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Former Ambassador: Poland has many notable Sinologists

HUANG LIFU | 2017-01-05 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Ksawery Burski (Kong Fan) is a senior Polish diplomat and Sinologist. Born in a family of farmers in 1938 in Lodz, Poland, he came to China and studied in Peking University after graduating from high school in 1955, and later transferred to China Foreign Affairs University. After returning to Poland, he majored in international economic relations at the Warsaw School of Economics before working at Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the late 1990s, He served as the Polish Ambassador to Indonesia and to Singapore. Between 2000 and 2004, he worked as the Polish Ambassador to China. He is proficient in Polish, Chinese, English and Russian.


The first time that I saw Mr. Kong Fan was in the medal conferring ceremony hosted by the Polish Embassy in Beijing at the end of 2001. My colleague Professor Liu Bangyi, an expert in Polish history, received the medal conferred by the then Polish President. Ambassador Ksawery Burski, presiding over the ceremony, impressed all the Chinese guests present with his fluent use of the Chinese language.

His mastery of Chinese and love for traditional Chinese culture was gained from his experience of having studied in China. He remained committed to fostering Poland-China cultural and academic exchanges and many first-records between the two countries were created during his tenure as the Polish Ambassador to China.

After retiring in 2005, Kong Fan became a “folk diplomatic ambassador,” staying active in many Polish cities, research institutions and universities, still busy helping Polish people become familiar with Chinese history and culture. Recently, I spoke with Ambassador Ksawery Burski to hear his past story in China and his perspective on the diplomatic and cultural exchanges between the two countries.


Huang: What motivated you to study abroad in China and become attached to China all your life?


Burski: I came to China thanks to a student exchange pact between the two countries, but I was actually chosen for the opportunity to study abroad by chance. I owe it to my high school teacher of history. He graduated from Jagiellonian University, Poland’s oldest and most famous university, which is the cradle of many world luminaries, such as Copernicus, the founder of Heliocentric Theory, Polish (with Vatican citizenship) pope John Paul II, and many other renowned scientists. My teacher was a highly erudite scholar who taught Indian history, Korea’s ancient history and Chinese history. His classes were really fascinating to me and I studied them very hard. When I was to graduate from high school in 1955, I performed well in the spot test for teaching quality that was organized at the provincial level. I was asked about Chinese history such as the reasons for and events of the Huang Chao Rebellion, the agrarian uprising that lasted about a decade and severely impaired the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and I tossed off breezy replies. This might have left good impression on the examiner.

That the test did not stump me had something to do with my grandpa. Though he was a farmer, he showed great interest in major world affairs. He was already in his 90s at that time with blurred vision, so I often read the newspapers to him. That was how I learned about international affairs related with China, for example, the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea, the Taiwan Issue and China’s Aid to Vietnam against France. So I was able to give handy answers when the examiner posed questions about China-related international knowledge. The examiner was thus quite satisfied with my performance and recommended I study in China.


Huang: Can you tell us about your studies at Peking University?


Burski: I studied in Peking University for a year. The students in my class were almost all from socialist countries. One month after the beginning of the semester, five students were dispatched from Yugoslavia.

We all felt that the Chinese language was really difficult to learn and we did it in a tough way. The four tones in Standard Chinese phonology is particularly difficult for foreigners. I did not do well with the second tone and this was reported by the university to the Polish Embassy in Beijing. The embassy criticized me and expressed the hope that I could try hard to rectify the problems of my Chinese pronunciation and intonation.

I thus worked with firm resolve, together with another classmate and our personal goals were to memorize ten new characters every ten to twenty minutes. In this way, I mastered rudimentary Chinese.

Perhaps out of my fondness for international affairs which was developed by reading newspapers for my grandpa, I offered to transfer the study to China Foreign Affairs University in 1956. At that time, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research of Poland was visiting China and he agreed to my transfer. This was how my five years of study at the China Foreign Affairs University began.

The period of study at the Foreign Affairs University was decisive for my diplomatic career, which allowed me to further master Chinese and the knowledge of Chinese history, literary history, economic geography, international relations as well as international law. I also came to realize that nongovernmental communication is essentially complementary to country-to-country relations.


Huang: Is your current work still related to China-Poland cultural communication after leaving your post here in China?


Burski: Yes. The rise of China has intrigued many Polish people. My experience as the Polish Ambassador to China has drawn many to me to learn about China, so in a way, I left my post but not my work.

At the beginning of 2005, I was invited by Warsaw University and the Warsaw School of Economics to lecture about China’s economic reform. Also, I’m a professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, a newly-built university that started to offer courses on Asian studies a few years ago and I teach four, including China’s economy, diplomacy, and Chinese language, cuisine and etiquette.

In addition, I teach Confucianism in Confucian schools in Poland. The Confucius Institute in Krakow is the first Confucius institute in Poland set up by the Confucius Institute Headquarters and Jagiellonian University. It was launched in December 2006 and I was invited to lecture on its first anniversary in 2007. The class is a big hit.

I also attend various seminars organized by Polish Sinologists. Before Chinese President Xi Jinping came to Poland for a state visit in June of 2016, we had a symposium with renowned Chinese experts on Polish issues in Warsaw.


Huang: Do you have any suggestions and expectations for the Chinese Embassy in Poland? Or any hopes for Poland-China cultural communication?


Burski: The Chinese Embassy in Poland has held many meaningful activities such as exhibitions, film weeks and concerts. If I have to, personally, say something, I would say there is more to do in translation communication. For example, China can have Polish translators over and let them choose to translate some works from a to-translate list. Poland has a number of excellent Sinologists who have already translated some classics of ancient Chinese thinkers and philosophers as well as some literature pieces.

Early in 1946, What Mr. Zhao Says by Lao She was translated into Polish while in 1960 Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio and Ba Jin’s The Family were also translated. Short stories from Mo Yan, Jia Pingwa and Su Tong have been translated into Polish as well. In fact, Polish Sinologists are interested in a range of themes and forms of Chinese literature, including novels. A Dictionary of Maqiao by Chinese writer Han Shaogong is quite representative of avant-garde fiction. In the novel, Han marked 115 word entries that people from Maqiao, a fictitious village in Hunan Province, daily use to reveal rural life stories covering more than a century. Moreover, before Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize, his works were already translated into Polish, Big Breasts and Wide Hips and Change in 2009 while The Republic of Wine and Frog in 2006 and 2012, respectively.


I think culture is the most distinctive feature that separates nations besides territories and nationalities. It is formed in a prolonged period of time and has embedded within it the characteristics of its people. Culture that is composed of literature, music, dance and painting is widely accepted by different peoples and can easily serve as the bridge for cross-cultural communication. Cultural exchanges and diplomacy are without doubt on top of the international communication agenda. It is because of such thoughts that regardless of whether or not I am the Polish Ambassador to China, it would not change my heartfelt wishes to contribute more to Poland-China cultural communication so that people from the two countries can understand each other better.


Huang Lifu is a research fellow from the Institute of World History at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.