the end of the Second World War, Chinese students brought a little international flair to Darmstadt. At the same time, German scientists took the leap to East Asia and taught at Tongji University. One of them was Erich Wilfried Reuleaux (1883-1967), Professor for Engineering at TH Darmstadt and University Rector in the academic year 1931/32. In 1934, he accepted a professorship at Tongji University. He became Dean of the Department of Engineering and an advisor to the Chinese government. He was particularly interested in the Chinese railway system and traffic challenges in vast spaces.

Return home

Li Guohao visiting the Reuleaux family. Image: TU Darmstadt archives
Li Guohao visiting the Reuleaux family. Image: TU Darmstadt archives

On his return to TH Darmstadt in 1937, several students from Tongji University followed him, among them the recently graduated civil engineer Li Guohao (1913-2005). Due to his excellent achievements, Li was immediately admitted to the doctoral programme. In 1940, he completed a doctorate with a dissertation on “Practical calculations of suspension bridges according to second order theory” under Professor Dr. Kurt Klöppel.

When the war made a return to China impossible, Li continued his research on bridge construction and statics at TH. In 1943, he completed his Habilitation. Through the air raids and their aftermath the Chinese expatriates suffered together with the German civilian population. Bombed out twice in Darmstadt, Li married his fiancée in Würzburg, and after the war made his way back to China with his wife and son, who was born in Marseille, via Saigon. There he became a professor at Tongji University in 1946, and was promoted to Vice Rector in 1956.

And what about Reuleux? Politically largely un-incriminated, he became TH Darmstadt's first post-war Rector in 1945, and thus continued to be an important contact for the Chinese students still stranded in Germany. In 1946, he resigned over a conflict about the re-employment of dismissed university staff.

The first steps towards cooperation

A visit by the German expert delegation to Tongji University in 1979. Image: Dietrich Blankenburg
A visit by the German expert delegation to Tongji University in 1979. Image: Dietrich Blankenburg

In 1966, the Chinese Cultural Revolution abruptly interrupted Li Guohao's fruitful scientific work. He was persecuted as a reactionary and obliged to undergo re-education. Satisfaction came in 1977, when he became University Rector. He was now charged with restructuring Tongji University and re-establishing partnerships with German universities. In March 1979, he visited 17 cities and more than 30 institutions in the Federal Republic of Germany before welcoming a German expert delegation to Shanghai six months later.

In a final joint report, Darmstadt-based Professor of Archaeology Dr. Heiner Knell and Rector Li declared their intention to collaborate. The following year, the first guest lecturers came from Shanghai to TU Darmstadt, Professor Gao Tingyao to the Institute for Water Supply, Waste Water Disposal and Land Use Planning, and lecturer Ding Shi-Zhao to the research group Information Processing in Construction. In 2010, Gao was made an Honorary Senator of TU Darmstadt.

TU Darmstadt at Expo 2010 in Shanghai

The “Semizentral” project at the “Urban Planet” pavilion, Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Image: Cosalux
The “Semizentral” project at the “Urban Planet” pavilion, Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Image: Cosalux

Li, who became Honorary Rector of his university in 1984, received numerous awards for his achievements in science and science policy, among them an honorary doctorate from TU Darmstadt in 1985. The collaboration between Darmstadt and Shanghai has been burgeoning since the 1980s: architects, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and mathematicians, social scientists and humanities scholars, construction engineers for traffic planning and earthquake-proof construction have all been driving exchange amongst researchers and teachers.

In 2010, the two partners took the stage together at the World Expo: the Department of Wastewater Technology under Professor Dr. Peter Cornel, which studies resource-friendly water supply cycle systems, and liquid as well as solid waste disposal for mega-cities, alongside the Institute of Environmental Science at Tongji University. At Expo in 2010 Shanghai, they presented their project for a future that is equitable and offers high quality of life.

Shortly afterwards, the same partners appeared together once again–by taking on a leadership role in the extensive long-term network “Clean Water China and Southeast Asia”, which is supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Its mission is to tackle the enormous challenge of future water supply in mega-cities.